While in Nicaragua last month, we made our way to visit a number of partners and prospects for funding, as usual. A week’s worth of visits that includes sixteen visits within five departments of the country can make for a tiring itinerary, but there is always a boost of energy that comes from the people themselves. Corporate CEO’s may receive perks from their jobs like access to private jets or luxurious vacation getaways under the guise of “business meetings.” But MY perk is found in the faces and voices of rural Nicaraguans, peasants mostly, who are as basic as the earth they work on. And every once in a while I meet one such person who can absolutely light up a room, his/her peers, and my own soul. That’s what I experienced a few days ago.
Our final day found us in the northern department of Madriz, in the town of Somoto. We made an early departure in order to take the long, slow drive to Venecia, a tiny wide-spot-in-the-road where the women of COMUNEC cooperative would be meeting. The road is barely a road; four-wheel drive low is a blessing and a need, and we may have averaged 5-10 miles per hour for the hour to get there. The region is as scenic as any spot on earth but for the occasional reminders along the way of how many of the rural poor must live, in marginal dwellings that barely qualify as sheds. The way up the mountain is stunning: stunning in both its exquisite nature and its intense poverty.
The meeting to which we have been invited is essentially a one-year celebration of the formation of this group and Winds of Peace support of it. The women arrive on foot, many having come from long distances. One young woman has hiked for three hours down the mountain to where we have gathered. Her neighbor has traveled even further, although with the luxury of a horse. We meet inside the house of one of the members, a smiling, ebullient woman who is as fussy about her guests as any socialite ever was, even within the sparse darkness of her dwelling. But the energy level is high; the chattering and laughter fills the room. Shyly, every woman in the room offers a hand of welcome.
This scenario is not uncommon among the visits we make during my time in Nicaragua. Certainly, groups are always eager to thank those who have provided resources of any kind. And Nicaraguans in general have always shown themselves to be gracious and friendly in whatever the setting. So the start of our visit with the women of COMUNEC was not singular by any means. What it evolved to was something else.
The women began telling their stories of the past year, of how they sought to create an economic initiative of their own, of how their husbands were invited to deed one manzana (1.68 acres) of land to their wives, of how 34 actually did so, of how that transfer created access to funding for the cultivation and care of the land, and how the harvest was now fulfilling dreams. These are moving stories of individuals who likely have never belonged to any organized group in their lives, who have lived lives of exclusion under the authority of their husbands, and who yearn for their own voices and standing in precisely the same way that women from western societies do. And maybe for the first time in their lives, they are beginning to feel the empowerment of such achievements.
The stories are told quietly but with confidence, until one young woman stood to share her experience; it was the woman who had hiked for hours. And her recitation immediately elevated both the impact of the meeting as well as the self-assurances of everyone else in the room.
Her name is Gladis del Socorro Herrera. She articulated what was held in the hearts of the others in the room and injected an energy and passion that was tangible. “To say that I have my own plot of land, that’s a beautiful thing. It is the first thing I have ever owned that is truly mine. I can hardly believe that I was out there on this piece of land that was mine! ” The excitement in her voice was tempered only by the slight quiver of emotion as she spoke it. I had been attentive to the others prior to this, but Gladis spoke with a fervor that grabbed me entirely.
“This chance makes us owners of something, something that belongs to us, and an experience that we can share with one another, these sisters. Sharing our excitement, our experiences, our training and our learning, is wonderful! To have had our heads filled with knowledge, we are brand new people!” I would never presume to say that I know what Gladis was really feeling, but I do know that her words sent chills up my spine and drew a tear from my eye, such was the power of her testimony. Her unfiltered, uncensored joy over this simple plot of land- its importance in her life, and how it had even strengthened the relationship with her husband as they compared notes and counseled with one another about the harvest- spoke eloquently about its impact. Her enthusiasm prompted others to speak with emotion, as well.
“I had never taken a loan before. I was always frightened about such things. But the trainings have removed my fears; I’m past that. I understand how the loan works and it has changed me.” These small loans from the coop were transformative in small but very personal ways. I noted especially the reactions of several women in the room who had not yet joined the cooperative and who were as riveted by the stories as I was. I thought that I perceived looks of hopefulness, if such can be identified.
The elements of life which give us hope, which satisfy our longings and fill us with happiness are likely far different from what we in “developed” countries identify as gratifying; I often find myself asking the question of who is really the more developed? For one small group of Nicaraguan women, joy has come not from riches or technologies or accumulation of things, but from a plot of earth that they have as their own and the pleasures of sharing such a rare experience with others.
“If you’ve come to take something away from this visit, take our happiness in being able to work together; that is our wealth.” I did come away with a clear sense of their happiness, and it’s a lesson that perhaps we would all do well to understand….