Papayas and piety in Belize
Little Belize is an industrious Mennonite community with an efficient papaya-packing plant. (Mara Vorhees)
Belize may be small, but it is not homogenous. With a population around 321,000, the tiny country enjoys a diversity of ethnicities that is undeniably stimulating and improbably serene. It is indigenously Maya; politically Creole (most business owners and political figures); and the largest ethnic group is Mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent). While those are the biggest populations, at least half a dozen other prominent ethnic groups call Belize their home.
Of all of these different races, religions and rituals, none is more intriguing than the Belizean Mennonites. With around 10,800 members, they comprise only 3.4% of the country's population. But it is impossible to miss the Mennonites, who stand out with their blond hair and blue eyes, the men in overalls and women in bonnets, reminiscent of Pennsylvania’s Amish population.
Like the Amish, the Mennonites are Anabaptist, with strict religion-based values that keep them isolated in agricultural communities. Speaking mostly Low German (the majority of Belizeans speak Kriol or Spanish as their first language), they run their own schools, banks and churches.
Mennonites are devout pacifists and reject most of society’s political ideologies, including paying taxes. This has meant a long history of moving about the world trying to find a place to live in peace. Most of the Belizean Mennonite groups migrated from Mexico after they were faced with the prospect of joining the national social security system in 1958.
The Mennonites have benefited from the tolerant society and laissez-faire policies in Belize, while Belize has benefited from their industriousness and agricultural expertise.
Located on the eastern shore of the Progresso Lagoon, Little Belize is an Old Order Mennonite community of about 2,000 residents. It is an idyllic setting of tidy homesteads and well-maintained farms. This community is among the more traditional Mennonite groups in Belize, rejecting almost all forms of mechanization or technology in an attempt to protect and preserve the community from modernization. Tractors are used for farming, but the machines' steel wheels ensure that they cannot be used for transportation -- a job that is strictly reserved for horses and carriages.
Like most Mennonite villages, Little Belize is an industrious place, its economy thriving on farming and commerce. A visit to the papaya-packing plant reveals an efficient, albeit primitive operation, with an assembly line of young women washing and drying the fruit and a team of teenage boys packing them into boxes. Other bustling businesses include wood and metal workshops and a poultry farm.
Driving west from Orange Walk Town, a pot-hole filled, gravel road traverses a series of rural villages with tiny rundown houses and overgrown yards. Then, suddenly, the road is smooth blacktop and the landscape is well-groomed farmland. Welcome to Blue Creek.
Blue Creek is a progressive Mennonite community, where teenagers cruise the highway in four-wheelers and most residents dress in modern clothing. The local market is stocked with imported products and the roads are this smooth because the Mennonites build and maintain them. In contrast to most of Belize, the place feels orderly and prosperous.
John and Judy Klasson are typical Blue Creek residents -- small-time farmers and parents of 10 children. This Mennonite couple opened the Hillside Bed and Breakfast to give visitors a peek at an authentic Mennonite lifestyle, inviting them to help out with daily chores on the farm, such as rounding up the cattle or milking cows.
But the appeal of Blue Creek is not just cultural exposure, asserted John. “Our location provides an awesome view that can take your breath away.”
Visiting the communities
Travellers can tour Little Belize in a horse-drawn buggy, visiting the papaya-packing plant, a poultry farm, a wood workshop and other local industries. The half-day tour includes lunch in a private home and costs 100 Belizean dollars per person. Make arrangements through the Shipstern Nature Reserve.
To visit Blue Creek, contact the Hillside Bed and Breakfast, where visitors can ride horses, help with farm work and enjoy a beautiful vista of the surrounding countryside.
Mara Vorhees is co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to Belize.