Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Importance of Narratives

I know we've all found since returning from our trip that it's incredibly difficult to share what we saw and felt during our time in Limay. Facts about poverty and historical atrocities start to bore even the most sympathetic listener, and many throw up shields of defensiveness when you try to explain how we are all responsible for the suffering of our Nicaraguan sisters. The best way I've found to reach people, to impart a small fraction of what we learned, is storytelling. More than anything I want people to "meet" those who were so important to me on the trip. I want people to see both the light and dark sides of our stay. It's also a bizarre but true contradiction that it's often easier to publish an extremely personal story than tell it to someone.

You can find a story about my experience in the most recent issue of Wilder Voice Magazine.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting the Word Out

We sure have been busy here on campus: meeting with the committee, organizing events, etc. We're also getting a lot of great publicity. Check out the article recently published in the Oberlin Review about our trip and our work! We'll also have pieces later in the semester in two campus magazines: Headwaters and Wilder Voice.
A few weeks ago, the four of us presented to a packed crowd at Spanish House. The event merited a write-up in OSCA's publication, written by Alice and Nora:

On Monday, March 8, four OSCA members presented in Spanish House about their recent Winter Term delegation to San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, where OSCA maintains a micro-loan fund for unionized female farmers.

Senior Alice Ollstein, sophomores Marlee Fischer and Michelle Jahnke and first-year Nora Berson planned and fundraised all fall semester for their month-long trip. Students, the majority of them OSCAns, packed into Spanish House's salon to hear the talk. Michelle also made pinol for the attendees—a traditional Nicaraguan cornmeal

The presentation included:

-An overview of the hardships that face our sisters in Nicaragua, including lack of access to education and health care, a chauvinistic society, the precariousness of farming life compounded with climate-change induced droughts, and trauma from the US-backed Contra War in the 1980s.

-An explanation of the relationship that began in 1993 between OSCA and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG)

-A description of how the UNAG empowers women with training and how the loan fund allows them much-needed access to credit

-Some reasons why the problems of Nicaragua concern us, including the exploitative history of U.S. relations with Nicaragua, the way our resource use affects small farmers dependent on the global climate, and our ability to use our privilege for positive change

-A few things we can do about the problems that exist, including being conscious voters and consumers, and responsible travelers The Nicaragua Committee wants every member of OSCA to feel like a part of this partnership. The delegates were happy to be able to share with the campus some of the things they learned, and were glad so many people could attend and hear our stories.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Needed Knowledge

Since we believe that it's crucial to educate yourself before taking action on an issue, here are some links to good information about the topics we'd like to tackle this semester.

On bananas:


http://www.impre.com/laopinion/noticias/2009/8/8/camaras-platanos-y-la-verdad-e-140331-1.html (in Spanish)
http://watch.ctv.ca/news/top-picks/food-imports/#clip272275 (video on pesticide contamination of food imported from Nicaragua)



On drought and climate change:


On the ethics of service work:


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Statement of Values, drafted today

The Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee, dedicated to working in solidarity with the women of San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, professes the following values and beliefs:

1. That all people, regardless of national origin, gender and economic situation have the right to:
a. Healthy and plentiful food
b. Clean water
c. Accessible and free education
d. A dignified home

2. That the aforementioned are rights, not commodities.

3. That everyone has the right and the responsibility to know where their food comes from and the conditions under which it was produced.

4. The most ethical and effective solidarity work involves:
a. Long-standing and meaningful personal relationships
b. Both organizations being aware of one another's structure, culture and goals
c. Allowing and trusting a community to articulate their own needs

5. Gender discrimination continues to be a real and severe force around the globe. To combat it, we must insure that women have:
a. A equal voice and vote in any organization
b. The right and means to own land and control their own income
c. Freedom from violence, be it verbal, emotional or physical
d. Access to the resources they need to provide for themselves and their children

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Giving Thanks

This will be completely inadequate, but I wanted to write a brief thank-you to all those who made this trip what it is. Ladies, please let me know if I've forgotten anyone!

To Roxanne at Witness for Peace: for giving us a safe and insightful day in Managua and for giving the framework with which to analyze the rest of our experiences.

To Becca at Jubilee House: for taking the time to talk to us when we showed up (sort of) unannounced, and for your patience and dedication in helping the coops of the area be the agents of their own advancement.

To José at Finca Magdalena: for sharing with us your pride in and love of your cooperative, for your stories and for the delicious coffee you grow.

To Michael Judd at Finca Bona Fide: for teaching us that change comes slowly, that one has to think many years down the road, and that listening to a community is the only way to truly help. Your commitment to ensure the people of Ometepe's right to healthy food is inspiring.

To Rachel in León: for giving us an incredible tour and insight into what you've learned during your Fullbright year, and for taking us dancing at the hippest bar in town. The close connections you've formed are clearly a product of your commitment, curiosity and excellent Spanish.

To all of our host families: for caring for us like children but asking for our thoughts like adults, for your heart-breaking generosity and hospitality, for sharing your home and your stories with us.

To Ligia Briones Valenzuela: for everything you've done for us and for the campesin@s of Nicaragua, for always being frank and direct, and for your struggle against everything from breast cancer to an oppressive patriarchy. Generations of women will follow in your footsteps and their path to leadership will be easier because of what you've accomplished.

And finally, to our families back home: for trusting us, for believing in us, for supporting us financially and emotionally and for reading this blog. It's good to be home.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fillin' in some gaps

Last week was so overwhelming that we hardly had time to write about everything we've seen and done, so as Alice's and my last day (Nora and Marlee are already on their way home) winds down I will attempt to catch us up a bit.

