miércoles, 28 de marzo de 2007

Why charity doesn't appeal to me (and why community capacity-building does)

Charity, philanthropy, sustainability, community development, empowerment...Sometimes a difference in words seems to be only that, a difference in words, but after living in one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere where there are organizations galore wanting to address the poverty, I can't help but think that there are important distinctions in words and actions that make a huge difference in the lives of the very people that so many people in other places want to help.

Sometimes when I talk to friends and family about Opportunity International (where I'm working now), I feel like a broken record because I feel so passionate about the organization and the work that it's doing, especially here in Nicaragua. As with any job, it's not perfect and I often feel overwhelmed or insecure, but no matter how tired I feel at the end of the day, I always leave feeling in awe of the mission and the accomplishments so far. The way the organization overall attempts to "transform the lives of people in poverty" (the mission statement) is by giving micro loans to people who want to start or enhance a business. Microfinance is well-known these days; what's not as well known is that while microfinance helps people in poverty become stable, it's not actually helping much to move the poorest-of-the-poor out of poverty.

What's cool about what Opportunity International is doing in Nicaragua is that another layer of community economic development is being added, with the idea that if communities learn to work together and develop leadership/group management skills and put in plan great ideas, communities will start to move out of poverty. The reason I got involved with the library project is that a community applied for a loan to start a library, but had no experience with libraries in general, let alone managing a system of control, volunteer librarians, or accessing books. Although I am not a librarian, I have access to research tools such as the internet and educators, and thus helped develop training materials on how to create a library, in the most simplified form possible. The library is now up and running, and other communities are interested in receiving a loan to start a library. Since Opportunity has to think about sustainability, our idea is to form a network of community-owned libraries so that they can access books for really cheap prices, network with each other and already existing libraries, be treated as professionals, attend conferences, (details to follow as I am currently trying to write the policy). The great part is, EVERYTHING is community-initiated. If no other communities apply to create a library because they have other great ideas, my job will not be as applicable and I'll turn to something else where I can be of assistance or be out of a job (which wouldn't be too bad since I leave fairly soon.)

When I first was talking to Geralyn, the director of Opportunity here in Nicaragua and a strong woman who I highly respect, she told me that when she first started talking to clients in poor communities asking what they thought their communities needed, not one person thought of their own skills and talents. Instead, she heard "we need Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, Save the Children, UNICEF, (you name the organization)" to come help us. I'm not trying to put down any of those organizations, but what was striking is how dependent-sounding these communities were. So many organizations are deficit-based: children lack education, clothes, jobs food, parents don't have resources. The solution is to then fill those needs: provide education, jobs, clothes, food, resources. What if all these organizations became asset-based and focused on the skills that these communities do have? The children may lack education, but maybe they have dedicated parents who want to create a library; people may lack professional skills but are able to do construction work, run a micro business, fill out a loan. Let people come to the table with their abilities, and then provide training to help them reach a next level. Every single person I know has skills and then also has the potential to develop their skills, regardless of whether they have a Ph.D. or did not finish elementary school. Geralyn told me the key to community development work is to "never do for someone what they can do for themselves." The thing is, though, it's hard work. Sometimes really hard work.

Phew, kudos to those of you who made it through that. Why I don't like charity is that it seems to create a dependency, an "us vs. them" mentality. Maybe it's just a difference in words, but I really don't think so.

domingo, 25 de marzo de 2007

Photos to enjoy

I don't have much to say blog-wise, but I did want to post a few more photos of the Guatemala trip, a climb on the Volcano Mombacho near Granada where I'm living now, and a few of a party I just went to. Be sure to note my favorite 90-year-old man climbing the volcano in Guatemala! I will never cease to be amazed by his endurance. I also have an album on www.kodakgallery.com that if you want to see more (read: an excessive number of) photos of various trips and adventures, let me know.

When I was younger, I had the concept that all volcanoes were pretty much the same, with the only difference being whether they were actively spewing lava or not. Well, turns out that they can be pretty different. I've done and seen quite a few now on various adventures in Central America. Sometimes they look exactly like I pictured a volcano: a mountain with smoke pouring out of the top. Sometimes there is no "top" but rather a huge crater that formed a lagoon from some big explosion a long time ago. Sometimes they are incredibly luscious with greenery, flora, fauna, animals, etc. and are more of a cloud forest, and sometimes they are barren. My favorite volcano so far has been the volcano Pacayo in Guatemala because it was the most active volcano, and probably the one that is most in accordance with my childhood image of a volcano where I actually saw red lava streaming down and red-hot lava rocks crashing from the volcano.

I've always thought that I am not a good dancer, and usually attribute my lack of dancing skills to my German/Irish/Norwegian blood ( in other words, my whiteness). Well, I'm by no means saying that I'm a fabulous dancer or that you will see me on the next up-and-coming music video, but I think I had condemned myself to not being a good dancer before, which then contributed to a tenseness that then did make me dance very stiffly. However, after having lived here in a culture where dancing is encouraged as soon as a child learns to walk (Christopher, the 2-year-old I live with, dances amazingly well for someone who still seems to have balance issues at times), and where it's incredibly easy to go out and go dancing, most frequently to salsa/cumbia/merengue/reggaeton, and where it's what people do on the weekends to relax and have fun, I've realized that it's great fun when you just learn to let go and not care what people are thinking. Plus, people are more self-absorbed that you realize, and unless you're doing something really odd (such as a 6'1" 23-year-old female dancing with a 4'5" 90-year-old male), they're not likely to be judging your dancing skills. P.S. I've met many white Europeans and Americans who dance excellently, so I'm also learning to change my stereotype. :)

domingo, 18 de marzo de 2007

A hop, skip, and a looooong bus ride to Guatemala

I love telling people that I went to Guatemala with a Nicaraguan Alcoholics Anonymous group, because (a) it's true, and (b) I am definitely not an alcoholic. Back in December, a friend I have here told me that she knows of someone who organizes a trip to Guatemala every year and that I should go along. I've heard wonderful things about Guatemala, and so I was definitely interested, but didn't think anything would come of it because I didn't even know the other family. Well, fast-forward a month or two to the end of January and I did get the chance to meet the family. Just as an example of how friendly and welcoming Central Americans can be (despite being somewhat reserved at first, as I've found with Nicaraguans), the first time I met the family, I slept over at the house (unplanned). Well, we talked more about the trip and I found out that it was a weeklong trip, including the bus ride, to Guatemala for $45 round trip, meals included. I was definitely in.

