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


Cathy said...

You never fail to impress me with the depth of your thoughts. Are you able to articulate (in Spanish) what's in your head (in English) in a way your hosts can understand? When you're living on your own, perhaps your example will provide the message you wish to convey.

I sincerely hope you find a way to deal with health and sanitation issues.

Mel said...

Amen, Laurie! I am so happy that you're doing what you're doing. Keep your chin up!

~live n let live~ said...

Hi there! =)
I just had to leave you a comment to let you know that your blogs are my absolute favorite. I just got invited to be a part of Nica 54 =D so I started looking for blogs from PC volunteers in Nicaragua. I saw the one you recently posted entitled "One Year In" and was instantly hooked.
Thank you so much for your honesty and insight (and refreshing writing style.) You've completely confirmed that PC is for me and I can't wait to experience the beauty and realness you're immersed in. Getting to read your blogs is really helping me to feel ready for this life changing adventure, so thank you!!
(I love the likes/dislikes at the end of each too lol.)

Laurie Pickard said...

Cool! I'll see you when you get here. Felicidades!