I passed another of those milestones not long ago, euphemistically called employment anniversaries when they are little more than giant ticks of the clock. For six years now I have had the privilege to represent Winds of Peace Foundation and talk with whoever might listen about the circumstances and causes-and-effects contributing to Nicaragua’s standing as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It’s fantastic work, made especially so by the people I have encountered there, but also due to the continued presence of Founder/Patron Harold Nielsen, my colleague in Nicaragua Mark Lester, and the unwavering support of office administrator Bobbie Jones. They have all made me feel as though I belong in this role, and from that posture I have become ever-more confident in representing the work that the Foundation has undertaken.
Part of that representation has taken the form of essays, or blogs, which I have placed here. These musings have been a valuable asset for me to help sort out a multitude of mixed feelings that have occurred to me over these years. Working between two very distinct cultures and world views, I have often encountered contradictory feelings on a wide range of issues, both political and social in nature. Writing about such issues has helped me to process those feelings, as well as provide a forum for sharing them with people who have an interest in what Winds of Peace is doing. I have logged over 100 of these meanderings here; for that I beg your pardon and indulgence.
So it was not unusual this week that I completed writing a piece in follow-up to the November general election in Nicaragua, one in which President Daniel Ortega was re-elected for another five years, to no one’s surprise. A number of elements surrounding the election felt eerily similar to what I am experiencing here in the U.S. as our own election season gathers steam. Consequently, I wrote about those similarities as I saw them and drew parallels between the two processes. It was tough writing for me, and I never got into the flow of the essay in the way that I often do when composing. When a chance conversation with Mark touched on the aftermath of the Nicaraguan election, I asked him whether he might review my essay and give me his thoughts, which he did. (It’s not something I ask of Mark; the words are meant to be mine and, besides, Mark doesn’t need the extra work.) His comments were excellent and presented from the perspective of a Nicaraguan, which he is. As a result, I chose not to post the article, not because Mark “didn’t like it” or thought it was somehow inappropriate, but because reading it as a Nicaraguan was different than writing it as a North American. For anyone intent on truly contributing to positive change in Nicaragua, that’s an Achilles heel.
I’ve spent a good deal of time and energy getting to know something about our neighbors to the south. I’ve traveled there three or four times every year, I read periodicals written by Nicaraguan leaders and academics, I’ve come to know many of the issues facing our three primary partner groups: women, Indigenous people and the rural poor. We have funded nearly two-hundred projects during my six years. I even study Spanish (with some futility) so that I might understand more directly the difficulties being expressed by these tenacious and persevering people in their struggle for simply sustainable living. Mark performs a yeoman’s duty to keep me informed of issues affecting Nicaraguan life. I read books about the history and legacy of past years. I do this because I am interested, because Winds of Peace does desire to make a positive impact in the lives of Nicaraguans. But no matter the number of years nor the length of trips, I will never be Nicaraguan.
I cannot quickly absorb the lingering pains of a war which tore the country apart for so long. I cannot re-live the seemingly endless natural disasters which have claimed so many lives and livelihoods. I have not been trapped within a geography which has lent itself to invasion, occupation, exploitation and marginalization. I have not known, truly lived, in poverty. Likewise, I cannot feel the sense of familial antiquity, the honor of native generations spent in stewardship of ancestral lands or the pride of being Nicaraguan. I can know these things, but I cannot live them.
As a result, I come dangerously close to presumption when trying to write with intimacy about political cause and effect, or religious motivation or social condition. And I cross over the borderline if being prescriptive about how to create change. My making judgments about the Nicaraguan election is an arrogance, because what I see and what I feel is filtered through my own life experiences, not that of a Nicaraguan. In the end, comparisons I might feel inclined to make are valid only for me and my very personal perspective. I have not earned the honor and the right to speak for Nicaraguans; I can only offer my narrow opinion. Nicaraguans are owed that respect. And that’s why there is no election blog here this week, or ever.
As I reflect on these words, I am struck by another truth by extension. Ultimately, speaking on behalf of ourselves is the best and most that any of us can do, because we do not truly walk in any other man’s or woman’s shoes, only our own. We can articulate what we believe and why we believe it, we can model that belief and even proclaim why we might feel that someone else might be strengthened by it, but not why they must believe it. There’s a big difference between those two approaches. It’s one that I wish was more widely-recognized throughout our country as we seemingly become less tolerant day by day.
It’s one more belief I’ve learned from Nicaragua, and one which those of us who purport to offer assistance and leadership in any endeavor would do well to remember….