We arrive in Little Belize, an area adjacent to the Laguna de Progreso. We drive past mango plantations, a run down gas station, a wooden house, it looks deserted. Men in dark trousers, suspenders, wearing the same straw hats, are bound up in their work. It feels like we’re intruding into an idyll that’s not quite clear to us yet.
It’s the first time that i see cows here in Belize. In the country of jaguars and rare birds. This visual context reminds me much more of farmland in America or the countryside of Germany. We pass countless acres of land. With us in the car is Leo Verde, a Belizean who does business with the Mennonites community: they are the biggest supplier of agricultural goods to the country of Belize. Corn, beans and soy is the main produce and income of the Mennonites, a religious community in Central America, Belize.
Leo informs us that each family living in this community owns more than a thousand acres of land. It lays within the families’ responsibility to plant and harvest their own fields. Yet local family structures are much different to the ones common in modern cities. Households with twenty children are no curiosity here. What is also different to our empirics is their family structures. The traditional system of patrimony has almost become an ancient for us. While modern societies have developed specialization and the division of labor to overcome ancient structures, the Mennonite community has maintained those structures, together with the feeling of collectivity and solidarity within their society.
As much as the level of individuality has risen to an unprecedented point of freedom and autonomy in our complex society, the sense of solidarity, community and consideration have decreased to a minimum. The modern human focuses on his personal well-being, on his benefit over everything else. The archetype of the homo oeconomicus rules social behavior.
Yet, our modern society has transformed into one of most interdependent ones in human history. The division of labor, the specialization of functional work tasks, create an organism of multiple interdependent parts. While we feel a deep connection to personal liberty, individuality and independence, the reality is much more fragile. Yet alone our dependence of electricity and modern communication can cause a total chaos within our modern cities.
In a simple society, like that of the Mennonite community, each segment, each group, can function autonomously. Families grow their own food, make their own clothes and build their own houses. Already living within the modest means, like seen here, poses a struggle on most members of a modern society. Too many needs and cravings condition our happiness.
We continue driving through a worryingly perfect landscape. Sterile and structured. The expression of the human craving for order and tidiness.
Living under the renunciation of electricity and modern technology, the only means of transport are horse powered carriages. Leo shows us to his friends house, where we meet Franz. He acts constraint, not only because finding a common language proves difficult. Amongst each other, members of the Mennonite community speak Low German, a language mainly spoken in Northern Germany and eastern parts of the Netherlands. At church and at school High German is being practiced. School education focuses on reading the bible and simple writing skills. General knowledge like geography and history are not included in the curriculum. Boys attend school until the age of thirteen before entering into daily work life on the fields. Girls finish school a year earlier, in order to help out at home until the start their own household.
Franz agrees to take us to one of the fields he is currently working at with his brothers. Franz’ Dad owns 120 acres of land, Franz is one of the twenty sons who take care of the property and works on the fields. He looks nordic, has blue eyes and blond hair. In broken english he tells us that he himself married at the age of 20. Today, at the age of 26, he has four children and harvests 75 acres of his dad’s land. Not once has he left the community.
Sitting in the horse carriage, drawn by a horse named Leeds, i watch the men operating the heavy agricultural machines, of which they removed the rubber wheels. The field is too humid for the machines to work properly. Due to the dry season in the summer, followed by an heavy raining season, the farmers lost ninety percent of their crop. Franz emphasizes their struggle for revenues, as their community is completely based on agriculture. Demand is low, and as an enclosed community they are exempt of governmental subsidies.
On the field we also meet Jacob Schmitt, an elderly men with friendly eyes and a jolly character. Jacob makes an effort to talk a well articulated High German to me - we share the same language. He is witty and keeps a smirk in his eyes throughout the length of our conversation. Everything about him seems light and worry less. In beautiful calligraphy he writes down his name for me on a piece of paper. The orthography is perfect, but i can notice the trembling of his hand. Without restraint he starts speaking about his life, not avoiding any of my questions. I ask him about his work, about life in the community. I bluntly ask why everyone marries at such young age. I want to know who protects them from others, from each other. Who makes their rules, why they never leave their community.
Soon though i feel a tightening sensation around my chest. My own questions start to feel obliterate to me. To every one of my provocations Jacob seems to have a very simple and direct answer. It seems as he has found happiness in life’s simplicity, while I struggle in modern's complexity. A good harvest and sufficient food for his family mean happiness to him. Things that we take absolutely for granted in our society. The more we have access to, the more we want. It becomes difficult for us to be happy. Wether it’s materialistic goods, productivity, or creativity, we ourselves have so many choices, goals, requirements, that our list of wants becomes endless.
