I spent the first week of this month in Nicaragua, my first visit since April of last year and a revisit that was long overdue. Like most things in life, one cannot truly know a reality without personally experiencing it and long absences from Nicaragua quickly dull the memory of what life can be like for many who live in onerous poverty. I do not pretend that I experience the same conditions that plague daily life for the impoverished, but I know it more clearly than I ever could by simply reading or hearing about it.
As usual, I spent the week learning: understanding more about the gaps in education at all levels in country against a cultural reality which has been forced to prioritize work over learning; sitting face-to-face with grassroots producers who experience all of the same vagaries of raising crops as growers around the world, but with the additional hurdles of unscrupulous coyotes who manipulate and cheat the markets; encountering great development works by local organizations which place human dignity and voice at the top of their resource lists; participating in a territorial workshop where small producers are willing to share intimate details of their work, their obstacles, their dreams and their lives. Who could ask more from the content of a week?
My reflections of that week just past are nothing new. They include the recognition that the human struggles in Nicaragua are far more basic than the battles which most of us are compelled to fight in the U.S. Not easier, not more noble, not enviable, just more basic to the work of making a living and just living. But also, that a large part of the struggle there is the result of manmade barriers to sustainable daily life. Of course, there are the realities of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but even those have taken on a decidedly man-impacted intensity in recent years. There are inevitable gyrations to the economic markets which Nicaraguans serve- as diverse as insulated wire and coffee- but also North American market perspectives which view the entire Central American neighborhood as a second-rate trade zone. There is the rich cultural history of Nicaragua- full of achievement and natural opportunity- but one which has been largely gutted by outside interventions, by the U.S. and others, over generations and to the present.
Effective development work in Nicaragua thus requires a re-setting of the clock and of the starting line. If some of those manmade obstacles are to be corrected, as they ought, then consideration of our collective economic, political and social attitudes have to precede such changes.
It’s a shift which will not be easy. In talking with one well-intentioned North American last week, I discussed with him some of the roadblocks that compromise Nicaraguan development. I broached, gently, the notion that we in the North bear a fair amount of responsibility for economic difficulty there. His reply belied an all-too-frequent posture toward those in the developing world: “If they would just learn English,” he said, “it would be so much easier to work with them.”
Speaking the same language, indeed. That would be a circumstance which might substantially level the playing field in all kinds of ways, for Nicaraguans and North Americans alike. But the reality of a universal language is not a particularly likely answer to creating sustainable justice, whether economically, politically or socially. For many people in Nicaragua, learning comprehensive language skills in their native tongue is a stretch by itself; indeed, a third-grade education in Nicaragua hardly qualifies a child as a linguist. Learning a second language-let alone, the most difficult language to learn in the world (English)- is neither a practical nor a reasonable solution to development needs. It’s also a little condescending to expect another culture to adapt itself to our language; there is nothing wrong with their own. A leveling of the playing field requires some other forms of more mutual adaptation.
It’s easy to fall into such colonial thinking. We are surrounded by our own, comfortable ways which feel right from their familiarity. A friend of mine recently made the observation that, “In Nicaragua they just don’t work the same way that we do, do they?” (No, I thought. They work much harder.) Yet, as we know intellectually, if not emotionally, comfort does not always translate to sensibility, and certainly not to justice. In fact, oftentimes those comforts of ours translate to someone else’s burdens.
Getting out of our comfort zones is an important element of expanding one’s line of sight to such burdens. I was very glad to be back in Nicaragua last week, to see, to hear, to know….