Tag Archives: Cooperatives

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I’m preparing for another visit to Nicaragua next week, the first since last August.  I’m excited to be going again, but the length of time between visits has caused me to forget my usual routines for getting ready and the result is that I’m already feeling like I’m behind.  To further compress things, I was supposed to be headed to Minnesota earlier this week,  but a winter storm and prudence dictated that, after I shoveled out the driveway, I stay “hunkered down” for the next 24 hours.  I’ll need to re-schedule that meeting for the second time!  On top of that, we’re working on some WPF transitions, preparing for the retirement of our office manager, hiring a Nica consultant following another retirement, and interviewing several new Board candidates.  Where’s the time going to come from?

In addition to the immediate travel logistics, there are family matters, as well.  Our twin daughters’ birthday is rapidly approaching and we need to pick a date for celebrating.  Another daughter is participating in a body-building competition and we’ll absolutely be in attendance for it.  We have income taxes to complete and file, a dentist appointment is just ahead, there’s a fix to some flooring that needs to be made, we’ve got to schedule the furnace guy for a mechanical issue, and Katie’s sister is about to move from our house into her own place.  Time’s up!

One of the maxims about growing older is the reality that time seems to speed up.  For many, some of the same old routines take longer, there seem to be more things to accomplish than ever before, and the need for rest each night tends to move up ever so slightly.  The result is a feeling that things are moving faster.  There’s nothing new in any of this: it’s simply the cycle of life as it moves inexorably from start to finish, except for those to whom it is happening, of course.  There just never seems to be enough time and the window of availability just keeps getting smaller every day.

In preparing for my travels, I naturally re-orient myself to Nicaragua as I prepare to adjust from a U.S. lifestyle to a Central American one.  I think about how things will be different next week, from the language to the food to the evening accommodations, from an environment of material excess to one of a perpetual search for basic needs.  And I couldn’t help but reflect on another notable difference: the passage of time.

Our anxieties about time are a product of a society that needs to run with precision.  It doesn’t provide much allowance for delays and its tolerance for being late is thin.  A case in point is my inability to drive 160 miles to the Twin Cities for a long-planned meeting, due to ice and snow.  My luncheon partner was fully understanding and my decision was absolutely the right one to make, but all day long I suffered with guilt and a sense of letting people down.  You may attribute those feelings to an overly-sensitive psyche, but it’s the product of a culture which expects timely completion of plans, no matter what the circumstances.  Snow?  Drive through it.  12-hour days to finish a project?  Just do it, as Nike ads admonish us.

In contrast, my meetings within the rural sectors of Nicaragua next week will not have such expectations.  Sessions to be held with governing bodies of the cooperatives may or may not begin at 2:00 P.M.  as scheduled.  It may take some participants longer to arrive at a central meeting location, as they travel long distances- often by foot-  from their farms in order to attend.  Where available, transportation is unreliable.  The demand of the farm is sometimes a priority that just can’t be denied, even against the obligation to attend a meeting on behalf of the coop.  A weather event might wash away a bridge.  There are not many clocks.  And sometimes it is the North Americans who arrive late, having encountered other delays in the day or on the roads.  2:00 in Nica means, “as close to 2:00 as you can make it.”

Does casualness with regard to time irritate people in Nica the way it most certainly does in the U.S.?  Not in an apparent way.  Rural peasants evince an acceptance of the informality of time that is part of their lives; people subject to systemic indigence learn to cultivate a tolerance to all sorts of inconvenience and oppression. Of course, there are some sectors of society for whom time is a tyrant, but in the rural sectors where our work is accomplished, there is neither luxury nor tyranny of the clock.

In the countryside, matters are attended to as people are able.  The demands of small farm production and subsistence living conspire to direct peasants in their work, not according to the clock, but according to what circumstances allow.  It’s not that time is disrespected, but that it, too, must fall victim to the injustice of poverty.  Poverty is not selective of its prey.

Time.  I’m not sure whether there is greater health in the Nicaraguan’s acceptance of its limitations or in the tight expectations of it in U.S. life.  Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.  What I do know is that having the choice of one circumstance over the other is a far greater advantage than having to tolerate one which is imposed.  Nicaraguans seek a reality that provides the choice.  And it’s about time they have it….







We Never Even Know We Hold the Key

“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.”                            -The Eagles

As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months.  Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use.  The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before.  For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.

