Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving (Seasons)

     At times, Nicaragua seems even farther away than it is from the United States.  I think part of this has to do with the fact that even nature has different rhythms here.  Quinn, who just turned six, was anticipating with great delight that "Summer starts on my birthday!"  In this tropical climate, winter is the rainy season, which starts in mid-May and summer, the dry season, typically begins in mid-November.  (Of course it rained really hard yesterday, apparently winter is lingering this year.)  Also, being in the tropics, sunrise and sunset times don't vary much between solstice and equinox, so there's no need for Daylight Savings Time.  This means that our time zone relative to folks in most parts of the U.S. changes twice a year, making coordinating timing that little bit more complicated.

    I think I was subconsciously yearning for the rhythms we're accustomed on a recent trip to a store that has a lot of imported foods.  I chuckled to myself as I unpacked and realized I had come home with apples, pecans, cranberries, none of which grow here in the tropics, and all of which represent for me the flavors of fall (and indeed, of Thanksgiving!).

    We're looking forward in so many ways to our return to the States in the (U.S.) spring (the end of summer here).  I'm also aware that just as it is still strange at times to be out of step in small and large ways with our family and friends back home, it will be strange also to move from the rhythm of our life here back into: four seasons,  planning things further in advance and with less flexibility, firmer boundaries between "work time" and "family time"... and probably other rhythms of life that we don't anticipate.

     La Misión Cristiana, too, is in a time of transition and finding a new rhythm.  The sudden death of president Rolando Boniche in July meant that the new president, Rev. Enrique Rugama, had to move from his farm (270 km and a 10 hour journey by bus away) to Managua, and the national leadership has had to deal with their grief as well as the bureaucratic processes required to effect the transition... and in just 4 months, will hold elections at their annual General Assembly at the end of March.  Many churches will receive new pastors at this time, too.

     Although there is much to prepare for coming transitions in our lives and the life of the church, I am also trying to be present in this season, rather than spend all my time and energy thinking about what's ahead.

     In September, La Misión Cristiana received a new mission volunteer, sent by Global Ministries and the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC), Magyolene Rodriguez.  She is a lovely person, a trained agronomist, an advocate for creation care and has a heart for service and for children and youth.  She stayed with us for a few weeks when she first arrived, and quickly became one of our girls' very favorite people (and ours as well!).  I felt so strongly when we arrived here that God's Spirit was at work matching the needs of the church and our interests and gifts... and I have that same sense again, that Magyolene has arrived in just the right moment for the church, which has been working on agricultural projects, food security, and environmental protection and restoration, but will be able to do even more with a person who has time and professional training to dedicate to these areas.

     In October, Elena Huegel, the Global Ministries missionary currently serving in Chile with IPC, a good friend of Magyolene, came to visit Nicaragua and give a training on Conflict Transformation to pastors and leaders of La Misión Cristiana.  The training was greatly appreciated by the participants, and we enjoyed the chance to meet and get to know Elena (and she had lots of good advice for us as we approach our transition back to the U.S. -- not only as a missionary, but as a child of missionaries as well!).

      Overlapping one day with Elena's visit, UENIC-MLK (the Martin Luther King, Jr. Evangelical University of Nicaragua), the university where we teach in the theological faculty, hosted a regional encuentro (meeting) bringing together leaders from Central America who are working on theological education that is committed to improving the lives of people in their countries.  We got to connect with some Disciples "neighbors" from Costa Rica and, all the way from Indianapolis, Rev. Felix Ortiz (our boss) and Rev. Shernell Edney, the program associate for Advocacy and Education.

     In November, 91 students from 3 regions graduated from our two-year program of Ministerial Formation.  I'll write more about this soon, we had a beautiful celebration full of joy for seeing the fruits of so much hard work by so many people (in learning, teaching, organizing, administrating, marshaling financial support, and always, travel for both teachers and students to make classes happen).  This month, because the dry season has arrived in the hot Western region even though Managua is still getting rain, Tim and the team went back to work building another bio-digester last week.

   In December, we'll be helping with preparations for the Regional Assemblies in January and the General Assembly in March.  We'll also be working with colleagues to make plans for the future, both
the three months of 2014 that we'll be here, and what our projects (theological education (me) and sustainable development/ food security (Tim)) will look like after we return to the U.S.  And, we're very excited that (a good portion of) our family is coming down to spend Christmas with us!  We're looking forward to relaxing, enjoying their company, and showing them a bit of the many things we've come to love about Nicaragua.  We're hoping they'll enjoy the tropical break from a northern winter!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Random Reading 3

Here's another collection of random interesting stories about Nicaragua:
  • Lately the big news story in Nicaragua has been the government's decision to approve a trans-oceanic canal to rival the Panama Canal. The proposed routes will make use of Lago Cocibolca (although not the Río San Juan). The announcement has sparked a lot of discussion both pro and con. In a long article in Envio, the head of Nicaragua's largest environmental group, el Centro Humboldt, argues that the canal will "irreversibly damage" the lake and its ecosystems.
  • La Prensa published videos showing Managua in 1972, both before and after the earthquake that destroyed the city.
  • In the town of Rancho Grande, the people have been organizing large protests against the Canadian mining company, B2Gold and their plans to open a large gold mine. Much of the unrest has been stirred by the local Catholic parish and some of the local protestant churches in protest of the likely environmental mess that will result. We were just driving in that area this week and we saw several signs strung across the road arguing both against and in favor of B2Gold. We also saw a couple of new community projects that were quite visibly sponsored by B2Gold, probably as a PR response to the protests.
  • An article about a seed bank project run by our friends at CIEETS.
  • A bunch of Nicaraguan high-school kids discovered, and will get to name, a new asteroid.
  • This article in Global Voices highlights several video projects addressing the problem of child labor in Nicaragua. Some of the videos are written and performed by the children themselves, reflecting on their situations.
  • One big recent topic of conversation in the gringo community was this NY Times article about NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's activism in solidarity with Nicaragua during the 1980s. It seemed to me both an interesting glimpse of the young activist, while at the same time, kind of a sleazy oppo research hit job.
And some music: Un Millon de Amigos, by Roberto Carlos

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Welcome Mayito!