On Thursday we had a golden opportunity: a whole day exploring the outskirts of Esteli with Fracis, the "fairy godmother" Alice mentioned before, who is also a close friend of Ligia's. Francis is a sister (basically a nun who can go out and do stuff) and a psychologist, and is one of the warmest, most lighthearted people I've ever met. Her nephew Josue also came along.
First we visited a family cooperative called the Tunoza, a small space where 20 women gather to make beautiful paper products from the normally undesirable parts of plants they grow themselves or receive from surrounding farms. They also use leftover office paper donated from nearby businesses--the UNAG now wants to be one of them. In addition, they teach workshops on papermaking to anyone who is interested. The cooperative was initiated by FIDER, an NGO that concerns itself with rural development, as a project to help unemployed women in the area. The women are proud of what they do now and asked us to bring more visitors (especially people who will buy as much as we did from them!) This visit showed me yet again just how important cooperatives are. Though they needed help to get started, these women are now empowered to make their own decisions and run the business however they want. To borrow OSCA's motto, "They own it."
We then hiked up a hillside with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and comunidades. Francis told us that she once brought a group of troubled teenagers there to have sessions on drug abuse.
She has also done a lot of work with women in prisons, as well as campesinas with the UNAG. As Nora mentioned, one of the projects she and Ligia would like to work on is opening a clinic for women in the campo, but they have no funding at all. Francis asked us if we would be able to direct the loan fund in a different direction, since it is revolving and theoritcally should be able to support itself. It seems like our fund is in a time of transition. We will continue the relationship with the UNAG Limay office at least until 2011, but if the office and the loan are stable enough, after that it would be great to be able to help with other projects. Either way the real decision lies with all the women of the UNAG, because the fund belongs to them.
Another thing that we discussed is the possibility of bringing young people we meet in the campo to visit Oberlin. They have shared so much of their lives with us but it has been harder for us to share ours with them. It would strengthen our relationship and understanding if they could eat in the co-ops and sleep in the dorms. Maybe one day it would even be possible for them to study in the US, maybe we could start to work something out while they were there. Right now this seems very difficult for a variety of reasons, but it is something we will work towards.

The last activity of the day was a visit to Sr. Alberto Gutierrez, a man who has dedicated the past thirty years of his life to, in his own words, "creating culture and agriculture in the mountains." A tall, white-haired man with an ever-present smile, he lives in a humble house with his wife, who greeted us as though she'd known us for years. He was happy to take us on a tour of his work, showing us the thousands of figures he has carved into the mountainside since 1977.
All kinds of animals and people--everyone from Jesus to Sandino--populate those mountains. He just as eagerly showed us all the coffee, orchids, and fruit trees he has planted over the years, and even sent Francis home with seeds of her own.
His robust love for life was inspiring and his happiness was infectious. Going back to Oberlin, I know that soon I will be worrying about petty things like grades again. Even from the dark and snowy world of Ohio, thinking of this joyful man in the mountains will remind me of the alegría de la vida.
We have fallen in love with this place and all the lovely people we have met along the way. In almost each city we've visited, we have made true friends who taught us important lessons and who we will miss very much. Ligia, Sayda, Francis, our host families, and many others: knowing that these people are counting on us to sustain and develop our end of the partnership will inspire us to keep fighting, in our own way, back at Oberlin.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Meaning of Partnership

I wanted to reflect a little on our relationship with the UNAG, which is evolving and hard to define. For one, it is so much based on mutual trust. We trust them absolutely. We put our lives in their hands for the time we´re with them. Every time plans changed last minute on this trip, or there was a miscommunication, or something went awry, we weren´t scared because we knew that we were in the best hands possible, people who truly care about our well-being. They also trust us, sharing with us intimate information about their lives, asking our opinions about big decisions regarding the loan fund, letting us in on some of the sordid drama that plagues all unions including the UNAG. What they did for us on this trip went way above and beyond simply keeping us happy so we would continue giving money in the future. They showered us with gifts and attention and love that we desperately tried to reciprocate.

When we were having a final discussion last night in the courtyard of the Quaker House in Managua (a hostel only for activists working to better Nicaragua), we mentioned feeling an enormous amount of responsibility considering how young we are. We four and how we behave on this trip are essential to the survival of the loan fund and the relationship with the UNAG, both of which have touched and improved many women´s lives. This is professional solidarity/aid work, but I think it´s our age that makes us (though inexperienced) better than most professionals for this work. Because we´re on the cusp of adulthood, on this trip we were able to be welcomed like daughters into the families in the campo, but asked difficult questions and treated like equals by the UNAG leaders. At our final meeting with the Junta Directiva, or governing board of Limay, I really understood why we call our relationship the Nicaragua Sister Partnership. As we sat in my host mom Jacinta´s kitchen eating yucca and cabbage salad and discussing ideas for improving the loan fund in the future, I felt like a true partner, fighting alongside the UNAG because we want the same things for the same people, people we now know intimately. It´s one thing to vaguely believe that Nicaraguan women should have access to food, water, a good house and education, and another thing to make sure that Ilia, my 12-year-old buddy from Parsila always goes to school with a full stomach. I believe it´s the personal relationships that drive our work, something many other international organizations cannot claim.

This was really clear for me at the Asamblea Departmental, which Nora already wrote about a little. Though the event was above all to honor Ligia´s 12 years as UNAG-Esteli´s president, I felt that our group was honored as well, formally and informally. We were presented with a certificate recognizing our solidarity, and I had the privilege of giving a speech to the 400 or so assembled campesinos explaining our connection and expressing our dedication, and also thanking Ligia for everything she is to us and to the women of Nicaragua. Here is the speech, captured on video by Michelle.

We were not seated with the other international groups, of which there were a handful. We were seated right up front with Sayda Flores, an UNAG leader who we became very close with on the trip, and we spent much time before and after the ceremony hugging and visiting with our host families from the campo and others we had met along our journey. We also got constant winks and smiles from the Master of Ceremonies, Francis, who we started referring to as our Fairy Godmother because of how sweetly she took care of us this past week. More than one of us shed tears, both during the ceremony and saying our goodbyes.

