This article was published on January 27, 2016 online and appeared in Marietta College’s “The Marcolian.” The original article can be found on their website at: http://www.marcolian.com/?p=764. It has been reprinted here exactly as it appeared in the original.
By Paul Bieniek
On the evening of New Year’s Day 2016, I was sitting in my room in McCoy Hall feeling palpably both uneasy and excited, already unpacked for a semester which was not to start for another 10 days. In a few hours, I would be departing for Nicaragua with six other students for the Office of Civic Engagement’s (OCE) annual International Alternative Winter Break trip. Though I had been out of the country and done a service trip before, I was uncertain about what I had gotten myself into, and the effect the journey would have on me.
Contributing to my uneasiness was skepticism. The trip seemed to have twinges of the much-derided practice of so-called “voluntourism,” in which relatively wealthy travelers couple their vacations with some service on the side, not so much out of genuine feelings of good will but rather to reduce their feelings of guilt. Was what I was about to do actually good? Would it help mend the wounds inflicted by my government, the United States government, through our direct support of the ruthless Contra guerrillas during Nicaragua’s Civil War in the 1980s? Was it a furtherance of the all too often dependent relationships that developing nations have with the developed world? Notwithstanding these doubts, I had committed to going, and after three weeks of winter break laziness I felt I needed some excitement in my life. So onward I went, piling into a van in the McDonough parking lot at 2 a.m. with the rest of the group.
Upon arrival in the capital of Managua, two employees from Bridges to Community (BTC), the organization we were partnering with, were at the airport to greet us. According to BTC’s website, the organization’s mission is “to improve the lives of impoverished communities in developing countries through volunteer service trips, and to simultaneously educate and transform those volunteers to be more aware of the connections we all share and the ways we can all impact our lives for the better.”
We flew in a tiny plane, reminiscent of a 1980s model car with wings, to Siuna and then took a bus to the community of Tadazna where we would spend most of the week. Both these communities are in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. We were told this predominantly rural area is one of the most neglected parts of Nicaragua. My initial observations seemed to confirm this. The roads were unpaved, full of jagged rocks and ruts. Due to a lack of trash infrastructure, community members have to pile up and burn waste. The hospital in the city of Siuna, about an hour away from Tadazna, would be considered small by United States standards yet serves a population of over 100,000, and operates only two ambulances that are in constant need of repair due to the poor road conditions.
But if there is an impoverishment of economic resources in Tadazna and the surrounding area, the same cannot be said of human talent, resources and kindness. We were lodged in the cleared-out bottom floor of the house of one of the community leaders. When we arrived and immediately began setting up the mosquito nets I was a little put off by the chickens, dogs, and cats running through our living space, but over the course of the week I grew used to it. Workers from the local community would arrive every morning long before the sun came up to begin making breakfast. Their children would come along, frequently urging us to chase them around or play thumb war. I think it’s probably true that kids everywhere have an insane amount of energy. I could barely keep up, but you always wanted to play with them because their smiles were worth all the exertion.
Over the week we helped to build two latrines and two stoves, but it was local masons spearheading the projects, with assistance coming not only from our group but the families that were to benefit from the work. One of the things that stood out to me the most was the great teaching ability of many in the community. Not being a particularly handy person, I was thankful to be given assistance when I was given a task I couldn’t quite get at first. They also tried their best to teach words to those of us who did not know Spanish, and openly shared opinions and details of their lives. At least on this small scale it was the gringos who were the dependent ones, not the other way around.
Every night we had a reflection with the two BTC staff members. One evening we discussed an article titled “Service Learning to Learning Service” (http://tinyurl.com/zyewxmu). In short, it argued that instead of viewing service trips merely as trips to go help those less fortunate, we should rather view them as opportunities to learn from the culture, perspectives and history of those who live in the communities we serve in, with the goal of gaining an enhanced perspective that allows us to better understand how to effectuate long-term, sustainable changes to support developing areas. To me, this idea rang extremely true for our experience in Nicaragua. We were truly students who were allowed to become temporary members of a community, and learned much more than we served. And what I learned is something I already suspected; that people and communities in the less fortunate parts of the world are just that-less fortunate. Tadazna has an excellent group of community leaders and ordinary people who work hard the whole day. They are incredibly kind, hospitable hosts, and have that quiet human dignity and decency that makes the world work. But a lack of adequate access to resources, rooted in exploitation and neglect that dates back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century, keeps the community in an unacceptable state where access to clean water can be precarious and minor ailments can end up being fatal.
As I gazed out the window flying back to the U.S., I thought about how to turn what I learned into action. We were 40,000 feet over the Caribbean Sea, in a sea of blue air far above cotton cumulus clouds. Seeing the earth from this height and remembering the conditions that those in Tadazna and communities like it daily face, I silently laughed at myself for some of the small personal worries I’ve ever let get to me. I considered how lucky I am to be one of the relatively privileged few in history to attend an institution of higher learning. I thought about how much the kids I had met were just like any little ones I’ve ever met in the U.S., how connected we are all no matter where we live or how we’ve grown up or what language we speak. Though the question is still open ended and complex, I know we can do our part in correcting in the injustices of the world by telling the story of Tadazna and the people we met there, by maintaining or at the very least remembering the relationships we formed. With this in mind, we can also make decisions both as consumers and especially as citizens that will bring about a more just world. Nine days in Nicaragua has me committed to doing just that.
For more information on the OCE’s International Alternative Winter Break, click here: http://civic_engagement.department.marietta.edu/node/53