We are very excited to welcome Magyolene Rodriguez to Nicaragua, where she will be serving as a long-term volunteer with la Misión Cristiana. Mayito comes to us from the Pentecostal Church of Chile and her work here in Nicaragua marks the first time that church has entered into an international mission partnership. You can read about her sending off from her home church here on Elena Huegels' blog. Happily Mayito is also blogging about her experiences, which you can read about here (in Spanish): Mayim en Managua. That should help make up for our lack of posting recently!

Estamos muy contentos de dar la bienvenida a Magyolene Rodriguez a Nicaragua, donde ella va a servir como voluntaria de largo plazo con la Misión Cristiana. Mayito nos viene de la Iglesia Pentecostal de Chile y su trabajo aquí en Nicaragua marca la primera vez que esa iglesia ha entrado en una asociación internacional de misión. Se puede leer sobre la despedida en su iglesia aquí en el blog de Elena Huegels. Felizmente, Mayito también escribe un blog sobre sus experiencias, que se puede leer aquí (en español): Mayim en Managua. Este ayuda en compensar para nuestra falta de escribir recientemente!
Mayito has already jumped into the life of the church here, leading a series of workshops in preparation for a tree-planting trip planned for later this month. We can already see that her background in agronomy and environmental science, along with the experience working with youth, will be a wonderful fit with the environmental and food security projects that the church already has in progress. We have also loved having her stay with us and she has quickly become Quinn and Maya's new favorite person. We hope here time here in Nicaragua will be filled with many blessings, adventures, challenges and happiness, both for her and for la Misión Cristiana.

Mayito ya ha comenzado su trabajo con la iglesia, llevando a cabo una serie de talleres en preparación para un viaje de plantación de árboles prevista para finales de este mes. Ya podemos ver que su formación en agronomía y ciencias del medio ambiente, junto con la experiencia de trabajo con los jóvenes, será una bendición para los proyectos ambientales y de seguridad alimentaria que la iglesia ya tiene en marcha. También ha sido maravillosa tenerla con nosotros en la casa y se ha convertido rápidamente en la nueva persona favorita de Maya y Quinn. Esperamos que su estancia aquí en Nicaragua estará lleno de muchas bendiciones, aventuras, desafíos y felicidad, tanto para ella como para la Misión Cristiana.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cuidar la Creación

Laura Jean and I just finished co-teaching a class at the university called Cuidar la Creación: Medio Ambiente, Ética y Teología (Caring for the Creation: Environment, Ethics and Theology). It was a class that combined environmental science and theology -- I'll let you work out which of us taught which parts -- and it was totally a blast, a really fun and rewarding experience. Right now we're gearing up to teach it again starting in a few weeks.

On the science side I talked about how ecosystems work, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, photosynthesis, food webs, ecosystem services, climate change, deforestation, environmental health and more. Good nerdy stuff! We also touched on some ethical and policy issues such as the Tragedy of the Commons, Environmental Justice and the international climate negotiations. On the theology side, Laura Jean began in the beginning with the creation story and its call for humans to "till and keep" and be good stewards of the land. She also touched on the clear connection between the environment and the biblical call for justice, along with newer lines of thought such as ecofeminism.

The main goal of the course was to start from the students' experience of their own environment and then to apply what they learned about science and theology to their own communities and churches. The first homework assignment was an essay asking them to describe an environmental problem in their town or neighborhood, and to think about what the costs were to the community and whether or not anyone benefited from the situation. The results were a fascinating glimpse into the ground-level environmental problems in Nicaragua.

In a large class of nearly 40 students, a mix of urban-dwellers and campesinos, the three biggest problems identified were the following: (1) trash disposal and open trash heaps, (2) contamination of rivers and lakes, and (3) problems connected to clear cutting and deforestation. Teaching is a wonderful thing because you can learn so much from your students. Here's what I learned.

Anyone who has visited Nicaragua will have noticed the trash problem. In Managua the streets and gutters and canals are clogged with trash. Trash cans and dumpsters are non-existent and a culture of littering is well-established. The government has been working at improving the trash pick-up system, but many neighborhoods still suffer from unofficial dumping spots. Until recently, Managua was home to Central America's largest open-air trash dump, La Chureca, where hundreds of families lived by picking through the trash. (La Chureca was recently sealed and converted to a modern trash treatment dump thanks to a large aid package from Spain, and the families living there were given the option of employment at the recycling and sorting center.)

Among the students in the class, there was a pretty strong consensus that trash was Nicaragua's biggest pollution problem. Essay after essay recounted the same story told in a different barrio or pueblo: open-air dumping pits, children living nearby, no help from the government and a lack of concern by too many people. The trash is a clear public health threat, in addition to being generally unpleasant to live next to. People joke cynically that the Nicaraguan national flower is the plastic bag, which can be seen fluttering in the fields all around the country. The culture of littering goes hand in hand with a lack of infrastructure for dealing with the problem, and an explosion in the availability of disposable stuff -- all of which makes it a tough problem to solve. This year the government rolled out a big initiative called Vivir Bonito, Vivir Bien (Live Beautiful, Live Well), in hopes of making a dent in the problem.

