Saturday, July 25, 2009

Farewell Fatima

So this is the end of training. Yesterday we attended a product fair with the youth group we´ve been working with during training. The purpose of the project was twofold. First, the youth were supposed to gain confidence by coming up with a new product, making it, selling it, and presenting it at the fair. For the Peace Corps Volunteers it was a way of getting our feet wet working with youth and helping a group to create a value added product.

The fair was our final training activity. For the next week we have some administrative things to do, and on Friday we swear in as volunteers. It´s kind of a bittersweet time for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, four of the people in my training group have left or are leaving the Peace Corps for a variety of reasons, including the closest friend I made during training. Not that we were going to be serving in sites near each other, but it´s still a huge blow to my morale. And for another thing, I am actually very sad leaving the host family I have lived with for the past three months.

My host mom, Melida, asked me yesterday what was the most valuable thing I learned during my training. I told her that the best part of training for me (besides milking a goat) was getting to live with this family. And I meant it. When I arrived here three months ago I was kind of like a baby. Melida had to teach me how to wash my hands - no joke. Since then I have learned to love gallo pinto and beans (even after learning that the bean pot sits for three days unrefrigerated). I have made tamales (corn meal and cheese cooked in a banana leaf) and pinolillo and sorted beans. I´ve learned how to wash my clothing in a cement pila, and I´ve asked the definitions of a hundred words I didn´t know.

During this whole time I´ve been the beneficiary of an incredible outpouring of hospitality, warmth, and caring. My host family may be poor, but their generosity is overwhelming. I´ve been showered with gifts - mountains of fresh fruit, a keychain with my name on it, a wooden bracelet, a pair of shower shoes, and a grain sack to keep my yoga mat from getting dirty on the floor. But more importantly, this family has shared their home and their lives with me. My host mom has talked to me about the joys and sadnesses of her life, I´ve gotten to watch as my host sister-in-law (wife of one of my four host brothers) went from being five months to eight months pregnant, and my little six year old host sister has shared her drawings with me. My host brothers have split coconuts for me with a machete, given me rides in the family bicycle taxi, and walked me to the bodega when my host mom insisted it was too dangerous for me to walk alone. They´ve also asked me to translate the lyrics of all kinds of songs, including Celine Dion´s My Heart Will Go On and Fifty Cent´s entire catalog.

I´m sure I will form relationships with the people in my new community, but I will not forget the connections I have formed here.

Into it - almost being a full-fledged volunteer
Over it - losing members of the group

Monday, July 20, 2009

Animal Husbandry

This weekend we went to Rancho Ebenezer, a training center for sustainable small animal management. Our hands-on trainings have all been great – making compost, growing a school garden, starting a tree nursery, food processing – but the animals were the best, sin duda. At the Rancho, they keep goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, cows, and tropical sheep (yes, there are tropical sheep, they just don’t have wool).

My new favorite animals are goats, chickens, and rabbits. I’ve never really considered myself an animal person, beyond cats, that is. But today I got down with some barnyard creatures, and I was pretty into it. At 6 this morning I reported to the goat stable and learned how to milk a goat. I wasn’t that great at it, but I was at least able to make the milk come out. After milking, we fed the goats a mixture of leaves from a variety of tropical leguminous plants.

Then it was off to the chicken pen. We were treating them with a prophylaxis for a common respiratory infection that kills a lot of chickens. Each one had to get a drop of solution in its eye. I won’t lie. I was scared at first to try to catch the chicken and hold it still. But once I caught one, I was hooked. Running around after chickens is really, really fun. Our next lesson was on how to give a chicken a bath. At the Rancho, they bathe the chickens once a month in a solution of water and neem leaf. Neem is a tree whose leaves have a repellant effect on insects, so it is used to keep any little bugs from living in the chickens’ feathers. Bathing the birds requires holding them under their wings and dipping them into a bucket up to their necks. The best part is that once the chickens come out of the bath they stagger around drunkenly until they’ve dried off a little bit. The weight of the water just gets them all out of whack.

Post neem bath

The bath was a little much for this guy to handle

At the rabbit hutch, we felt a rabbit’s belly to see if she was pregnant, watched two rabbits mate (takes about 3 seconds), and saw another rabbit give birth (8 babies in less than a minute). The great thing about all of these animals is that they are really easy to take care of, and they all can eat plants that serve other purposes but cannot be eaten by humans. The Rancho feeds its animals using the same plants it uses for reforestation and soil conservation and regeneration.

