Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Moving on a bit early, no regrets

I have decided to head for home early.  I loved my experience overall and I tried my best.
My Resignation Letter:

November 16, 2010


Dear Superiors,


            After extended deliberation, I have decided to resign from my position as an agriculture volunteer in Peace Corps Nicaragua. I will be returning to the United States to prepare myself for the next major step in my career. I am applying for a doctoral program in Public Policy which should begin in August of 2011.

            I do not regret the experience I have had in Nicaragua and I will carry what I have learned with me throughout life. Overall, I feel that I had a beneficial experience and I did what I could for the benefit of my host community. However, my current low workload and plateau in personal growth have led me to believe that staying in Nicaragua is no longer the most responsible choice. In brief, I made the decision to resign because the disadvantages have started to outweigh the utility of my presence in the community. Most days my only tasks involve socializing, while I aspire to be involved in technical assistance and education. I have observed that my services are not in high demand within my village. My community demonstrates a dependency on receiving gifts and I feel that local organizations may be more effective communicators in the local culture. Furthermore, I feel that I cannot continue working completely alone, without a reliable counterpart organization.

            My work reports should be reflective of the tremendous effort I have put forth throughout my first year of service. I stand firmly behind the development ideals of the U.S. Peace Corps, yet I feel that I have exhausted my remaining motivation. I will leave with great respect for the Peace Corps and lots of friendship in my community in Jinotega.




Michele Aquino

AG 50, Jiguina, Jinotega

Coffee harvest

The picking has already started up here in Jinotega.  This morning I passed a coffee drying plant on the road to Managua (un beneficio seco).  There was a large crowd frantically pushing against the plant's front gate.  Hands were waving with emotion for a chance to work.  The scene made me think of photos and movies that depict the depression era in the United States.  The bosses would pick the workers needed for that day...perhaps at random.  Well, this economic reality is here today in Nicaragua.  The coffee harvest provides lots of work, but it seems, without looking up the numbers, that unemployment is still a huge problem.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Little Library

As suerte would have it, my digital camera's memory chip seems to have a virus...oh the joy of always using poorly maintained public computers!  So this brief post will not include the adorable photos of rural Nicaraguan kids reading.  Yes, although most of these youngsters like the pictures more than the words, I have a growing number of students that are being exposed to books!

After over a year of living in my community, I am surprised to say that a small (38 books and counting...) community library based out of a small cloth bag is my most fulfilling and successful (by my count) project.  Largely because of a little cartoon monkey named Curious Jorge, the little ones walk out to the farm where I am living to borrow books.  I thought that the books would quickly disappear and I would have to go house to house awkwardly taking back the family's new-found treasure.  To my delight, debunking my pessimism, I have been lending the books for over two months without losing ANY.

The details:

1. Each child is supposed to get a library card with their name and the title of socio, or member.  This has proven unnecessary and more of a hassle because most of the kids are so young, but it was attempted at least.
2. One 11 year old girl helps me control the notebook, in which we record all the members and which books get checked out on any given day.
3. Each book has a number written inside the front cover, which we use to record who has what.
4. The kids are given a due date one week from the day they borrow and they are only allowed to borrow one book at a time.
5. The kids are supposed to pay 1 peso (5 cents in U$) to borrow the book...but collecting this has been a challenge.
6. The kids are encouraged to care for each book so that they can continue borrowing and sharing the books with others...

The idea of charging to borrow the book was:
-to eliminate irresponsible members
-to encourage saving and choosing wisely how to spend money
-to build ownership of the books; the students would themselves be financing the purchase of each new book

I have found that parents are telling the kids they cannot participate for the cost of borrowing, so I am very forgiving about this fee.  I am the one financing these books at this point anyhow...
Behavior change is slow, so one must understand that.  Parents may not see the value of their children reading, but the smiles I see expresses the value right away.  The children cannot practice reading if they do not have access to books!  And for an economic comparison, the fee of 1 peso (1 Nica cordoba), is the same cost of a popsicle sold at the local junk food shop...and the kid's seem to suck on at least one popsicle per day.

I have also found that the group that has formed is a healthy, positive outlet from the not-so-dynamic daily life of these children.  They can come read, we have made popcorn, we have colored, played frisbee, and tomorrow they will get a chance to try some Pop Rocks that I brought from the States.  Attracted to visit for the books, the kids are eager to participate in other games and learning activities as well.  One book is world atlas that the kids (and adults) get to read to learn where Nicaragua is in the world.  Que bueno!

I have written a short, bilingual children's book about the coffee process, which contrasts the experience of being around coffee in Central American and the States.  I am currently thinking about having the local kids try to illustrate it.  If it would be a possibility to publish this book, I would like to distribute it for free to schools around Nicaragua.

Va pues,

Jinotega, Nicaragua

*Special thanks to my parents and my Tía Diana for her generous contribution to the library.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Post U.S. visit reality check

Visting the U.S. was great.  My home country is a foodie paradise.  But, after spending an extended period of time outside the country, there are some changes that I notice...
1. Everyone is on a smart phone
2. Facebook is advertising on even had a logo on my box of cheerios
3. There is a Survivor reality show based in Nicaragua...hah

I heard a This American Life episode about Frenemies and I thought of my experience in Nicaragua.  They pointed out the fact that many reality TV shows include, sometime along the way, the line: 'I'm not here to make friends...'  This pop culture observation really made me laugh.  I thought: Peace Corps is certainly more like reality than Survivor and I would hate to say 'I'm not here to make friends!' in my village.  The sad part is, I am sometimes tempted to say just that.