Trash is also clearly connected to the second problem - the contamination of the lakes and rivers of Nicaragua. The country is home to two of the largest freshwater lakes in the Americas, Lago Xolotlán (Lake Managua) and Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua). Lake Managua is severely contaminated, thanks to many decades of industrial dumping by factories that no longer exist, but whose contamination lives on after them. The lake also receives runoff from the city of Managua, which went largely untreated until recently. Cocibolca has avoided most of the extreme contamination of its sister to the north, but is currently at the center of the debate about the proposed trans-oceanic canal through Nicaragua.

In rural areas, overuse of pesticides are one of the major sources of water pollution. In Chichigalpa, one of the major sugar cane-producing regions, is currently experiencing an epidemic of chronic kidney disease. Hundreds of young, healthy men working the sugar cane plantations (owned by Nicaragua's wealthiest family, the Pellas) are dying from kidney failure. The disease is especially tragic since it strikes the young and advances rapidly with no cure. And while it has been difficult to pinpoint the cause of the epidemic, some combination of contaminated water and extreme dehydration seem to be the likely culprits. One group of students from that area of Nicaragua did interviews with community groups and workers as part of their final project for the course (more on which soon).

Since the end of the civil war, Nicaragua's agricultural frontier has pushed further into the eastern rainforest. The main culprit, and the eventual endpoint of the land, is cattle ranching -- profitable but destructive. In twenty years from 1990 (the end of the civil war) to 2010, Nicaragua's forested land shrunk from 37% to 25% of the country (FAO 2010). The maps shown here (Liscow 2012) show the tremendous deforestation in the center of the country, from 1983 to 2000.

This deforestation is something we have seen first hand on our trips to the campo, and it is one reason behind the church's biodigester project. We have heard time and again from small Nicaraguan farmers about the harm that comes from not conserving the forests -- lack of firewood, erosion, loss of springs and water sources, floods, loss of wildlife and big changes in rainfall patterns.

According to many of our students, the various churches of Nicaragua are asleep when it comes to environmental issues. Several students have told us that the churches are perhaps overly focused on the soul and the hereafter that they forget the body and the present world. But environmental problems continue to grow and occupy a larger space in the national conversation, it's not likely that the churches will remain quiescent for long, at least not if our students have anything to say about it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mariposa de Alas Rotas

For a little bit of Friday night music, here is Nica singer-songwriter Katia Cardenal's "Mariposa de Alas Rotas" (Broken-Winged Butterfly). Today we sat in on a thesis defense given by a student for her Masters in Feminist Theology. It was a very powerful presentation about the sexual exploitation and trafficking of girls and young women in Nicaragua, and their perceptions and perspectives on God, and the church. It was a grim, enraging topic presented in a hopeful manner, touching on the concept of resiliency in the face of adversity. This song was the presentation's theme music, as Katia sings here ... a broken-winged butterfly, against the hurricane...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Resilience and Change

The question came from a middle-aged woman in the audience. Like many Nicaraguan women of her generation she was slight of build, but strong of voice: "But what if your husband doesn't approve of your work outside the home?" The speaker's reply was a little bit shocking, but at the same time, it brought the house down with laughter.

"We'll he's dead now, so I am free. Thanks be to God."

That morning we had gathered to hear from three women -- Aurora, Maria and Mayra -- who live and work in the area of Santo Tomas and Juigalpa, a rural part of Nicaragua known for its cattle ranching. All three are campesinas (rural women) and activists working to support and educate other women from their area -- especially small farmers, teaching agricultural techniques and organizing cooperatives. Their not inconsiderable task that morning was to explain to us how the world works, and we were lucky to be their students.

Every year CIEETS -- the theology education and sustainable development wing of the university where we teach -- organizes a cátedra (or conference) on women and gender issues in Nicaragua. This past December the focus was on the "Daily Life of Women and Adaptation to Climate Change" and we organized two days of talks and activities, one in Managua and the other in Juigalpa. I confess, I was worried the theme would be a hopeless jumble, but it worked beautifully. (I already blogged a few of the videos and songs from the conference here and here.)

What the speakers showed was that we live in interesting times and that it is the women who must navigate the big changes that have come to rural Nicaragua, just as they have all around the world. A woman's husband may still harbor old patriarchal notions of how families should work, but at the same time the "old ways" are eroding under waves of economic, cultural and environmental change. And women -- who are on the front lines of putting food on the table and keeping the household together even if the men have to travel to find work -- are the ones confronting these changes and finding solutions.

Domestic violence was brought up a lot, and unfortunately, the problem of domestic violence is a critical one in Nicaragua today. It is often said that Nicaragua is the least violent country in Central America, a fact that obscures the violence that happens behind closed doors. Nica feminist groups have done a lot to raise the visibility of the issue with an effective series of ad campaigns, marches and legal advocacy. All three women immediately drew connections between domestic violence and education for women, the importance of building self-esteem among women, of building their economic independence, and of raising the next generation in a new paradigm.

So what does this have to do with climate change, you might well ask. All three women echoed what we've heard from small farmers all around Nicaragua: the rains are different from in the past. They come at the wrong time, or not enough, or they come in one torrential downpour and then nothing, wrecking havoc with the planting and harvest schedule. This may be partially a result of global climate change, but a more immediate culprit is the tremendous local deforestation that Nicaragua has suffered in the past few decades. At any rate, there is a general sense among the farmers that making the land produce is harder now than in generations past. And as with other changes, this is something that affects women first and foremost.

