Time passes too fast! The January Bucknell Brigade has already been back for nearly two weeks from our trip to the "Nueva Vida" (New Life) community, near Managua in Nicaragua. We left early Monday morning, January 19, to return in the wee hours of Wednesday, January 28; the students to go back to class that same day and Ian Oliver, Peg Cronin and I , to go back to our jobs as well.
Our January 2004 delegation was a very enthusiastic group that worked hard and shared quarters miraculously well together. We share a very special and memorable experience, which is hard to leave behind us as our lives here demand our attention. I just would like to share some of our moments, living and working for a week in Nicaragua.
At our arrival at the very shiny and modern airport in Managua, we were welcomed by Sarah of Jubilee House Community (our host) and driven to our home for the week in the legendary yellow CDCA (Center for Development in Central America) school bus by our bus driver Rogelio. We arrived to meet all of the Jubilee House family: Mike, Kathleen, Pat, Kathy, Sara and the three children Coury, Daniel and Joseph. They are an incredibly committed group of people who moved from their initial work with the poor of South Carolina to, at the time, a house in the Nicaraguan countryside (Somoza’s sisters’ abandoned country home). At the time that the people of Jubilee House Community moved to Nicaragua in 1994, the Sandinista revolution of 1979 had been corrupted by a continuous contra war, several of them had participated in Witness for Peace during the post revolutionary years and felt a strong need to support sustainable projects in central America. This is just a nutshell of their history of commitment. They found themselves neighbors to Nueva Vida as the result of a government "resettlement" after Hurricane Mitch (1998), of the poorest of Managua, in makeshift shelters on nearby and bare grazing land. And so they got involved in providing relief on all fronts, to this community of displaced and impoverished families.
Bucknell’ s involvement started with a Bucknell student, who had studied abroad in Nicaragua during the previous semester and who felt compelled to help after Hurricane Mitch’s devastation.Over the past five years small cement block houses have been built on the tiny allotted pieces of land (15x20 yds), latrines have been dug and banana trees and small gardens have grown up around these houses; a clinic has been built largely with funds raised and donated by Bucknell volunteers. A steady stream of patients visits the clinic now daily. They are able to consult with one part-time doctor and two paramedics and leave with medicines, distributed by Kathleen, who runs the pharmacy.
The January ‘04 Brigade’s goal was to work on the Women’s Clinic. This clinic will be dedicated to women’s health; especially to maternity care and birthing. A new female doctor will hopefully be on board soon. For now, the women’s clinic still needs a lot of work. So far, the main structure of the women’s clinic is up and covered with a roof. Our group worked to cement and plaster the inside and outside walls. It was an active scene with hilarious, and sometimes frustrating, lessons in slinging cement. There were plenty of helpful hands from the Nueva Vida kids and it was tough to keep holding onto the boards and trowels.
Outside the clinic, two Nicaraguan women were mixing sand, cement and water in wheel barrels from the pile of sand, cement mix and big drums filled with water. (The water supply is random, since Nueva Vida is at the end of the water supply line and water is not available all through the day). Nica kids, some of whom we got to know quite well, then wheeled the barrels inside, where the Brigadistas slung and plastered, sometimes not just the walls…Every Nicaraguan person helping with the work, receives a coupon for a free visit to the health clinic.
In the mean time, inside the main clinic, work continued with daily visits to the medical staff. The Bucknell Brigade brought along Dr. Don Stechschulte, who spent all his time seeing patients, helped by Spanish speaking students translating between the doc and his patients. Others worked with Kathleen in the "farmacia" to count pills and fill prescriptions, many of which were for parasitic infections. One of the more tedious jobs was the sorting of all the medicine that we brought along in 25 extra suitcases and chests, re-supplying the pharmacy shelves. The importance of this job is to sort the meds according to dosages and expiration dates. The pharmacy’s storage shelves are once again filled with the most needed antibiotics, pain killers and, amongst many others, medications for respiratory illnesses, since Nueva Vida is very dusty.
All this work gave us, if even the tiniest fragment, a picture of life in Nueva Vida, where people have to survive from day to day. Unemployment is huge, 80%, for both women and men, which leaves them to peddle on a very small scale in the streets of Managua and surrounding municipalities, at bus stops and gas stations. Some women are involved in prostitution and some men hang around, drinking their time and misery away, coming home, if there is such a place, with less than with what they left. Nueva Vida belongs to the municipality of Ciudad Sandino, which was part of Managua until reorganization and "decentralization" made it into its own municipality. Ciudad Sandino is a very poor community, with limited resources to fund the basic human needs of its citizens.
