Family, Faith, and Farming in Belize
Orange Walk Town in northern Belize hums with progress - a bustling center for agriculture, business, and tourism, and a gateway to nearby attractions such as the Rio Bravo Conservation Area and the Mayan ruins at Lamanai, Orange Walk doesn't give you the same feeling of being light-years away from the fast pace of the modern world that you'll get out on the remote cayes of Belize. However, there is one thing about Orange Walk Town that could make you want to grab a newspaper and check the date, and that's the large Mennonite community residing in the vicinity.
Their horse-drawn buggies attract plenty of attention from visitors as they make their way down the street alongside the cars zipping by, and the homemade goods they sell in shops and vendor stalls around town draw just as much interest.
Photo by Marc Veraart on Flickr
Recognizable by their plain garments and unassuming manner, Mennonites can be seen around Orange Walk Town selling fresh eggs, skillfully-crafted furniture, homegrown produce and other items of a similar wholesome appeal. Mennonite men wear overalls and straw hats, while the women don bonnets and long dresses. Their old-fashioned appearance sets them apart from the other members of Belize's cultural melting-pot, but what really distinguishes this group as an invaluable component of the culture in Belize is their simple, hardworking lifestyle, their agricultural ingenuity, and their peaceful autonomy.
Like so many travelers and expatriates who are discovering the beauty of life in Belize, Mennonites sought out this country for its warmth - in terms of both weather and openness to different religions. Mennonites arrived in Belize in 1958 from Manitoba, Canada and Chihuahua, Mexico seeking a place to practice their traditional way of life without having to suffer persecution by governmental or religious groups. Today, Belize is home to six Mennonite communities, found exclusively in the Orange Walk and Cayo districts: Blue Creek, Shipyard, Little Belize, Progresso, Spanish Lookout and Barton Creek.
Keeping the Faith
The Mennonite religion falls under the Christian Anabaptist denomination, known for its belief in adult baptism and commitment to nonviolence. Two different sects of Anabaptist Mennonites live in Belize; the traditional sect strictly prohibits the use of most technology, whereas modern Mennonites have incorporated engines and electricity into their daily lives. Communities of traditional Mennonites exist in Little Belize and Shipyard, both agricultural areas in northern Belize with little to no tourism. The modern Mennonites you'll find elsewhere are active participants in the industrial economy, and you may see them wearing clothing other than the traditional unadorned homespun.
Both sects, however, maintain pious and austere lifestyles, united by the fundamentals of their common faith and their place within Belizean culture. All Mennonites in Belize are generally regarded and respected as a unique group of honest, hardworking people. The technology point is a fine-line issue that doesn't create discord between the two sects. The reason for the traditionalists' total rejection of technology is a belief that machinery contaminates their faith. This isn't hard for a non-Mennonite like myself to fathom - I've found that digging in the earth with my own two hands can be a spiritual experience.
Photo by Rebecca Wilson on Flickr
A Productive People
Mennonites in Belize make up only 3.6 percent of the population, but their influence on the economy is much greater than their small numbers might indicate. Often referred to as "the plain people," Mennonites plainly bring a lot to the table when it comes to Belize's industrial output. Skilled in organic farming, cattle ranching, and fishing, Mennonites are often the founders of the feast for travelers who love to eat locally-grown, locally-raised, and locally-caught foods. And one of these "plain people" may have built the table, too - Mennonites (particularly members of the traditionalist community in Shipyard) are known for being skilled carpenters and craftsmen. Their handmade furniture can be spotted in resorts, restaurants and homes throughout Belize.
As you sample authentic Belizean cuisine in restaurants around the country, you may taste any number of fresh flavors that come from a Mennonite farm: corn, peanuts, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, watermelon, carrots, papaya, cabbage, sweet peppers, and coriander. In other countries, organic eggs and free-range chicken require a trip to a natural food store, but in Belize's Mennonite country, you can simply hail a farmer in a horse-drawn buggy as he makes his morning deliveries.
Through their ingenuity as engineers and farmers, Mennonites make a significant economic contribution to Belize while maintaining their peaceful, separatist lifestyle. Mennonites are exempt from military service in Belize, and although they pay all other taxes, they do not partake in compulsory or social welfare. While they do speak English or Spanish to people outside their communities, they tend to communicate with one another using their 400-year-old archaic German and Dutch dialect, which they have sustained since settling in Belize.
It's somewhat contradictory that such a down-to-earth, modest group piques the interest of so many Belize travelers, but many Mennonites are happy to satisfy this curiosity. The Mennonite communities in Blue Creek and Barton Creek welcome visitors, offering horseback riding tours and a chance to enjoy the wholesome delights of their farms and ranches.