In February I joined a group of 13 other Wilfrid Laurier University Alumni for a one week volunteer trip to Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua; one of the poorest places in the Americas. I had two objectives in going:
1) To learn first hand about a country that has been a mystery to me for several years
2) To spend some quality time with a small group of complete strangers who, by their choice to participate, may share some of my evolving views on social responsibility.
Our group was coordinated by SOS (http://www.studentsofferingsupport.ca), a Canadian based charity with the tag line "raising marks, raising funds, raising roofs". They teamed with a locally based NGO, Seeds of Learning (http://www.seedsoflearning.org) on this project. The goal is to build a community in Pedro Arauz; an area resettled only recently after years of turmoil that followed the civil war in the late 1980's. In 2009 Seeds of Learning coordinated the building of a simple one room building so the local children could attend school. That primary school has become an anchor of a new community. Our task was to start the construction of a community center, building on the remains of an abandoned sugar refinery. The hope is that the building will host agriculture education, simple computer skills training, and act as safe shelter in the event of extreme weather or natural disaster .
The week was an amazing experience for me. I was tempted to post immediately upon my return but I thought it better to reflect for a little while, back in my "real world" to see what stayed with me. So six weeks after returning, here are six things I have learned:
1) Being poor does not equate to being unhappy, unhealthy or uneducated. Not since spending time in Egypt and India had I seen such happy faces and good natured children. The children of Pedro Arauz are bright, enthusiastic, and polite. They are well dressed in simple, clean clothing and they demonstrate long attention spans and keen interest. The teachers in our group were amazed.
2) Be Prepared. Growing up as a boy scout I was encouraged to "be prepared". Throughout the week those preparations came in handy in terms of dealing with mosquito's, first aid, and small thank you gifts. However, the number one regret shared by the members of our group is that we were not well enough prepared to speak basic Spanish. The most important preparation I should have done was to commit more time to my Spanish lessons. Doing so would have helped significantly to connect with local people in a more meaningful way.
3) We are sometimes too quick to judge other cultures by our beliefs, not their needs. On day three, two of us interviewed the teacher to gather data for SOS research. We were a little shocked to hear that most students in the region do not continue school beyond grade five and that the number one reason to leave school at age 12 or 13 is to marry. As parents of 13-year-olds ourselves we were dismayed. However, over the next few days we experienced wonderful moments with extended families sharing childcare activities. We visited the high school that operates only on Saturdays to accommodate students who work their farms and raise their children through the week. And we came to realize that the community center we were building, will soon provide vocational training and support to the same children with whom we played soccer in the school yard. Perhaps their systems serve there basic needs. For those who aspire to university, tuition is close to free, but living costs remain a barrier to many in this region. As a group of Laurier alumni, we'll continue to work on that one.
4) Small investments can mean the difference between subsistence and abundance. In Pedro Arauz a great deal of one's day is spent pumping water by hand and transporting it from the well to where it is needed. Two families we met have taken the unusual step of automating the drawing of water; one with a simple windmill and the other with a basic pump rigged to a small diesel generator. The impact on those two families is incredible. Being the dry season most farms were dusty plots inhabited by a few dehydrated cattle; many of which will die in the heat. However, these two families enjoyed a green oasis of fruits, vegetables, and banana trees, under which we found healthy, well hydrated cattle. When we asked one of the farmers what he does with his excess food, he told us he sells it at the market and adds the cash to his savings. His plan is to buy another five acre farm and and another generator. I suspect that it will only happen if his neighbor cannot fund the purchase of a generator or the construction of a windmill. Either would be a relatively small investments in our world with almost immediate return on the investment. I'm looking for volunteers if you're interested in helping.
5) Watching Olympic hockey is better on a ten inch black and white TV in Nicaragua than at Real Sports Bar on the massive screen. Just like in a beer commercial, we gathered around a tiny TV with poor reception to watch the Canadian men beat the US team to advance to the gold medal game. There is a saying that there is no-one more patriotic than a Canadian outside Canada. Huddled by the TV, cold beer in hand, we strained to make out which team was which, but you would have never known that by the hooting and hollering that went on. Go Canada!
6) Don't wear sunglasses while playing soccer in Nicaragua. Our soccer game ended when I bumped heads with an agile ten-year-old as we both went for a header. While I am sorry I spoiled the game I am happy to say the medical treatment I received from my colleagues was world class and that the scar over my eye will forever bring great memories of my first adventure in Nicaragua.
To close: on the flight home I came across this quote by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom: "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." Six weeks later, I get it.