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.