The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need.  They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there.  In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed.  The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past.  In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.

But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts.  (Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.)  The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years.  The quote reads as follows:

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind.  But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.”      -Chanakya

It’s a beautiful thought.  But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment.  For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her.  Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us.  For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology.  It’s too inherent within us to feel credible.  But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.

What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique.  It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors.  How our influences work is not preordained or fated.  It is by choice.  The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.

Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader.  Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members.  Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances.   That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life.  But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first.  Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others.  If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today.  Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.

The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment.  But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction.  When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.

I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action.  When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price.  As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.

And we never even know we hold the key….



Jacinto’s Tale

For the Nobel Peace Prize Forum last week, Winds of Peace had invited several cooperative members from Central  America to join in a panel discussion about cooperativism and its impact as a peace-building movement.  One of those invitees was Jacinto Peña Abrego from Panama, a member of Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos (Hope of the Peasants Cooperative ).  Like many of the fascinating people I have met from Central America, Jacinto had a pretty interesting story to tell.

Closing in on nearly 50 years of collaborative work for the common good, Jacinto has served as the coop’s manager on seven different occasions, and still works to teach and advise it younger members.  He is gifted with storytelling ability, his voice carrying the gravitas of experience and age, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of youth and exuberance.  Among the stories that he shared with the members of our dialogue was one about Father Hector Gallego, and the unlikely beginnings of the Esperanza Cooperative.

“One day in 1968, I was walking along and saw a stranger riding a mule. He reached out his hand to greet me: ‘I’m Santa Fe’s priest,’ he told me. ‘I don’t believe you, priests only greet rich people,’ I answered him. He said: ‘There’s always a first time…. I want to invite you to a meeting this Thursday.’ ‘I don’t have time for meetings,’ I said, lowering my head. ‘No? Those are the very people I’m looking for, people who don’t have time,’ he told me. And he left me bowled over. I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting children and that impressed me. We sat down in a circle. What I saw and heard that day, made me think differently. That day I changed forever.”

“We woke up to the injustice of the wages, the fraud that the stores pulled off with the weighing of the products and their prices. So we decided to form a cooperative. But how could we start a cooperative if we did not think we had any resources? So Fr. Hector threw out a 5 cent coin in the middle of where we were seated, and asked, ‘How many pieces of candy can we buy with that coin?’  ‘Five!’  we responded. Others present looked in their pockets for a 5 cent coin. And others as well. The priest held up 10 coins and said that we had enough for 50 pieces of candy and sent a young boy off to buy them. It was 12 noon, we were all hungry. That same boy passed out the candy to the 50 who were present. The priest asked us again, ‘what does it taste like?’  Someone shouted, ‘it tastes like heaven!’ The priest concluded, ‘that is how cooperativism is done.’  The next week a group from Pantanal bought 1 quintal of salt to sell, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents a week. That is how the hope of the peasants got started, our cooperative.”

Father Hector eventually was “disappeared,” never seen again nor his body ever recovered.  I found it interesting that Jacinto, in telling this story, never added the fact that the priest had been a guest at Jacinto’s home at the moment of the abduction.  I suspect that omitting that detail keeps the focus on the part of the story that Jacinto wishes to emphasize:  the priest was taken in the dark of night, but his lessons about humility, cooperativism and stewardship continue on as lights in each day.  In Jacinto’s thinking, the story is all about the man and his message, and not the details of a midnight atrocity.

Jacinto says that his job is to keep telling the tale and teaching the cooperative youth the profound lessons of the humble priest, that cooperatives can be life-saving structures when they are founded upon and operated for the common good.  Even as an elder of the cooperative, his appetite to represent the lessons of Father Hector pushed him to board a plane in Panama City, fly through the questionable skies of Hurricane Irma, visit the foreign land of the U.S. for the first time, navigate a language barrier and offer himself as a testimony to successful cooperativism.

I never met Father Hector Gallego.  I never even read much about him before the last several weeks.  But I feel as though I somehow know exactly what kind of a man he was….



Not Invented Here

Can I vent here?  I think management protocol says that leaders shouldn’t use venues such as blog sites or other organizational media outlets to vent their personal irritations.  I understand that.  But in this case, my personal irritation has to do with a Winds of Peace initiative, so maybe it’s OK.  I guess I’ve already begun to rant, so bear with my frustration.