The sprawling nature of the conversation is fairly typical of these events. Once you enter through one door (e.g. domestic violence), you find yourself talking about every possible related topic: education, unemployment, food prices, rainfall patterns, etc. etc. The spanish word that gets used a lot is el desarrollo integral, which means integrated or holistic development. It's the idea that we need to address multiple issues in parallel in order to make progress. It can be daunting or inspiring, depending on your mood.

For my part, I gave a brief talk on the science of climate change, the basics of the greenhouse effect and what rising levels of carbon dioxide might have in store for us in the future. The focus of the talk was on adaptation. Even if the world manages to put in place a binding treaty to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases in the next few years (a depressingly remote possibility at this point), we will still need to adapt to a wave of changes in the next several decades. This is because there is a certain amount of climate change already "baked into the cake" due to the permanence in the atmosphere of CO2 that has already been emitted.

We showed the following video (produced by the UN Environmental Program) about the importance of investing in climate change adaptation measures. Nicaragua has long experience with natural disasters and so the need for such adaptation and preparedness measures is an easy sell. What is harder is securing funding for what needs to be done, and getting reliable regional predictions of climate change impacts (a very hard scientific problem that is woefully underfunded).

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Hosting Visiting Groups

Laura Jean and I wrote a short article for the Global Ministries website about the experience of hosting visiting groups from U.S. churches.
Receiving groups from Disciples and UCC churches is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our job as missionaries. For us personally, church visits give us an opportunity to share what we love best about Nicaragua, the friends we’ve made and our work here. Helping a new group navigate their way through new situations reminds us of the path we’ve traveled in the nearly three years since we first stepped out of the air-conditioned blast of the airport into the damp Managua night, fumbling over the most basic tasks and gawking at the newness and strangeness of this country we were about to call home.
You can check out the rest of it here.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Midnight Journey to the Other Side (of Nicaragua)

Our bus left Managua at 4:30 in the afternoon, heading for the mining towns of Rosita and Bonanza on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. If all went well, we would be in Rosita a little after dawn the next morning. Thirteen bumpy hours, traveling dark roads through the heart of Nicaragua in a cramped, crowded, converted school-bus. We were traveling with our friend Sonia to the most remote cluster of churches of La Misión Cristiana to participate in the theological education classes in that region. Or rather, Laura Jean and Sonia were going to teach, I was going for fun. Our final destination was called, appropriately enough, El Retiro -- which means "The Retreat" in Spanish.

Fast & Furious, our aptly named bus
Our route took us through Boaco, then a late dinner in Muy Muy, although we decided not to eat or drink much, worrying about the rumored lack of bathroom breaks. As it turned out we did stop in Río Blanco and Siuna, and later along the road when the bus got a flat. Beyond Río Blanco the pavement gave out. Although every seat was full when we left Managua, amazingly, they kept adding more passengers as the night went on. The center aisle of the bus was filled with upturned buckets and plastic stools for the extra passengers to sit on, until every last possible space was filled.

There were chickens and puppies traveling with us, and giant sacks of beans. The bus stopped occasionally to deliver packages to random farmhouses along the route. We traveled the whole night blasting music from loudspeakers, perhaps to keep the driver awake as we barreled through the dark, feeling every single rut and pothole. Almost as loud was the wind from the open windows, which also brought the 2 a.m. cold and the smell of diesel exhaust. By morning I almost could taste it.

It was, as you might imagine, a pretty uncomfortable night. The spacing of the seats was slightly less than the length of my thigh bone, meaning that I was unable to sit normally facing forward and spent the night twisting from one side to another, jamming my knees into cracks, trying to find a comfortable position. Laura Jean's seat was on top of the wheel well, making it even worse. Nothing we tried seemed to help for long. Allegedly I did drift off to sleep at some point because I awoke as the sun was peeking over the horizon, my eyes gunked over and woozy from the motion.

We rolled into Rosita at 5:30 a.m. Our instructions were to head directly to the bus terminal and grab the 6 a.m. bus to Kukalaya. The latrines were locked and nothing was open for breakfast, so we boarded the bus and kept moving forward.

Unfortunately, that bus was stopped in the next town of Susun. It turns out that some local farmers were staging a huelga (a strike or protest). We got off the bus, a little confused, but someone told us that if we walked through the town we could catch another bus on the other side. Upon crossing a wooden bridge we saw a crowd of thirty or so men, armed with machetes and clubs. They had dragged branches and pieces of wood across the road and were stopping and turning around all vehicle traffic -- public buses and private pickup trucks alike. They didn't seem to have any problem with pedestrian traffic and we climbed over with no problems.

(We found out later what the dispute was about. The government has protected a large section of northern Nicaragua as the Bosawas Reserve. Large sections of the park are still pristine forest, home to indigenous groups such as the Mayagna. However, since the government has almost no ability to police the area, other poor landless farmers have squatted on Mayagna land, burning down the forest and planting crops. Tensions between the Mayagnas and the settlers have spiked in recent weeks, leading to the murder of one Mayagna leader and calls for government intervention. Apparently the people blocking the roads in Susun were the landless squatters hoping to force the government to recognize them. You can read a bit more about the conflict here and here.)

On the other side of the barricades we waited for a while at a pulperia with some other displaced travelers, waiting for the mythical bus and wondering what to do. The sun was getting hot, even thought it wasn't yet 8 in the morning. Once we saw that the protesters were setting up new barricades to trap vehicles coming from the other direction, Sonia said that we should set off walking. And so we bought some water and headed out, not entirely sure how far we had to go to reach our destination.

Waiting for the bus.
Our walking companions were a woman named Elizabet and her 3 kids, who looked like they ranged from age 6 to 10. They were heading in our direction and took turns carrying a heavy bag of red beans. They were extremely cheerful traveling companions, the kids were uncomplaining and told funny jokes about how we should just commandeer some bicycles to finish our trek. We knew that we were heading for a cluster of towns called California, El Black or Riscos de Oro, depending on who you talked to. Supposedly the presbitero for the northern region, José Adan, was going to meet us there and travel on farther with us.

