Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western world after Haiti. Poverty is largely a rural problem in Nicaragua, although there are pockets of poverty in the capital, Managua, and in other urban areas. Close to half of the people in Nicaragua live in rural areas (43%). Two out of three of them struggle to survive on little more than US$1 per day (68%). The level of poverty was not helped by ten years of civil war between 1980 and 1990 and an economic crisis that began in 1987 causing the collapse of the country’s economy. Climate change is having a drastic effect on the rural population due to an inconsistency in weather patterns and freak events, Nicaragua has been listed as the third most vulnerable country in relation to Climate Change. An example of this was Hurricane Mitch, which caused extensive destruction and loss of life in November 1998, worsening conditions for the rural poor.
For the final three months of 2015, I made the commitment of going to Nicaragua to live and volunteer. I was out there with British sustainability charity Raleigh International, who are a partner of the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme. The ICS programme is funded by the British Government and runs in 25 less economically developed countries focusing on International Development. The programme gives the opportunity for 18-25 year olds to volunteer in valuable projects to help the fight against poverty.
Read about ICS and their work here: http://www.volunteerics.org
Me and a group of fellow volunteers made up of people from the UK, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Latvia were posted in the small rural community of Palan Bilampi, which is located in the centre of Nicaragua. The community was home to approximately 100 people many of whom work in agriculture on the surrounding land. The community was in the Cerra Musun Natural Reserve, which has some spectacular views and scenery. Life in this community is very basic and a world away from the home comforts I was used to. Saying that, Palan Bilampi was more advanced than many other communities due to the fact the majority of houses had one tap and basic means of electricity. To give some insight into the remoteness of this community; the nearest bus stop is one hours walk down a mountain. The nearest tarmac road is one hours walk down a mountain and then one hour on a bus. The nearest substantial town is one hours walk down a mountain then an hour and half on a bus and the nearest hospital is four hours drive away.
After arriving in the community at the end of September myself and the rest of the volunteers had to learn quickly how to adapt to our new environment. The biggest culture shock was the use of the latrine, for anyone reading this that has ever used a long drop latrine; you will know it is not a pleasant experience (never take a head torch with you). Lets not even talk about the rats in the bedroom at night, the Tarantulas on my bed, Scorpions in the latrine and snakes in the shower. Cold bucket showers were also something I had never experienced before but I quickly adapted to my new way of showering. Hot water seemed to be non-existent anywhere in Nicaragua as I had a hot shower on the morning I left for Heathrow (September 26th) and didn’t have another one until I arrived home (December 19th). The first night I arrived is a memory that I will never forget, after travelling all day and walking an hour through the humidity of the night, we arrived in the community and met our host families. I remember sitting down to eat a plate of rice and beans and just being overwhelmed, I ended up leaving the food and going to sleep on my camp bed.
During the three months I was in Palan Bilampi, a number of things astounded me. The main one that will stick with me is the relationship I built with my host family, I found this so surprising due to the fact we are from very different backgrounds, very different cultures, very different countries and speak very different languages. The family of five took me in like one of their own and were always so warm, welcoming and they could never do enough for me, even though initially I was just a foreign, non-Spanish speaking stranger. It goes to show the importance of family and friendship despite where you are from or your background. Another thing that got me thinking, was just how lucky we really are, it sounds very cliché and it is something a lot of people say, including myself, but its never something that really hit me hard until I experienced it first hand. The fact that after my three months were over I would be going back to my normal life in the UK and this community would carry on living their poverty stricken life is something that hit me hard. What exactly did we do to deserve to born into a privileged life in the UK?
The project was mainly based upon sustainable Water and Sanitation, which is very broad subject and included the following:
- Baseline Surveys (Census)- This was one of the first tasks we undertook after arriving. As a group, we split up and went door to door collecting data and opinions of the people within the community. The data collection covered a range of different areas and topics.
