A Reflection by Laura Holmes
Co-leader of the January 2006 Brigade
Brigadistas depart from the compound each day in an old yellow school bus
Each year members of the campus community travel with the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, a trip designed both to provide aid to the small community of Nueva Vida and to expose students to harsh realities of poverty and global inequality. The Brigade originated as a student initiative in response to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. Groups of concerned faculty, staff, and students have traveled during every Winter and Spring Break since 1999 to work on construction, learn about Nicaraguan life, and witness first-hand poverty in the developing world.
The Brigade is possible through the partnership between Bucknell and Jubilee House, a non-governmental organization that works year-round on sustainable development projects in Nueva Vida, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Ciudad Sandino. Jubilee House works to improve the community’s quality of living by working with locals to build housing, improve healthcare, and create employment opportunities. After a rewarding, but difficult week of observing and working on these projects in the hemisphere’s second poorest nation, students return to campus with motivation to raise awareness, solicit medical supplies, and fulfill the Brigade’s $30,000 annual commitment to the Nueva Vida medical clinic. Many students express a new sense of pride in Bucknell when they recognize the university’s profound support for this much needed medical endeavor.
Brigade participants, fondly referred to as “Brigadistas,” number about 25 at one time and stay in a dormitory within the Jubilee House compound. Brigadistas depart from the compound each day in an old yellow school bus, decorated on the outside Nicaraguan style with colorful designs and covered on the inside with countless quotes written by members of past delegations. Each message, marveling at the beauty of the children and the land or crying out against the injustice dealt to such deserving people, reveals a portion of the tremendous impact a week among the poor in Nicaragua can have on an American citizen. A short bus ride, during which Brigadistas read these inspirational quotes, feel the warm tropical breeze through the open windows, and chat excitedly, delivers the group to the work site in Nueva Vida. Everyone gets to work: Dr. Stechschulte to the exam rooms to see patients already lined up in the waiting room and out the door, some to the supply room to unpack our medical donations, others to staff the pharmacy, and the rest to the construction site. Though early delegations constructed buildings and dug latrines, recent trips have focused on wiring electricity, tiling, building cabinets, cementing walls, and painting. Each Brigade is happy to see the droves of children, who, despite language barriers, come with smiles and hugs and hopes for a tickle fight or a piggy-back ride. They provide a welcome break from the manual labor, but also an important lesson in being happy amidst constant trials and tribulations. The extent to which young children in the developing world can teach students from a highly regarded American university can be overwhelming.
Back on the compound Brigadistas get to know each other well, as everyone eats, sleeps, and socializes within the same modest accommodations. The group meets several times throughout the week to decompress the multitude of intense emotions each day brings. Life on the compound is highlighted by visits from Bella, the pet monkey, dips in the pool (providing no water shortages), and delicious Nicaraguan specialties, among them, beans and rice, served three times a day.
Amidst the pleasant though humble setting, the group also confronts difficult realities. Guest speakers come to the dorm facility to speak about local and national issues. Women from the neighboring sewing cooperative come to share their stories of years of hard labor in creating a thriving, respectable worker-owned business. Their three years, without pay, dedicated to construction resulted in a place of work that offers an empowering alternative to difficult sweatshop conditions. This growing enterprise continues to combat the 80 percent unemployment found in Nueva Vida. The vice-mayor of Ciudad Sandino speaks about other local concerns, referring to the 60 percent of local children who lack the means to enroll in the public school. Bucknell students are shocked by comparing Nicaraguan difficulties to life on campus, as the Nueva Vida monthly school fee is roughly the cost of one beer at the Bull Run. The disparity is blatant.
Experts on Nicaraguan history are invited to explain uncomfortable truths pertaining to the Nicaraguan liberation movement and past US military and economic involvement in the region. Hearing this part of history challenges students to question foreign policies and drives participants to push for positive American influence. The exposure to poverty and acknowledgement of history makes clear the power discrepancy between Nicaragua and the US. Brigadistas feel empowered by the accounts of small actions and their large impact on positive social change.
Brigadistas learn more about Nicaragua on excursions such as a hike in Masaya national park and historic tours of Managua, the capital city. The dusty old bus also brings the group to El Porvenir, the coffee cooperative which harvests coffee used in campus sales. This mountaintop village is accessed after a long, rugged journey including a tractor pull up the mountain slope, the incredible view from El Porvenir, of plains and volcanic mountains, is contrasted with the story of treacherous working and living conditions endured by workers under plantation owners. Today, however, Contras and Sandinistas, past adversaries in Nicaragua’s civil war, work side by side to meet their basic needs in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner, despite their extreme poverty, members of the cooperative refused to sell their 500 year old guanacaste tree to developers. This magnificent, towering tree, seeded before colonialism stands as a symbol of the strength El Porvenir draws from its own roots, celebrating its independence, sustainability, and hope for the future.
The Brigade, through its projects, lectures, and excursions, offers a true opportunity to see the world in an entirely new light, as well as the chance to do something about it. Each Brigadista comes back changed in one way or another, with a stronger appreciation of the advantages enjoyed every day at Bucknell as well as a better idea of the daily struggle the majority of the world’s population faces.