Tag Archives: Poverty

The Wealth of Peasants

In one sense, it’s entirely appropriate that Winds of Peace would take on the field of education as one of its priorities, since there is so much education to be had from our interactions with the rural populations in Nicaragua.  Each and every visit  for me has revealed perspectives that I might never have known but for my visits with a wide range of Nicaraguan “teachers.”  In some cases, I think these educators know that they are teaching the gringo something new; in other cases, the teaching moment may pass with no recognition of impact or import.  In either case, I have been the beneficiary of a graduate degree worth of lessons at the feet of some incredible professors.  One such lesson emerged a couple weeks ago on the final day of a two-day workshop with rural coffee cooperative members.

The workshop process- facilitated by researchers Rene Mendoza and Edgar Fernandez- has been chronicled at this blog site in previous entries.  The workshops have sought to create new understandings and alliances among the various participants in the coffee growing and commercialization chain of a given territory.  It’s valuable technical information that is shared, but there is also ample opportunity for participants to become eloquent about the other factors which play into the success or failure of the rural producers.  They broach topics such as strategic strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  They talk about the political and cultural obstacles that impede their progress.  On this occasion, they also articulated dozens of myths- assumptions deemed true by many but false in fact- whose acceptance often stands in the way of positive change.

The list developed by the participants was long and impressive in its inclusiveness; brown butcher paper with the entries covered two full walls of the meeting room,  nearly surrounding all of us with fictions as diverse as the participants themselves.  It’s really rather amazing what we will allow ourselves to believe.    And among the 115 citations was this one which stood out to me: “God made the poor and the rich, and he made me poor.”

I stopped reading the list of myths for a while when I reached this one.  Of all the untruths and misrepresentations on the wall, this one struck me as the most egregious on many fronts: it invoked the presence of God as an entity which deliberately targeted these people to be poor; that in God’s judgment, they would never be anything except poor; their poverty was irreversible; that for whatever capricious reasons, the peasants’ poverty was simply “meant to be,” while the wealthy were ordained to live comfortably.  The implications of this one myth contained enough defeat and sorrow to keep simple, rural families in their places forever.  It implied a finality which takes away all sense of hope for the future, the one lifeline to which all people must cling if they foresee a future at all.  The hopeful news was that the participants had recognized it as the lie it was.  The sorrowful news was that there were likely to be many more in the countryside for whom this notion rang true.

I took my place around the workshop table and for two days listened to presenters and participants envisioning their futures.  The dialogue created a hopeful atmosphere, one in which participants could muse, at the very least for a while, about a better way of existence and offer reasons for their optimism.  Their ideas, plans and laughter combined to form an antidote to that sobering myth I had read earlier.   But as if to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to such  resolve, Don Edmundo, president of one of the participating cooperatives, took the floor and offered an even stronger repeal of the myth of my notice.  “We are not poor,” he offered.  “We have an abundance of many things.  We are wealthy.”

Now, I have heard many courageous things said in Nicaragua.  I have observed many courageous people who have refused to break under the yoke of extreme poverty which they have born.  There are nearly endless stories of personal bravery by rural peasants simply trying to survive a nearly endless barrage of injustices, natural disasters and man-made misfortunes.  But this was the first time I ever heard anyone from the impoverished countryside tout wealth as part of their patrimony.  Don Edmundo went on to enumerate the sources of wealth which gave merit to his claim: family, community, land, communion with the environment, and belief in the very God  implicated in the fickle injustice of the myth.  He itemized these gifts as though tallying the treasure of a counting room, weighing each talent in his words like they were ounces of gold, only more precious.

I’m not sure how his classmates felt about the pronouncement.  There were nods of assent across the room, but who knows whether the affirmations came from recognition of reality or courtesy for the speaker.  Just maybe, some recognized the same truth which I heard.  That truth had little to do with riches as we in the west have come to think of them.  It did not address the romanticized ability of the poor to regard the little they have as more than it really is.  The truth spoken in that classroom revealed that deep within each of us is both the longing and the instinct to have created something of value, to have struggled for a measure of dignity through our lives, and to have achieved some semblance of that.  That does not diminish the pain, anxiety or loneliness of the poor, but it just might render the truth less obscured for them than for those whose lives are filled with the distractions of western-style riches.

