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.

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