Encounter with A Mennonite in Belize

(c) Lebawit L. Girma(c) Lebawit L. Girma

“Do you mind if she takes your photo?”

I can almost see my reflection in Andrew’s sky-blue eyes, even though I’m a few steps across from him. He lets out a half smile, followed by an ever-so-slight shrug of the shoulder. He is twenty-seven years old but his voice is almost that of a teenager when he blurts out a nervous laugh and says:

“Na, I don’t care.”

I can feel Anastasio and I wanting to glance at each other but we don’t dare.

Did he just say… There’s no time to think, or wonder how a Mennonite agreed to have his photo taken. I raise my lens in one swoop movement, center it on his eyes and focus in the midst of my excitement. I frame, click, frame and click again. I can see Andrew’s shyness through the lens. He doesn’t resist, he’s excited to have his image permanently recorded.

After two clicks I lower my lens and thank him, still somewhat speechless that I just had this opportunity to capture one of Belize’s traditional Mennonites.

Anastasio is silent, and I can tell he’s also dying to comment and dish later.

Turns out, there’s a myth that traditional Mennonites don’t like their photos taken. That their faith and their spiritual practice doesn’t allow it. They don’t use modern technology, so it’s assumed that cameras are not welcome. The truth is, they just don’t like too many photographs taken. One or two are fine. And they don’t like people sneaking photos of them – just like anyone else.

The Mennonites emigrated to Belize in 1958 after a long journey that took them from Switzerland in the 18th Century to the–>>Netherlands, Russia, Canada, the US and Mexico.

Part of the reason they decided to stay in Belize was because there was so much land good for farming and the government agreed not to subject them to either property tax or military service; they brought valuable farming knowledge and enough capital to invest in the country.

The Mennonites live in their own communities, separate from others. They will pass through towns and cities to trade, but not to live.

Traditional Mennonites are friendly and polite when you approach them and they’ll do business with you, and let you shop their supermarkets and market stands. They run their own villages, businesses and churches, and they run their own home-schooling system. They are of fair complexion with mostly blond hair and blue eyes. They dress differently – the women wear long simple dresses with caps and the men wear overalls and straw hats. The older ones have long beards. They live differently too – modern machinery and modern conveniences have no place in the traditional Mennonite’s life. No cars, no trucks, no cell phones. No electricity.

They get around on horse and buggies. The women walk barefoot in their village on regular days.

The men are hard workers, from Monday to Saturday they are farming or cutting wood or selling their produce at the various markets. On Sundays, they rest and go to church. They speak perfect English but among themselves, they speak German.

Some call them Amish, others insist they are just traditional Mennonites. Either way, they are Belizean, and are an integral part of the country.

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“Would you like to see your photo?”

Andrew is smiling, his eyes say yes.

I approach and show him the viewfinder of my camera.  He smiles and nods at the portrait.

When I arrived in Belize and noticed Mennonites along the road in the Cayo District and even at the Saturday morning market, my wish was that in three months I would somehow find one Mennonite who would be willing to let me take his portrait, for a “Faces of Belize” project I’m working on with MatadorU – a project to simply share the amazing cultural diversity in Belize. I didn’t know how that would happen or if it would, but I was wishing it from day one. And here it was, an unexpected opportunity. Two weeks in and I already had my shot (you’ll have to wait to see that one!)

We were driving through Barton Creek village with Anastasio, my guide from Pacz Tours, when we spotted a Mennonite in front of us, sitting on a heavy log and being dragged by two bulls  up to a Mennonite sawmill, tucked in the hills.

Anastasio asked me if I wanted to see how a Mennonite saw mill works. Oh yes! I wanted to see anything Mennonite, up close, see how they look and how they live.

“But will they let us?”

“Well, all we can do is ask, right?” Anastasio said.

He was right. We had nothing to lose. Either way, we were on our path towards Barton Creek Cave.

Anastasio got out of the truck and walked up the hill, alone. A couple of minutes later, he was coming back halfway, smiling and gesturing to me to come out of the truck.

When I reached the top of the hill, I saw a couple of young Mennonites. They looked under the age of 30. One of them, Andrew, was already speaking with Anastasio. He was explaining how the saw mill works.

He showed us the different parts used to make the whole thing move, with horses. It all went over my head to be honest, the technical part, but it’s clear that these folks are ingenuous and resourceful. Anything not to use modern machinery.

And yet, there’s a car transmission being used here, albeit for a different purpose.

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Anastasio asks Andrew if he’s ever driven a car.

“No but if I had to I would know how to!” he blurts out right away, half smiling, almost proud of the fact that he had the smarts to operate a modern machine.

We look at each other, surprised again. Seems he’s thought about driving before.

Andrew, it turns out, has a little Spanish blood in him, from his father’s side. But he’s fully integrated in the Mennonite way of life.

There’s been more “mixing” happening over the past decade, and often the Mennonite man who marries another is forced to leave his community. (In fact, the mixing is something that has spread all over Belize. It’s hard to come across a Belizean today that is 100% percent from one ethnic group).