As in past years, the Foundation is supporting the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to be held in Minneapolis on September 13-16.  This year will be a little different for us, as WPF is contributing not only financially to the Forum, but is also leading one of the “high-level dialogues” being offered on the first day.  The Foundation is bringing six cooperative members to the Forum from their homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.  They will join an important discussion about the role of cooperatives in helping to establish and maintain peace in post-conflict societies.  We’re excited about the topic!

In addition to the panelists, the Forum is interested in inviting other key players in the cooperative chain of commerce- buyers, fair trade certifiers, organic certifiers, retailers and funders- to join in the discussion.  The purpose is to identify where we might collectively contribute to the success of the small, rural producers and the coops to which they belong.  In too many instances, initiatives aimed at helping the small family farmers have become coopted by other objectives and a host of “middlemen” out to game the system.

To that end, we have identified key organizations which have  significant impacts, and which seek to strengthen these small farmers as a major objective.  Indeed, many are important friends of the farmers.  To make an invitation for their attendance at the Forum, WPF agreed to send out a “pre-invitation” letter to  the key players identified, as a way of introducing the idea of this collaborative effort and offering a “heads-up” for the forthcoming, more formal invitation from the Forum itself.  In most cases, we already had identified a name or two from the organization, but in some instances we had to research a bit and make an educated guess as to an appropriate individual.  (My hands are starting to quiver; I think this is where I begin to feel frustration.)

All that I seek is a name and an e-mail address.  I have nothing to sell, no political agenda to push, nothing subversive to drop in anyone’s lap.  I simply have an invitation to offer, for something that is essentially at the heart of what these organizations are professing to do: help the little guys.  But the road to contact in some of these well-known and widely-praised organizations is as impassable and impossible as some of the roads in the Nicaragua outback.

First, there is the receptionist.  The receptionist wants to know why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  I explain the somewhat lengthy story about the Forum and the invitation.  This is met with the explanation that Ms. X AND her assistant are out for the day, and that I should try again tomorrow.  (I wonder if she might have told me that in the first place.)  When I call the next day, I reach a different receptionist, and she, too, wants to know in great detail why I wish to speak with Ms. X.  After reciting the details all over again, she passes me through to the administrative assistant.

Unfortunately, the assistant is not at her desk, and I am invited to leave a voice message.  As much as I don’t wish to do this, I am reluctant to waste this opportunity to connect, for which I have now worked so long.   So I share the story once more to voicemail, and respectfully ask for a return call so that I might elaborate or answer any questions.  I leave my phone number twice, just to be sure that I can be reached.  But, as you might have guessed, there has been no call.  Eleven days later, I have had no response.

I’m frustrated.  So I turn my sights to another large, well-known entity within the development world, one that is known globally as a generous and active funder for the impoverished.  Recognizing the absolute rightness of their cause, I have cause to hope for success.  My first stop is the ubiquitous receptionist, who wishes to know if Mr. Y is expecting my call.  I can’t imagine how he could be, since we have never spoken before, so the receptionist determines that I really need to speak first with Y’s administrative assistant.  (I prayed that it not be the same one as the previous day.  Is it possible that  large development organizations share administrative assistants?  Or do they just all come from the same schools?)  When I reach this guardian of Mr. Y’s time, she, too, wants to know if full detail the nature of my desire to talk with Y.  And after my lengthy-but-alluring description of the Forum and my case for eagerly desiring her firm’s possible participation, she informs me that Y is not available.  She will be pleased to pass along my name and number.  I could hear the deflation from the balloon I had so carefully blown up.  In ten days’ time, I have received no return call, from either Y or his assistant.

I am not organizationally naive. I filled a CEO role in a manufacturing company for 16 years, so I know the demands on an executive’s time and energy.  I know the competing forces that pull on busy people each and every day.  I also know two other truths: first, courtesy is not passe´ and a return call from someone is always appropriate.  (Isn’t that one of the roles of the administrative assistant?  Or has that become too plebian these days?)  Second, important opportunities and initiatives are not always going to be the province of big organizations with large fundraising budgets and lots of administrative staff.  Sometimes, opportunity comes calling in unsuspecting ways and when we shut ourselves off from other voices, we shortchange the very populations we seek to serve.  Indeed, the behavior contributes to the relative lack of impact we have on global poverty elimination.  There is lots of money, plenty of ideas, and too little collaboration.