One of my top goals IS to make friends, to integrate into the community and foster cultural exchange.  I certainly have made many friends.  Like friends and family, sometimes the people in my community bother me, sometimes they are wonderful.  Often though, in this job I feel I am almost obligated to force development or force ideas of change.  This is the wrong way to do development, but it often seems like the right thing to do.  It seems like the people do not know how to help themselves...but, I am of course judging, based on my reality, that they need and want help and change.  I might be tempted to say I AM HERE TO WORK, NOT TO MAKE FRIENDS!--because I want to measure success by my North American standards.  I want some tangible progress; if not, should I not be home supporting my family Stateside?

The temptation to be paternalistic and lead development efforts in my own way is a reality with moral dilemmas.  It seems this temptation to act is the demise of many development schemes, both past and present.  But, I understand why it happens...To actually build capacity, sustainable projects, increase quality of life, and not be a colonialist, one really must search patiently for appropriate interventions.

Back to life in the campo...

I have returned from vacationing in the States to the beautiful weather of almost-summer in Jinotega.  Windy, sunny, cool, and much less rain than we saw in September.

My return with seven new Curious George (Jorge el Curioso) books was well received by the niños.  They all want me to give them a book...I am still trying to sell the idea that if they participate in the small library, they can read a different book each week instead of only owning one.  I suppose it is natural for us to want, especially those of us in the world who have less, but I also see this want as part of the culture in the community that prevents progress.  I observe that most people do not like the idea of working together toward a goal.  One local micro-finance project in my town seems marginally successful at the moment; from my perspective the success is largely due to the fact that the participants are working alone.  I view group projects as less popular.  Really, there are pros and cons to both situations and if a project forces people to work together against their preference, that project probably should not be here in the first place; the prospect of sustainability is low.

Coffee is starting to ripen, the processing plants along the road outside of Sebaco are already in action and my host family has a couple of workers pícking berries today as well.  Farmers in my town are selling the last of their ayote (large zuchini like squash), we are tapiscando maíz (picking the dried cobs from the stalks), and at the end of November we will plant beans.  Corn and beans are the staple foods here; most of this harvest is kept for consumption throughout the year.  As I picked corn cobs yesterday with two other men, working in silence under the quickly passing clouds, my arms itched and turned red from the small fibers on the corn plants.  I thought:  most people in my country cannot imagine having to grow the food that is necessary to get through the year...

Aside from community banking, I feel I am largely unemployed.  This worries me and makes me wonder if I would be better off earning money back in the U.S.  At the same time, the hope for progress in some future community projects keeps my curiosity alive.  Also, as I evaluate my situation, I find some happiness in knowing that have I acted as a facilitator for two recent successes, even though my role was minimal: the local school was able to plant strawberries (thanks to my Peace Corps neighbors Simon and Kara) and it appears my town will get a new volunteer soon to teach English.  English assistance seems to be in higher demand than agriculture related help.

This morning I left the house with my host mother, Doña Chepa, rambling on about how she felt shameful that she would let me leave the house without eating breakfast.  Truth be told, I could not think about eating the beans and tortillas at 5:45 this morning.  When I went to the call center to phone home nobody answered.  I sat in the booth and overheard another gringo talking to his wife.  He was just here to visit and I smiled as I compared our experience.  He was describing how wonderful it was here--the natural beauty, the tropical fruits, the dark nights that reveal all the stars.  I too saw the stars last night, and smiled when the cow said good morning at my doorstep.  But, after more than a year here I can also say that Nicaragua has worn me down and I sound less positive than the tourist when I talk to my family...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The rural purrer

My cat, Chilote (the word for baby corn), is my newest companion in the Peace Corps experience.  She sometimes hangs out and naps above me, hanging in my mosquito net as if it were a hammock.
I missed her in October, I hope she is okay.

An update, long overdue

A farm hand with a bachelor's degree:
Between family visits, limited time to type, drafting a grant proposal, and the general malaise of my Nicaraguan lifestyle, I have not updated my blog.  Yet, given an honest assessment, I do not feel that I have much progress to report.
Relevant happenings in the life and times of this mountain gringo:
My wife to be and my cousin came to visit--we had lots of cultural 'intercambio'.  I sprained my ankle and had some night fevers (my doctor confirmed that it was nothing serious).  I also had to move to a new house, which includes a new host family experience.  I'm part of the family now and I am grateful for the new interaction.
I turned in a USAID grant proposal draft for a community grain mill project.  I started a small, hopefully sustainable library out of a used grain sack; we have 30+ books now and so far there is good participation.  I am trying my best to teach English in a small group night class.  The community has a lot of interest in English...until they realize that it takes work and patience...
We've been successful in the application and promotion of an organic/natural pest control method for the coffee.  We observed results for this safe alternative to chemicals and the local producers had a meeting to learn about the technology, a natural fungus that kills coffee boring beetles ("la broca").
I've been reading and cuddling my cat, "Chilote" on the rainy days...Lago Apanas is filling up and too much rain has hurt some of the grain harvest (corn!).  I'm still experimenting with cheese and fermentation in my spare time...
Lastly in September, I would say that I learned a bit more about being a man.  Manhood is not measured by amount of chest hair in Nicaragua, but rather by your skill at balancing multiple cabezas of bananas on your back while hauling them out of the muddy tropical forest.
All I can say is that I am trying my best.  Cultural differences tend to wear me down.  I miss things about the lifestyle and the relationships I had in the States.  I often feel under-utilized here...just like the locals are under-employed.
In October I was able to visit the U.S. for three weeks.  I enjoyed the time to evaluate my situation, buy some North American gifts, and starting planning for graduate studies after the Peace Corps.
I will never let go of my experiences living here.  I love my host family almost like real family--annoyances included and I am still in awe of the cloudy mountains that I see from my doorstep.  Oh, I may did not mention that my doorstep is now a wood ramp that enters a coffee mill (beneficio humedo).  My new home is a cozy, elevated tool shed that I have converted into an apartment.