Saturday, May 7, 2011

A special visit strengthens the Partnership

It took months of planning, fundraising, and frantic Skype conversations, but the Nicaragua Sister Partnership accomplished something wonnderful this Spring. We had the honor of bringing Francis Ubeda and Noel Canales of San Juan de Limay to Oberlin College for a week-long visit in late March.

Francis and Noel are two very important people both to Limay and the relationship with Oberlin. Noel is the local UNAG president in the region, and represents his community's concerns to the regional board at the municipal level in Esteli. He also has hosted many Oberlin students on the Nicaragua Sister Partnership delegation, and is himself an amazing example of the effectiveness of our loan fund. Both he and his wife started taking out small loans, and now they have their own land, a little general store, and a healthy boy just starting school.

Nora with Noél's family in front of their home

Francis is an inspiring woman. A Catholic Sister, she has dedicated her life to bringing hope and healing to Latin American women, from incarcerated women in Mexico to young girls who are victims of violence in her own community of San Nicolas. She once told me her mother went off the mountains to fight against the Somoza dictatorship when she was a baby, and her family gave her coffee instead of breast milk during that time. Well, she still radiates energy today. Even though we had them tramping through the Oberlin snow from early morning till late at night, she was always ready for more.

Francis, Nora and Alice on an adventure outside of Estelí

You can read about our time with Francis at the end of the 2010 delegation, and about current coordinator Nora's time living with Noel. Noel was also a main character in my Wilder Voice piece about gender in Nicaragua.

I can only hope the visit was as wonderful for them as it was for us having them, but I'm certain it was just as disorienting to have such a complete role reversal. On the delegations, we were on their territory, where they were confident, known and respected by all, and in control. We were the outsiders, struggling to understand, following their directions, looking like idiots at basic tasks like tortilla making. In Oberlin, everything was turned around. We escorted them from place to place, translated everything for them, introduced them to students and professors, and answered their questions about everything from co-op kitchen duties to snow.

Ah, yes, the snow. It was their first experience with the stuff. They both agreed it was beautiful, and couldn't get enough of picking up handfuls. They even suggested putting some maple syrup on it and having a snack. But the cold did get to Noel, who was constantly blowing his nose on the scarf I lent him. But don't get me wrong--they weren't completely out of their element. They spoke with great authority on reproductive rights, the importance of unions, and climate change--both in their formal talk in Wilder and in more casual conversations at co-op meals. Noel has a third-grade education, but he can explain climate change more clearly, concretely and emotionally than most college grads.

I was also happy that they both expressed admiration for the co-ops, and not just for the tasty and plentiful food and welcoming atmosphere, but for the ideology behind them. "It's so great to see you guys all working together and helping each other," Noel said, after we visited Old B. "And it's important that you guys support small farmers like me." He also mentioned the shared values of OSCA and the UNAG, and how we both worked to oppose unjust systems.

Both leading up to their visit and during it, I was stressed that we would not be able to host them nearly as well as they hosted us on our trip. How could we match their hospitality, their inclusiveness, their generosity? When we were there, entire towns organized meetings with us. Could we even muster enough busy, distracted Obies to fill a room? Though their talks didn't draw enormous crowds, the students who came were engaged and appreciative. And we tried to tell them over and over that we were so happy to have them.

Another worry of mine touched on the difference in privilege between us and them. As much as we talk about solidarity and partnership, we can't ignore that we (for the most part) have enjoyed a financially stable home and access to education, while they have fought to survive in a climate of poverty and isolation. What would they think of Oberlin's stately buildings? The students on their laptops and iPhones? My first reaction was embarrassment. I almost didn't want them to see all our wealth and privilege because it threw into stark relief the unfairness of our global economy. But I knew they should see the most accurate picture of Oberlin possible. If they recognize all the resources we have, they can demand (and should demand) more from us. Not just more money per year for the loan fund, but more support in a number of new and creative ways.

Francis and Alice at Westside Market in Cleveland

But their visit wasn't all business either. We sipped coffee in the Slow Train Cafe, viewed priceless art on display in Mudd Library, and tasted food from around the world at Cleveland's Westside Market. A highlight for me was taking them to a Contra Dance, which offered a beautiful view of Americana music and dance, as well as a special glimpse of Obie culture (men in skirts, women dancing with women, etc.) Also, they got to see 3 generations of Nicaragua Sister Partnership coordinators (Paia, Alice and Nora) all dancing the same dance.

As we face the challenges ahead, including making some big organizational changes on campus, we know that the personal bond we share with them will continue to motivate us in our work to keep the Partnership strong.