Jacob takes us to his house, where he lives with his wife and his twenty-three year old daughter, who hasn’t been married, because she suffers a heart disease. The house itself is extremely sterile. Laminate flooring stretches through all rooms, everything is painted white and the roof is constructed of aluminium. I feel like in the Wizard of Oz, awaiting the storm to take us away in the white doll’s house. Only the most essential furniture fills the house, old-fashioned mahogany beds and a baby crib underline the surreal atmosphere. The only personal belongings that i can make out are a few stuffed animals in the daughter’s room. Jacob takes us through to the backyard, to a perfectly maintained garden with trimmed bushes and a flawless lawn. White shirts and white underwear are swinging in the wind, hung over the washing line, together with some of the dark, knee-long dresses with flower patterns that all women of the community wear. Clothes are uniform here. Men wear suspenders and hats, woman are clothed in dresses with matching straw hats.
As we walk back through the house, i see a typewriter and a little tabulator. Next to it on the table lays a newspaper, the „German-Mexican Tagesschau“. Here one can read about similar communities in Mexico and other parts of Belize, publish letters to family members who live in different communities and learn about farming techniques, employed in Germany. The newspaper is written in High German. The general tone is easy to detect: hard and persistent work will reward you with a modest and economical life. Cooperation and loyalty are highly praised.
Jacob asks me to write down my name. He suggests to be writing letters, the only mean of communication. While i write out my name on a piece of paper i realize that he might be the only person who won’t ever make quick judgements by typing my name into a search engine. Needless to say, internet is not being used in the community. Some members use cell phones in order to do business with the locals. Certainly mobile phones are not used as part of entertainment as common in modern societies. In general, entertainment is not part of their culture.
Again I ask Jacob about who is responsible for their safety and protection. He assures me that within their community there is no need for protection from each other and in case someone intrudes into their land with bad intentions, the can call the state police, like everyone else. There are not courts or advocates either, as little fights are solved among them. That’s at least what Jacob tells me. I have difficulties believing that just by teaching the „right“ values at church and practicing them in their society, can shut off human inherent vice like hatred, wrath, passion, greed and lust, and everything that is condemned as sins by religion believes. Is it the simplicity that make this society work? Or is it the oppression of individuality, the oppression of entertainment and freedom, that makes this community to a pattern of all virtues? Being cut of the rest of the world might actually have its advantages. We live in a society were we can access all the information we want at any time we choose. At the same time we’re constantly exposed to an overwhelming stream of stimulus and information, not giving us the time to rationally reflect on what we perceive. Our opinion is strongly influenced by the media.
Here you don’t have newspapers that write panic headlines. The information they can access is limited and pre-selected. Surely terrorist groups and civil wars pose no concern to people of this community. Ignorance is bliss. Their knowledge is constraint, but so is their fear and understanding of threat. It can not be assumed that their community is less polarized by the one newspaper they can access, but their minds are being educated after moral and ethics of religion, instead of being instrumented for power and politics.
Throughout our conversation it becomes obvious that Jacob feels very strongly aboutstrongly about values like family, altruism and a simple life. Given the reality he lives in, i feel insensitive asking him if he wouldn’t want to live in a modern society, where he has the freedom of consuming everything he wants, to wear what he wants, work what he wants. He seems happy with was he has. Or is just really good in making an impression to be,
Being confronted with this simplicity, I react ashamed when Jacob asks me what I was „creating“ (he didn’t use the word for „work“, but the german word „schaffen“, which can be translated as „create“ or „execute“). I knew he wouldn't understand if i said back home i worked as a model. Advertising products i don’t even believe in. Even if i said i advertise consumption goods, we wouldn’t share the same idea of those goods, as the main consumptions here are corn and beans. So i chose to help myself with an euphemism: „I work in entertainment“. He looks at me with his friendly eyes, baffled. „I don’t know what that is“. This phrase was the one i heard the most during my time with the Mennonites. I had to remember i was in a different world. A world without entertainment, consumerism and luxury. I couldn’t expect his comprehension. These terms art not just not part of his life, they are not part of his empirical knowledge. So i simply smiled back at him. Which motivated him to ask what my parents did for a living. „My mum works in marketing and my dad is an actor“. I was unable to answer that question without confusing Jacob even more. So i said they inherited a house and land from my grandparents, where they live now. Not to imagine i told him that my parents actually live separately with other partners. I didn't have the impression Jacob would judge me, but I didn’t even know where to start in order to explain him the world i was coming from.