Among the other topics of the weekend were:
• how to tell if a female pig is in heat,
• how to clip a goat’s toenails,
• how to test a goat for mastitis before milking,
• how to castrate a baby pig (accompanied by a really disturbing demo),
• how to kill and skin a rabbit (surprisingly easy, not that I did it myself),
• how to build worm composting systems using old tires (very cool, something
I’m planning on doing at my site)
• and much more.

A lot of campo families have chickens. Rabbits are less common, and goats are pretty rare. Cows and pigs are both really common in my site, but rabbits and goats have a lot of advantages over these animals. Mainly, they produce more given a smaller quantity of food. And in the case of goats, they will eat practically anything. Since goats also do really well eating green leaves from trees, instead of needing pasture land, they also go perfectly well with reforestation projects. Culturally, getting people to switch from cow´s milk to goats milk is really difficult. But I´m really excited to start promoting the use of these animals when I get to my site.

A few things that seem normal to me now - eating every meal with only a spoon, hanging my clothing to dry on barbed wire, being woken up by roosters every morning
Stil not normal - when my host mom cleans the floor of my room with gasoline, pasta served with rice (yes, we must have at least 4 types of carbs on every plate)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Site Visit

This past week I finally got to see the community where I’ll be living for the next two years. Site visit is the week we’ve been waiting for since training began 10 weeks ago. Last Friday the 17 of us traveled to Esteli to meet with our community counterparts, and the following day each counterpart-volunteer pair left separately. I felt so sick with nerves that during the bus ride to my site I thought I might have to ask the bus driver to pull over so I could be sick. Thankfully that did not happen.

My counterpart, Don Paulo, took me to his house and his wife served me some very sweet coffee and bread she had baked. I started to relax a little. Then the two of them walked me over to the house where I’ll be staying for my first six weeks before I’m allowed to live on my own. When I met my new host mom I started to really feel good about the site. She was great, so funny and warm. “No tenga pena, Laurie,” she told me. “Sientese como en su casa.” Basically, Don’t be shy with us, Our house is your house. My new host mom, Dona Ester is a teacher in the local school. She is a single mom with three grown kids. The two boys work in the fields every day, and my host sister recently graduated with a degree in Small Agriculture. I’m really excited to get to know her better, especially since we’re close to the same age and in the same field.

Here´s the house where I´ll be living

From what I could tell in my short visit, the town is going to be great for me. It is small – only about 100 families. They absolutely loved the previous volunteer, which is great because she really seems to have paved the way for me. “The last volunteer went running a lot, so the people are used to that,” they told me. Great. “And she loved to dance. So we’ll expect you to get down at the fiestas.” Amazing. “And the last volunteer was very independent. She liked to live alone. We’ve got a little house all picked out for you.” Incredible. “We can’t wait to bake with you, since the last volunteer was really into baking.” Perfect way to get integrated into the community.

Some replacement volunteers I’ve talked to have said that they didn’t like being compared to the volunteer before them. So far, I just feel lucky that I don’t have to explain myself. The people in my town understand what the Peace Corps is, more or less, and what types of projects I might be doing. Even more importantly, they are really excited to have me there, since they have such warm feelings towards the volunteer who was there before me.

My host grandma making coajada

It’s very hard to tell what kind of work I’ll be doing in the community, though I think that’s true of every site. The community really lacks organization, since there is a lot of tension and mistrust between the two political parties. Apparently, the hostility is so intense that Sandinistas won’t come to a meeting if they know that Liberals will be there and vice versa. That might make community organizing a bit difficult. I’m very optimistic, though, and I have a lot of ideas for how to get started gaining confianza.

Otherwise, I’m pretty excited to live in my town. It is on the road between Esteli and Jinotega, which means that buses come by frequently. There are also several volunteers within an easy walk, bus ride, bike ride, or horseback ride. Yes, horseback. I will be living in Nicaragua’s Wild West. The department of Jinotega is serious cowboy country. I saw a lot of cowboy hats, boots, and of course, cows. My host family has two, so I’ll be drinking fresh raw milk and eating a soft cheese called coajada every day. I already learned how to make the cheese with my host grandmother.

