Thursday, January 28, 2010

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.

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