My U.S. acquaintances almost always have questions about the work that Winds of Peace undertakes in Nicaragua, and especially they are curious about the people with whom we work. They are curious to know how they are like us in the U.S. They desire to know whether they are happy, what rural Nicaraguans like to do in their spare time, and what they may know about those of us who live in the North. (My answers to those specific questions tend to be along the lines of: yes, they experience happiness in some very different ways from us, they have little spare time and they know a great deal more about us than we do of them.)
During my visit in Nicaragua two weeks ago, I became re-acquainted with a woman I had met several years ago, a grassroots coffee producer and member of a very small cooperative. She attended an organizational strengthening workshop which the Foundation had underwritten and, in fact, turned out to be one of the presenters. I want to introduce you to Corina, because she is a composite story of who many Nicaraguans are.
When we first met, Corina and her cooperative had found themselves in deep economic trouble. But the cause of the difficulty stemmed from the fraudulent actions of “middlemen” who recognized an opportunity to take advantage of small producers who were too trusting, unschooled and undereducated in the responsibilities and obligations of organizational success. In that first meeting, Corina and her fellow coop members faced a likely collapse of their group; she thus faced a similar fate for her own farm. Without the middlemen to provide market savvy and price negotiation (as well as deceptive representation), Corina felt lost.
But I recall her tenacity in addition to the shyness. She had not spoken much in front of her North American visitor those years ago, but she spoke passionately and with defiance when she chose to speak at all. But I remember thinking that the odds were definitely against this small-producer coop which now faced significant debt not of their own making. Winds of Peace has made annual loans to the coop since that first meeting, and the coop has survived thus far. But providing funds each year for fertilizers and new coffee plants is neither the road away from dependence nor the key to sustainability.
Corina and her fellow coop members have worked hard. They have attended other workshops. The coop has been attentive to understanding exactly what project proposal information is required of them and what donor expectations are. They’ve been scrupulously diligent in meeting their loan obligations. While a preference for having others intervene on their behalf still surfaces at moments, a movement toward self-sufficiency is happening.
So I was both surprised and not surprised in seeing Corina before the audience two weeks ago. She towered over the audience, in a way that very few people less than five feet in height can; sometimes captivation comes from unsuspected sources. She clutched a handkerchief like a good luck token, but her voice was firm and her resolution fixed on two large papers taped to the front wall. On the pages, Corina had charted her family’s 5-Year Farm Plan.
Set aside for the moment the fact that many businesses never attempt something as progressive as a 5-year plan. Corina, with the assistance of her husband and children and workshop facilitators, had undertaken a detailed description of her business, including its dimensions, crops, limitations, opportunities, improvements, environmental impacts, successes and its future outlook. There on two sheets of butcher paper was a complete strategic plan, one which in its simplicity and breadth presented her story, both current and future.
As Corina related her story, her voice grew in size and confidence. The handkerchief became twisted with emotion and conviction. The audience, notorious for its restlessness, now sat rapt in attention, utterly astonished at both the woman and the content of her work. At one moment, suddenly self-conscious of her standing, she looked to the workshop facilitator and observed that, maybe she wasn’t making sense and that he could explain the process better. To his everlasting credit, the facilitator turned to the participants and asked, “Is she doing OK?” The audience erupted into thunderous applause, matched in emotion only by the modesty in Corina’s face. She continued, with even greater fervor than before.
By the close of her presentation, Corina had communicated details of her life which, under any other circumstance, would never have been shared. She talked of her children and their work on the farm, after school. She described the long hours of labor contributed by her husband, who hired out as a field hand elsewhere by day before returning home to tend to their own land. She talked of her own unending work among the coffee plants, and how she nonetheless was able to achieve the equivalent of her high school diploma, the first member of her family ever to do so. By the conclusion of her talk, I had a distinct feeling of under-accomplishment in my own life.
I suspect that many in the group felt the same. At the conclusion of her presentation, Corina was surrounded by many, people seeking more information, offering their appreciation for her tenacity and strength, thanking her. Several members of a coffee-buying group from North America sought to establish direct links for purchasing her coffee. She may never have experienced so many photographs taken of her. Clearly a sense of accomplishment welled up within her, and yet the demeanor of humility and reserve never wavered.
Corina’s example to her fellow small farmers resulted in many such family plans being drawn up that day and in the weeks to follow; indeed, they are still being created. She had extended herself, far from her comfort zone, in order to provide a basis for others to act. Her courage on behalf of other producers enabled a development threshold to be crossed, one that may cultivate harvests and benefits for a long time. But I recall the day in a different light. I will recall her performance and leadership as a challenge to my own way of life, to look at its content, its yields and plantings and harvests, its potential and its character with a greater sense of needing to do better….