The Mennonites – a trip back in time | DW Documentary

published on June 30, 2020


it may look like a scene from a bygone

era but these young people are part of a

community in present-day Central America


they belong to a Christian group known

as Mennonites ultra-conservative

Protestants who eschew the modern world



here in the schoolhouse girls sit on one

side boys on the other they're reciting

passages from the Bible in old high

german this morning the youngest

children are learning the alphabet look

at the letter n pointing to the older

children are reading the New Testament

printed in fractally a traditional

German script they're not taught history

geography or foreign languages the Bible

is their only textbook I teach them to

read sing pray recite poetry write count

that's it the children begin their

schooling at age six and finish from the

13 long enough to learn from when I went

to school after he finished school Abram

became a blacksmith like his father he

has 20 children three of his 60

grandchildren our pupils in this class

Mennonites believe children are a

blessing directly from God

blue-eyed blondes abound originating

from Germany the Netherlands and

Switzerland the Mennonites fled Europe

250 years ago and some eventually

settled in Central and South America

devout Anabaptist they strictly adhere

to the doctrine of Meno Siemens a 16th

century Dutch priest they lead lives

full of rigor and discipline

there are over two million Mennonites

worldwide but only a fraction our old

order Mennonites virtually

self-sufficient they live in settlements

with their own schools churches and

trades this isolation shields them from

modern-day temptations

now one colony of this secluded

community has agreed to be filmed for

this documentary life in this religious

group revolves around the Bible

everything is predetermined right down

to the color of their clothes just after

various conne addresses it's cancer a

legend a video all kinda different

clothes the rules are very strict

breaking them can have severe

consequences if people don't obey the

church we must shun them

yet the temptations are many a few

months ago France brought home a

forbidden object a smartphone I know the

reality now is enough feel guilty I see

there are so many good things in it

behind the serene facade some members

are rebelling they're challenging the

community's most fundamental doctrines

Wilhelm is one of the shunned and their

mind like a cell phone it's made by

satan so can sit and do anything nothing

our Bram on the other hand is averse to

change that's why he and several other

families plan to set up a new colony in

an even more remote part of the world

part of the Amazon


start anew that's from starting from

zero so who are the Mennonites and why

do they flee modern civilization is it

even possible to escape the contemporary

world in this day and age we take a

closer look at one of the 21st century's

most cloistered communities


our journey begins in Central America on

the western edge of the turquoise waters

of the Caribbean Sea


situated between Mexico and Guatemala is

the country of Belize the former British

colony has an extremely diverse

population among its over 400,000

inhabitants and mestizos Creoles and



most of the Mennonites live further

inland hidden away in the countryside is

little Belize an old order colony

established in the 1970s


time seems to have stood still here

cars are forbidden

horse-drawn buggies are used to get

around Mennonites are not used to having

contact with outsiders they're not

hostile but somewhat perturbed by our

presence they don't know what to make of

our cameras some even hide their faces

like this woman

we don't allowed it because people get

frightened and young ladies or when they

get pregnant they get sick yeah their

film because they they're frightened

they're they're not did they not get

used to it that's the reason


conservative Mennonites spurn modern

technology but a few are open-minded

like France who's agreed to talk to us

and learn and I'm raising here in the

whole of my life I'm never seeing

somewhere else

my home home country I like it over here

I like the culture and everything it's


fans is 36 years old he lives on this

farm which she built himself


he and his wife Elizabeth have seven


fifteen year old twins Anna and Catarina

are the oldest a garter is 13 and

Elizabeth 10


Abraham and Peter a six and eight and

Zahra the youngest is four years old

there are typical Mennonite family most

have seven to twelve children they live

a simple way of life a few fields a

chicken coop and a couple of cows are

enough to keep the family fed the girls

tend to the livestock don't pour it all

on the same side put some here and some

there Fran's works from home he's a

mechanic in his workshop he repairs

machinery for customers who are not

members of the community he earns around

$500 a month on average


his daughter Katharina finished school

two years ago since then she's been

working with her father

we have only girls that's why she have

to do jobs like this if he had boys big

boys in that age I think she will have

to work inside and the boys will have to

do this job this is probably a job for

four boys with the rose in a Mennonite

household have clearly defined the women

take care of the home they do the

cooking cleaning and laundry


they also sew clothes for the entire


and that too is governed by strict rules


when Elizabeth needs more fabric she

goes shopping there's no sign or

advertisement to indicate that it is a

store and the choices here are limited


this one is too dark for me this one's

pretty nice for the younger girls the

brighter colors are reserved for the

younger girls dresses the darker fabrics