More wrap ups and reflections to come.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ligia the Leader

I definitely can´t do justice to this topic, but here´s a start. Someone our group has been thinking a lot about recently is Ligia Briones. As our principal contact with the UNAG, I had heard a little about her from the beginning of the committee´s meetings this year. However, I think it took me until to day to realize how amazing this woman is. Today was the Assembly of the UNAG- Esteli to turn over the presidency of the Esteli branch from Ligia to Pastor, formerly the vice-president. Although Ligia was only three years into her second five year term as UNAG Esteli president, she decided to step down due to her health. However, this doesn´t mean she´s leaving the UNAG. Previously, she was working two full time jobs, as president of the UNAG in Esteli in addition to president of the Women´s Sector of the UNAG nationally. She will continue her leadership in the Women´s sector.

At today´s assembly, I gained a much greater understanding of all Ligia has done. In her twelve years of leadership, the UNAG has consolidated its oraganizational structures, strengthened its financial resources, provided loans that enabled thousands of campesinos to buy livestock, invest in land, or make technological improvements to their farms and homes. The financial auditor said that a thorough investigation of the UNAG-Esteli´s funds uncovered nothing that raised concerns or jeopardized the organization´s future. Even more impressive that this, however, were the personal connections I saw displayed in the meeting. Groups of women sang songs in honor of Ligia, and gave impassioned testimonies about how she had inspired them personally and helped promote the rights of women farmers across the department of Esteli. We were one of many many groups to present Ligia with reconocimientos, or gifts of thanks, at the ceremony. Here's Ligia hugging Michelle as we give her a framed photo of her with the previous delegation.

Everyone we´ve encountered has the utmost trust in Ligia. They feel she is one of them, understands the struggles of campesinos, and always champions the rights of women. We´ve heard various concerns that with the presidency in the hands of a man, the promotion of women´s rights might fall by the wayside. Pastor, in his first address as president, tried to assuage these worries. However, only time will tell how the new president will be. Pastor will be president for the next two years to finish Ligia´s term, after which elections will be held to elect the next president.

I feel extremely priviledged to have gotten the chance to work with Ligia. In the interactions our group has had with her, she has proved honest to the point of being blunt, a force to be reckoned with, and most of all, inspiring.

She recognizes past successes, but always strives for more. She likes to propose "crazy ideas" as she calls them. I would call them visionary. Building a health clinic, founding a center for abused women, starting a program to prevent addiction and engender respect for the environment in at-risk youth, funding the best educated people in each community so they could teach students locally. Of course, as a realist, Ligia recognizes that there´s not enough money to start any of these projects now. But she hasn´t stopped dreaming or soliciting opinions from the communities about their needs and priorities. Her constant fight to give everyone the things they deserve as human beings has accomplished much, gained her universal respect, and should serve as an example for our committee in our future work.


Although there is much more I would like to share about my homestay experience, we´ve almost passed a whole week without updating you about our recent activities in Esteli. The closest city to the campo where we spent time with families, Esteli is a relatively small and charming city, and we`ve all enjoyed spending so much time here. The UNAG planned some great days for us to see other nearby principalities with communities struggling just like those in Limay. We visited a cooperative in Condega and affiliates of the UNAG in Pueblo Nuevo. Both were extremely eye-opening experiences. It really made me realize that poverty is very relative. After spending a week in Limay where they have so little water and nothing can grow, parts of Condega appeared well-off simply because they had the ability to grow plantains. In Pueblo Nuevo, the community we visited had their own pila to supply water, which the people in Limay would die for.

This is a pila

After visiting a house in Condega with tiled floors and a real dining room table, it seemed to me that family must be rich. However, we all know that every community here in the campo is struggling to live day to day and they all still lack many necessities. Compared to the comfortable lifestyle many of us enjoy in the United States, all the communities we`ve visited are extremely impoverished.

There are several departments in Nicaragua, one of which is Esteli. Within Esteli, there are several principalities, such as Condega, Pueblo Nuevo, and of course Limay. And within each principality, there are countless communities. It has been overwhelming to visit other places and look out over the rolling mountains that seem to extend forever. Throughout each mountain that make up the majority of the country, there are communities similar to the ones we have seen. Each one does not have enough water, and in each one many women are constrained to domestic work and serving the men. I`ve been thinking of all the people that could benefit from the loan fund, yet we can only help one little principality. And even then the way in which we can help is very limited. I know it`s better to focus our efforts on a specific place rather than spread ourselves too thin, but I can`t help but feel like we`re not doing enough.

Recently we`ve been questioning our purpose as a delegation. It is unrealistic to believe that our donations can bring people out of poverty. As the president of the UNAG in Limay said, we are helping move people from extreme poverty to poverty. The loan fund can be sustainable even if people are still poor. The only way to truly know the biggest problems in the communities and what the people want in order to improve their lives is to talk directly to them. That is why we will never be the ones to mandate where they spend our money. It is completely up to the discretion of the UNAG, who surveys the campesinos in the community to find out what they want most. In addition, it is clear how much the people we lived with value our solidarity and really want us to come back and maintain contact. Although it feels unsettling to wind down our trip without completely a concrete goal, that is the point. We are supposed to feel unfinished because our work is never finished. We have much to do in order to continue the relationship and help as much as possible from Oberlin.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Compartiendo en el Campo

It is so difficult to summarize my time in the campo; there's just too much to talk about. But here I will try to cover the bare bones of my experience sharing in the lives of the most generous people I've ever met.

