Mennonites in Belize: a visit to Shipyard
We first met Gerhard Andrés on a personal challenge to hitchhike across Belize in a day. Our journey from Hopkins to San Ignacio was accomplished in only seven rides and two torrential downpours. Whilst hitchhiking the highways of Belize, we began to notice unusually tall men in dungarees topped with straw hats. We didn’t think anything of it until a rusty 4×4 truck slowed down for us on the Western Highway leaving Belmopan. This was our first encounter with a Mennonite. Gerhard, who wore a red and white small checked shirt with ripped denim jeans, was on his way to a Mennonite community called Spanish Lookout. He was going to work in a lumberyard over the week where his son also worked and lived.
Who are the Mennonites?
We obviously had a lot of questions and Gerhard attempted to answer as many as he could in his broken English. He split the Mennonites of Belize into two groups: progressive and non-progressive. Progressive are the more modern day Mennonites. They use machinery, have mobile phones (albeit Nokia 100s) and drive cars. Many of the modern Mennonites live in Spanish Lookout and produce the majority of the dairy and livestock in Belize. There is also the opportunity to learn English and Spanish at the schools here.
On the other hand, there are the traditional Mennonites. The non-progressive Mennonites only speak and learn Pennsylvania Dutch (or low German) in school. The women strive to have at least 10-13 children who then spread out across Belize to have their own farms.
After not knowing much about these elusive people, we could not decline the invitation to visit Gerhard and his family for lunch at their colony in Shipyard. Therefore we agreed to see him again on the “last Saturday of the month.” As a result we extended our stay in Belize and arranged a road trip which would end in Shipyard in two weeks time.
Read my other post to learn more about where the Mennonites came from and how you should be when you visit their community in Belize.
Arriving to the Shipyard colony
Over 95 km away from Shipyard, we departed beachside town, Sarteneja at dawn. Orange Walk, a hotspot for Mennonites, was 67 km away and was our breakfast stop. We stretched our swollen joints after having been shaken about by the 45 km of dirt road, mined with deep potholes. Without knowing our lunch date would be earlier than anticipated, we gorged on roadside greasy fry jacks, crammed with creamy scrambled eggs. After that, we unwillingly climbed back into our emerald green truck and carried onto Shipyard.
We cruised down the Northern Highway for only 15 minutes before spotting the turn off for the colony. It was only another 25 km of dirt road to endure. As we approached Shipyard, the largest Mennonite community in Belize, we were ashamed that families riding horse and buggies overtook us. The road was nothing but a resemblance of a mud-ridden mine field. The luxury of a tarmac highway, road maintenance and advanced technology seemed like a distant memory. We arrived at the entrance of Camp 20, 11 am sharp.
Meeting a Mennonite family in Shipyard
Gerhard grew up in Shipyard and met his wife Margarita. They now live opposite his old family home – a singed charcoal, straight wood panelled house with a sloped brick roof. “We had a fire a few years back, but my father still lives there” Gerhard explained. Margarita has four sisters who live just around the corner. However, after the recent death of one of their father-in-laws, the sisters were in the middle of a three day mourning.
Gerhard introduced us to his 3 children; Annie, Benjamin and Peter. Annie had hands that spanned over the size of her older brother’s freckled face and her feet spread out as wide as the 9 inch plain plastic plates she was setting the table with. To say Annie, an 18-year-old Mennonite, was tall would be an understatement. While she towered over her two siblings, seven-year-old Benjamin and three-year-old Peter, I could get a sense of her behemoth size.
Life as a Mennonite
“So you don’t work Saturdays?” questioned Annie. She was now hanging out nine pairs of denim jeans along a thin rope that quivered with the weight of the load. Only easing slightly each time a drop of water fell from the saturated hems. You could certainly see that they all belonged to one man. Identical oil stained handprints were pressed into the thigh region, an indicator of where her father must wipe off each days’ work.