Over the years, some of the traditional Mennonites have eased their way out and adopted a more modern lifestyle, while still maintaining their traditions. They are known here as the “progressive Mennonites.” They own and run major businesses in Belize, from auto parts and tire companies to modern-day supermarkets. Some Belizeans jokingly call these progressive folks “Money-nites” – as many of them are so business-driven and most likely millionaires. They live in beautiful homes and on paved roads that they built and maintain themselves – such as in the Spanish Lookout community, in the Cayo District. When passing through Spanish Lookout recently, I felt like I was in the American Midwest. Lots of land, buildings, pretty single family homes and big stores. In fact, one Belizean told me that you can almost mistake the progressive Mennonite for an American, when you see him in town or driving around in his truck, because he doesn’t dress like the traditional Mennonite.

No Belizean flags everywhere for Independence month, though. Mennonites are proud to be Belizean, but their culture is more about work, family and worship.

If you ever build a house in Belize, you’ll also most likely come to deal with the progressive Mennonites – as they sell appliances, furniture, farm equipment, tools, hardware and accessories, electrical and plumbing supplies.

I was so fascinated by the traditional Mennonites that I almost forgot why I was in Barton Creek – to canoe the Barton Creek Cave (good thing Anastasio was there to keep track of time!)

The Mennonites allow tour groups to pass through their village to get to the cave, but Sundays are completely off-limits.

Most fascinating fact about the Mennonites of Belize is that while they’re a minority – only about 3.6 % of the population – they’re a major part of Belize’s economy because they provide over 60% of the food products in Belizean stores, all of which is organically grown: eggs, milk, butter, cheese, rice, potato, corn, beans, sweet pepper, cabbage and the biggest produce of all – poultry. They also produce the most delicious watermelons you’ve ever tasted. And let’s not forget, their furniture-making. There’s no end to the Mennonites’ industriousness.

After our encounter with Andrew, we headed back to Anastasio’s truck. We couldn’t believe the amazing experience we had and how Andrew spent so much time talking to us and telling us about operating his father’s sawmill. And, the photograph.

But Anastasio is more curious about Andrew’s comment on driving. “Did you hear what he said about driving? He must’ve thought about it before or wanted to?”

I nod. Who knows, maybe one day soon, Andrew will switch over to the more “modern” conveniences of life.

On the way out of the village, we pass more symbols of the traditional Mennonites: a man on a horse and buggy, an old church, and a really, really old road grader.

It’s like stepping back hundreds of years.

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Visiting or passing through a traditional Mennonite community is a great cultural and spiritual experience. Just to see how they live is worth the trip. Plus they make and sell the best ice cream and watermelon in the country, so make sure you pick some up from their supermarkets or market stands.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the currrent author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. Lily is also AFAR's Jamaica Expert, and author of the AFAR Jamaica Country Guide. A serial expat, she's lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire–and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year.

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7 Comments

  1. Larry Waight 14 September, 2011 at 2:17 PM #

    Dang those photos are very nice!!

  2. Lebawit Lily Girma 14 September, 2011 at 2:25 PM #

    Thanks Larry!

  3. Julie 15 September, 2011 at 10:04 AM #

    Lily-

    My interactions with Mennonites in Belize have been limited to buying some of their cheese in PG, so I really enjoyed and appreciated being able to learn more about them and their communities.

  4. Candice 15 September, 2011 at 12:14 PM #

    Sometimes I feel like I’d love to live as a Mennonite, even just for a week. Just to know what life sans-technology would be like. There’s something to be said for manual labour.

    Awesome photos!

  5. Lebawit Lily Girma 15 September, 2011 at 1:27 PM #

    Julie, am glad my post was informative! I feel like I have much more to learn about the Mennonites, still. But the little interaction I’ve had with them has been positive.

    Candice, I think about it sometimes too, but I think one day would be enough for me. :-)
    Thanks on the pics!!

  6. kay johnson 19 September, 2011 at 6:30 PM #

    a few small additions and corrections:

    In Belize we have several types of Mennonites, Old Colony and Kleine Gemeinde (modern) are the biggest groups.

    The food and chickens grown by the Kleine Gemeinde in Spanish Lookout is not organic, they use modern pesticides, fertilizers, and recently even brought in some GMO corn for a trial planting, which is causing an uproar among concerned citizens.

    Belizeans Against GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms)

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/bagmo/?ref=ts

    the Old Colony Mennonites, such as the ones in Barton Creek are completely organic.

    some historical notes:

    the Anabaptists in Switzerland were the first group to break away from the Catholic Church (around 1525), the Mennonites sprung from the Anabaptists (around 1536), and the Amish split off later, in 1693.

    http://www.800padutch.com/amishhistory.shtml

    so, the Mennonites didn’t come from Switzerland, and it wasn’t the 18th century, it was much earlier, in the 16th.

    Mennonite founder Menno Simons was a Catholic priest in the Netherlands, he joined the Anabaptists in 1536. Menno’s followers were later called Mennonites.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menno_Simons

  7. Rob and Sue 10 March, 2012 at 8:22 AM #

    My wife and I have just bought some land in Belize and are looking at building on the property, and have been on the Mennonite site for thier homes and we are very impressed with the looks and quality of the homes and looking forward to visiting Spanish Lookout to see the building yards.
    We plan to mortor bike our way there from Mayo Beach for a day or two. Any advice would be awesome on this site.
    Thanks Rob

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