For 10 days I lived in the community of San Antonio, with the motherly doña Maribel and her family. When we got to the house after the winding, rocky trek from the main road, it was already getting dark. She apologized for the lack of electricity in the community, and then said simply, "This is my house." My host mother is not the most talkative of people, but in that one sentence she communicated a lot: this is my house, it's not much, but I've worked hard for it, and you're welcome here.
Eight of us lived in that little house: Maribel's husband Juan, her daughter Ligia, two young teenaged sons Luis and Julio, 10-year-old Mayra, and baby Belén.
Because there wasn´t enough room, most of the kids and some of their cousins slept at the house of their soltera aunt Altagracia. That's also where we watched novelas every night, because Altagracia was one of a few people in the community who received electricity from a tiny personal solar panel, which are expensive but can be bought with loans. (As an environmental studies major I was really excited about this!)

In the life of the Espinoza family, electricity from the solar panel was one of a few small physical comforts (that we in the US see as necessary). Another of these was the water piped from a well through a system of gravity-fed tubes. It was then stored in a large tank right next to the house, which meant that we did not have to trek to the well every day to draw water. We stil bathed using buckets or in the nearby stream, but it made a huge difference in their lives to have a semi-reliable source of water. Even so, things are drying up due to drought. As this especially harsh dry season progresses, no water will get to their house, and there's simply nothing they can do to change that.
San Antonio was different than other communities because instead of houses placed nearly on top of one another, most were located several kilometers apart; from our house I couldn't even see Altagracia's right next door. Because of this I didn't feel the same sense of community that the others have talked about, though I am sure the people who live there do. But this did mean I became very close to the family. I spent almost all my time with the women of the house, since the boys worked in the fields all day with their father. Every day we woke up with the sun and began the day's chores, including turning corn into tortillas, cooking, sweeping, gathering firewood, doing laundry, taking care of the baby, and constant dishwashing. Mayra was still young, but Maribel and Ligia hardly took a break all day. And since her mother was often looking after baby Belén, 16-year-old Ligia practically ran the household. Every morning she was the first one up, and she hardly sat down the rest of the day. Even if I insisted on taking over whatever job she was doing, Ligia would always find something else to take care of. She has a work ethic like I've never seen before.
She is in her last year of high school, and she is the only muchach@ from her community to have made it that far. It makes sense, because there are so many obstacles to studying. The tiny public primary school in San Antonio (which could only be reached by trekking steep, rocky hills) only went up to fourth grade; after that education became an expensive hassle that most families couldn't even afford to think about.
Ligia finished primary school by living with a family friend in the relatively nearby city of Limay, because it would have been too difficult to go back and forth every day. The high school she attends is also in Limay, but since she is needed at home and since the trip is too long and expensive to make every day, she can only bus there on Saturdays. The other days of the week she teaches preschool, and this school year she will also take on 5th and 6th grade (for very little pay). That way her sister Mayra will at least be able to finish primary school. After that the fight for education will be up to her.

Ligia wants to be a nurse, but she's worried about all the costs that come with higher education. Without a scholarship there is no way she can go. I've got a full scholarship to Oberlin, and before meeting her I felt like I had really earned it. But I've never had to fight as hard to do anything as Ligia is fighting to continue her studies. I gave her a Paolo Coehlo novel and a Spanish English dictionary, but I am determined to give more somehow. This week we've spoken with the other Ligia, my sister's namesake and an equally determined woman, about different projects centering on the access to education in the campo. Right now it's only talk, but I hope that someday we are able to turn words into actions.There is still so much more to say about my time compartiendo, and I could go on and on about education. But this post is already long overdue and a lot has been happening this week, so next time I will write about something else. I promise that the next post will come more quickly than this one!

Love and Loans in Parsila

It´ll be impossible to do justice to my week in the campo during these few minutes in an Internet cafe, but I will attempt at least an overview. Because I came on the last delegation, I was able to choose which community to live in, and I though I was tempted to seek a new experience I opted to return to Parsila, the comunidad that was my home for a week two years ago. The night I arrived I knew I had made the right decision. Not only did everyone remember me (visitors from abroad are extremely rare) I got the warmest welcome imaginable--big hugs, offers of food, invitations to sit and chat on every porch in town. Last time I stayed with Doña Juana, a widow of the Contra War and longtime UNAG member, but this time I was placed with Doña Jacinta Torres and her husband Ernesto, both active UNAG leaders. Here they are underneath their jícaro tree.

Parsila is one of the poorest, driest communities in Limay, and conditions have worsened since my last visit. The river, where everyone washes their clothes and themselves, has shrunk to a fourth of its former size, due to the terrible drought caused by El Niño. Everyone in Parsila was worried it would disappear completely by Easter, as the rains don't come until May.

The crops were also hurt this past year, leaving people with barely enough to eat, and virtually none to sell. Many were selling off or slaughtering their animals to get by. Despite this grim situation, I could see how much our loan fund has done. Women proudly showed me the animals, land, seeds and structures (like henhouses) their loans had brought them, and though they told of their struggles to pay them back they emphasized that our loans were the only ones they could ever get, as no bank or other organization would take a risk on them. Also, the UNAG loans have a 12% annual interest rate, whereas banks can charge over 30%. Something that affected me a lot was when I was talking about our loans with Municipal UNAG President Don Noel (Nora's host), and he said that they are so necessary, but they really can only raise someone up from extreme poverty to poverty, but can't lift someone out of poverty because of the national-global-structural forces keeping them down.

I spent a lot of time with Doña Jacinta, remembering the daily schedule of a campesina. Up at dawn, grind the corn (Parsila has electricity, unlike many communities, so we could luckily grind it in a machine instead of by hand) make tortillas for the whole day, cook and serve breakfast to the men and ourselves, clean the house, buy the food we lacked from neighbors, feed the pigs and chickens, make lunch, head to the river with the dirty laundry to wash it and bathe ourselves, make and serve dinner, prepare the corn for the next morning´s tortillas. Here's a video of Jacinta palmeando a tortilla, explaining that it's been her morning chore since age nine.