My thoughts start to wander during our conversation, we’re standing in the golden evening sun, i hear the huffing of the horses and feel a strong sense of idyll and peace. The more time we spend here, the more the alien becomes known to us, and the suspicion with which we perceived them when first seeing these men in their peculiar clothing, turns into comfort.
We say good bye to Jacob and i really feel like i’ve met an honest, genuine, dear man, that believes in the community he lives in.
Next we seek to make contact with one of the teachers of the school. Jacob refers us to his cousin, who knows where the teacher lives. So we drive along the road that passes many different campos and houses. We stop at a house, that we think is number 29. A woman is standing at the front porch, looking at us. Our friend Leo says that the women aren’t allowed to talk to strangers who visit the community. When we ask her for the teachers house lifts her arm and points into a direction. I can’t tell if she doesn’t want to talk to us or really isn't allowed to do so.
Looking for the teacher, we pass another „campo“, a field, where there is a man working with six of his children- Some of them don’t look older than four years old. He jokingly calls them „trabajadores“, his little workers, which seems disturbingly true. The man speaks perfect spanish, although he’s not as talkative as Jacob was. His name is Gerhard Redicop. We ask him how many siblings he got himself. He turns around to his brother, who his working on the field as well. He doesn’t seem to know exactly. They both agree on 9 brothers and 2 sisters.
A similar reaction occurs when we ask him about the origin of their community. He strikes me as hesitant and doubtful of himself: „I think we’re originating from Holland“. I get the impression that their insecurity deprives from incomplete knowledge. They react to topics and questions they don’t know with constraint, self-consciously looking down to the floor and nodding their heads. Their understanding doesn’t go far enough to process the unknown things we confront them with. There are these voids of information, they haven't been taught and therefore are unable to explain to themselves. We ourselves come from a society, where knowledge and information is freely accessible. It seems like within a community like the one of the Mennonites, the history or religion they learn has no alternatives. There is one truth, and that one is not to be questioned or differentiated with something else. In their rational horizon there is no christianity and buddhism besides their religions. There only exists one religion, one reality. It’s hard to define something, when you miss any comparison or alternative to it.
When we come to talk about their religion, it’s a lot of question marks and stutters, until they name their belief as „Rheinländer Church“. A community and movement that started in Holland, settled in Russia, to eventually come to Canada and spread from there to Central America. He tells us about communities in Bolivia, Peru, and a community in Blue Creek, that uses cars and modern technologies.
Even an in-depth research on the community of Mennonites results in a inconsistency in the history of their origin. Matching with the narrative of the teacher of the community, their movement originated in the Netherlands, as followers of Menno Simmons, a Roman Catholic priest, who was largely influenced by the Anabaptism movement. As early as the 16th and 17th century, followers of the Mennonite movement left their origins in North- and Central Europe to escape persecution. Due to their strong commitment to pacifism, they refused serving in the military. Following the invitation of Tsarina Katharina, some communities started agricultural settlements in Russia. When in the 19th and 20th century their privileges were also questioned in Russia, many Mennonite communities emigrated to the United States, Canada, as well as Central and South America.
In the modern times, when private property replaced feudal estates, the traditional settlement patterns of the Mennonites were disrupted. Only in less developed areas in the world, like here in Belize, some of the village settlement patterns survived into today. The community of Little Belize is also one of the few settlements, that remained completely turned away from the use of electricity and nowadays technology. Music, television and entertainment are forbidden, as they are seen as a distraction of the work on the fields. Many households do not own any books apart from the bible.
„We lead a simple life. We don’t need entertainment“. One of the most defining encounters in the Mennonite community was spending time at the house of Abraham Schmitt. A physical appearance like everyone else in the community, wearing suspenders and a stray hat, he strikes us as a very particular member within the particular community in Little Belize. His house lays on the very end of the Mennonite territory, secluded from the other homes. Surrounded by farming fields and a society of farmers, Abraham chose to have a metal workshop. He constructs missing pieces for machines, fixes trucks. His dad and all his brothers being farmers as well, he thought working with the machines himself. As there is no electricity, Abraham uses a diesel generator to power his machines in the workshop. The sound of the generator is a constant background noise.
