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New Book Describes Mennonites in Belize

in Issue 08 by

One of the ironies of life is that people who want to live quiet lives, separated from much of what goes on in the world, would attract so much attention. In the USA, the state of Pennsylvania built a freeway addition for easier access by tourists to the Amish in Lancaster county – a county which a decade ago would have been ranked tenth among the nations of the world in agricultural output had it been categorized as such. And now, the Mennonites of Belize are of interest to Dutch sociologists who have spent time in Blue Creek, Spanish Lookout, and other colonies, to observe and analyze their ways. These are academic researchers whose new book, Between Horse & Buggy and Four-Wheel Drive: Change and Diversity among Mennonite Settlements in Belize, Central America , edited by Carel Roessingh and Tanja Plasil (VU University Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2009; is an organized collection of reports from the research project of VU University Amsterdam. It is written by scholars and their students, “all non-Mennonite, unbiased ‘outsiders looking in’”.

To give the larger view of Mennonite colonies in Belize, the book begins with a brief history of their founding, often referring to scholarly studies made of Anabaptists in other parts of the Americas. This history nicely complements that in Gerhard S. Koop’s self-published book, Pioneer Years in Belize , published in 1991. It also contains a collection of chapters in which some early Spanish Lookout Mennonites recount their experiences from the late 1950s, when there was a lot of mud to be slogged through in Spanish Lookout. The more recent book, Spanish Lookout Since 1958: Progress in Action , was published by the settlement on the occasion of their 50th-year anniversary. It provides yet more of the story not found in either Koop’s book or the Dutch study, and is available at Harry Letkeman’s Computer Ranch (823-0373) in Spanish Lookout. Also available there are the CD recordings of some of the 50th-year celebratory events and history as told by the Mennonites themselves. Koop’s book, when in print, is available at Peter Reimer’s book store in Spanish Lookout along with the Dutch book under review.

The book concentrates on four Mennonite settlements: Blue Creek, Spanish Lookout, Shipyard, and Springfield. This choice of colonies offers a diverse look, with the first two having assimilated much of the generally available technology while the last two retain pre-20th-century technology. The writers appear to have a substantial understanding of Mennonite subculture including the Anabaptist Christian outlook. They handle the worldview of Mennonites respectfully and avoid opining about the relative merits of Mennonite beliefs and practices. Indeed, they seem to be hopeful that Mennonite culture will succeed, and analyze opportunities that Mennonites in Belize have for growing their already successful business efforts. Along with this, the sociologists also recognize that Mennonites are not Mennonites for business reasons and they spend substantial pages discussing the impact that entanglement with social institutions outside of their own groups have on their spiritual and social outlook and practices.

Separate chapters are devoted to the four designated settlements. While the research is on social aspects, the social life in the settlements is affected by geography, climate, colony layout, and other incidentals that set the stage for the social events under study.

A section in chapter 3, on Blue Creek, is titled “Frictions in Blue Creek” and describes the causes and subsequent handling of differences of viewpoints among settlers. Old Colony Mennonites are against the use of pneumatic tires on farm equipment and prefer steel wheels. However, the Blue Creek soil and the needed clearing of the land made them impractical, and some families changed to the more effective rubber tires. This, along with the strain of homesteading, led to conflict uncharacteristic of Anabaptists in that the Belize police had to become involved to keep the peace. Many Old Colony families moved to Shipyard, and in the intervening years the Kleine Gemeinde (“Little Fellowship”) from Spanish Lookout offered a helping hand to the remaining group (p. 81).

The chapter on Spanish Lookout focuses on “religious differentiation”, and recounts briefly the history of the Kleine Gemeinde from Russian beginnings in the 1820s, to Canada, Mexico, and now Belize. “Their bean, dairy, and chicken companies are dominant businesses in the country. Their transport and distribution network is based on well-organized logistics, which reaches far beyond the borders of the settlement.” (p. 100).

The sociologists also noted the infrastructure differences (p. 100): When driving into the colony one enters a different world from the rest of Belize. Visitors who come to Spanish Lookout frequently note similarities between this settlement and the agricultural areas of the Mid-West of the United States.

Many of the businesses along Center Road are named. “Because of their strong entrepreneurial position, the Mennonites are commonly regarded as the economic motor of Belize” (p. 101). How success in business and the adaptation of technology has affected colony life is explored at some length. For instance, in older times women would be needed to work with their husbands on farm chores. Mechanization relocated women to the home and kitchen, and with home and kitchen technology, they now have so much free time that Mennonite women are working jobs in businesses, thereby impacting traditional Mennonite culture. “From Mennonites to Mechanites” (p. 108) the book notes, is “a phrase which is frequently used among Belizeans”. Electricity came to Spanish Lookout in the 1980s and running water in the ‘90s. “An important consequence of this policy [of adopting new technology] is that the settlement has become more prosperous over the years.” This has also led to an improvement in the logistics of farming. As one young farmer explained, “Not long ago, the feed mill in Spanish Lookout started delivering the food with bulk trucks to the silo of the farmer. This use of individual food silos has changed the way the farmers work.” Friesen Hatcheries and Quality Poultry Products, a chicken processing business, coordinate in delivery of chicks to growers, while the chicken plant collects the broilers six weeks later and distributes frozen chicken all over the country. Similarly, milk collection for Western Dairies is effected by one dairy farmer who has a milk tank truck and collects milk from 20 Mennonite dairy farms and from non-Mennonite farmers at a collection point in Santa Elena.

All over the country. Similarly, milk collection for Western Dairies is effected by one dairy farmer who has a milk tank truck and collects milk from 20 Mennonite dairy farms and from non-Mennonite farmers at a collection point in Santa Elena.

As agriculturally-related activity progresses, the scope of involvement expands. “Western Dairies expects to achieve the hazard Analysis Critical Point (HACCP) standard in the near future, a standard used for dairy products all over the world. Obtaining this standard will improve the sales. BAHA is also involved in achieving this standard.” (p. 111) Mennonites have a cohesive transnational identity “and much of the new machinery and techniques are imported from, and distributed through transnational entrepreneurial connections, in which other Mennonite institutions often play a role.” Thus Spanish Lookout is “part of a broader community that interacts on a transnational level and is based on shared religious principles and extended family ties. When it comes to business, differences within the Mennonite religious context do not appear to play a significant role.” (p. 114)

The chapters on the Shipyard and Springfield colonies emphasize the religious and social aspects of these colonies more than the agri- business aspects simply because, for varied reasons, the commercial intensity of these settlements is less than that of Blue Creek and Spanish Lookout. The Beachy Amish and Homestead Acres in Esperanza appear in chapter 7. Considerable detail about Beachy Amish life is presented.

The book has a concluding chapter and extensive biliography, as would be expected from academic researchers. Anyone who wants to understand in any detail a major factor in Belize agri-business will benefit from this book.

Dottie’s masters degree in math doesn’t directly apply to editing the BAR but her years of experience designing data bases, managing projects, writing technical manuals, product descriptions, reports, contracts and proposals do.

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