are for the married women the men are to

wear straw hats and checked all striped

shirts we half-a-meter will do

everything is precisely specified do you

see any big difference between these two


Elisabet only speaks Plateau

although German a dialect used primarily

by Mennonites her sister-in-law

Marguerite however also speaks English

and she fills us in on some of the

customs if you have a learn it like that

since my parents my grandparents

great-grandparents we just keep it like

that it's you don't bend like that all

the time

no you just have to wear this kind of

dresses it's against our religion if you

do all kind of different clothes no no

right no nothing at all no makeup

nothing just Oh Oh cold Mennonites just

have it like that

well we don't know anything else you

have to material for two dresses and a

shirt for what amounts to eight euros

there's no excessive spending Mennonites

leader life's so austere it's almost

monastic void of distractions no music

no sports and no television


the closest they come to a moment of

leisure is in church every Sunday we

were asked not to film there

a community leader has agreed to meet

and talk with us

William is something like the colony's

mayor he too has seven children in order

to give us a better understanding of

their beliefs he invites us to his home

for dinner

the only source of light is a single oil

lamp the house has no electricity the

furnishings are sparse there are no

pictures on the walls only the bare

minimum let us pray

the girl sit on both sides of the table

while William sits at the head and his

son at the other end the meal is eaten

in silence it's a practice Mennonites

have followed for centuries tonight's

dinner consists of beans a vegetable

soup and sausages life as it was lived

in the 19th century the Bible says that

to be accepted into heaven we're not

allowed to have any modern things like

TVs telephones computers or cars we're

taught to renounce modernity when

certain people do not want to obey the

church then we must shun them they can

no longer take part in community life my

totally enchanted believer on slixa the

law is explicit either you abide by the

rules or you are banished from the


a lot has changed since the Mennonites

came and founded a colony here half a

century ago this used to be nothing but

jungle now the colony is spread out over

a hundred square kilometres and boasts

nearly 3,000 inhabitants when they built

roads they paved the way for further

development in spite of their respect

for the doctrine some believers find

modern conveniences hard to resist for

France it all began when he had to buy a

phone for work he is taking a huge risk

by showing it to us before when I saw a

phone or some things or if I had used it

a little bit I feel very guilty I feel

very guilty now I know the reality see

there are so many good things in it

France discovered the Internet and a

love for music the rhythm of Country and

Western radically changed his family's

life they really liked their new life

it's a new lifestyle for us really any

music so you could never have any life

it's a good vibe for them and then

abruptly friends switches off is fine

for my brother yes I have to hide my

phone because not really but I don't

like to to see them mad if they don't

see the phone it will be more happy to

me so that's maybe in the future they

will start to know more about the

reality now

Franz has to be careful even around his

brother if anyone finds out that he has

a phone he risks excommunication that is

what happened to Vilhelm who used to

provide medical care for the families

here he lives next door to France kind

of surgery sit down here I sit down here

and then I have a speech and then I

probably would probably try if to have

pain in their abdomen I would have them

lay down cover them up

strike down oh yeah preacher said there

yeah for 20 years

bill helm was the colony's lay doctor

although he has no formal training his

mother was a nurse and he taught himself

by studying medical textbooks

he bought a phone in order to save lives

and I felt like I had to have it because

there were so many accidents and then I

felt like an obligation to call a taxi

or to call the doctor sir I said that

was so useful for me and I had it in and

they were complaining about that and

they wanted me to to lose it I mean and

I say no that decision cost him dearly

because he broke the rules he lost


the day they knew that they would

excommunicate me the day before I would

say I had about at least 60 patients at

least 60 that went on the whole day up

too late in the night the next day I got

excommunicated no one claims again so

that stops from 62 overnight to zero

since his expulsion well hung has been

shunned by the community these days he

sells tires an hour's drive from home


he decided to found a new nonconformist

congregation within the conservative


Mennonites behind the wheel of pickup

trucks are surprising sighs they belong

to the dozens of families that now

attend the new church


from all appearances these believers

still seemed to abide by the traditional

Mennonite codes of conduct but on closer

inspection there are undeniable signs of

change even from the pulpit the sermon

is read from a smartphone there's no

Bible to be seen the Gospel of Matthew

the eleven disciples went to Galilee to

the mountain where Jesus had sent them

when they saw him they worshiped him but

some doubted Vilhelm instigated the

construction of the new church oh yeah

they are now chronicles are allowed

music is allowed only what is not

allowed is drinking and all that what

what is what father says this

development troubles more traditional

Mennonites they believe that souls are

