In the Mennonite community of the lost time in Belize
After a “weary and tiring” journey in 1957, a community of Mennonite Christians reached the southern bank of the Belize River in the Caribbean country then called British Honduras. “Neither bridge nor ferry awaited them,” wrote the Mennonite Gerhard S. Koop in 1991. “On the north bank of the river was a dark and forbidding jungle with its strange noises and smells. Giant snakes and jaguars have found their home under the thick bush. “
The Mennonites had traveled from Mexico to what is now Belize on the last leg of a cross-generational, cross-continent journey. Believing in self-sufficiency and autonomy from the state, the group came from Germany and moved to Poland and Russia to escape the threat of integration or persecution from mainstream Christian institutions.
In the late 19th century, a splinter group of 7,000 moved to Canada and then to Mexico. When the Mexican government threatened to include the group in its social security system, the group moved further south and settled in a few small communities in Belize, where the government more or less allowed them to live according to their own rules in return for food to produce the local market.
Although they feared their new home in the jungle, the Mennonite agricultural communities soon flourished. American photographer Jake Michaels visited the Little Belize, Indian Creek and Blue Creek settlements in 2018 and found that little had changed since the first settlers arrived.
“Homesteads line the lush green hills; in each of them a family had their piece of paradise, ”says Michaels. “The landscape was reminiscent of the simple agricultural society of the American Midwest in the 1950s. I was impressed by the quiet of the land, only interrupted by the sound of horses’ hooves and wooden wheels. These buggies were often driven by small children with surprising authority. “
Michaels spent a week photographing the church after a pastor gave him permission. “Everyone I dealt with was very nice and hospitable,” he says. “I spent as much time socializing as I did taking photos. Almost every house we visited offered us a meal and, if it wasn’t time to eat, a piece of milk cake. ”Michaels, whose work in the New York Times and time, has collected the series in a new book, around 195019, published by Setanta Books.
His pictures reflect the strong sense of community and tradition that persists in a landscape that is so different from its beginnings. Although there are differences within each small community, many Belizean Mennonites still speak Plauttdietsch or Mennonite Low German and dress in long, homemade skirts, headgear and overalls. Life is about community work; Families are big. Their population grows to around 12,000 people.
But although the Mennonites have retained their autonomy, they are not entirely untouched by modernity. Michaels says: “The Belizean culture is intertwined with the Mennonites. The Mennonites are driven into the city by the neighboring Belizeans who live in the surrounding villages. Orange Walk, the largest city in the area, is a mixture of Mennonites and Belizeans. ”
Reggaeton music can be heard from the radios. Many pictures show boys holding cameras and photographing Michaels. He says: “The camera was a means of communication for both of us.
“Despite modern nuances, family and tradition connect this community and their way of life is richly preserved. Their simple vision of society provides a mirror to the rest of us: one is more amazed at how our own lives are changing than how theirs stays the same.
“I hope that around 195019 reminds us that it is people who shape their social world on the basis of a common vision and another is always possible. “
c.1950 is published by Setanta Books