We saw multiple buses heading in the opposite direction, but none ever returned to pick us up. We figured that the protesters had stopped them and even prevented them from turning around. So we kept walking. Sonia insisted that we had to keep moving ahead, and it was great advice, although at the time we wondered. We also noticed that this part of Nicaragua, more so than anywhere we have visited, was suffering from a terrible deforestation-- the jungle transformed by slash-and-burn agriculture into broad fields and cattle pasture. Specifically for us, this meant that there was hardly any shade and after an hour or two of walking we were hot, thirsty and sunburned.
Evidence that I've been on a horse!

Around 11 a.m. we arrived at a crossroads and found many people waiting for buses that weren't going to appear. There were a couple of pickup trucks around, but they were charging exorbitant rates, so we steeled ourselves to keep walking, even though the hottest part of the day was coming up. Someone told us that California was a 2-3 hour walk from where we were. Sonia rallied us and we pushed on ahead.

Very quickly our perseverance was rewarded. A pickup truck packed with people approached and in the passenger seat was José Adan. Hearing that we had been walking, he and the other hermanos from the church mobilized some transportation and came in search of us. We had never been so happy to see a friendly face. We piled in the truck and arrived in Riscos de Oro in no time. There we got to sit down and have some lunch with José Adan, meet his family and some of the other church members (who were themselves traveling back to El Retiro from an event at a different church).

After lunch, we piled once more into the pickup and made the hour-long trip to the Río Kukalaya. The pickup somehow managed to hold almost 20 people. It was a surprisingly fun trip, even given that I was exhausted and holding on for dear life. People laughed and told jokes, enjoying the wind and the carefree sense hanging off the back of a pickup. Everyone said that we were traveling norteño style. The landscape continued to show severe signs of slash-and-burn deforestation, and we even passed some fields that were still smoldering. However, one stretch of the road was seemingly untouched forest, and José Adan said that it was owned by a lumber company that was actively reforesting its lands and trying to manage the forest somewhat sustainably.

Arriving in El Retiro.
We arrived at the Río Kukalaya, which was at low ebb, and crossed it in a dugout canoe, pushed by a small boy. On the other side we mounted up on horses (a first for me!) and rode for about an hour to another river, crossed it and found ourself in El Retiro just as the late afternoon sun was bathing it in a golden glow. El Retiro is a beautiful green space, not heavily forested, with wooden houses raised up on stilts and spaced well apart from each other. After traveling through half-burned fields for hours, it seemed like a true refuge in comparison.

We stayed in the house of Pastor Secundino. After 24 hours of straight travel, and 48 hours of being awake, we went directly to the nearby river, called the Río Rarawas, to clean off the dust and the grime. The water was warm, but miraculously refreshing. After that we ate dinner, watched the fireflies come out and collapsed into bed.
The River.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quem ama abraça (S/he who loves, Embraces)

Here's a music video that's been making the rounds at the university. It was shown as part of our "Women and Climate Change" event from December (which I mentioned here, and still hope to post more about). It's a Brazilian video in support of a campaign against violence against women (kind of a "We Are The World"-style collaboration). The title is "Quem Ama Abraça", which (I think) is Portuguese for "S/he who loves, Embraces." Plus, it's pretty catchy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Movies about Latin America

I was asked recently about which movies I would recommend about Latin America. I'm certainly not an expert on the topic, but I did want to highlight two, especially since they are not that well known: Men With Guns and Burn!

John Sayles is an independent American writer and director who has made some fantastic films in his time (Eight Men Out, Lone Star, and especially Matewan) but Men With Guns is one of his best. The story concerns a well-to-do doctor who lives in the capital city of some unnamed Latin American country. Initially unaware of the dirty war being waged by his government in the rural areas, he sets off into the campo in search of two of his students who disappeared while working at a rural medical clinic. He enters into a world where the poor, indigenous people are preyed upon by hombres armados on all sides. Trekking deeper and deeper into the jungle and the conflict, he leaves behind his comfortable world until he hears a rumor that his last student has taken refuge -- high up in the mountains -- in a village that has never known violence.

Sayles' style is very simple, almost primitive. The doctor's quest is not explicitly religious, but contains powerful currents of a spiritual quest as well as a search for personal redemption. Sayles doesn't much go in for the sort of magical realist imagery that the Latin American setting might suggest, but he reaches for universal truths and manages to grasp them. A sad movie, but thoughtful and moving.

The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo is most famous for The Battle of Algiers, his dissection of colonialism and terrorism in the Algerian civil war. In Burn! he once again tackles the topic of colonialism, focusing on the way the colonial powers managed to maintain economic control even as their colonies were achieving independence. The film stars Marlon Brando as a British agent sent to a Portuguese colony (loosely based on Guadeloupe) to foment an independence movement that would open up the region to British trade. After a successful revolution, he returns ten years later to put down another revolt led by his former compañeros.

Brando gives a typically great performance as the charismatic, amoral British agent, as does Evaristo Márquez as the rebel leader. The film's analysis of colonialism is sharp and cynical, but makes for an exciting and fascinating story.

There are several other good films that are pretty topical. Although I haven't watched it in years, The Mission was beautiful and sad, telling the story of Jesuit missionaries in South America who stand with a Guarani tribe against the onslaught of the conquistadores. The story of El Salvador's Archbishop Óscar Romero is so inherently compelling that the film version (starring Raul Julia) is worth watching despite being kind of mediocre. And because not everything is about war and death, I'm a big fan of Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, which is heartfelt and charming (but, you know, very sexually explicit and NSFW).

