Today, for the first time, I had a conversation with a person who called herself a peasant. Actually, our group had a conversation with a group of ten peasants.
Yesterday we drove into the mountains and spent the night in Esteli, a city of 125,000 that is a commercial hub for the northern part of this country. It is crowded, along the main drag, with shops that are tiny, crammed against each other, open to the street, and right next to the sidewalk, which is really quite narrow given all the foot traffic. This street ends in the main plaza in town and we stayed in a hotel half a block from the plaza.
This morning, we drove to the Offices of FEM, a Catholic Charity that serves the needs of women in the rural areas surrounding Esteli. After we picked up the director of the center, we drove an hour or more through spectacular scenery on less and less frequently travelled roads and talked with her about the work of this charity with the woman who ran it and who was leading us to meet with a group of women who have formed a coffee/bean/millet harvesting collective in a remote village in the mountains.
The woman described the work of her center, the primary goal of which is to help decrease the rates of violence against women, including femicide, by empowering women. The empowerment occurs through education, both about reproductive health and about agricultural practices, as well as through helping women to connect with and support each other.
There were many things that were remarkable about this interaction. First, the woman was much more articulate than I can capture in my paraphrase in the paragraph above. She was clear, simple, direct, but - I think I said it before - articulate; more so than this professor and psychoanalyst from the United States is able to be. Now, I think this was not the first time she addressed this question. As will become apparent later, she needs to help provide a rationale to a group of women who will depend - I think for their lives - on it. So I think it was a practiced response, but it was also spontaneous. She was not reciting something she had learned by rote. The second thing was the calmness of her demeanor. She was not defensive. She did not know my position - some white man from the north who was affiliated with a group of Catholics. Nor was she strident. She seemed to be simply certain. Finally, the interaction is remarkable because I, despite multiple examples to the contrary, expect that people that I meet in rural Nicaragua will not be careful and critical thinkers, they will not be be articulate, and they will not be able to be independent and autonomous - to think outside the box that the Papal church would draw around them.
We arrived at the women's collective. The journey was remarkable in that, as we went into more and more remote regions the road continued to be paved with cobblestones; to be wide flat and well maintained, with concrete gutters - even once the only traffic we saw was foot traffic with an occasional horse cart. This was the case until we turned off onto a dirt road leading up to the tiny village that was our destination. I suppose it should come as no surprise that Somoza owned the cobblestone factory. Nor should it come as a surprise that successive governments would invest in the roads as a means to employ people and to buy their votes, even when the citizens are living in shacks and the children are being neither properly fed nor educated.
But I digress. The women's collective, physically, was a concrete pad with a tin roof that we reached by walking 15 yards down a narrow path between two sets of barbed wire that marked properties on either side. The women were waiting for us and, unlike at other meetings, formed a receiving line, shaking our hand or hugging us as we arrived. We milled around for a bit while some of us used the latrine - which had a large poured concrete floor and throne and a very solidly built roof and walls. We set up chairs which we took out of the closet space at one of the two closed ends of the shelter and sat in a circle and the women talked about their experience.
The women explained that their collective, something that had had in place for 10 years and had 43 members, was central to their lives. The room that we were in, with a chalkboard on the wall and an additional portable chalk board, served them as a classroom. In this classroom, they learned, through work books, to name the parts of their bodies. They learned about reproductive processes and about reproductive health. They taught their children about this. One of the women was a teacher and, this part wasn't as clear as I wished, but I think she went off to three day workshops on these issues and came back, with work books, and taught the other women (and their children). This reminded me of the publication of the book "Our Bodies Our Selves" in the US in the early 70s which women used to take charge of their health, especially their reproductive health. The Nicaraguan women stated that starting with learning about their bodies served as an important basis for their feeling of empowerment and for helping them to start to work on protecting themselves from violence against them from men.
In addition, the women took more traditional classes. In fact, the oldest woman in the group, one of the founding members and a past president, was quite proud of having completed primary school and was now going on to complete her secondary school education. She said that children in the village made fun of her for still being in school, but she thought it important to continue to learn more about the world. English had been very difficult, she said, but they were now learning math and history, and that was easier. Many of the women walked considerable distances - and altitudes to come to the class.
As the discussion was drawing to a close, a member of the group, a devout and conscientious Catholic, asked about the relationship of the group to the church. The women said there is no relationship. The priest says that we are evil and doing the work of the devil. He says that because we talk about abortions, we should be shunned by the rest of the village.
I think we were all a bit stunned by her answer. It was certainly not the response the questioner had been expecting. And I think this answer created a new respect for what these women were doing. They were risking their lives - their connections with the community as a whole - in a place where there were no other viable options other than relying on each other - because of the intensity of their beliefs in the moral correctness of what they were engaged in. The courage of these women dwarfed that of even the revolutionaries.
Most of the women farm plots of ground that are about an acre in size. Many of them grow coffee on their very steeply mountainous land. They had a table set with bowls of their products, a lit candle and exotic flowers including an orchid. After the conversation, they served us a lunch of beans and rice, dried plantains, and fried eggs. It was delicious. We held hands and said a prayer before lunch, and I imagined that it is terribly important that these women know that they are linked with people outside their community - that they are not alone.
Those links come with a cost. One of the young women, a daughter of one of the other members, has completed her secondary education in accounting. She is beautiful, articulate, and expressed concern that those who had been trained in skills such as hers could not find employment in the area. I had the fantasy of "discovering" her and bringing her out, like an exotic flower, for the world to see. But I think she has grown beautiful in her fertile home soil and I don't know whether she can withstand the rigors of the modern world, a world without the networks that have sustained (and shunned) her.
I also worry that agribusiness, which would better exploit the rich soil, sun, and water of this country, will eliminate rural hamlets such as this. This is a small place that is evolving, by fits and starts, to belong both to an ancient and to the modern world. If these women were to migrate to the city, their standard of living - the beauty of it - would suffer tremendously. In the mountains they are poor. But they live in paradise and, even if parts of the village won't have them, they have each other.
To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here. For a subject based index, link here.
Additional posts about this trip to Nicaragua can be found here:
Anticipating Travel to a Third World Country Preparing for Nicaragua
Fear and Loathing in Nicaragua First day in Nicaragua
In The Hall of the Incest King Daniel Noriega and Day two in Nicaragua
Mass in Nicaragua Day three in Nicaragua
Dora Maria Tellez Day four in Nicaragua
Talking Business in Nicaragua Day Six in Nicaragua
Nicaragua on the Couch Processing the trip as a whole