Resiliency in communities. Here’s one thought.

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I’ve been thinking about resiliency a lot lately. It seems that as far as buzz words go we have moved from ”sustainable” to ”resilient”. We haven’t acted in sustainable ways for long enough that we now how to be good at bouncing back and adapting and being nimble on our feet. Times are uncertain. The climate is uncertain. What do we know for sure and what can we rely on to be true and consistent? How can we slow down and be more careful and caring about how we live on the planet? So I also think about what I can offer in the work I’m doing in Nicaragua and how it can support resiliency in those communities. Nicaragua is a place that has really been through the wringer and there is little to absorb and buffer the effects of changing climate. It hits deeply and immediately in the land, which is everything in these communities; their source of food, fuel, income, water, you name it. Malnutrition, if not hunger or starvation, can quickly enter the picture and illness follows. And there are circumstances (of the political nature) still at play that can lead them towards further ecological devastation, which at some point makes resiliency less and less possible. For example, a continued focus on less sustainable and chemically dependent agriculture for exports, such as tomatoes and tobacco will continue to deplete and poison the land, and is dangerously close to water supplies and food sources.

Hopefully a different focus can be offered, one to  build and nurture their communities based on understanding the limits and changes in their environment. This is all new information to them and requires some education and sharing. People often say to me, “How come they don’t go back to their old or traditional ways?” These ways didn’t include losing all one’s topsoil and dealing with flash flooding and drought conditions on a regular basis or even the aftermath of war and so many injuries from left behind landmines.  And this is not a culture that has been empowered with good education or citizen’s rights. I’m glad to say that some communities are figuring out what it means to rebuild the environment and live within those limitations, while still living a higher quality of life than that of the past. And it’s important for people to realize that these concepts aren’t in conflict with one another. Here in the states we have transition towns and people relearning how to reskill and reuse and recycle. But in a place like Nicaragua, they are just getting tastes of modern life that many of us have already tired of and are ready to cast aside, often only when it is convenient and as we build upon things to replace what we once had. It requires some sensitivity to understand why people might desire such material things and strive towards such things. Unfortunately, it usually eats away at something that provides a fair bit of resiliency in those communities and that is family. It usually requires family members going to another country to make money to send back. And the money isn’t always spent wisely as it is sometimes, as in our country, a status thing to have a bit more to spend somewhat ”frivolously”.

When I arrive in these communities I am immediately humbled to the fact that my Spanish has a long ways to go. Then I am bumbling around  to understand the culture. Then I scratch my head over how to effectively teach these folks without getting too caught up in how I’m sure that I can offer them a better way. But hey, thank God for mud and communication from the heart! That’s the first thing I’ll say. It’s a common language, there is something to learn from everyone,  and it is most forgiving. It allows for a multitude of expressions and it teaches one to feel and look and think in gentle and perhaps curious ways. So mud has been a great bridge of connection for me and my students. I can spend several weeks stretching to understand why my students don’t ask lots of critical questions like those of us educated in overly developed countries might. And where’s the curiosity? But they can mix a mean bunch of mud. And time, thank God for time. I give myself ample time to be there and be part of things. It helps to understand and adjust expectations and get better at what I love to do; teaching and empowering these people to feel confident and be curious and be proud and their skills and growing creativity. I feel like this something very solid they take back into their home, to their families, and into their communities.

As I shared in an earlier blog, last year I returned several weeks later to the Natural Classroom project in Sabana Grande to find that the core group and gone ahead and built an office addition, using all the skills and techniques acquired in the two week workshop. They chose their favorite techniques and went forward. This year they took more artistic initiative and made the youth center so strikingly beautiful. They feel incredibly proud of what they are creating there. They know it’s special and it gives them excitement and incentive to do more. This is a pretty big deal. This is not a ‘highly motivated’ towards new endeavors kind of culture. They have plenty of history of oppression and that doesn’t make for a climate of reaching high.

Today I received a lovely email from one of my students in Condega about another student who doesn’t have email access, Silvia. It was an email about her first natural building endeavor since our workshops in the spring. Silvia was one of my most painfully shy students and over the course of several weeks she became one of my most dedicated and inquisitive students. She found a way to come to every workshop I taught. Nicaraguans are invited to come for free and free is even a stretch for them financially; to be away from the necessary daily chores of wood collecting, water hauling, and cooking. We gave Silvia bus fare and lunch. She rode the bus for several hours each day. She would arrive in her good clothes and slip them off to be in her work clothes she wore beneath. She would need to get home to take care of her two daughters. Her Spanish is difficult for me to understand as she is from a village in the mountains and it had a rather lazy and songlike quality, lacking the articulation I need to understand what is being said! But she persevered in communicating with us and her strong desire to learn all she could overrode her timidity. My great assistants, Karen and Eva gave her lots of encouragement to try and practice and not judge her skills and knowledge too early on. Over the weeks she truly blossomed and her confidence and skill grew. She asked really great questions and was eager to answer when I shot questions back to the group to engage them. And as the weeks passed there was more laughter and conversation with others, eye contact, and that constant flow of questions.

The next really heartwarming part of this story is that she took the techniques and greater understanding of the materials around her and went home and built her mother an oven. A big cob oven. We didn’t build an oven during the courses. She took the knowledge and with confidence applied a new and improved technique to a traditional wood-fired oven. The ovens there are more commonly built as a stone and earthen mortar design over a sapling form. This was a new technique and she got her parents to take her advice and try it. It was a huge success and I believe she is another step closer to feeling she is capable of building her family a much needed new home, due to the flooding occurring there in the past few rainy seasons.

local Nica women participating in a two week natural building workshop

women participate in a two week natural building workshop

Silvia adobe

Silvia loves earthen building

Silvia resting and admiring her hard work

Silvia resting and admiring her hard work

cob oven model

cob oven model

Silvia describes her cob oven process

Silvia describes her cob oven process

the first baking in her newly built cob oven

the first baking in her newly built cob oven

 

I sometimes have wondered and people have asked me, ”Do we really have anything to teach these folks? Are they better off left alone without us imposing our culture and assumptions of knowing something that will improve their situation?” Well, I would say yes and no. It depends on what one’s agenda is and how tactful and graceful and humble one can approach a situation. For example, they already have a style of oven as I described above, but even that more ”traditional”style was before river stone harvesting was banned and much hillside stone washed away in floods and landslides. And stone is heavy to move and earth works best monolithically than as a mortar. Climate is changing and we can’t assume what has been will be. We need to adapt and even people who live very close to the land and very simply can use some help and forward thinking and innovative thinking to do things they never had to do before. Like growing food on land that no longer has viable topsoil and where drought and flood occurs with greater frequency. I also believe these people of generous spirit deserve our generosity of spirit in return and don’t need to be ”left alone”. But we need to tread lightly and be thoughtful of the power of knowledge and prestige as ”first world” citizens. Yes, we of overly developed countries have mucked around in their lives for centuries and our recent political history in Nicaragua is shameful. I feel all the more reason to offer and share as much knowledge a possible in a way that allows them to pick and choose and decide what works to improve the quality of their lives. To hopefully encourage them to have a sensitivity and caring towards their already and ever growing fragile environment a sense of tradition.

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