The Mennonites

It almost seems like an aberration, an odd sight inspired by the hot sun, or maybe just a blurry result of too much sweat dripping in your eyes. But the vision of women in bonnets and wintry frocks, and blond men with blue eyes, denim overalls and straw cowboy hats is not something your imagination has conjured up: you're looking at Belizean Mennonites.

The Mennonites originate from an enigmatic Anabaptist group that dates back to 16th-century Netherlands. Like the Amish of Pennsylvania, the Mennonites have strict religion-based values that keep them isolated in agricultural communities. Speaking mostly Low German, they run their own schools, banks and churches. Traditional groups reject any form of mechanization or technology, which is why they're often seen riding along in horse-drawn buggies.

Mennonites are devout pacifists and reject most of the political ideologies (including paying taxes) that societies down the centuries have tried to thrust upon them, so they have a long history of moving about the world trying to find a place where they could be left in peace. They left the Netherlands for Prussia and Russia in the late 17th century. In the 1870s, when Russia insisted on military conscription, the Mennonites there upped and moved to Canada. They built communities in isolated parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. But after WWI the Canadian government demanded that English be taught in Men n on ite schools, and the Mennonites' exemption from conscription was reconsidered. Again, the most devout Mennonites moved, this time to northern Mexico and South America. By the 1950s Mexico wanted the Mennonites to join its social security program, so once again the Mennonites packed up.

The first wave of about 3500 Mennonites settled in Belize (then called British Honduras) in 1958. Belize was happy to have their industriousness and farming expertise.

Today, Belize has both progressive and traditional Mennonite communities. The progressives, many of whom came from Canada, speak English and have no qualms about using tractors to clear their land, or pickup trucks to shuttle their families about. These well-off groups are found in Blue Creek, west of Orange Walk, or at Spanish Lookout in Cayo District. Strongly conservative groups, such as the ones at Shipyard near Orange Walk or Barton Creek in Cayo District, still ride in horse-drawn buggies and shun electricity.

Belize has been good to the Mennonites and in turn the Mennonites have been good to Belize. Mennonite farms now supply most of the country's dairy products, eggs and poultry. Furniture-making is another Mennonite specialty and you'll often see them selling their goods at markets.

Some Mennonites are open to the rest of the world and don't mind a good chat. Others don't want contact, so treat them with respect and ask permission if you want to take a photo.

chiefly Anglicans and Methodists. Today, the number of Pentecostalists and Adventists is growing due to the strength of their evangelical movements. Mennonites also constitute a small minority (see above).

Among the Garifuna, and to a lesser extent the Maya and Creoles, Christianity coexists with other beliefs. Maya Catholicism has long been syncretized with traditional beliefs and rites that go back to pre-Hispanic times, while some Creoles (especially older people) have a belief in obeah, a form of witchcraft.

Belize's tradition of tolerance also encompasses Hindus, Muslims, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses and a small (but eye-catching) number of Rastafarians.

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