For all of us who go to Nicaragua – or indeed, any place poorer than where we are from: India, Mexico, Appalachia, Detroit – our first instinct is to fix it. Whether we will admit it or not, the very first thing we do when confronted with a terrible situation is to furiously work through possible responses to that problem in our mind until we hit upon the “magic” solution.I do it too. I think this instinct is a mixture of good intentions and a subconscious desire to recreate something safe and well-understood amidst the chaos of a different culture. But I have noticed, after having lived here almost 2 years, that most of my first impressions were untrustworthy.
I know this because I do it all the time. Even after ten years of living in Nicaragua, I still do it. I go to Nueva Vida, the neighborhood created by Hurricane Mitch resettlement, and with everything I see, I work through scenarios to “fix” what is “wrong” in Nicaragua.
For me the process cultural acclimatization started out like this: first I encounter something new and unusual. Cold showers? What's up with all the trash in the streets? Even more mundane things like, why do they only sell cookies in "wasteful" individual-sized packaging? My first reaction is to see these things as an irritation (and maybe not even consciously). Or maybe the result of Nicaragua's poverty, and hence, a problem to be fixed.
In fact, it's remarkably easy to pin these differences on poverty because, well, Nicaragua is a poor country and the very real problems of poverty are visible. But with time you start to realize that many of those "problems" are subtly mixed together with differences in culture and it can be difficult to tease them apart. There are actually really obvious reasons for many of those initial differences I saw. For example, they individually wrap the cookies because food goes stale much, much faster here than in more temperate climes -- it would actually be much more wasteful to do it the way I wanted to!
I don't mean to minimize the problems that Nicaragua faces, just to say that poor campesinos don't necessarily look at their packed dirt floor and plastic chairs and see a problem to solved. It's just part of the culture. I've heard many folks tell us how they prefer the country lifestyle to the more "affluent, western" version they could find in Managua. Poverty doesn't encompass who they are. Another section of the post also stuck with me:
When I first came to Nicaragua, I thought I was coming to help Nicaraguans. I was sorely mistaken. None of us are needed here. No matter what my skills are, Nicaraguans are capable of doing everything I will do here, and in most cases, do it better, faster and more efficiently. So what is it exactly that I do?
It's an unsettling perspective, but it kinda fits with our experience here. In fact, when we first got here we were a bit of a liability. We spoke Spanish poorly, we didn't know the culture, customs, history or our way around the city. The folks from the church basically took us in like we were war orphans.
OK, maybe not thaaat bad, but I think it is only now, after a year and half in Nicaragua, that we are starting to pull our weight. We both bring skills to our work, but they are not unknown skills. We might not be needed, but I know that the church is happy to have us and the many visiting congregations as partners in their work. It's a reminder that when we work together in partnerships we can accomplish more.