being lost

Abram is one of those traditionalists

he's joining several other families

who've decided to leave Belize to set up

a new colony in Peru one that's more

loyal to the old order yeah like we will

build up more traditional and and the

community so that they will be more more

more and I don't know exactly how to

explain but the people more conservative

more people together Abram a farmer will

embark on the new adventure with his

wife and seven children even though he's

invested a lot in his life here in

little Belize


so this is the house what I had bailed

at the first point so no I want to leave

it so let four other people can use it

now if they want to change I have a

better one so they can put a new one and

so that's how I'm thinking now and now I

want to sell it for what everything and

the land for our brand Peru represents

the promise of an even better life the

first point is like there it sounds like

the soil and everything it sounds better

to work there and having having more

more like more people and the tone who

will buy us all the vegetables and corn

and soya and beans and all the things

what we produce they will buy more so we

could sell more what we produce that

we'll mix or more happier

those moving to Peru are preparing for

the departure that entails selling most

of their possessions



knock what the ban how much for this set

of bowls do I hear $5 $2 white up $4

over here Wow yeah code needs to sell as

much as you can

whether it be a trash can or a casserole

dish everything must go

I'm selling whatever I can't take with

me okay I'm selling the house all the

furniture all the things we used

everyday while we're taking is our buggy

the rest will be sold every dollar

counts the money will go toward

constructing the new colony the auction

lasts the whole day one thing Abram

wants to take to Peru is farming

equipment 11 families are sharing the

space and cost of a shipping container

take this over there none yet there's a

lot we have to put everything together

together together and tell it fits

only their most precious possessions

will make the trip to Peru that includes

tractors and machinery needed to clear

roads the country had a few things they

are not big farmers inside in the

country so that's why we think about we

can't carry cheaper we have it here

and we carried over there cheaper then

we buy it from Brazil or anywhere first

to Belize City then by boat yes by boat

the container will arrive two months

after they do there isn't much room left

but Abram has a surprise in store for

his wife he's going to take their

marriage bed the only reminder of their

past life is what we have already at

once yeah my wife wanted to keep tears

she wanted to keep the beds so she will

be happy they're not lose everything she

lose a big amount but not lose



it's the evening before their departure

our brands family is feeling

apprehensive especially as wife Eleanor

it will be difficult there we had

everything here we have to start all

over again at the moment their biggest

fear is the flight no one has been on an

airplane before are you afraid of flying

not yet but I don't know how I'll feel

when I have to board and you Helen how

do you feel about going Peru

I'm really excited really yes I can't

wait we'll see who gets on the plane

first that man gone man I don't want to

be first


that's the hangar at her store yeah the

time has come for the family to go the

biggest one would I ever had in my life

climbing boys are brems parents want to

see them off it's not easy for his

mother this is the first time one of her

children has left the colony no don't

worry everything's going to be fine it's

all under control I'm still anxious I


goodbye and safe journey Isaac will you

visit us maybe in April okay

three hours later they arrived at the

airport in Belize City they're the first

of the group to get there

for Abram this is where the adventure

truly begins it's the first time what I

am taking the plane that's why I'm

telling my children now I'm waiting for

three years I want to do with the plane

so now my children all day they're happy

or they can go with me together long

time I kept in there oh when I was cool

when I will go it's going to be great

the rest of the group have also arrived

seven families 53 people in total

they've all bought one-way tickets no

one plans to return it's time to say


our params parents came to the airport

to make the most of the last few moments

with the family there are no hugs or

kisses a simple handshake suffices

everyone appears calm and composed but

Abraham's mother can't quite hold back

her tears she doesn't know if she'll

ever see her son or grandchildren again

they're taking a huge leap into the

unknown the challenges begin with the


I'm scared


hey thank you


are you scared me neither this is fun

it's a bit shaky our brand seems excited

but his wife Illinois is a little


what's that clouds clouds

yes clouds we're flying over clouds I

was wondering why there was so much

smoke the journey will take 24 hours

after a stopover in Panama they arrived

in Lima the capital of Peru while

waiting for their final flight to pull

Kulpa few can keep their eyes open no

one has slept much since they left


lazy lazy lazy the sprawling group of

Mennonites does not go unnoticed the

airport employee who checks in their

luggage is curious she knows where

they're headed and asked them about it

why are you going to pick help us we

want to work there work we bought land

there and we're going to work it what

will you grow it will grow corn beans

soy melon cucumbers peppers and tomatoes

and we'll keep chickens where will your

children go to school

we'll build a school there isn't one

there yet but we'll build one I'm