There.  I’m done now and my hands aren’t trembling anymore.  My experience is probably no different than ones you might have encountered.  It’s just that in the name of peace-building and helping the poorest among us, I expect something more.  Despite having been in this field for a dozen years now, I guess I’m still learning something new every day: for some groups, if it wasn’t invented here, it’s not worth knowing….



The Need to Own It

I have written here often about some of the cooperatives with whom we work and, especially, the remarkable people encountered in these organizations.  Along the way, I have shared descriptions of some of the tools that we have shared with Nica partners (like Open Book Management and Lean principles), because many rural producers have become convinced of the need for organizational strengthening.  It should be no surprise that Winds of Peace Foundation regards these tools, and others that encourage inclusiveness and participation, as key to sustainable organizational strength.  So do many Nica partners.  But thinking that something is true does not automatically prove that it’s true.  So I decided to share some data about ownership that has recently been published.

The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) has published a new study of employee-ownership in the U.S.   Now, the U.S. is not Nicaragua, and employee stock ownership is not cooperativism.  But the results cited in the report focus on enterprise ownership, owning the business and social equity of an enterprise, and that definition encompasses an entire spectrum of stakeholder models.  And this is a portion of what the study has found:

*Enterprise-owners in this dataset have 33% higher median income from wages overall. This holds true at all wage levels, ranging from a difference of $3,160 in annual wages for the lowest-paid employee-owners to an extra $5,000 for higher-wage workers.

*Median household net wealth among respondents is 92% higher for owners than for non-owners. This disparity holds true for the great majority of subgroups analyzed, including single women, parents raising young children, non-college graduates, and workers of color.

*Enterprise-owners of color in this data have 30% higher income from wages, 79% greater net household wealth, and median tenure in their current job 36% over non-employee-owners of color.

*For families with children ages 0 to 8 in their household, the ownership advantage translates into median household net worth nearly twice that of those without employee ownership, nearly one full year of increased job stability, and $10,000 more in annual wages.

The report is full of additional data which supports the organizational value of ownership; take a look at it for lots of details. But the picture being painted here is one of many colors: organizations that involve their workers as owners are more successful;  greater opportunity comes from ownership; greater participation through ownership yields greater strength and organizational growth; there is a central tendency in us as human beings to nurture and protect that which we own.

Concurrent with the publication of this groundbreaking study was the publication of Fortune Magazine’s 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For.  Of the 73 corporations recognized for their outstanding workplaces, more than half of them (35) incorporated ownership plans for their members.  It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the best companies to work for are companies owned, in whole or part, by the employees or members themselves.  (The Fortune list is traditionally weighted heavily toward technology and healthcare providers; the preponderance of ownership would presumably be even higher in a more representative sample of U.S. businesses.)

There is no mistaking the fact that Nicaraguan cooperatives are owned by their members, in at least the structural, legal sense.  But like their U.S. employee counterparts, Nicaraguan owners need the understanding of what ownership is, of what their ownership obligations and rights are, and how their success truly rises or falls based upon the members taking responsibility, collectively.  Successful ownership is not reliant upon heroes or the efforts of the few or the presence of a beneficent patron.  Success follows a basic understanding of how their cooperative works, how A+B=C, and importance of each member to the whole.

So when the third Certificate Program is convened in August, there will be modules about family strategic planning and access to markets and means of improving production and quality.  But at its core, the Program will be about ownership, seizing the opportunity for self-improvement by embracing both self and collective responsibility.  We’ll be there to help conversations about Open Books and Lean, but the days will really be about our partners’ futures, and their appetite to own it….


Working from the Outside

As a U.S. private foundation, Winds of Peace has been providing development assistance in Nicaragua for more than 30 years.  Most of that time and effort has been rendered on the “inside,” hand-in-hand with the members of the cooperatives and associations and networks with who we have partnered.

It has been very personal work.  We can describe the organizations.  We can remember where they are and the circumstances in which their people live.  We can name names.    That accompaniment is a condition of our work, being “on the ground” where there is little access, few outsider visits and sparse resources.  It’s being with partners on the inside, helping to find a small opening where opportunity might be waiting on the other side.  It’s still our model, still the way that we will continue to work in Nicaragua.  But we also have added a component to such work, this time from the “outside.”