Looking back at the whirlwind of a trip to Guatemala with 50 Nicaraguans and me, the 6'1" gringa, I can't imagine a more surreal experience. I knew that we would be going by bus to Guatemala (about 15 hours away), but I was still a little surprised when a yellow school bus (fondly known as "chicken buses" by foreigners, for the chance chicken encounter) pulled up. I was directed to my seat, where once again a surprise awaited me in that I would be sharing a seat with 2 other people. Thankfully, this did not end up being the case as there was a seat with a 13 year old girl available further down the row. The bus ride itself, even with confusing the border patrol by being the only gringa in a sea of Nicaraguans, was uneventful. Well, sort of. After we had crossed the border into El Salvador at 1:30am or so, I was ready to try to at least get some rest, if not sleep. About 10 minutes after I close my eyes, scrunch down in the seat, and sprawl my legs into the aisle (they did not actually fit into the seat), the bus driver turns on Palo de Mayo music. This music is not calming in any sense. The music comes from the Atlantic Coast and is the music at clubs that people dance to by vibrating their entire body, one of the many moves that I have not yet mastered. The bus driver played this one CD over and over and over for about 2 hours and was not drowned out by earplugs or other music sadly. Needless to say, I did not get much sleep.

One day was spent in San Salvador, a big city with bustling markets and the hugest mall I have seen since coming to Central America (not comparing to the Mall of America, of course, which I know from last year, but in my opinion was nicer because it was open to the air and wound in and out). Another day was spent in Antigua, which is a colonial city similar to Granada, where I'm living in Nicaragua, but cleaner and more built-up and with more tourists. And the best bakery that I have had since coming to Central America! Good bread is incredibly hard to come by, and good whole-wheat bread, impossible. Another day we bopped around the city of Guatemala in the various markets, which are bustling and overwhelming and where you find women dressed in traditional clothing and babies strapped to their backs by a gorgeous piece of cloth. The final day, we hiked the most active volcano I've ever been on in my life.

It's funny because when people ask about my week-long trip to Guatemala, they naturally want to know what I did. While I know that it was a full week, it wasn't a tourist trip in the typical sense. I saw some sights, but I didn't see all the sights I would have planned for myself had it been a personal trip, or even a trip with other gringos. And for that reason, I absolutely love what the trip was. In the future, I'd love to come back to Central America, and Guatemala in particular, for a travel vacation because these countries are absolutely beautiful. At that time, I'll hike all over to see the ruins and the different volcanoes and the small country towns. What struck me most about this trip was the incredible generosity of everyone I met. We stayed with families in Guatemala City, that not only provided food and beds, but kindness and open arms and conversation.

There is so much more to say, but for now, I'll leave you with three of my favorite moments on the trip. (1) The AA group had a goodbye party at the home I happened to be staying, where I shed all my fears of not being able to dance by just letting go and having fun. The great thing about being a girl with salsa/cumbia/merengue style of dances is that as long as you get the basic step and hip-swinging motion down, you don't have to do much more (sorry, guys). One of the members of the AA group was this tiny, shrunken, 80-90 year old man who always wore a black sombrero. I had seen him dancing earlier in the night, but a little later, he still looked eager to dance and yet wasn't dancing with anyone. So I decided to ask him to dance, much to the hilariousness of everyone there (this man comes up to a little lower than my chest). Let me tell you, this man did NOT tire--he danced until about 12:30am, and the only reason he stopped was because I did and the party was winding down. Anyone who's ever feeling "old," whether you are 25, 40, or 80, take an example from this man. Amazing. (2) Unsurprisingly, this moment also involves this tiny old man, easily one of my favorite people. We climbed volcano Pacaya, which is the most active volcano I've ever been on. After climbing a seemingly normal moutain hike with trails and greenery, you reach a path of black lava rock, which someone told me was from an eruption in November (!). When you climb some more, everything that you're walking on is black lava rock. And when you climb even more, there is whitish black lava rock that water sizzles on because it's so hot. I actually burned my finger slightly on a rock that I thought was cool, but turned out not to be. At that point, I looked up and saw red lava falling and rocks crashing (still a great distance away). The tiny old man climbed practically all the way up, almost as far as you could go, and this was not a super-easy hike. Anytime I felt tired and out-of-breath, I just had to look at him steadily plugging along beside me, slightly ahead of me, or (rarely) slightly behind me. (3) During one of the AA sessions one night, one of the twenty-something sons of a Guatemalan AA member, took a few of us who were around the same age and also not part of AA, took an area of Guatemala City which I absolutely loved, and wished I had something similar in Granada, or knew of the area in Managua. There was a 3-block radius which the community had gotten together to build of all funky bars and restaurants, with a market in the middle. We went to a bar with lime-green couches, low red lighting, and street artists (paint street art, crystal blowing) to have juice smoothies and watch the people passing by. The perfect night.

More pictures to come later.