- Water Shed management– The area suffers high amounts of rainfall during the rainy season, this causes a lot of soil erosion, occasional landslides and the leaching of the soil. A way of preventing this was to build Dykes and Barriers to prevent surface run off, this protects the land and makes area more fertile when it comes to farming crops. Reforestation was also an effective way to reduce the issues and it provides crops in which the community families could eat or sell.
- FECSA Methodology- This is a scheme where we gather volunteers from the community and train them on how to take part in house visits to encourage better sanitation practices.
- CAPS- Many rural communities in Nicaragua have a CAPS Committee (Comité de Agua Potable y Saneamiento) this is when local residents form a legally recognised committee to manage and maintain the water system within the community. We volunteers were helping train them on basic methods such as account keeping and local sanitation needs.
- E-WASH- This was training of two local entrepreneurs. We helped and encouraged them to create their own small business, the business was based on the building of Eco-friendly Latrines, by giving the people the skills in order to build these latrines it is more sustainable, beneficial as well as profitable to the individuals.
- Waste Collection- In a remote rural community, which is one hours walk to the nearest public bus stop and then an hour and half drive to the nearest substantial town, you might ask “Where does all the waste and litter go?” Upon arrival to this spectacular place, the shine is partially dampened by the amount of litter. Due to lack of education, the community members feel the best way to dispose of the waste is to burn it, which obviously is not good for the environment and makes more of a mess. We started to educate them on the difference between Organic and Non-Organic Substance, which then lead us to promoting and encouraging composting of Organic waste. As well as this, we used this topic in our action days and organised community litter picks which got everyone involved. Whilst on placement we created a strong relationship with the Mayor of the nearest town (Rio Blanco). Through him we orangised a waste collection every month and he also said he would be looking into buying a plot of land to use as landfill (I understand this isn’t the best method but it’s a start).
- Action Days- Almost every Sunday we would organise an action day; we would decide on a set educational topic ever week, whether that be about sanitation or other topics like equality. As a group, we create games, activities, talks as well as competitions and prizes. This created a fun environment, which is more likely to influence the community and give them the willingness to learn. It was a great way to get the community together, break down barriers and boost the morale of everyone.
- Equality- Rural Nicaragua is very much behind the times when it comes to gender equality, most likely the males go out to work and the females stay at home, cook, clean and look after the children. There are not many opportunities for women in these communities. As part of our work there, we set up focus groups for Women and the youth as their views often go unheard. We also set up a “women’s club” where the local women could come along and learn how to make crafts out of recyclable materials.
- Grey Water- Within the community there was an issue with Grey Water. This issue being that there is no where for it to go other than into the river. To save the river from contamination and pollution, we started to think about ways to prevent this. The solution we came up with was to create natural filters, which use moss and other plants to filter the grey water. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to put this into action so has been left to the next group of volunteers who will be arriving to the community in the next few days.
My time in Nicaragua was full of amazing experiences, I had the chance to meet some very unique and inspirational people, make many friends from different nations as well as open myself up to a completely different environment and culture. I learnt so much whilst on placement, from basic Spanish, about the Latin American culture to the history of Nicaragua and its troubles. At times it got hard due to being so far away from home with very little contact (it was probably the first time I’ve ever sent a letter), but I had so much fun and look back on what I and every other volunteer achieved with pride. Nicaragua is an amazing and fascinating country with so much to offer, the people of Nicaragua are fantastic and are extremely influential. It is fair to say I will be visiting again in the future.
It is very easy to take things for granted in our own lives and moan about small or irrelevant things, but in comparison, we are extremely lucky and blessed. It does not matter how vivid my description is of the life style of the community and their existence, you can never fully understand it unless you have experienced it yourself. I would encourage anyone to take part in projects like this; the whole experience changed my personal perceptions and opinions on the world we live in. The values I learnt are something that will stay with me forever. The project was very worthwhile for everyone involved and is part of a long road to eliminating poverty (Rome wasn’t built in a day)
To sum up my whole ICS Nicaraguan experience in one sentence, I’d say “The three months were the most challenging but also the most valuable and rewarding experience imaginable.”