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is an event which Winds of Peace has sponsored for many years.  The Forum exists as the only sanctioned event under the Nobel Peace Prize name outside of the award selection itself.  Annually, it has brought together past peace laureates, activists, scholars and those working in their own ways and in their own niches for peace and justice, “on the inside,” where life is actually lived.  This year’s Forum will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota during September 13-16.  It will feature many stories of peace-building and human development.  And it will include work underwritten by Winds of Peace.

In what is billed as a “high-level dialogue” session, major research and “inside” work on cooperatives will be presented by Foundation colleague Rene Mendoza.  Rene is recognized as a development innovator and engages in “participatory action research” to facilitate actions by cooperative members themselves.  Specifically, Rene will highlight the  efforts and conclusions from cooperatives in various countries.  And he’ll emphasize the importance and stabilizing impact of cooperatives in societies emerging from periods of conflict, and how their financial impacts serve as an essential ingredient for both economic and social well-being. He has also assembled a panel of six cooperative members from Central and South America to join in the conversation and share their experiences of cooperative life and meaning.  Yet, that’s not the full extent of the session.

The rest of the invited audience will be comprised of individuals from cooperative-supporting organizations, entities which have in some way positioned themselves as partners with the small cooperatives, whether in the roles of funders, marketers, associations, Fair Trade and Organic certifiers, buyers, roasters or retailers.  They are (hopefully) big names.  The presentations are designed to invite dialogue with this invited audience about where the entire process chain is working well, where it isn’t, and how collectively all actors might make it more valuable to the essential focus:  the producer and his/her family.

As a result of the discourse, the participants will be encouraged to arrive at an objective or change that might be affected during the ensuing 12 months, a plan of action which will be shared with the at-large Forum attendees.  In 2018, some of those discourse participants will then return to the Forum for a report-out on success, and whether the conclusions and actions identified in 2017 really made an impact.  It’s a very action and accountability effort, unlike many conference end results, and one that Forum organizers (and sponsors, like WPF) hope can bring real impact to cooperatives as major peace components.  It’s “outside work,” changing the focus temporarily to the ambient world surrounding places like rural Nicaragua.  Consider this blog entry as an invitation to experience at least this part of the Forum in the Fall.

Why?  Because sometimes circumstances don’t allow us to achieve our needs fully by ourselves.  There is not one among us who has reached full potential and well-being on our own.  Sometimes, we require the intervention of “outside work….”

I Met Some Women

I spent the week in Nicaragua last week, visiting partners and participating in a cooperative workshop.  It’s a process that has become familiar to me over the past dozen years, but it is never the same.  Every cooperative, every member, has a story to tell, and each is very different from the other.  Some stories are sad.  Some are uplifting.  Some are absolutely energizing in the sheer power of their message.  Such is the case of COMUSAN, the women’s communal bank cooperative in the remote village of Santa Ana.

Welcome Winds Of Peace

The route to Santa Ana and our meeting is slow and difficult, even for a 4-wheel drive vehicle; the trail is little more than a wide path.  The surroundings are breathtaking, with the mountains and  valleys contrasting  each other.  At one plateau sits a tiny pre-school house, wherein the women of COMUSAN await our arrival.

Pre-School Building

They have come from all over the territory  to attend this meeting of exposition, pride and gratitude.  The cooperative has been guided into existence through the patience and determination of the women and ANIDES, the Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development.  Two  members of ANIDES are present, but the show belongs to the women.

What is remarkable about this gathering is not just that the women have come together for a common purpose (the communal bank), but that they have done so against such enormous odds and with such striking success.  Many of the members have migrated to this region from other parts of the country, whether uprooted from past conflicts, ravages of nature or lack of economic opportunity.  Their ages cover generations.  None possess previous experience with banking, even as borrowers.   Most have little education, many with none beyond primary grades.  The men in their lives must understand that the stake in the cooperative bank belongs to the members, a sometimes difficult lesson.    And yet the financials of this fledgling communal bank are positive

Positive Financials!

and growing, as the members take small and certain steps to ensure the strengthening of their bank- and the cooperative which now envelops it- for the future.

The women are understandably shy about speaking up; they don’t have many visitors here and perhaps they are overly-modest about what they have accomplished and how they feel about it.  Asking for support is a humbling experience all by itself.  But the presence of the 27 women, many of whom have walked a great distance to attend the meeting, is a testament to both their pride and determination to make this entity succeed, for themselves and their families.

