The small Central American country of Belize has a population of around 250,000 people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds; of this population around 10,000 of its permanent residents are Mennonites whose ancestors originated from Europe. The Mennonites mostly live in small often isolated communities most of which shun modern lifestyles preferring not to use electricity or machinery in their self supporting farming methods.
As well as the traditionalist Mennonites who speak a guttural form of German within their community there are around 2,000 Belizeans of Mestizo and Creole origins that have converted to this faith. The Belizean Mennonites are the most conservative and traditional of all the Mennonites to be found across Central America.
The religious values and traditions of this dedicated group of people have had to avoid several forms of persecution throughout history as they sought peaceful methods to continue with the beliefs and values they have maintained throughout their existence. The Mennonites began in 16th century in what is now the Netherlands, they moved on to Prussia to avoid having to pay taxes they deemed unnecessary as they worked hard to maintain a religious and self supporting lifestyle while taking nothing from which the taxes would provide them with.
They remained in Eastern Europe until the 1870’s when the ruling government at that time insisted on the Mennonites being conscripted into the military, being devout pacifists they moved once again to protect their strong beliefs. They next settled in parts of Canada’s isolated regions of British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta until after the conclusion of the First World War in 1918. Amid a feeling of anti-German sentiment the government of Canada insisted on English being taught in all its schools in a period of post war patriotism, further to this the Canadian government was considering introducing conscription to include the Mennonites, a reversal of its earlier policy.
On leaving Canada they headed south to Mexico, they settled in the undeveloped highlands region, a harsh barren landscape until then unsettled. All was ok until the 1950’s when the Mexican government insisted on the groups entering into the social security program, once again against their wishes it was time to move on. They first Mennonites arrived in what was then British Honduras in 1958, around 3,500 of them and for the first time they found a country that was happy to accommodate them. Even today Belize is largely under populated, the new arrivals were industrious and knowledgeable farmers and for the first time Belizeans could buy home grown produce including eggs and poultry that until then had always been imported.
They have now been settled in Belize for over fifty years and although many of the communities use horse drawn power to operate the ploughs and saw mills or water power from rivers to run light machinery the traditional groups will not use electricity or motor vehicles, choosing instead to travel on horse drawn covered wagons along dirt roads between their communities.
In 2009 I was last in Belize and have seen firsthand the farming methods employed within this faith, the furniture makers that will as a community make a secure wooden house or sell and construct one for their near neighbours of any religion or belief.
In contrast to the traditional Mennonites is a community of so called modern Mennonites in the small town of Spanish Lookout, Belize that has modernized its community to provide services not just locally but nationally. It is a community of almost 1,800 that while traditional costume is mostly worn and religious beliefs are strictly maintained they operate stores, light industry and Belize’s only oil field currently in production.
Spanish Lookout is located to the north of the Western Highway a few miles to the east of San Ignacio. Several roads take you to the settlement that resembles a 1950’s style small town in rural USA. One route to enter the town is via a hand operated ferry to cross the Belize River, one of only two in use in the country. It can carry several cars or one truck and takes around ten minutes to slowly cross the river. On occasion long lines of vehicles can be seen with drivers waiting patiently to cross.
Spanish Lookout is one of Belize’s more modern centres with technology evident across the community. It specializes in providing auto parts, with a chain of auto stores across Belize all Mennonite owned and operated. It is the provider of most of the country’s chicken and the only commercial dairy within the country. The two extremes of the Mennonite communities can be a point of conflict for some traditionalists to accept but those that do shun modern lifestyles seem content and happy that they are living in an ideal location and not likely to be moved on from here.
Compared to many of its Latin American neighbours, Belize is a peaceful country where a diverse mix of communities is free to prosper. Prominent among them are the Mennonites, originally protestants fleeing persecution in Western Europe hundreds of years ago. But the Mennonites themselves are a diverse group and have not always been welcomed by indigenous people.