In an ironic twist, the impoverished and disenfranchised may live closer to understanding that truth than most, and therein lies a portion of the wealth of peasants….






I had the exceptionally good fortune to be traveling within Nicaragua a couple of weeks ago, visiting partners and new sites and learning all over again from them what it means to be resilient and of good spirits.  Those lessons are hallmarks of my visits over the years, and I find myself infused each time with new energies and resolve as a result.  It seems as though every conversation, every dilemma, each visit has the capacity to both drag me down and pick me up on the basis of the particular circumstances encountered.  One of those circumstances last week stood out in an immediate and compelling way, so I share it with you here.

One of the entities which we have funded over the years is NITLAPAN.  As an adjunct organization of the Central American University (UCA), they have conducted more research and exploration about  development in Nicaragua than anyone else.  It specializes in research on and creation of new local development models and methodologies.  It promotes concrete development initiatives by providing financial and non-financial services to small rural and urban businesses, especially those of women and young people. Their alter-ego, the Local Development Fund (LDF), has established branches throughout a large share of the country to service such needs and in the process has become a trusted source of support by rural Nicaraguans.  It’s an effective organization, one that’s having an impact across the country, and therefore one that we have felt good about supporting.

Recently, NITLAPAN undertook a project of technical support to a very remote community, Santa Maria de Wasaka.  Their project is one of accompaniment and teaching, providing the rural community members with basic gardening inputs and training so that the participants can create a more favorable position from which to feed themselves and their family members.  Since Winds of Peace had decided to help underwrite the costs of the project, it seemed like a logical destination during the week’s visit.

Now, when I mention that this visit took place during the tail-end of the rainy season in Nicaragua, you might imagine gentle, warm rainfall over the canopy of a tropical rain forest.  But often, the rainy season brings sudden deluge to the land.  And if the downpour occurs at the end of the season- when the land may already be saturated with previous rains- then the result can be catastrophic in scope.  Such were the conditions encountered as we drove the truck along the path to Wasaka.  A bridge over the river- questionable for automobile travel on its best days- was essentially wiped out.  The river itself rushed quickly, still swollen from a downpour several days past,  precluding any attempt at driving through it.  Walking the rest of the distance proved to be our only remaining option; we shouldered our packs and set out to hike the remaining mile and a half or so.

Buena Vista

A hike in the rural sector is often a valuable thing for me, a nice break from the hours of sitting that we do.  It provides a chance to experience the countryside up close, to linger over beautiful vistas and, all-too-often, to fully absorb the primitive conditions in which many rural residents find themselves.  It brings the circumstance of the rural countryside to life, for better or for worse, and creates a perspective that is difficult to come by in any other way.  The way to Wasaka required forty-five minutes of walking, observation and reflection.  The path wound up and down the hillsides, still wet and puddling from the recent rains, closed in on both sides with deep forest growth which provided privacy for most of the inhabitants residing there, a route beautiful and mysterious and vaguely unnerving from what lay hidden in the depths beyond its edges.

“I felt very sad this morning.”
Stirring the pot and people’s hopes.

Many of the project participants had gathered for an afternoon training session as we arrived.  They gathered around a large pot, boiling from the heat of an open fire.  Several women stirred the contents of the pot.  It reminded me of a community stew, and in a sense, that’s exactly what it was.  NITLAPAN technicians were teaching the secrets of an organic insecticide, one that could be reproduced at a fraction of the cost of chemical treatments and that would be far safer for both the gardener and the environment.  As intent as the participants were, they paused in their afternoon classroom to acknowledge and welcome us.  One after another of the members offered their salutations and explanations of the lessons being taught this day.  But they shared more than that, as well.  They reflected on the difficult events of the preceding three days.