With this schedule, it was obvious why the women had difficulty finding time to have meetings. Jacinta said that in order to travel to an UNAG workshop in a neighboring community, she either had to wake up at 3 am to get all her chores done and leave food for her husband, or had to get a neighbor to cover for her. We arranged a meeting in Parsila for all the affiliated women, so I could explain the OSCA-UNAG relationship and answer questions, and although about 10 women showed up and we had a productive meeting, many more couldn´t make it. Some were matriculating their kids in school, some were too burdened with housework, and some weren´t even in the country, but harvesting coffee in Costa Rica.

As for education, which many see as the only hope that their children will rise above poverty, the situation is grim. Parsila only has elementary school, with one teacher teaching several grades at once, in the same room. If a child makes it to middle school-high school, he or she has to make the long journey to Limay, either by bus (which is costly for the families) or bicycle. The roads are unpaved and in terrible condition, and are often completely impassible during the rainy season. Families struggle to buy notebooks and uniforms, and to send their child to school with something in their stomach. My dear friend Elia, who is exactly my age, is the only one to make it to university. Several young girls I befriended, though they were studying, were clearly suffering from a lack of a culture of reading and writing. When they wrote me very sweet notes, many words were spelled phonetically--b´s instead of v´s, k´s instead of c´s. I gathered a small group of local kids together for an English class one day, where we sang "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and played Simon Says with body parts. Here we are in the one-room schoolhouse (donated by gringos). The girl hugging me is Ilia, my across-the-street neighbor, river-bath buddy and constant companion.

I promise to post more soon, both about the campo and our incredible week in Esteli.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Learning by living

There is so much to say about my experience in the campo that I hardly know where to begin. I was in the community of El Zapote (named after a fruit). I was generously hosted by the family of don Noel (the president of the UNAG in San Juan de Limay), his wife Arelys and five-year-old son Kendal.

When I first arrived, I felt out of place: it felt so sudden to be with the whole group one night, and dropped off on my own the next. I had trouble understanding everyone's Spanish with the Nicaraguan accent, I knew nobody in the community, and had no way to communicate with the outside world. I struggled a lot at first about what my role was in the community. Thinking about my previous experience with a host family in Nicaragua and how much I felt like a guest. As nice as that was, I didn't want to be so pampered and catered to on this trip, and wanted to find a way to integrate more into family life. However, I was not too useful at any of the things that needed doing. I participated in grinding corn and making tortillas, and washed my own laundry on a rock in front of the house. However, I had no practice with these skills and often felt more foolish than useful, especially at first.

In fact, my role in the community was something I struggled with my entire time. I wanted to find out as much as I could from the people of El Zapote, but sometimes I wondered what right I had to ask them about their horrific experiences during the Contra War, or the hardships they had paying back loans. How could I, a nineteen-year-old who has never lacked anything, hope to empathize with the difficulties of these campesinos? However, through talking to my host family and many neighbors, I came to see how important solidarity was. Even though I felt like our loan fund was only a drop in the bucket, the visit itself was at least as important as the money. Even though I often felt powerless to improve the situation, I could at least offer to listen and learn as much as I could. Not only did this hopefully show the people I met how much I cared about them, but it also gave me so many stories to share with people back in the U.S. and ideas of how we can be doing more.

I met so many courageous, hardworking and honorable individuals. I met a woman widowed when the Guardia Nacional killed her husband on their march from Esteli to Honduras. She had taken out a loan from the UNAG for a cow, but times got tough. She worked at paying back the loan over ten years, and eventually had to sell the same cow back to get enough money. Now she is out of debt, has turkeys, pidgeons, hens and a pig, and raising four children.

I met a man who is seventy-five, and still works everyday on his farm to feed himself. He lives alone, and often visits his neighbor for meals, but is also proud that he can cook for himself. He said when he was growing up, men thought cooking was women´s work and didn´t learn, but that times have changed. He showed off his farm, which had fruit trees, coffee plants, corn and a variety of vegetables.

Thanks to support from the UNAG, he was able to install wells and cisterns in order to keep his crops irrigated. As poor as he was, every time I went to visit him, he would send me back with gifts: three malangas he just harvested, or a bag full of baby corn.

The welcome I recieved in El Zapote was incredible and heartwarming and, at times, difficult. It was hard for me to accept that people always wanted to give up their chairs so I could sit, or carry things for me, or give me the best food. I felt like I was giving so little, and taking so much. Maybe, though, solidarity is more powerful than I realized. One of the most heartwarming things someone in the community said to me, near the end of the trip, was this: "Nos hacemos hermanos." We´ve become siblings.

My Life in the Campo

I made it 10 days through life in the campo. It was a huge challenge and every day was tiring, but I also learned so incredibly much from my family and the many people I got to talk to. It´s overwhelming to try to portray my experience in a blogpost, so I will try to pick out some relevant anecdotes that I want to share. However, know that this is only a small glimpse into my past week and that there is so much I cannot even put into words.

I lived with a family of 5 in Pedernal, one of the smaller and poorer communities in Limay. Bertha and Antonio, the two parents, were so kind and welcoming to me. Their three teenage daughters, Haydi, Carla, and Yerling, were also very accepting and social, constantly playing with my hair or taking me around to meet their friends.

Of course the first thing that hit me was the extreme poverty they live in. Although I have done a homestay in the campo before, last year in El Salvador, this community was much poorer, which was initially shocking. They had electricity, but the only accessible water was by well. Bathing and washing clothes took place in the river, where I shared water with cows, spiders, and other animals. The floors and some walls of the house were made of dirt. Despite lacking many material things that we think of as necessities, Pedernal was very rich in community. All the houses were only a few feet apart and people were visiting constantly. If people aren´t actually related (they were shocked I only have one brother and 4 cousins in the US) it is still as if everyone in the community is one big family. The community was constantly bustling, if not with people than with animals. One morning a hen woke me up by jumping on my bed, and two other mornings it went the extra mile and layed an egg on my pillow. I then ate those eggs. Very local. People also owned horses, which I got the opportunity to ride. They were very impressed that a white girl knew how to ride a horse. I found that if people had anything, land, animals, gardens, it was because they took out loans from the UNAG. They would have nothing without our donations and the existence of the loan funds. It made me realize that we really affect these people's lives, and its important to come here and see how our donations are being used.

