Friday, February 13, 2009
Bridges to Community
Two weeks ago, I wasn’t anyone’s “sister from the North.” I didn’t smile at strangers or try to speak a language I don’t know to small children. I definitely didn’t borrow the horse of a man I met two days previous to go cantering up a hill towards a cemetery. But in Nicaragua, as the men and women of Jinocuao called us their “brothers and sisters from the North” day after day, it quickly went from being something that made me wince uncomfortably to a phrase that made me grin in ways you simply don’t in New York. An enormous, cheek splitting grin is not the way to communicate with people who don’t speak my language here. But in Jinocuao, when I didn’t speak Spanish and I needed to tell the 14 year old girl next to me who is the woman of her house that I appreciate her slowing down in her own work to teach me how to strip a mountain of dried corn of its kernels, the only way is to smile hugely and say “gracias.”
At the beginning of February, I spent a week in Nicaragua with a group of alumni from my college through a group called Bridges to Community. We spent five nights in the community of Jinocuao, which is near the Honduran border, working with local families to help Bridges establish construction, health, and environmental micro-finance projects. Bridges works in towns like Jinocuao one across Nicaragua to help the communities establish basic self-sufficiencies and standards of living.
There is a lot of poverty in Nicaragua; malnutrition, disease, homelessness, and unemployment are very real problems. However, in our time in Jinocuao, these weren’t what we felt. The families we worked with welcomed us with open arms into their homes, fields, kitchens, and children’s lives. They showed us the joys of their lives and wanted to learn about all aspects of ours, including politics, music, careers, and our families. Their goal in working with us wasn’t to have us build for them or do projects for them, but to work side by side to learn from us and to teach us. They taught us about their lives, their work, and their history.
After a hot day laying irrigation in a tomato field supplied by the only motorized pump in the village, we joined a large family in the dirt yard in front of their home. Three generations sat in plastic chairs around their patriarch, lit just as much by the moon as by the light bulbs. Don Valentin, the father, brother, and grandfather of the assembled and the owner of the field, told the story of the murder of his brother in his own home during the Nicaraguan Civil War of the 1980’s. In my job at MJH, I hear a lot of atrocity testimony. I’ve never heard someone point to the door five feet away from me and describe what she heard the murderers say when they knocked on it.
It is easy to look at a village like Jinocuao and see only the poverty and the terrible history. It’s just as easy, especially after a week in the villagers’ open arms, to see only the smiles, the kindnesses, and the family love. Life there, like anywhere, is complicated by the people, land, and opportunities. Relationships in an isolated place are complicated; the land has been stripped by American economic development and there is no work. However, the family relationships are so important that one hard working 24 year-old told us that he can’t bear to stay too long where there is work because he knows his grandmother is alone in Jinocuao. The land, which has dried and lost nutrients after decades of exploitation, is heartbreakingly beautiful and the people are proud of it. There may not be work, but half the members of the council working with Bridges were girls in their teens.
After the work, the laying irrigation and making fuel for manure-powered bio-digesters, we experienced the other side of Jinocuao. I borrowed a horse from a man I barely knew, called hello to a woman whose garden I’d worked in the day before, and cantered up a hill to join children in a game of soccer. And it was beautiful.
Posted by Jamie at 7:22 AM