“So, is that like, uh, a poor country in Africa?” Sadly enough, when it emerged that I was going to be embarking on a ten week sustainable development project in Nicaragua, this was the most common question I encountered. It’s not that I wish to mock people for their previous ignorance, and to be perfectly honest I had a blurry outline of a place located somewhere in the depths of Central America too, it is just that an overriding cliché of volunteering lingers stubbornly among our “gap-yah” generation. I am sure most people will be familiar with the concept that prior to or post university, it is common practice for young people to be shipped abroad to get stuck into charity projects, leaving only with considerably lighter wallets and a sense of self-achievement. Now, I also don’t want to judge these endeavours in a too-harsh light and I certainly don’t want to pretend that I am better than anyone. However, there is a scheme that is infinitely better and that genuinely strives to improve the lives of local communities. It might even change your life too.
I travelled to Nicaragua as part of the government ICS scheme in conjunction with the sustainable development charity Raleigh International. The aims of the programme were to bring about positive change in developing countries that need it the most whilst supporting young people in their personal development in terms of leadership and valuable life skills. The ultimate goal is to create a network of global active citizens working together across the globe. And despite the fact I have been aiming to avoid clichés so far, nothing brings people tighter together than memories and shared experience.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. I experienced this poverty first-hand, living in a small rural community with no electricity or running water. The community San Marcos 2 is nestled in the mountains of Matagalpa and is breathtakingly beautiful, not a day passed where I wasn’t astonished by the deep green landscape and rolling hills. I quickly adjusted to showering by the river with a bucket under the brooding eyes of grazing cows and the sounds of a battery powered radio blasting out Latino pop tunes all day meant there was never a silent second.
The community of San Marcos 2 is comprised of roughly 80 families with the majority supporting their livelihoods from the earth through the agricultural production of maize and beans. This meant waking up to the taps of tortilla being made in the morning, harvested from the land mere metres away from our wooden houses. Our group was comprised of 6 volunteers from Nicaragua and 9 from the United Kingdom, living together in local host families who welcomed us in with huge smiles and kept us on our toes with unnerving local ghost stories.
The focus of our project circulated around the key issue in the community, the integral problem of natural resource management, with a focus on the watershed. The main problems facing San Marcos 2 are contamination of water sources, soil erosion and deforestation. We collaborated closely with a local partner charity, ANIDES, who aim to improve the environment in rural communities. We were the second group out of six in a two-year project working in the area. Therefore, it felt like this project was a part of a bigger picture, one that will grow and expand over time and ultimately bring health and happiness to the community. In other words, it did not feel like we were simply charging in, optimism blazing, ready to single-handedly transform the community.
On a tangible level, we constructed water filters, dykes, eco-latrines, eco-ovens and Tippy-taps. These physical structures all contributed to better management of the local watershed. Water filters deal with the negative effects of contaminated water, damaged from human waste, soaps and detergents and artificial fertilisers used on crops, by filtering waste water away from the community houses. A container is placed below the kitchen’s dirty water outlet into a tube that leads to a hole filled with layers of rocks. These rocks cleanse the contaminated water which is then absorbed back in the ground and the water table. Furthermore, contaminated water thrown directly outside the house with no drainage system creates a puddle that attracts flied and mosquitoes, leading to preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea and serious infectious diseases such as malaria. Dykes are barriers of rocks that are positioned where earth is affected by heavy rain, as fertile soil is carried down the mountains and washed away into the river, damaging crops and harvests and reducing monthly income. These structures obstruct the flow of water meaning the earth retains its natural water source and ensures the productivity and preservation of the healthy soil. Eco-latrines manage human waste in an environmentally sustainable manner, providing a natural composting system that can be used on crops. Eco-ovens were built in the houses and use a slow-burning fire which uses less wood and emits less smoke, creating a more comfortable environment in the houses of the community but helps to combat the problem of deforestation. Finally, Tippy-taps are simple structures of three sticks and a container of water that can be tipped with a pedal in order to provide running water like a tap, encouraging sanitary practices of washing hands. This construction work completed by our team felt like a great achievement, ultimately empowering the community to look after their natural landscape and their individual well-being.
However, the greatest achievement of this project cannot be measured in a tangible manner. As well as the physical labour, we conducted workshops and ‘action days’ with the community that aimed to gradually shift attitudes and mind-sets and create a dialogue about issues such as sustainability, health and sanitation and gender roles. This interaction with the community meant that it did not simply feel like we were rushing in, building enthusiastically and then leaving them without any idea of the benefits or how to properly use the structures. Weekly English lessons with the local children at the school meant that we had time to bond with the children, run around and play games with them whilst emphasising the importance of the environment. Furthermore, we enjoyed many special moments with the community- such as playing football with the teenage boys, dancing around a bonfire singing Nicaraguan songs and learning to, incredibly clumsily on my behalf, salsa dance. Undoubtedly, this proved that despite any cultural differences and barriers, the ability to share a moment of collective happiness lies within us all. We became incredibly close to our host families, who treated and looked after us like their own children, cooking for us their speciality of rice and beans and tortilla at mealtimes and making sure we felt comfortable in their homes. On a personal level, the role of Weekly Leader, in which every volunteer would manage the group and plan the activities and target for the week, helped me realise my passion for motivating and inspiring people. I have no doubt that all I have learnt from this experience will be transferred into my later life and career.
Furthermore, as a part of the programme, we were introduced to the work of La Isla Foundation. In 2008, a documentary maker Jason Glaser encountered the community of La Isla, “The Island of Widows.” He established the foundation after learning about communities of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua who were affected, and suffering with, a devastating disease. Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), also known as chronic renal disease or chronic renal failure, is a degenerative condition marked by the gradual loss of kidney function. However, as highlighted by the foundation Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown cause (CKDu) is a different form of progressive, decreased kidney function. As stated on their website, “Whereas CKD is associated with diabetes, obesity and hypertension, patients who develop CKDu generally do not have these conditions. CKDu is associated with heavy labor in hot temperatures, particularly among industrial agricultural workers such as those working in sugarcane production. Additionally, CKDu often affects young men, many under the age of 30, while CKD is generally diagnosed in older patients. The location of damage within the kidneys also differs between CKD and CKDu.” The foundation strives to reverse the rising prevalence of the disease through widespread awareness and prevention efforts, facilitating more research into the causes of the epidemic among workers. Through the creation of a dialogue with the public about the scope of his condition, the foundation hopes to generate a strong network of support and awareness. Through the simple act of the foundation speaking to our group of ICS volunteers, the butterfly effect of spreading knowledge is able to continually expand and grow.
During a talk given to us by the incredible Nicky Hoskyns, (a brilliant man who ethically and fairly sourced sesame oil to the Body Shop from Nicaragua) he insisted “you will never feel as confident that you have the ability to instigate change as you do right now.” And partly, this is true. During the experience, it was easy to be swept up into a positive encouraging bubble. Yet, since returning home, I have also found it incredibly simple to slip back into old routines and bad habits, of caring about sustainable development and the environment when it is convenient. However, what I have learnt from ICS is that change does not have to be massive to make an impact. I believe that in our contemporary society, when we demand so much from our consumerist lifestyles, that brand new smart phone and the expensive designer clothes, and expect things to transform instantly in the half-a-second it takes to click ‘like’, we have forgotten that things do not have to move at such a rushed and hectic pace. We cannot simply jump on a plane and hi-five all the Millennium Goals on the way down. But as active global citizens, we can make small and steady steps towards a better future. Recycling. Shopping locally. And, if you are lucky enough to be aged 18-25, shaking of the tiresome labels and putting yourself forward for ICS. Good luck, yah.