“We make our own clothes and get to pick what patterns we want”, Annie announced in broken English. The dress she filled was a simple cut that nipped in at the waist and flowed well below the knee. Bulging shoulder pads enhanced her Mennonite-like width. Purple and blue flowers screamed for attention beneath a pitch black material. Her hair was parted in the middle and looked like it had been neatly painted on.
Annie explained to us that life at Shipyard for the women consists of tending to the livestock, the horses and the house. Each day has a different job, for instance on Saturday Annie and Margarita do the laundry and mop the floors. Annie lived in Spanish Lookout for five years, where she learned English. She then returned to Shipyard to help her mother.
Day to day in Shipyard
In Shipyard, the children go to school when they are 6 years old. They learn everything in low German, and study maths, science and the Mennonite church bible. At age 13 they finish school and go to work.
As Shipyard is one of the biggest colonies in Belize, with 3,800 people, they hold important meetings in the church. Gerhard’s three brothers (two others had died recently) live in Mexico and Canada and were due to visit Shipyard to attend an upcoming gathering.
Lunch with a Mennonite family
The ladies served us lunch at the unusual time of 11:30, although this wasn’t the most peculiar part of our visit. Gerhard recited a blessing in low German that lasted over 2 minutes. It was long enough for the chicken broth to go tepid, a relief in this mid-morning heat. “Amen” was our cue and everyone surged towards the homemade bread buns, made with milk and not water. We scooped up the salty soup and picked out sorrel leaves that had been added for extra flavour. A jug of hibiscus water was the refreshment of choice. Like all households in Belize, a bottle of Marie Sharp’s was at the head of the table.
The house was bare, with lime green walls and a floor that shone like patent leather. Must be from the women mopping the floor each Saturday, I thought. We were sat around a mahogany table, the grandest ornament there. And all perched on matching wooden benches that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a church. It was only Gerhard and I who spoke during lunch as Spanish was our common language. It was obvious that it wasn’t our mother’s tongue and conversation soon dried up.
A horse ride around Shipyard
Finally after a few minutes of silence, Gerhard suggested he took us out to see the Shipyard community. We immediately accepted and after offering to help, we left Annie and Margarita to tend to the dishes and other Saturday chores. Gerhard summoned his horse over to the gate with some organically grown carrots. He gently placed the buggy harness over its silky coat. Peter jumped in the back and the rest of us clambered into what would normally fit 3 adults and 2 children. But this time we were attempting 4 adults and 2 children.
The buggy ride was smoother than our journey here as the wheels glided in the muddy tracks. Passerbyers gawked at us like we were a rare species in a cage. We finally understood how they must feel when onlookers (like us) stare at their tall stance and outdated attire on the streets of Belize. Their glare did not come across as a curious one. We were in their closed-knit community, where not many outside guests enter. Why are they here? – their querying gaze suggested.
Visiting the local shops
Our first stop was a visit to the mahogany furniture factory owned by Gerhard’s cousin, David. Rows of identical rich mahogany chairs filled a simple shed. The matching dining tables were all blanketed in sawdust. David told us that he used to make furniture on demand. However, as he works on his own, he decided to now only make to order. A client had brought in a 40 year old Mayan detailed cabinet for him to varnish. “It could take me a few weeks to do this myself” – David explained anxiously.
Next, we popped into the shop where they supply the denim dungarees and materials for the ladies to make their dresses. Stacks of straw hats with black ribbon borders were placed on the top shelf, high out of our reach. Gerhard and his two boys then returned us to their home where we could say our goodbyes.
Before we left, earlier than anticipated, we asked the family if we could take a photo. Immediately you could see they were unaccustomed to having their image being permanently recorded. Their fists were clenched and their toes peeled off the floor to make sure they weren’t anchored in the same position for very long. Their horizontal smiles, wedged noses and stiff stance made for an uncomfortable portrait. Using Annie’s previous question as a reason to leave, we let them get on with their working Saturday and thanked them for their hospitality.
If you’ve had an interesting experience with Mennonites in Belize or elsewhere, I’d love to know! Let me know in the comments below…