Another newbie meets Cuje

Introducing a new team member to the region and community is always interesting. It is one thing to communicate the approach, the core concepts and theory, the methods, and the accumulated understandings from six years of work in Cuje and Chaquite. It is quite another to describe the look, feel, and only partially grasped character of a place and the people who live here. We are in Nicaragua again, preparing for our seventh annual project work: a free medical clinic, this year with three physicians and community-based participatory research to advance our ongoing partnership with the community to improve health and health care. Kristina Ripley is fluent in Spanish, went to high school in Managua, and is participating in the MANOS project for the first time now. Like many who preceded her, she is uncertain after the first day – about how this compares to what she imagined; about how to make sense of the work we’ve done and that we’re prepared to do this year; and about her role in a project that calls on diverse skills, challenges preconceptions, and requires navigation of hairpin turns (literally and figuratively). And all of this in spite of her personal familiarity with Nicaragua.

Those of us who are returning (Stephanie Wraith ’15; Yardley Albarracin ’13; and Chrissy Sherman ’14 – the advance team sent ahead to prepare for the week’s work) are accustomed to the sights and sounds and meet friends as we travel through the community to arrange meetings, check on clinic sites, and announce the schedule for the coming week. Even in this seventh year, I find the first day unsettling. We see changes that we hope local residents find encouraging, but the persisting devastation caused by first-world exploitation of the region is not easier to accept. More than 60 years ago, American corporations led the way in clear-cutting this region of Nicaragua, transforming lush evergreen forest to high mountain desert. The companies promised re-forestation but planted scrub varieties that would not survive – and if they had, the resulting trees would have been stunted and of no economic or productive value. Our trip up the mountain road at midday is dusty; the few cattle are underfed with bony haunches and sharply defined ribs. Terraced fields look hopelessly under-nourished, dry, brittle. The faces of those who walk the miles of road up and down the mountain are determined. The trip down the mountain in late afternoon is a dirt storm. Those who are still walking scramble for protection, covering noses, mouths, small children and babies.
Our friends in Chaguite greet us warmly and tell us of the work that has progressed since we were here in January. In the coming days, we will learn in detail about the water project that is being advanced through a partnership with universities from Managua. We spoke briefly with some of these partners in Managua before leaving yesterday. Residents are eager for the resources that will come through this arrangement, but it’s clear also that the work will result in only partial realization of the goals of the first stage of the 5 year plan. Much of our work this week will focus on understanding how the residents believe we can collaborate to build from what currently is anticipated to what, together, we have envisioned as the first objective.

The advance team will be busy tomorrow and Saturday as we prepare for the arrival of the full team on Saturday. There are more newbies in that crew, and undoubtedly, they will add to the store of insights, questions, and puzzlement.