I traveled to Nicaragua several weeks ago, visiting ten current or prospective partners among other stops and trying to gain a feel for the effects, if any, of the current economic crisis upon the rural people with whom we work. The trip yielded all of that, but also provided a perspective that was more than I anticipated.
The visits provided me with ample insights concerning rapidly deteriorating circumstances of people who are already and continually at the low end of the world’s socio-economic scale: organizations with few funders now have none; actions of certain government agencies have frightened away more than a few funding organizations, especially from Europe; slight momentums from Herculean efforts are grinding to a halt; and the hopes generated from those slight momentums are fading into psychological recesses for now, until the next initiatives of promise may find their way into the rural Nicaraguan consciousness. In all of my trips to Nicaragua I am witness to both hope as well as near-despair, but this time the exhaustion seemed to be taking an upper hand. Group after group spoke to us with the usual sense of expectation and optimism, but each was tinged with a greater-than-usual anxiety in the proposing. Their uncertainties swirled in the air as tangibly as the wood smoke from their kitchen fires.
I felt compelled to share with these expectant hosts that even the resources of a private foundation like Winds of Peace were likely to be affected this year as a result of the economic chaos which prevails worldwide. They listened to my prognosis of current economic realities with an intensity far beyond what I normally experience with U.S audiences, such is their desire to comprehend and respond to whatever realities may be on the horizon. They heard my comments with somber faces and rising uncertainty, and with something else.
Resolve. As uneasy as their growing awareness of crisis may be, there is less sense of panic or even befuddlement than many of us in the U.S. seem to be feeling. As worried as they may be, there is for many a sameness to what has developed, a familiar understanding not of the details of cause, but the reality of result. Rural Nicaragua has been afflicted so often with so many obstacles and disappointments, man-made and natural, that the current world financial crisis is seemingly just one more in a long, unbroken line of difficulties. They have become familiar with major setbacks in ways that most of us cannot. That also means they have the experiences to teach those of us who live in less-frequently tested circumstances a thing or two about resolve.
In part, resolve stems from an acceptance of reality and assumption of self-responsibility. The fact is that many rural Nicaraguans understand their realities all too clearly: marginalization, poverty, political unpredictability from within and without, and the unreliability of any government-style "bailout." Having lived with such realities all their lives, they know that only through their own efforts and very hard work can they expect to survive the onslaughts that inevitably occur. I have observed in many a faith- oftentimes related to God- that somehow there will be a sufficiency to survive, that it is not necessary or even healthy to acquire more than is needed, that borrowing money requires payback for one’s own integrity, and that sometimes there is great strength to be found in solidarity with others instead of pursuing one’s own interests. Truly, what I have experienced in NIcaragua has given me the perspective that, regardless of the outcome in this world economic crisis, it may be the experiences of people like those in rural Nicaragua which best prepare any of us for our future well-being.
In an ironic twist, it may be that those of us who have sought and attained wealth beyond the rest of the world’s imaginations have the furthest to fall in the crisis at hand, and that those who have labored against all odds and with so little return stand the best chance of knowing how to withstand economic pain and uncertainty. I recall the unattributed quotation that my mother gave to me when I was very young. It advised this:
"Travel light in life. Take only what you need. Enough to eat, enough to wear and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing."
Maybe we’ve gathered too many heavy things in our lives, not enough of the right things, too much to eat, too many clothes and just maybe not enough to drink, for we seem to be thirsting in ways that my generation never before has. Who knows, perhaps the economic woes will stop, perhaps the stimulus package will generate unexpected health, maybe we’ll all simply get back to our previous status quo. But meanwhile, my Nicaraguan acquaintances are teaching me about simplicity born of necessity, and it is a lesson that becomes clearer with each passing day….