A very hard thing for me this week was sharing a room with Bertha's sister, Darling, a 24 year old with cerebral palsy. For the past 24 years, she has been lying in a bed all day every day, crying constantly and being fed liquified tortillas and beans. It was very disturbing to live so close to her and imagine her life being like this every day. In many cases, if someone was so handicapped in the US, they would have the capability to still have a decent life. But here it is not an option.

Another issue that was constantly mentioned was the drought and lack of water in the community. Here is a photo of where the river usually runs in the wet season.

Even if the people are able to buy animals or seeds with loans, they can't succeed because they don't have water. The river is so low right now during the dry season and the farmers are so frustrated because they can't sustain their families. Furthermore, they have very little food access. Whereas in the past they could grow various fruit trees and vegetables, now they are only able to eat rice, beans, eggs, tortillas, and occassionally cheese. I definitely got tired of the food monotony this week, but they eat this food all the time for their entire lives. They simply don't have the water to grow varieties of foods.

I learned a lot this week about the daily lives of people living in the campo. Every morning they wake up before the sun. The women make tortillas for hours while the men go off to work in the fields. I helped make the tortillas every morning this week, but even after I thought I finally accomplished the perfect tortilla, they would take it and fix it. The women are also responsible for cleaning the house, getting water from the well, cooking, and looking after the kids. Nevertheless, in Pedernal I felt that socially the men and women were perceived equally. Bertha, my host mother, was a community leader and was incredibly confident. She registers kids for school and during the school year babysits the little kids in the community, which is completely voluntary on her part. She is also vice president of the women's sector of the UNAG in Limay. She could really do it all. By the end of the week, I felt really close to her and amazed that she shared so much of her experiences with me. It's so generous of them to let me into their lives, this privileged student from the United States who they know has much more than they do. I often felt uncomfortable with how much more I had than they do and at times even found myself downplaying my luxuries in the US. But alas, the point of this experience was to feel uncomfortable and be pushed out of my comfort zone.

There is so much more I want to write and share with you all. The last thing I'll say for now is that the person I will miss the most from Pedernal is my friend Rudi, the 5 year old boy from across the path.

He was my best friend in the community. We spent time every day together and really enjoyed each other's company. He told his grandmother he wants to come to Boston to see me. He is the one man from the community whose request for that I would grant. Hope to write more about my experience soon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

We´re Alive!

We´re all far too overwhelmed and exhausted to blog about our emotional, challenging week in the campo with the host families, but wanted to post quickly that we´re all safe and sound back in Esteli. We´ll try our best to post tomorrow, but the UNAG keeps us busy and constantly changes the plan so we never know! Keep checking!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Don't Worry 'bout Us

Hello friends and family! This is a message to let you all know that for the next week or so we will be away from the internet, out in the campo with our host families. We will check back on the 24th to share our many stories. We are doing great and very excited for the challenges ahead!
The Four Intrepid Delegates

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Myths and Legends

León is known for its variety of museums, from religious art to local artesians. We didn´t have time to visit most of them, but the one we did see is probably the most colorful one of all.
The Museum of Myths and Legends, or the XXI (21) as it is known, is a strange contrast; it tells the story of León´s many popular legendary figures in what used to be a prison. Life-size papier mache figurines illustrate the traditional myths of León, and graphic murals on the walls behind them depict torture methods used on prisoners who lived (and may have died) in the very room you stand in. Definitely a jarring juxtaposition. Our enthusiastic guide would abruptly switch from showing us a figurine of the woman who turns into a pig and attacks men to talking about how the friend of Somoza who ran the place for a while, a "doctor," used to kill prisoners using "medicine." There were many more disturbing stories, many learned from former prisoners who came to visit the museum where they were once held and who volunteered their stories.
This is such a striking way of reclaiming a place of tragedy and terror, without forgetting about the horrible things that happened there. Every week the guides pray for the souls of all those who died in the former prison and who are now buried in unmarked graves beneath its foundation. Since prisión XXI closed its doors, the people of León have never built another prison within their city.


I think it´s safe to say that León has been our favorite city so far, but that might be because we´ve been shown around by Rachel, a woman whose brother goes to Oberlin who is doing a Fullbright here on sustainable agriculture. She´s been here for over 10 months and has befriended a ton of locals and knows all the hot spots.

León is a colonial city, with enormous, gorgeous churches every few blocks, cobblestone streets and a breezy central park. It´s rougher around the edges than many other spots, and not so picturesque that you forget that people actually live here. It´s extremely walkable and in the few moments we haven´t been visiting organizations or having meetings, we´ve had a great time checking out the little restaurants and bars hidden around the city.

Yesterday after our thought-provoking meeting with CEPRODEL we were taken to another organization, Del Campo, a cooperative of cooperatives. We were delighted to learn that our beloved Finca Magdalena on Ometepe was a member, but we were mostly shown examples of their sesame coops (ajonjolí in Spanish). We were taken out to a sesame seed processing plant and learned more than I ever needed to know about cleaning and marketing sesame seeds.

It was inspiring to see a coop take control of the whole production process, ensure good working conditions for their members and achieve success on the market, but upon later reflection it bothered us that this was one more example of Nicaraguan farmers being pushed to fill a niche market instead of growing their own food staples. It´s fine and dandy that McDonald´s pays a high price for their sesame seeds, but what if they decide that no one really cares about the sesame seeds on the burger bun anyways and nix them? Without that income, Nicaraguans can´t buy the basic rice and beans (sold for less than the cost of production by subsidized US companies) they need to survive.