This is my host mom

I can already tell that I will be fiending for vegetables in my site, since I didn’t eat a single one in my four days there. But I am also really impressed with the self-sufficiency of my town. People grow corn and beans, and they keep cows. Their diet primarily consists of corn tortillas, boiled beans, and milk. I get the sense that if this town were completely cut off from the outside world, that not a whole lot would change. They’ve only had electricity for the past 8 years and running water only for the past 4.

This is our living room

I’m really excited to go back and get comfortable in my new home, but I’m also really sad to be leaving Fatima. When I came back yesterday I felt like I was coming home. I had really missed my Fatima host mom’s cooking. I was so happy to have a big cabbage salad and a plate of fruit waiting for me here. I certainly won’t forget how good this family has been to me during my training.

Into it – only two weeks of training left!
Sad about it – having to leave the friends I’ve made in training

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Material Culture

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Seventy-five percent of rural people live with incomes that are considered to be poverty-level or extreme poverty-level. I’m certain my host family would be included in that statistic. There’s no denying that life here is tough and opportunities are limited. And yet, there are many aspects of living at this material standard that I really appreciate. I love the fact that our food is incredibly fresh – the other day we bought squash from the neighbor that was harvested just that same day, and this past Sunday my mom made a beef stew made from a cow that was slaughtered that morning. You don’t get much fresher that that.

We don’t use a lot of electricity, since we’re mostly in bed by 8:30. This family of eight shares one bathroom, and remarkably there’s never a line. I don’t even miss hot showers. On the contrary, every day I’m grateful that in the shower it’s actually possible to get a sunburn or have a mango fall on my head, and that I get to listen to the next door neighbor’s parrot singing and chortling to himself and calling his own name. I love that we mostly travel by foot or bicycle taxi, sometimes in moto-taxi (basically a three-wheeled motorcycle) or in a bus, rarely in a car. I love that people use the things they own until they are absolutely and completely used up. Before coming here, I had never imagined the many uses for an empty plastic coke bottle (watering can, planter, fly trap, funnel, drip irrigation system, soap dish, etc.) or a used bicycle inner tube.

It’s not that people aren’t poor - they certainly are. And it’s not that Nicaraguan society couldn’t benefit from an influx of well-spent money – a functioning emergency health care system would be a good start – but there are many ways that people’s lives could be improved that are much more about education and organization than they are about material wealth. In many communities, a well-organized co op could do much more to provide employment and better people’s lives by taking advantage of the resources that already exist in the community than could outside investment or aid. For example, with a concerted community effort a town could turn the garbage people burn in front of their houses into a saleable product, compost. Similarly, a lot of the health problems that plague rural people – diabetes, malaria, diarrhea – could be greatly improved with simple changes – eating less sugar, getting rid of standing water, washing hands more frequently. Basically, I am not at all convinced that having more stuff – be it cars, or paved roads, or fancier clothes, or whatever else – would make people’s lives better. To date, much of the stuff that has come in from outside has actually made people less healthy – chemical pesticides and fertilizers that people apply by hand since there’s no money for protective gear or machinery, packaged food loaded with sugar and fat, sweatshops that provide jobs but result in major respiratory problems for a lot of their workers, etc.

The question that I keep asking myself is this: Is there any society on earth that has resisted the trap of development? In other words, is there any place that has figured out how to better its population´s standard of living without just exchanging one broken system for another? Could Nicaragua become a more wealthy country not by providing jobs that compel people to commute in private cars and allow them to buy processed food shipped from far away, but by recognizing and taking advantage of the incredible richness that is already here? Would it be possible for Nicaragua to achieve gender-equality, to offer young people increased life choices and life chances, and to create a health care system that serves its population, without rejecting the simple abundance that people here take for granted and that is so coveted in so-called developed societies?

Sometimes I wish the people I meet could just see inside my head. I wish that instead of feeling nervous about whether I’ll like the campesino food she feeds me, my host mom could see what I’m thinking. Which is, Oh my God, food snobs in the US would kill to have this much local food on their plate at one time! I wish my host brothers could see how much more impressed I am with how they climb coconut trees and wield machetes than I am with their imitation iphones and DVD collections. Rather than apologizing for not having a car to give me a ride, I wish people could see how much I appreciate living in a town that doesn’t depend on fossil fuel transportation – another goal of high-minded US environmentalists. It’s not that I don’t think I have a lot to offer here based on the knowledge I have. It’s more that I believe the US has just as much to learn from Nicaragua as the Nicaraguans have to learn from us.

Into it - baby corn that doesn´t come from a can
Over it - mosquitoes that just don´t quit