surprised I didn't think it was possible

to live out there but I'm happy for you


lot of people they're surprised they'd

Anoka they've got us so they're asking

for were you coming where you want to go

so what what happens what's going on so

because they don't know you know they

don't know as they look people some but

they sometimes if they think about

traveling but but not so on a group so

many in a group and

in baggage the Mennonites take their

third and final flight this one's to pop

Harper a town northeast of Lima that's

close to the Amazon rainforest they've

traveled nearly 3,500 kilometers upon

arrival a few motor taxis awaiting the

Mennonites are something of an

attraction here – there's room over here


with the largest port in the region Polk

alpha is the gateway to the Amazon the

city has around 200,000 inhabitants


Brenda's from the surrounding villages

come here to sell their goods Abram is

delighted and subscribe but looks happy

beautiful yeah nice it looks so it looks

like that lots of movement yeah yeah

that's it all on a flash hmm looks up

lots of movement so right here I think

your weed can work like we how we like

to because I see the people moving and

lots and lots of people so will be a big

big different denim beliefs because

please so poor and so little bit people

and everything tight yes the fast boats

leave from there Abram has no time to

lose he left Belize with the bare

minimum so he needs to buy a few

supplies before heading into the

rainforest but first he has to change



ha say come and count the dollars

this is operants entire savings 30 years

of work now he's investing at all in his

future but we sell Harsha son called son

whatever what they shelled on the option

sale then they got the money until then

they change it for buying things more by

Marlin or open mile and Abram has a

total of 18 thousand US dollars not much

to start a new life that's why the group

buys things in bulk to save money first

thing on the list mattresses all

together because above 10 then they have

a different price that's why we are all

together going and buying things this

one is hard it would be like sleeping on

the ground

the day is drawing to an end in Pucallpa

but Abraham's work has just begun

tomorrow he will take an exploratory

expedition to the new colony ah

apples apples vitamins come and get your


a pram has reserved a seat on the first

boat to Tierra Blanca the last village

before the colony Johan another member

of the group is accompanying him the

trip will take two days on the Ucayali

River a tributary of the Amazon

I have any idea what happened what's

going on so I'm wondering everything a

few hours later there are no more

buildings in sight nothing but long

stretches of forest but that doesn't

trouble Abram

on the contrary power so they grow

vegetable our feet after 48 hours on the

boat Abram has nearly reached his

personal paradise

we almost there yes not far now

how much longer about half an hour but

there's more to come

eyebrow in your hand take another much

smaller boat it's the only way to reach

their new home deep in the heart of the

Amazon hardly anyone traverses the river

at this point and once they touch land

it's still not over they've got another

90 minutes along a muddy bumpy road


you hear that yeah

at one point Johanna and Abram have to

get out and push

still and nothing can dampen Abraham's

enthusiasm change it change it you have

to do everything yeah yeah everything

has to start anew

that's from starting from zero to go

after two hours the first house comes

into view it was built by the six

Mennonite families who settled here a

year ago we reach

we finally found you

hello welcome luckily we could take the

road otherwise we'd have had to walk

that's nothing compared to how it was

when we came with all our luggage there

are around 50 Mennonites living here all

in their own in the middle of the jungle

without electricity or running water

there's a lot to be done Abram and his

family will have to live in tents before

they were able to build a house of their

own when will it be finished he says one

week you have work and so maybe two to

three days more than ready just two

weeks to build a house Mennonites

a seasoned carpenters and they know how

to make the most of what they've got

people and beliefs a lot of time did

they say how could that happen that we

people don't go to school and we do a

lot different things than they do and

who could it be but they say I we say we

work on the farm and practice on the

farm we don't go to school we go to

school on the farm a little deeper in

the forest Abram will see his own plot

of land for the first time he's waited a

year for this moment

this is my piece of land here yeah so no

this is how we how we first open this is

the Bosch and so I know right now we

will go inside and there I could show

you hallway will make my house it's the

land I've always dreamed of Abraham's

first instinct is to reach down and grab

a handful of soil tongue man to plant

carrots and all the vegetables for this

one will be very very good on one side

it will be the house and another side

there will be a shelter and the

vegetables will be here in front and on

the yard front yard so when people come

on the CEO day right years up at the

yard ready ready – ok happy today this

is where he wants to create a new

Mennonite community based on old order

traditions like here we will be more

isolated and more helpful more love and

everything it will be more together

people living


in a year's time over 40 families will

be at home here around 300 people in all

the Amazon it may be the last refuge for

the Mennonites



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