I’ve just returned from another visit to Nicaragua, an eight-day stay that featured partner visits, prospective partner discussions, a workshop on coffee cooperatives, an update on the Indigenous people of Telpaneca and their struggle to retain land rights, and a visit with women of the communal banks of ANIDES. It was a full week, as usual, and one which provided me with many learning opportunities, and especially with the women. Let me share a lesson in embarrassment.
Our visit with the women was scheduled for my last day of the trip, the end of a long week and many miles of almost-roads. One year ago, Winds of Peace had made a small grant to ANIDES for the purpose of establishing a series of small community banks for the women who resided in the region. These are women with little or no previous financial experience of any kind, and the ANIDES experience was to provide training and opportunity for the women to establish some sort of economic foothold. Now, one year later, the women had come together from their rather distant communities to celebrate their accomplishments. In anticipation, the director of ANIDES contacted my colleague, Mark, and requested that he attend the gathering since Winds of Peace had provided the funds for the enterprise. Mark mentioned that I would be in the country at that time, and the stage was set: we would simply have to make an appearance as part of the celebration.
All week long I wondered what the expectation of us might be at this celebration, what roles we could be expected to play. As the date drew nearer, I even speculated out loud that this could be one of those settings where a lot of people wanted to say their thanks to the Foundation, with each woman wanting to express her own gratitude. Such occasions of gratitude happen from time to time and create an awkwardness that I find difficult to channel; gratitude is not one of the outcomes we seek in the work of the Foundation. With great trepidation, therefore, we snaked along the rocky path toward the site, over boulders and through fender-high streams to the very interior of the countryside, the small community of Pueblo Viejo. And all the while I winced, not at the jarring ride but at the prospect of having to accept copious thanks. I asked Mark again what he thought our presence was for, but he could offer me no relief.
As we drove up to the meeting site, I grimaced at the banner hung over a fence: “Welcome Friends from Winds of Peace- Women of Cerro El Padre, San Marcos and Pueblo Viejo.” Clearly, this was to be an event of thank-you’s and I dreaded it. It’s an attitude that comes from not being particularly gracious at receiving either gifts or gratitude. But the intention of the gathering was clear and I prepared myself for the discomfort of very poor women offering heartfelt thanks to representatives of a North American foundation. I thought to myself that we should have perhaps begged off from this stop and avoided the ungraceful moment.
We were led to the very front of where the women were seated and immediately asked to offer words of support and encouragement. That’s something which is easy to do for people who have so little and who try so hard. It’s not difficult for me to express my admiration and respect for the people with whom we work. But mostly, I stood in apprehension of what was to come. And then an interesting thing happened. As I shared my thoughts with these women, I saw faces that were attentive, focused and eager to hear what this “gringo” might have to say. And their interest embraced me.
When I had finished, Mark and I were offered an apology that more of the bank members were not present. President Daniel Ortega had scheduled an appearance in the nearby city and sent buses, trucks and any other modes of transport into the countryside to ship people into town. In most cases, this was not an invitation but a command performance, one that could hardly be refused. Nonetheless, perhaps 40 women sat before us, an impressive group. We were provided a narrative by one of the branch managers, a summary of what the banks had
established and how the women had actually been able to create significant savings accounts, despite their deep needs. Forty-one women, three distant communities, and more than $5,800 saved: an impressive feat by women who have had no previous financial education or counsel, and who live day-to-day with needs that far outnumber their resources. We were treated to a display of some of the produce they had generated by virtue of their loans, offered freshly-made tortillas and fruits, and listened to individual stories of how access to the bank had made an impact on families. The stories were related with shyness but with pride, as well, and as each woman stood to recount her tale, I could hear the confidence in each voice increasing, each emboldened by the others, stating what they had done, and yes, grateful for having the opportunity. I heard the testimonies as statements of achievement, existence, of people having made a mark by virtue of being given a chance. And rather quickly, my initial feelings of awkwardness gave way to a wave of immense embarrassment. For this meeting was not about WPF, and certainly not about me or how I might have preferred spending that Saturday morning.
Even as I work in Nicaragua with some of the poorest people on earth, as I try to understand and come to terms with the injustices that exist and how I fit into that equation, I can still feel the inclination to be more concerned about my own welfare, my own feelings, my own self, than the needs of others. I traveled to this remote outpost with thoughts of my own comfort rather than what my attendance among these women might mean to them, and it’s a realization that still leaves me shaking my head.
Selfishness is a very real and present human condition for most of us, I guess, so there is some rationalized comfort in that. (There I go again.) But it’s when we discern how to suspend such feelings and we open ourselves up to others that we gain true clarity about ourselves and each other. I readily confess that as we drove away from the celebration, the back of the truck filled with peasant women and children, I no longer preferred the idea of having begged off from the event. With great chagrin I offered a silent thanks for perhaps my best visit of the entire week, and the chance to come face-to-face with human grace….