We had entered a place of terribly mixed emotions.  Fears lingered in the aftermath of flash flooding from several days before.  Sadness shrouded the community from the loss of a small child, drowned in the fast-moving water which had engulfed much of the area.  Frustration arose from economic loss, as the sudden flooding destroyed many of the new gardens which had been the focus of their training and efforts.  Intensity was born of a need to learn faster, to improve know-how and production; it was on the face of every person we encountered.  As was hope and determination.  “I felt very sad this morning,” one woman confessed, “but then I met up with this man (the NITLAPAN technician) and he helped me feel hopeful again, he said that we could start over.”   “We thank God for the chance to learn and improve our gardens,” said another.  “My garden is completely washed away, but with the help of these men (NITLAPAN technicians) I will start again.”  “We hope this will not be your last visit here with us.  When you come again you will see something beautiful,” promised another.

Of course, we had already witnessed something beautiful there in the hills of Santa Maria de Wasaka.  Some might call it spirit.  Some might prefer the idea of resiliency, others characterize it as determination.  Whatever label is given to that community chemistry, it deserves our notice.  The people of Wasaka are not unique.  They are not some sort of idealized “noble poor,” seeking sympathy and admiration for their plight.  They are simply doing their best.  Everyman.  These are people trying their best to come to terms with circumstances that could render the strongest of us weak.  And yet they persevere, pick themselves up after a knockdown, look for the rising sun the day after a storm.  The people speaking with us were holding each other up, emotionally and attitudinally.  And in the process, they modeled for us the best that the human psyche can be: humble, loving, stewards of the earth, unwilling to give up, being strong in the face of great obstacles.   I recall wondering to myself whether anyone could say the same about me.

I  shed a tear on the drizzly walk back to the truck.  It was for me.  I was protected by the dark, hidden from the others as I contemplated myself both dragged down and picked up all in the course of a short afternoon….



By Instinct

I heard a news report the other day about a Good Samaritan who had stopped at an accident scene to help one of the victims to safety.  The story was an interesting and moving one, the kind of “everyman” story which tends to fill us with hope that, confronted with the same circumstances, maybe we could act heroically, too.  Better yet, the story had a happy outcome, as the accident victim survived in part due to the rescuer’s efforts.  When he was interviewed after the rescue, the man was asked what had motivated him to intervene and thus endanger himself in the process.  He replied that he had acted “by instinct,” and that it was something that anyone might have done.

I’ve thought about those comments quite a lot since I heard them, because I’m not sure that I understand them.  Never having faced such dire circumstances before, I can’t really say for certain what my instinctive reactions would be.  I’d like to think that they would be brave and selfless, but I can’t know that they would be.  None of us can.  It made me wonder about where such instinct comes from, and what that may say about us (or raise questions about us) as a species.

If imminent danger triggers some sort of selfless response in us, then there must be some intrinsic force within our psyches that testifies to the importance, the sanctity, of human life.  That force might come from a religious source in some, but certainly not all heroes are religious people.  So there is some other inherent belief that we hold which affirms the idea that a human life is worth the ultimate risk of our own lives, some standard of importance that drives our behaviors.  Psychologists can likely expound upon the sources for such human altruism; I’m just glad and amazed that it’s apparently somewhere deep within us.

My acceptance of altruism as a motive posed another, perhaps more difficult question: if such motives come from somewhere deep within us, why do some circumstances lead us to act and others do not?  The quick actions of the man in the news story likely saved a life.  Yet I’d be shocked to learn that he has spent his life performing such acts of rescue, or even that he had experienced one other such feat of heroism.  Since the world is filled with cultures and peoples who exist at the very precipice of their demise, it begs the question as to why  most of us are dulled to action when it might matter so deeply and to so many.  Perhaps it’s the distance between us, the fact that we are in the one instance “on the scene” and in the other case so seemingly removed from the victims’ predicament.  Next door versus Nicaragua or Bangladesh.  Yet, our assistance is available in both cases.  What is there within us that ignites us to action for the one but fails to charge the adrenaline for the other?  More perplexing, what is there in some of us which denies any feelings of empathy  or respect for life?  Our instincts would appear to be uneven, inconsistent.