Abraham lives with his wife and ten of his sixteen children in the workshop. Margareth, his wife, hopes they soon will move into a new house, further away from the noisy generator. When we arrive at their house, four of his sons, two daughters and Margareth come to welcome us. They walk towards us with a smile on their face, curious and excited about who we are. Also here the women are wearing dark dresses which reach over their knees. But their faces are lit up, the girls are faces are covered in freckles. Wearing ascarf and hat around their head. While Abraham speaks fluently high german, spanish, english, which he taught while working with the people of Belize, his wife and daughters only speak low german. So instead of sentences, we communicate well with a few words, hand signs and smiles.
Without hesitation the women surround me and take me around in their garden. The use of every plant is explained to me, seedlings are pulled out and handed to me as a welcoming gift. With sparkling eyes they tell me to plant them into my garden. Little do they know, that i live in a city apartment thousand of kilometers away. Their heart warming joy is so convincing, that i end up with more plants in my hands than i can carry.
Yes, our conversation is limited due to language difficulties, but I feel the warmth and kindness they bring towards us. The two youngest girls still living at home, aged 13 and 10, are excited, curious and very giggly. These children seem more carefree and playful than other member of the community we met so far. the raising of Abraham and Margareth seems to be very progressive and free compared to other households. The children know their responsibilities, they know which tasks they have to fulfill in order to have a dinner every night. The girls start helping in the household, once they finish school at the age of twelve, the boys attend school one year longer, before they start working. Abraham teaches his sons how to operate the machines in the workshop. He wants them to take over his business. The relationship between parents and children is very different to the one of today’s society. Here children aren’t the self-realization of their parents, they aren’t spoiled with materialistic things, but neither with attention. They know their tasks, and they know if they don’t fulfill them, they won’t get food and care in return. Not once did i see the parents look after or look for their children, they independently live their lives and do what they have to. They go to school themselves, they go to bed themselves. The roles are clearly distributed. Neither is there a lot that could be forbidden for them. The options of misbehavior are very limited.
The younger boys come over to us. One of them discovers my iphone, he asks if my phone can sing as well. I start playing some music to them. With a fascination in their eyes, they start singing along the lyrics they don’t know and sway their arms with the sound.
I ask myself if entertainment and modern devices are forbidden in their society, as it interferes with the working morality and discipline that is necessary to sustain their farming production. Abraham tells me, that they live a quiet life. Without music, without entertainment. These things aren’t allowed. He adds: „Here you can do what you want, as long as you do what you’ve been taught“.
Arbaham talks affirmative and calm, he strikes me as an intelligent and considerate man, who understands very well the structures he is living in. I have the feeling he knows much more than some of the other members of the community. Also, he knows about Europe, about France. He wants to go there to learn how to make goat cheese.
I ask Margarth if she has ever travelled before. I notice her worry about the city, about the neighboring countries. She names Guatemala and Belize City as dangerous places: „There are black people. They are dangerous“. In the same sentence she admits though to not be talking of experience, as she has never left the community.
The girls take me on a tour through the house. Living under very modest conditions, the only three girls still living at home, all stay in one room together. One of them is 24 years old, a school teacher and not married yet. The young girls proudly show me an aluminum cupboard, they just got newly installed for their birthday. They keep all their belonging in the cupboard, mostly a collection of house utensils. Nothing personal, but a few handkerchiefs and pots which are kept like little treasures, hidden between bed sheets and kitchen towels. The shower is a concrete hut in the garden. Rain water is collected in a container outside, from where they carry water in buckets for the kitchen and the shower. Everyone in the family helps to keep up the household. They work until they go to bed shortly before midnight. The next working day starts at five o clock in the morning.
The family invites us to stay over night, we camp under the roof of the metal workshop. Their hospitality is incredible. Every meal is shared with us, freshly baked bread and baked beans are served. Even the meat, which they conserved from when they butchered a pork last week, is shared with us. The parents have to provide for ten children who still live at home. At dinner, while we all sit together, they speak a prayer before and after their meal. None of them expects us to join in, neither do they talk about religion to us much. Tolerant to any belief, they respect our different way of living. Once we finished eating, one of the daughters shows us the only two books they own. One is the bible and the other one is a tattered old encyclopedia about the alpine plants of Austria. The book looks like it has been read a thousand times, every pages eagerly studied, hungry for knowledge and information. The kids know every plant by heart. I don’t know how they got into possession of this book, but it’s clear that they have no access to any other books than the bible.
The next day, Abraham fixes the metal construction on our car, Margareth hands us a jar of cooked pork and we say good by to the family. As a memory, we leave them with asmall camera and a book. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.