We also heard some really fascinating things about coops in Nicaragua in general. Basically, the U.S. embargo in the 80s allowed the coop movement to flourish, because the big multinationals stayed out, and went to exploit Guatemala and Costa Rica instead, both of which had governments much friendlier to the U.S. However, Nicaragua is now the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti (who is in our thoughts right now), so it begs the question if the embargo was a good or bad thing for Nicaragua, or if it´s a matter of interpretation.

With much on our minds we left the sesame plant, had a delicious lunch, and strolled over to the Museum of Myths and Legends, which one of the other girls will post about. Later in the evening, we met Rachel at a wonderful bar/café, where she treated us to quesadillas and we danced to live music. We only know a handful of people in León, but every single one was at this spot (La Olla Quemada)...from the Costa Ricans from our hostel to the hostel owner to people we met at Del Campo to a fellow traveler we befriended on the bus. All in all, León has been fun, friendly and fascinating. We almost don´t want to leave, knowing how much more there is to see here, but we´re excited for Estelí.
Ack, just realized I forgot to link to Bona Fide´s website. Here you can learn more about what permaculture is and read about their projects.

Bona Fide

OK so this post is long overdue but blogspot has been giving me trouble lately. Hopefully this will finally work!

After recuperating from our long journey from Ometepe to León and finding a spare moment to take advantage of the free internet in our lovely hostal here, I´m ready to blog about our short but enlightening visit to the permaculture community project Bona Fide.

Located a short walk away from the Finca Magdalena , where we stayed on Ometepe,
Bona Fide is a lush farm started by a really cool guy from the US named Michael. Before he started the project seven years ago, the overused land looked more like a desert than the tropical paradise it was meant to be; constant cattle grazing and monoculture banana cultivation had leached all the nutrients from the soil. Since he bought the land in 2003 Michael has been working with employees from the surrounding community and volunteers from all over the world to bring this place back to life. This has not been an easy process. The first crop they had to plant was an inedible bean that would put some nutrients back into the soil, which meant that they didn't see any of their crops give fruit for their first year of work.

This kind of patience and dedication was apparent in all of Bona Fide's work. Seeing this project gave me hope for the future of Nicaraguan farmers. Michael has a few overarching goals for the finca. One is to provide a model of sustainability for farmers in Nicaragua and worldwide. He is certified in permaculture, a farming technique that follows patterns in nature rather than exhausting the land by cultivating huge plots of just one crop--I definitely can´t explain what it´s all about here but if you´re interested then check out this website. Another goal is working to take the power of food from the hands of huge monopolizing corporations and give it back to small farmers. But the main idea is to help increase the food security of Nicaraguans in a sustainable way.
Bona Fide is an amazing mix of crops that have been present in the country for a long time and ones that he has brought from other places. But don´t worry, no invasive species here. Michael showed us a leafy green from Australia that is high in iron and other nutrients that a typical campesino diet of rice and beans lack. He also pointed out the mango and avocado trees from Asia that produce fruit in every month of the year. These plants would not only fill a nutritional void in the Nicaraguan diet, they would also give farmers who grow them a very valuable market niche—imagine how much more a mango farmer would make if she could sell mangoes all year instead of just in the rainy season.

At first this idea might seem problematic; trying to change a people´s traditional diet seems little short of a cultural attack. But Michael and the people at Bona Fide are taking a holistic approach to food security. Even after seven years, the farm is still in its test stages; they want to see how the slow-growing perennial crops grow before introducing them to Nicaraguans. In the meantime they are not just sitting around. They consistently employ at least 12 workers from nearby towns, so in addition to a steady job (something very hard to find in Nicaragua) they learn about the holistic approach of farming and viewing the world that is permaculture. There´s even a scholarship fund for Nicaraguan farmers or foreigners who plan to stick around to become certified in permaculture right there on the farm. They also help raise funds for community projects in Balgue, like the children´s nutrition program and the community center.
These projects were ideas that came from the community and are run by people living there. Bona Fide provides support and money (and if any of you want to help out an awesome cause, they´re looking for donors to help start a day care!) And one day, when the fruit is ripe, the children will be able to eat mangoes and leafy greens in addition to rice and beans and learn how to grow all these crops sustainably.

One of the things that struck me most was how invested the people at Bona Fide are in their work and in the community. Like a very good definition of food justice recommends, their work touches hands, hearts, and pockets. Just asking for directions everyone was saying, "Oh, you mean Michael´s farm." Adelita, who runs the children´s nutrition program out of her own home, lit up when she talked about her friend Michael and how much he has helped.
And talking to the famous Michael, you can easily tell how he´s earned a special place the hearts of these people. When I mentioned that I would love to come back and volunteer someday, he said "We´ll be here." For some that may not mean much, but to people who live day to day expecting nothing but poverty, this promise is a small seed of hope.

Microcredit and more

Yesterday, our first of several destinations in Leon was CEPRODEL. This means Center for Local Development, and it´s a microcredit lender. When we walked in, it looked like a bank. In our meeting with the men who work there, we learned that this is to have a professional face for the borrowers, so they take the responsibility of their loans seriously. However, CEPRODEL is very different from your typical bank, even your typical microcredit lender. They give out microloans for business and agriculture, but they do much more than that. Their stated goal is to "be part of the structural transformation of the problems that affect our society: gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban, generations, and genders." They take a holistic view of microcredit, seeing it as a means, rather than an end in itself. They try to help their clients in as many ways as posssible. They employ not only financial managers, but also specialists in architecture and agriculture, who can better relate to the challenges faced by clients working on construction and farming projects. CEPRODEL also sponsors various trainings and technical assistence in sustainable methodology. They have recently started a reforestation project. They also manage to foster cooperation between their clients. For example, one farmer recieved loans to produce an organic pesticide. Another client who was planting trees was able to buy this spray, as well as learn to make it himself. CEPRODEL was able to connect these people so they both benefited, as well as increasing the likelihood of repayment.

