It’s a bit difficult to put into words all my thoughts and reflections from our trip to Nicaragua, but I’d love to share some of our experiences. To me, photos are the best way to help describe who we met, what we saw, and what we did, so these posts will be picture-heavy. Feel free to click on any photo to enlarge it. The background for our trip can be found here, but we arrived in Managua, Nicaragua (the capital) on Thursday, March 5 and once our whole group was together, we made the trek about 2.5 hours north to the Jinotega region. After turning off the paved road, we arrived in the community of about 2,000 people called Los Robles. The non-profits we were working with, HOI and Comunidad Connect, have a base for service groups to stay on the working coffee farm (Finca el Peten). We immediately got some sleep under our mosquito nets so we could start our first full day early! I actually awoke to cows mooing – can’t say that’s happened before!
The next day began with a walking tour of the organic, fair trade coffee farm by the founder of Comunidad Connect and the farm’s local manager. Since I don’t drink coffee, I have next-to-no knowledge about it and how it’s produced, but I learned so much about the struggles of coffee farming and making a living off of it. Coffee-drinkers: know how your coffee is sourced! If you’d like to buy coffee from this farm, you can order 1-pound bags online here and also read more about this sustainable coffee farm.
We also got to hear from the community outreach and education coordinator at the community’s new health center about the programs in place that allow community members to earn public health projects in their homes by completing community service projects. For example, a family can help dig ditches on the sides of the dirt road to help with drainage (when it rains, the roads flood and kids can’t walk to school/adults can go sell their goods). They could also participate in health seminars or contribute to school maintenance.
Once a family has reached a certain level of community service hours, they qualify for the opportunity to select which public health project they would like. For example, they can request a water filter (that can combat prevalent illnesses in the region), a cement floor for their home (everyone has dirt floors, which come with it all kinds of sanitation and health problems), an oven with proper ventilation out the roof (most ovens are inside the home and fill the home with smoke all day long), or a mosquito-repellent paint project for the interior of the home.
The family then works alongside other community members and/or service workers (such as ourselves) to complete the project. They are responsible for hiring the mason or cement-layer, and then the cost of supplies falls on the non-profit (or service groups). The work spread among a group of people takes so much less time than if the family were to complete the project by themselves.
These projects showed me how incredibly hard-working the community is. They are tough, resilient people who put me to shame. I so admire the strenuous work and time that these community members put in to improve their quality of life (and their neighbors’).
Los Robles is also an extremely religious community. They continuously thanked God for the opportunity to meet us, to welcome us into their community, and to share their homes with us. Though there was so much physical work to be done and many projects to accomplish in our short amount of time with them, they still requested that we provide a Vacation Bible School-like program to the kids in the community. Religion is very important to this community, and they sincerely appreciated that we shared a similar faith. I loved doing VBS with the kids (and practicing my Spanish!) because they were so, so joyful. Families in this community don’t have flooring or running water, so they certainly don’t have craft supplies. It was so fun to share Bible stories and use the crafts and games we brought to help the kids engage and learn. They loved coloring and chasing balloons! I got to help lead two sessions on back-to-back afternoons with about 60 kids between the two days. It was truly a highlight of my time in Los Robles. While there were some language barriers (my Spanish only got me so far), the cliche is true: a smile means the same thing in every language.
Being inside this community was eye-opening. In the pictures below, you can really see how under-developed this region is: A man loads wood and sticks on an oxen cart to take to a market to sell. A woman prepares rice milk for us in her home with her fire oven (this is an example of a poorly-ventilated oven – the smoke filled the room). Hand-washed laundry is hung out to dry since there is no running water and no drying machines. Kids walk everywhere (or occasionally ride a bike) and their shoes and clothes are always dirty from playing or walking on the dirt roads.
The kind of material poverty I saw in Los Robles was unlike anything I’ve seen before. Sure, I get pictures in the mail of impoverished communities, but to actually meet these people, break bread in their homes, and work alongside them was completely different. I saw glaring challenges with public health, but I also saw true community, generosity, and an unbreakable faith despite having a tough lot in life. Sometimes I wonder if I would be that way if our situations were reversed. Being in Los Robles, among this community, showed me (and challenged me) how to live a life where faith in Christ is your hope, as opposed to putting that hope in financial resources.
We rounded out our time in Los Robles with a “despedida” (a good-bye party) that some of the families wanted to throw for us in one of their homes. They invited some community members who were in a band to play music and sing, they passed out coffee and bread, and then the dancing began! We learned later that these families don’t normally do this with groups (and they certainly don’t dance!), but they wanted to thank us in a special way. It was incredibly touching to be welcome in such humble homes where the only important thing is sharing community. It was a night to remember! The next day, we got to watch a community baseball game, which was really fun. Baseball is Nicaragua’s most-loved sport, so we cheered on both teams!
Our group just as we were leaving for Granada… Part 2 is coming your way tomorrow!