Nicaragua itself doesn't produce very many films, although that is starting to change. One recent local film that I've been really wanting to see is La Yuma, a drama about a female boxer that was a big hit down here a few years ago and became only the 6th Central American film to be submitted to the Oscars for competition in the Best Foreign Film category.

If anyone knows any other good films about Latin America (especially comedies!), please leave them in the comments!

Sunday, April 21, 2013


We wrote a short reflection for the Global Ministries website, summarizing what we and our partners have been up to lately and looking forward to what will be our last year here in Nicaragua. If you've been reading the blog it shouldn't be too surprising, but you can read it here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sixteen Steps (Learning from Partners) / 16 pasos (aprendiendo de La Misión Cristiana)

By now, most of you have probably heard me say that mission in the 21st century is a two-way street. It has been my experience that we have as much or more to learn from our partners in mission than we have to teach or offer them.  In this spirit, I offer a powerful framework for resolving conflicts.  These principles can be applied to any conflict, in a family, at work, in a church or other organization.

Creo que ya me han escuchado decir que la misión en el siglo XXI es un camino de doble via.  En mi experiencia, podemos aprender de los que acompañamos en la misión más de lo que podemos enseñar o ofrecer a ell@s.  En este espírito, les ofrezco unos pasos muy poderosos para resolver conflictos.  Estos principios se pueden aplicar a cualquier conflicto, que sea dentro de la familia, en el trabajo, en la iglesia u otro organismo.

These 16 steps come from a course on "Human Relations and Conflict Transformation," which was prepared by our friend Carlos Sediles Real, a Nicaraguan theologian and member of La Misión Cristiana.  It is one of the topics in our curriculum for Ministerial Formation (popular education in theology and skills for ministry for church lay and pastoral leaders). 

Los 16 pasos se encuentran en un módulo sobre "Relaciones Humans y La Transformación de Conflictos," preparado por nuestro amigo Carlos Sediles Real, teólogo nicaraguense y miembro de La Misión.  Estudiamos este módulo en el programa de Formación Ministerial (lo cual es educación popular en la teología y herramientas de los ministerios para lideres de la iglesia).

1. Define the issues you are trying to resolve.
2. Divide the problem into distinct components and try to resolve them individually.
3. Don't speak for another person or for the group.
4. Don't jump from one issue to another.
5. Separate the problem from the person.
6. Clarify the interests of each person.
7.  Identify the interests you have in common.
8. Define in concrete terms the basic needs of each person that should be included in the agreement.
9. Determine the minimum that is necessary for you to be satisfied.
10. Try to find the possible solutions that could work for both parties.
11. Don't evaluate the solutions immediately.
12. Make a list of solutions.
13. Consider solutions that others have found in similar situations.
14. Test the solutions in a tentative and positive way.
15. Make agreements about a fundamental principle to use as a basis for evaluating possible solutions.
16. Agree on a procedure to resolve the problem.

1. Delimitar los asuntos a tratar.
2. Fraccionar el problema en distintos componentes y tratar de resolverlos individualmente.
3. No hablar por la otra persona o por el grupo.
4. No se debe ir saltando de un asunto a otro.
5. Separar el problema de la persona.
6. Aclarar los intereses.
7. Identificar los que tienen en común.
8. Concretar las necesidades básicas de cada uno/a que deben formar parte del acuerdo.
9. Determinar lo mínimamente necesario para estar satisfecho/a.
10. Esforzarse por encontrar las posibles soluciones que pueden servir a ambos.
11. No Evaluar las soluciones inmediatas.
12. Generar una lista de soluciones.
13. Considerar soluciones que hayan manejado otros en situaciones parecidas.
14. Probar las soluciones en forma positiva y tentativa.
15. Establecer acuerdos sobre algún principio fundamental en cual va a basarse para evaluarlas.
16. Establecer acuerdos criterios del procedimiento a seguir para resolver el problema.

May all your conflicts be opportunities for growth and learning!
¡Qué todos sus conflictos sean oportunidades para crecer y aprender!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

City of Trees

Our first week in Managua, we were taken around on a tour of the city by one of La Misión's pastors who drives a taxi. One stop was the lookout point at the Laguna de Tiscapa, which gives a panoramic view of the city. I remember saying to our friend, ¡Qué verde! (How green it is!). He replied that yes, Managua was a very green city, especially in the rainy season (although it gets pretty amarillo in the summer).
Downtown Managua
When viewed from on high, Managua doesn't much look like a city of almost 2 million people. It looks like a small residential town or a federation of small neighborhoods. Here and there a few tall, modern buildings poke through the canopy of greenery and low tin roofs, but they are the exception. This state of affairs has a lot to do with Managua's unusual history and its distinct lack of central planning. Many Managua neighborhoods began as informal encampments in the years following the earthquake and the revolution and the lean war years. As Stephen Kinzer noted during the 1980s:
"...since the 1972 earthquake Managua had ceased to be a real urban area. Exotic animals like iguanas and bats and hummingbirds were common there, and farm animals roamed freely. Most Managuans were only a generation or two removed from the farm, if that, and when food became expensive and scarce, they thought nothing of keeping livestock in the vacant lots that surrounded their homes. The animals were not penned or tethered, and could often be seen moseying along main streets and standing in public plazas, as if they were waiting for the remaining humans to leave so they could have Managua for themselves." (Blood of Brothers, p. 169).
Managua hasn't yet returned to the state of nature, but it does turn out that people love trees -- they give shade and fruit -- and prefer to keep them around given the opportunity. Although people love trees, developers don't. Trees complicate electrical cables and water lines and cut into the profit margin, which is why housing developments in the U.S. always seem to scrape the land bare before they start building. When we visited San Salvador, that city also seemed to be a concrete jungle, clearly more developed and wealthier than Managua, but much less green.

