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….