Social scientists can explain all of this readily, I’m sure.  But for the everyday man or woman who confronts life in all of its mysteries and inconsistencies each day, the puzzle is a confounding one.  We are driven by motives that are often conflicting and indiscernible.  We are incredibly bold and loving, while cold and detached.  We appear to be willing to risk our very lives to rush a burning building for the sake of a child trapped there, but rather indifferent at the plight of literally millions of children trapped in the consuming flames of poverty, injustice and disease.  I wonder how it is that we are able to draw the psychological line between the necessity of the former and the optionality of the latter.  How do you?

If it’s true, as the news story rescuer suggests, that we often operate by instinct when it comes to life and death decisions, I need to know for myself which instinct I’m most likely to hear when circumstances come calling….




Banking On It

In light of the current status of banks and banking in the U.S. (wretched), I suppose the last institution with which I’d like to be affiliated is a bank.  Central banks and those deemed “too big to fail” contributed mightily to the near-collapse of the U.S. economy several years ago, and their persistent breaches of integrity place them firmly at the lowest end of the scale of trustworthiness.  It’s a bad place for banks to be, when they represent an institution that really should thrive on their customers’ trust.  (Just this week I was prompted to contact one well-known national bank to inquire about when they might be predisposed to distribute a small remainder of my parents’ estate, the bulk of which was settled months ago.  Oh yeah, they replied, we probably can release those funds now.  Hm.  Who knows how long they might have elected to hold onto the funds if I had not inquired.)

Last week, however, I had an entirely different experience with a banking operation in Nicaragua.  I visited again with The Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development (ANIDES) and its visionary leader, Gloria Elena Ordoñez Vargas.  This is an individual and an organization that understands what banking is supposed to be like, and it puts to shame most of the other organizations I know that go by the name “bank.”

Winds of Peace has funded ANIDES previously, in an effort to assist the organization with the establishment of five communal banks.  These are small, local banking offices to promote the economic and organizational autonomy of more than 200 women who live in extreme poverty in very rural locations.  Indeed, the offices more often than not are simply the homes of the local leaders.  But what these banks have been able to do, what they have represented for the women members is nothing short of remarkable.

With a very modest funding by Winds of Peace, in a little more than a year ANIDES has been able to establish a revolving credit fund for the 220+ members, establish two business groups to coordinate independent “home” businesses, provide training in the creation of a savings culture, nurture a positive capital growth in each of the small banks established, offer education and assistance to women victims of domestic violence, enhance the access to basic food needs and boost the local economies of the communities served.  This is banking in its most holistic form, integrating elements that are social, organizational, cultural, economic, human, spiritual and environmental in scope.  When was the last time your bank inquired about your social, human or spiritual needs?

What is even more remarkable about this initiative’s success is that it is being achieved with women members who have almost no previous economic experience or training.  Meeting with the women for the first time last September, I was struck by their shyness and humility, but also with their tenacity (many came from miles away on foot) and their outright success: only one of the small community banks was showing deficits by its neophyte members.  Members themselves were providing the tracking, the follow-up and the solidarity with one another to make sure that their borrowing was matched by their repayments.  In other words, the bank existed to facilitate both the needs and the strengths of its members, not to impose onerous conditions that would encourage failure.  What a novel concept for banking.  What an amazing impact on the lives of some very poor people.

The intended extension of this banking project is that the women, who now have softened some of their previous fears about borrowing money, might be encouraged to invest in the improvement of their rudimentary homes and living conditions, including the installation of ecological toilets (some of the best composting toilet are being introduced into the market, recent upgrades in the technology make it easier to consider the option). This amenity- sounding so essential to so many of us- has been considered an absolute luxury by many rural residents.  With the presence of the communal banks to accompany them, such an amenity now seems within reach, and along with it rises the self-esteem of the women who can provide it.  The existence of a small bank can allow these women to take control of their lives in ways they previously could not.

What can a bank do?  Merely channel the empowerment of its members, provide access to credit and tools for investment, facilitate education to recognize and respond to gender oppression, encourage healthy habitat conditions, grow self-esteem, foster economic autonomy and teach people how to take more control of their own lives.  In a world where the future for many banking institutions seems to include implosion, we could learn a great many lessons from these communal banks in Nicaragua.  It might even beg the question, “Who really is the more developed….?”