That first week, we were also amused to find out that the street we live on was divided in two by an enormous mango tree, planted right smack dab in the middle of the road, preventing any through traffic.  (The other entrance to our street is blocked by a memorial to a local kid who died fighting in the revolution.) Cars and motorcycles do come down the street, but it isn't easy. Here too, history is important. Our neighborhood was built back in the '60s, and originally the narrow streets were designed as pedestrian alleys or walking spaces. Many residents used the common space for trees or gardens or public sitting areas. As cars have become more common, many of these andenes have been paved over, little by little with a patchwork of varieties of hand-mixed concrete. All so people can park their car right next to their house. A friend who lived here years before us told me a story about the civil disobedience carried out by some of the neighborhood abuelitas when the decision was made to pave over their gardens.

We also have two mango trees in our backyard, which provide us with shade, hammock space and a seasonal deluge of thumps on the roof. There are two varieties of mango (Mangifera indica) here and ours is the type that doesn't usually get sold in the markets. But it is still pretty delicious, and once they ripen, every chavalo in the neighborhood seems to be climbing trees (or throwing rocks) to bring down the harvest. The peak comes in March, and usually comes too fast for us to consume all the bounty. In fact, there are weeks where we are mostly concerned with carting sacks of rotting mangos out to the trash pickup. I never would have thought I could get sick of eating mangos, but the smell of rotting fruit can do that to you.

A few months after our arrival, our neighbor had their mango tree trimmed. And when I say trimmed I mean violently hacked down to a mere stump about the height of a person. At first I was shocked and a little heartbroken. It was a lovely tree and shaded part of our porch. Why cut it down? I was reassured that it would grow back, but I had my doubts. In California where I grew up, you can't cut a tree down to a stump like that and expect it to survive. There was a sad incident where an oak tree in my grandmother's backyard was cut down to a stump due to a miscommunication with the tree trimmers. And it never grew back.

Of course, California is a desert; things work differently in the tropics, where water is abundant and bursting fecundity is the rule. And sure enough the neighbor's palo grew back in no time. This past week the grand-daddy mango in the center of the street came due for a haircut. The trimmers came and cut it back to a stump the shape of a gnarled fist (at right). We also gave our two mangos a bit of a trim, although not as drastic. Right now there is hardly any shade on our house and we can feel the difference. So once again we're hoping that the rains come soon and the trees re-sprout, putting forth shady, leafy green once more.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Correr

I ran my first race in Nicaragua this past weekend -- a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) run hosted by Managua Runners, the local running club. Between a new country and a new baby, running had fallen off the front burner for our first few years here, but since the new year we've been making an effort to get out and get training. As you might imagine, the biggest obstacle to running here in Nicaragua is the heat. Running during the day is pretty much a no-no and many Nicas will run at 5 a.m. to take advantage of the early morning cool. (Note: we are not that ambitious...)

The starting line (photo: Managua Runners)
Anyway, the race was a lot of fun. I had missed the excitement of the starting line, of being in a big group of runners, jittery with adrenaline, music blasting. I had been nursing a mild head cold for a few days (just my luck) and was worried I might have to skip the race, which would have been a bummer. Sunday morning I was feeling only about 80%, energy-wise, but decided to go ahead and run anyway. The race started at 7 a.m. and the heat wasn't too bad, at least at the start, although an hour later, as we were finishing, was another story.

For those who know Managua, here's the route (click for map). It started off from Centro Pellas with a long uphill stretch up the Carretera Masaya, then followed by a long downhill. There was a long stretch without shade towards the end (near the Universidad Centro America) where the heat suddenly hit you, but thankfully the bomberos (firefighters) were there to spray us with the firehose. And then back to the start to collect your complementary banana and unlimited bottles of water. In the end, I finished in 58:08 for a 9:22 mile pace and placed 145th out of 413 runners. Originally, I was hoping to get under a 9:00 pace, but in the end I was happy just to be out there.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Scorched Earth

"La Tierra Arrasada" (The Scorched Earth).

The vision of this video is of a future Central America, deforested and suffering the effects of a degraded environment. (Sorry for the lack of subtitles!) The story is not so different than "The Lorax," really, but carried out with some beautiful, painted-hand puppetry. We showed this video at a conference last December on "Women and Climate Change," about which, more coming soon.

La visión de este video es de un futuro Centro America, desforestada y sufriendo los efectos de la degradación del medioambiente. El cuento no es tan diferente de "El Lorax" en realidad, pero llevó a cabo con unas hermosas marionetas de mano. Se mostró el video en una conferencia el diciembre pasado sobre "La Mujer y el Cambio Climático," de la que, más información viene pronto.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mission Moment

The Global Ministries weekly prayer comes once again to visit Nicaragua. The link is here -- previous mission moments here and here.