CEPRODEL´s payback statistics are indeed impressive. They told us 95% of the money they lend comes back on time. I believe Alice said that the UNAG loan fund we support has a return rate around 50%. We wondered what made CEPRODEL so successful. One thing that we were told, that I hadn´t really heard before, was about the handout mentality. If people think they are getting money that has been donated, they do not feel the need to return it. With all the natural disasters and daily poverty Nicaragua faces, this is quite understandable. If a rich country give them money, and they struggle to feed their families, why should they return the money? CEPRODEL avoids this issue by keeping the loans strictly loans. They are as helpful to borrowers as they can be, and are willing to renegotiate the terms if the client is unable to pay back on time. Ultimately, though, everyone knows they money is in the form of a loan that must be repayed. Clients know that if they don´t repay CEPRODEL, they can´t take out another loan. CEPRODEL and other microfinance institutions are also finally beginning to communhicate with each other. They are starting to keep records so they know which lenders have a history of not paying back their loans. This system, similar to a credit score in the U.S., holds borrowers more accountable, so they can´t just switch to another lender to get more money. CEPRODEL also has it´s own system of incentives. It rates its borrowers on an A through E scale, and rewards the best lenders with prizes, like fruit trees for farmers, or backpacks (which they were nice enough to give us as gifts! They´re pretty awesome.) Also, they only lend to those with at least a year of experience in their field. And to avoid the interest overwhelming the borrowers, loans are given out in installments, so they pay interest only on the money they need at the moment.

It´s easy to see why microcredit is needed. Farmers struggle with drought, cattle ranchers saw their prices fall 50%. CEPRODEL has 14,000, 60% of whom are women. Their typical borrower is a woman between 30 and 35, who hasn´t completed primary school and has 3 to 4 dependents. Many women support their families, since so many men have migrated to Costa Rica, El Salvador, Spain and the United States. One poignant thing Rachel (the American who is in Leon on a Fullbright) told us: In the U.S., people are always talking about their future plans and aspirations, but if you ask Nicaraguan farmers about their plans for the next five, ten, or fifteen years, they will fall silent. Microcredit can be a way to give Nicaraguans more opportunites, and a reason to have hope for the future.

I am eager to see how all that we learned about microcredit will apply when we meet with the UNAG. I also look forward to finding out more about SosteNica (the American organization that coordinates investment into CEPRODEL) when I return home.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fellow Travelers

As is to be expected, we´ve been meeting some colorful characters on this trip in the various hostels and on the road--everyone from hippy gringo backpackers living in hammocks to wealthy teens coming to "volcano-board" (yes, this is actually a thing) to Nicaraguans taking in the sights of their own country. It´s been fascinating to talk to different travelers and learn from them. From some, you learn nothing but how NOT to behave in another country. There was one dude at Finca Magdalena who just drank and smoked cigarrettes constantly, and bragged to other travelers about partying with locals. "I was hanging out with a bunch of caballeros last night," we heard him tell some Germans. "That means cowboys, by the way." Actually, it means "gentlemen," but vocabulary was the least of this guy´s issues. I definitely feel more hostile towards smokers after learning about the atrocities caused by tobacco companies in Nicaragua.

But we´ve also made some good connections. Also at Finca Magdalena, we made friends with Travis, a college student from UMass who was paying his way through school by being in the coast guard reserve. We invited him to walk with us from Magdalena over to Zopilote, a supercrunchy finca up the road that has foreign hippies learn how to make bread and yoghurt and tropical jams (which we ate for dinner!). It´s not that it was unsafe for us girls to walk there alone, but having a man along (even a skinny gringo) can´t hurt. Over our whole wheat bread, passionfruit jam and natural yoghurt, we talked to him a bunch about his travels, the good moments and the scary close calls. His tales of struggles to communicate made us really glad we all speak Spanish with some degree of fluency!

Spanish also helped me bond with some really nice Costa Ricans last night, here at our hostel in Leon. Even though I was ready to conk out early after our crazy day of travel, it was great to chill in a hammock and discuss politics, Free Trade, the media, religion, Obama, etc. for a couple hours. I love being challenged to articulate my views in Spanish. I know very little about Costa Rica and I hope to get to ask them more today. We also might go dancing with them tonight if we aren´t too exhausted (we´ve been going to bed around 9 or 10 every night!) Hey, no one said this was a party trip.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Community Organization, Cafeteria Infantil

Before touring Finca Bona Fide, which Michelle will reflect on soon, being the Environmental studies food expert, we visited a children´s nutrition center in Balgue, the community near the hsotel we were staying at on Ometepe. As we looked for the sign to the building, we guessed it was in this brightly colored school house. However, we instead found the program running out of a woman´s house, and had to walk through a sleeping man´s room to find her. She cooks for 35 children every morning in her own kitchen, buying food and using the excess produce from the Bona Fide farm. An addition, 35 kids are fed down the road and the families don´t have to pay to eat at either branch of the program. On Saturday, the local women, one of whom is a nurse, give classes on food nutrition and sanitation to the kids as well--brushing teeth, washing hands, etc. We also got a tour of the brightly colored community center that we passed, called Proyecto Mano Amiga, where they hope to build a bigger kitchen and already have a library for the kids.

This morning meal is extremely important for them, as their parents can´t afford to feed them and the only other meal most of them can rely on is lunch at school. The woman who runs the program makes no profit and developed the program completely on her own. Its amazing how organized and innovative she is, but unfortunately does not have the resources to fulfill her goals. The day we visited, the kids were only getting a glass of milk and an orange each. Michael, the owner and founder of Bona Fide, financially supports her project, but he stressed to us that it was community developed. He told us that it is important to listen to what the people think they need most and support their efforts rather than imposing our own wishes on them. Overall, it struck me how driven and passionate people are about improving their communities, even without resources, and working together to make slow progress, which requires great patience. It was really something to admire.

On another shorter note, I completed one of my goals of taking a nap on a hammock.