There is a determination here, a sense that the women of COMUSAN will make this initiative work, regardless of the obstacles they may face.  They are deliberate.  They seek to understand the processes of their cooperative.  Members of both the coop and ANIDES plan to attend the cooperative workshop to be held later in the week.  A visitor can feel both the inexperience and the intensity of a collaborative effort to succeed.  Indeed, one “dream” expressed during the visit is that this cooperative not only succeed unto itself, but that it might become known internationally.

Ambitious visions for a rural women’s cooperative?  Perhaps.  But then, all great success stories start with an unlikely dream….

The Women of COMUSAN






The Bashful Plant
The Bashful Plant

While visiting a Nicaraguan farm one Sunday in September, just before the start of the Certificate Program, we hiked some of the property with the owner of the land, Ernesto, along with several of our Nicaraguan colleagues.  His is a small-but-diverse operation, where he has raised beans, corn, coffee, cattle and cacao for his entire life.  Walking the plot of land, even briefly, was a great enjoyment.  I’m always amazed at what grows in sometimes-suspect soil, and how creative farmers have to be with the logistics of five crops growing on very limited acreage.  But the plant that commanded my attention was not one planted in straight rows or intended for harvest.

As we walked to the grove of cacao trees, one of the family members bent over and pointed to a tiny plant growing wild in the pasture.  The stems of the plant were no more than an inch or so in length, with delicate leaves symmetrically extending from each side of the stem.  Though the plant was not in bloom, I was told that it boasts a beautiful pinkish flower.  The stems were all over the area, like some special ground cover that I might see in a backyard where I live.  The plant is called dormilona, sometimes called the “sleeper plant” or the “bashful plant.”  For when its tiny leaves are even gently brushed, they immediately close up like the pages in a book.  It’s a fascinating response to observe, as though the plant is either ticklish to the touch or so shy as to be physically introverted.  The leaves eventually unfold again, once they are sure that the intrusion has passed.  The experience of touching the plants and observing their response is oddly addicting.  And I had it in the back of my mind at the start of the workshop.

On the following day, the Certificate Program began with each of the 40-some participants- class members, presenters, hosts and guests-  introducing themselves to the rest of the crowd.  This is an interesting and instructive process, however routine it may seem.  For within these brief statements of “who I am,” we get perhaps our first opportunity to meet each of the individuals with whom we will be sharing an entire week.  It’s a quick gauge of personality and perspective to guide the interactions to come.

It’s not unusual for members of a group like this, in any country or setting,  to be a little hesitant or even shy about speaking up; many of us are “hard-wired” to be cautious about how much we reveal of ourselves until we’re sure that the surroundings are safe.  It’s better to venture forth slowly, lest we jump into waters way over our heads and we suddenly discover that we don’t know how to swim.  And particularly with rural Nicaraguans, many of whom have not spent much time in the presence of visitors, the tendency is to be reserved and quiet.  (Unless you’re like the ubiquitous “Juan,” one of whom seems to be in every group, wisecracking and joking from the start!)

Nonetheless, we always start with these introductions, not for the completeness of what they can tell us, but for the brief glimpses of who is in the room.  On this occasion, it’s what started me thinking about the dormilona plant once again.  It seemed to me that there were many in our group who, when their turn to introduce arrived, were clearly humbled to even offer their names,  standing in withering modesty, almost turning inward upon themselves, so tangible was their bashfulness.  I thought of fragile green leaves, folding inward for protection until threats had passed.

During the ensuing week, the dangers must have dissipated, because the Program participants opened up in ways as beautiful as those little green, flowering plants which covered that Sunday hillside.  We came to recognize each member for the capacity which he or she brought to the week.   The participants were engaged and energized, and full of the ideas that could make their week successful.  Indeed, by week’s end when the certificates were awarded, each individual was recognized for his or her own particular character and contribution, and there was nothing bashful about it.  Only a sense of accomplishment and some pride.

Working alongside the Nica participants during the Certificate Program was not unlike interacting the dormilona plant.  At first touch, palpable humility showed itself as a “folding inward” for many.  But with time, the folded arms of shyness gradually reached out to embrace what was good in the environment, to soak in the essential components of well-being, whether personal of group.  It’s a universal truth, though one that we seem to forget the next time we find ourselves among strangers.

Maybe I make too much of the dormilona and my fascination with its gentle ways.  But I have found its character enormously attractive, and worth spending my time on….