Nicaragua: A difficult country with resourceful people

We joined 13 other UUs for a College of Social Justice trip to Nicaragua.  As you might recall, the UU College of Social Justice is a collaboration of the UUA and the UU Service Committee providing experiential learning opportunities in social justice that inspire and help us live our faith. It is a privilege to get to know UUs from across the country, bond with UUSC leadership and meet individuals making a difference in their communities.

Our children cannot believe that we go on a vacation where we need to study plus do homework.  The course work covers quite a range but boils down to: 1) Appreciating Nicaragua’s history, including a long period of deplorable actions by the US and 2) increasing awareness of cultural differences from heritage as well as from economic circumstances.  Nicaragua is the second poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with its 6 million people having a per capita GDP of only $2,200. It has again moved toward totalitarianism from what started as a populist President.  Yes, Daniel Ortega has been President since 2007 and his younger wife has become VP insuring that the family will remain in power.

Strikingly, Nicaragua is a beautiful country.  It has volcanoes, huge lakes, oceans, beaches, rainforests, mountains and kind, friendly people. It also feels like a step back in time with dinners costing $10, $1 beers and $50 hotel rooms.

Our program focused on two areas: 1) Women’s Rights and 2) Environmental Rights.

We spent considerable time with FEM (Fundacion Entre Mujeres), Foundation Among Women in Northern more rural Nicaragua.  This group is supported by UUSC, reflecting a mission to help marginalized people as well as recognizing women’s role in creating enduring groups, strengthening families and creating wealth.  Nicaragua’s machismo culture, men owning the land, an acceptance of violence against women and women’s being relegated to chores and childbearing produces a clear division where men hold all the power.  Basically, FEM exists to empower women.  It’s education about their rights. It is understanding that violence against women is not OK.  Having children is a choice. It’s the sharing of the household income and wealth.  FEM is servicing a group of women who are largely peasants (campesinas) with little formal education.  FEM’s reach has grown over time.  It trains women in bio-intensive gardening, maximizing the productivity of small subsistence plots.  It helps women get their goods to market via a stall to sell produce.  It created a co-op to sell coffee, honey and hibiscus.  Their fair-traded coffee is marketed by a Wisconsin company under the brand “Just Coffee.” The women are extremely passionate about how FEM makes a difference in their lives.  The most moving “speech” was from a woman who explained how she no longer buys onions from the market but rather sells them.  But, the magical part was that by owning productive land, she gave her daughters a future which is better than hers and provides hope.

Climate change is having a big impact.  Rain falling in the dry season; erosion on both coasts; the possibility of a canal through Lake Nicaragua all have catastrophic implications to traditional ways of life.  Being environmentally sensitive is a “luxury” of wealthy countries.  That said, we visited the Guardianes de Yaoska in Rancho Grande.  This group of peasant farmers is fighting a Canadian mining company B2 Gold.  The Yaoska is a river which is the lifeblood of the community.  Thus far, they have been successful at stopping the company from setting up an open pit gold mine.  They are protecting their rural farming life against a government that encourages mining with little/no safeguards.  But, their success has not come without sacrifice.  They had to forego a year of school for their children as the company and government were using schools to spread the pro-mining message.  Violence against protestors was always a real threat.  The most stirring speech was from a man who held up the produce he grows – Malanga – and stated that this is real gold which you can eat.

It is inspiring when you realize that people with little education, little money and little power still can be successful and make a difference.  Their commitment, dedication and drive to preserve their lifestyle for the Guardians or to improve women’s place for FEM is truly amazing.  It provides some hope as we look at our situation in the US and the intractability of so many issues.

Two friends, one mission: Access to Clean Technology in Gorkha

Originally posted on Empower Generation’s blog on February 1, 2017. Follow them at @EmpowerGrid to stay up to date on all their amazing work!

Two women smiling

“It still gives me shivers when I think of the earthquake we had on April 25, 2015,” says solar co-CEO Gita Pariyar. “Nepal faced a huge devastation, people lost their lives and those who survived were left with no shelter and darkness at night. We faced not only physical damages but were also shaken psychologically.”

Gorkha District, the epicenter of the earthquake, was hardest hit. It is one of the remotest districts in Nepal, and it is difficult for people there to access healthcare, education, and electricity. This is why Gorkha is one of the most neglected districts in terms of development and why people there face many hardships.

Empower Generation, in partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) wanted to provide support to the district and Dalit women in the community. Dalits are the “untouchables” caste, the lowest designation in the caste system, and face enormous discrimination in society. Initially, Empower Generation and UUSC were planning to select one entrepreneur and several sales agents, as part of our program. However, after meeting Danu Ale, age 27, and Gita Pariyar, age 37, we decided to recruit both of them as co-CEOs of one business. Danu and Gita have a long track record of working together as community outreach and development volunteers, having introduced improved cookstoves to their communities and provided health and sanitation trainings.

Neither of them had ever thought about starting their own business, but with Empower Generation and UUSC’s support they started their business Ashmita and Laxmi Saurya Urjah and Traders, named after their daughters Ashmita and Laxmi. With their new business, they are not only becoming financially independent but are also providing job opportunities to their ten sales agents.

 

Gita, born a Dalit, remembers how people used to cleanse everything that was touched by her and other Dalits when she was a child. Though people today are more aware and less prejudice about Dalits, there are still many who do not accept them. From a young age, Gita worked hard to change people’s perceptions of Dalits. Today, she works for a community development program, promoted by Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON). EDWON’s mission is to enable rural Dalit women, repressed by caste and gender, to claim their rights and live in dignity.

Nepalese woman in a sari.
Gita in her shop.

Gita’s business partner Danu is part of an indigenous caste called Magar. She does not face the same discrimination as Gita, but her caste does not have a high standard of living in Gorkha. Though Danu and Gita are from different castes, like all people, they share common experiences. They both were married at 17 years old and both have a 7th grade education.

Nepalese woman with two children at her side.
Danu with her children

In terms of running their business, Danu and Gita’s skills and strengths complement each other. Danu is skilled with her hands, but when it comes to speaking in front of large audiences she lacks confidence. Gita has strong leadership skills and is confident speaking with people. Both Danu and Gita share a focus on developing the skills of the people in their communities.

Neither of them had ever thought about starting their own business, but with Empower Generation and UUSC’s support they started their business Ashmita and Laxmi Saurya Urjah and Traders, named after their daughters Ashmita and Laxmi. With their new business, they are not only becoming financially independent but are also providing job opportunities to their ten sales agents, who were unable to complete their schooling and belong to either the Dalit or indigenous castes.

Since the 2015 earthquake, many people continue to live in Gorkha without electricity. Solar products distributed by Danu and Gita’s business are making life easier. Customers can extend their working days into the evenings, earning more income and improving their children’s study times and household safety. For example, farmers can work in their fields and check on their livestock in the evenings; children can study for longer hours; and women can see better when cooking at night, decreasing kitchen accidents. Danu and Gita’s business has helped entire communities come out of darkness. They want to light every village in Gorkha. But due to Gorkha’s rugged geographical terrain, it is difficult for one enterprise to cover all the villages in the district. There is no reliable public transport to visit remote areas, so it is essential that more solar enterprises are launched.