The Jubilee House Community is also committed to their original goal of providing sustainable development, to provide a fair living to the inhabitants of Nueva Vida. In the compound surrounding their home, this is visible in several projects: women from Nueva Vida can become co-owners of the Women’s Sewing Co-op (supported by "Maggie’s Organics" in the USA , which buys most of the product to be sold in the US), the Concrete Construction Materials Co-op that produced the building blocks for the Nueva Vida houses and the Security Co-op which guards all these projects and the Jubilee House compound. Other important initiatives were the Water Filtration Co-op, which has recently become a private enterprise and the Timber Co-op which folded because of theft. And so we heard of all these incredible efforts that go into making cooperatives work!
During the weekend we traveled to the Organic Coffee Coop "El Porvenir" (the Future), a 3-5 hour drive from Nueva Vida, in the province of Chinandega, near Volcan San Cristobal. Founded in 1984, after the owner of the (then)Jose San Meron Castro coffee plantation fled to Miami, El Porvenir is now owned and run by a community of 48 families . This community of 263 people, 80 children, of various political backgrounds (Sandinistas, ex-National Guards and Contra’ s) now work together, "separated from politics but united in their battle against poverty" (earning not more than $1.00 a day)
This place was the epicenter of Hurricane Mitch and the location of incredible mudslides, wiping away villages and roads. Now, it seems so peaceful: these coffee bushes in the shade of orange trees, avocado trees and a spectacular 500 year old Guanacaste tree. To sustain in their own living, people also grow beans, corn and other vegetables in the growing (rainy?) season. Water is a very important issue here, since there is no source of water other than rain water, caught in drums and water reservoirs. After the rainy season and especially at the end of the dry season, people are rationed to use a maximum of 2 gallons of water a day per person!!! This needs to be shared between coffee processing, drinking and washing! We walked around the co-op, seeing how the sturdy equipment of 1937 is still functioning to process the coffee bean, separating the pit bean from the red berry flesh and sorting the bean by size. The beans are then dried in the sun and once again sorted before being stored away.
The work on the coffee co-op is one of the more dedicated projects. Since the co-op wants to maintain its organic label, it started. a compost /worm farm to fertilize the coffee plants. The maintenance of the coffee plants and the surrounding forest are main priorities. The co-op is beginning to think about diversifying into a new venture of beekeeping. This one day was much too short to absorb all the implications and issues of running a co-op, but we were all very happy we made this trip to El Porvenir and feel more dedicated to sell their coffee.
Besides seeing all these co-op projects in operation, we also were part of various talks about Nicaragua and its history, the Sandinista Revolution, the Contra war, the politics of "Free Trade" and the dreams of "Fair Trade". The new international agreement in the making "CAFTA", (Central American Free Trade Association) will be catastrophic for Nicaragua (and other Central American countries) because of all strings attached regarding the privatization of basic human services. After the Sandinista Revolution in the eighties people were gaining access to education, health and basic employment opportunities, but these developments have been turned back with a shift to a more conservative government. The increasing influence of free trade zones is creating sweatshops that use cheap labor and long work hours, to take their profits abroad and deplete local communities.
All speakers stressed these effects and the involvement of the WTO (World Trade Organization) of which the United States is a strong supporter and participant. Although we were aware of these issues, it was more shocking to see the realities and effects of US policies in the country of Nicaragua.
We did have some fun trips, visiting the nature preserve of "El Chocoyero", with Pat, the nature and bird lover. The site was of a waterfall coming down steep soft rock formations , where the bleu parakeet nests in large communities,
With Sarah, we visited Masaya Volcano National Park, an active volcano, smoking and smelling of sulphuric gasses, driving through volcanic rock to get to the crater itself. . It was impressive to see nature at work! This was contrasted with a swim in a magnificent bleu and peaceful crater lake, the Laguna de Apoyo. As if we had not yet done enough, we visited the craft market in Masaya, a city south east of Managua.
At the end of our free day, we participated in a Campesino mass at Batahola church, an open air church decorated with politico-historical murals, depicting main events of recent Sandinista history.
Before leaving for the airport on Tuesday, Kathy drove with us in our yellow faithful through Managua, showing us again main sites of this city, once one of the famed most modern ones in Latin America, destroyed by a earthquake in 1974, never to have quite recovered from it!
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