Pray for Nicaragua on Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lectionary Selection: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Prayers for Nicaragua:
Beloved Father, you give to us abundantly, when we manage your gifts responsibly, and when we spend them frivolously.  Profligate God, you bless us richly, when we fall at your feet in gratitude, and when we grumble and worry about receiving our fair share.  We thank you and praise you for who you are.  Give us hearts that are generous to our brothers and sisters, that we may rejoice whole-heartedly when the lost are found and the least are served.
We pray for Nicaragua:
  • for so many struggling to survive, whose struggle is made more difficult by global economic turmoil and rising prices for petroleum, for transport, rice and beans.
  • for children whose parents are too poor to send them to free public schools, because they can’t afford shoes or school supplies, or rely on them to work so the family can eat.
  • We pray for La Misión Cristiana (the Christian Mission Church of Nicaragua): as they work to help children get an education, to help families have enough to eat, to train pastors to care for and inspire their churches and communities, to build biogas stoves and plant trees, and to share a vision of a new Nicaragua.
  • for the church leadership, as they work to make these visions reality with very limited resources, that the leadership will be inspired by love of the work to which God has called them, and continue to move forward despite real challenges.
In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

Mission Stewardship Moment from Nicaragua:
The village of San Pedro is found about an hour from the paved road in the driest, hottest part of Nicaragua. There is no electricity.  Any water for cooking and cleaning must be carried up from the spring in buckets, and to get cell signal you have to climb a mountain. Each day brings only a few vehicles trundling by on the road that passes in front of the church. San Pedro is off the grid. And it was here that several pastors and lay leaders of the Christian Mission Churches gathered last year to kick off a new project -- the building of biogas cooking stoves known as biodigesters.

Rural Nicaraguans typically cook their meals using firewood. This practice often leads to delicious arroz y frijoles or sopa de gallina, but can cause health problems for the women who are in charge of the kitchen. Cutting firewood also accelerates the severe deforestation in the region, which can cause soil erosion, flooding, changes in rainfall patterns and more. And as trees grow more and more scarce, the daily search for firewood can be expensive and time-consuming. For this reason, a good alternative to firewood was one of the primary needs of the community identified by the local pastors.

A biodigester is a technology that converts cow manure (an abundant resource in this cattle ranching area) into methane cooking gas. With the collaboration of several U.S. partner churches, the Christian Mission has now built 3 working biodigesters for families near San Pedro, with plans for 7 more this year. The family who received the first biodigester reports that it is working well and that one bucket of manure yields 3-4 hours of cooking gas a day. The pastors in the region are hopeful that the project can continue and expand to benefit more local families.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Biodigester Update

The biodigester project, which I blogged about previously here and here, has been chugging along nicely. We have been trying to take advantage of the dry season to install as many as possible. In November we met at the village of Tamarindo Malpaso to install our second biodigester at the casa pastoral (parsonage) of the 20th Christian Mission church. Malpaso is another small rural village just a few kilometers up the road from San Pedro. Once again, a core group of local pastors and church leaders showed up to help dig, mix cement, cut PVC pipe, etc. And once again, Davíd from EOS was our guide for the installation.

El proyecto de biodigestores, sobre lo que escribí anteriormente aquí y aquí, ha avanzado bastante. Hemos tratado de aprovechar el verano para instalar el mayor cantidad posible. En noviembre, nos reunimos en el pueblo de Tamarindo Malpaso para instalar el segundo biodigestor en la casa pastoral de la 20a Iglesia Misión Cristiana. Malpaso es otro pequeño pueblo rural, ubicada unos pocos kilometros más alla de San Pedro. Una vez más, un grupo de pastores y líderes de las iglesias locales llegó para ayudar a cavar el hoyo, mezclar el cemento, cortar la tubería, y más. Y una vez más, Davíd de EOS fue nuestro maestro para la instalación.
Here we are installing the black plastic covering for the hole. Aquí se instala el plástico negro para forrar el hoyo.

Pastor Boniche (the national president of the Christian Mission churches) and Victoriano (the pastor of local church #20) listen as Davíd explains the process. Pastor Boniche (el presidente naciónal de las Iglesias Misión Cristiana) y Victoriano (el pastor de la iglesia local #20) escuchen mientras Davíd explica el proceso.

Here are Davíd and Pastor Boniche installing the input tube. Davíd y Pastor Boniche instalan el tubo de entrada.

In December we installed biodigester #3. Hno. Misael is the pastor of the campo (new church start) in nearby La Leonera, but since the campo doesn't yet have a casa pastoral (and is quite difficult to get to without a horse) we installed the biodigester at his family house in San Pedro.

En diciembre se instaló #3. Hno. Misael es el pastor del campo en La Leonera, pero dado que el campo aun no tiene casa pastoral (y es difícil llegar sin caballo) se instaló el biodigestor en la casa familiar de Misael en San Pedro.

Sonia and Pastor Boniche, enjoying the shade and watching the progress on biodigester #3. Sonia y Pastor Boniche, disfrutando la sombra y viendo el progreso en #3.

Here's the completed biodigester, as seen out the window of the house. Aquí se encuentra el biodigestor  terminado, visto a través de la ventana de la casa.

Misael and his wife, showing off the new gas burning stove. Misael y su esposa, mostrando la nueva cocina de gas.

Both biodigesters #2 and #3 will need 50 buckets of manure and 50 buckets of water before they start working, so we're planning to do some follow-up next time we visit the area. While we were in San Pedro the last trip, Davíd was able to visit the site of our first installation to check up on it and give some maintenance advice on how to keep it in working order. I was also interested to see that the local churches had recently installed small solar panels, giving them a bit of daily electricity.

Ambos los biodigestores #2 y #3 necesitarán 50 baldes de estiércol y 50 baldes de agua antes de comenzar a funcionar. Por eso vamos a dar seguimiento durante la próxima visita a la zona. Mientras estábamos en San Pedro para la última visita, Davíd pudo visitar el lugar de la primer instalación para verla y dar unos consejos sobre el buen mantenimiento del biodigestor. También me interesaba ver que las iglesias locales habían instalado unos pequeños paneles solares, dando un poco de electricidad cada día.

We're ba-ack!

Apologies that the blog has gone silent. We spent the end of December and all of January in the U.S. visiting family and talking to churches (including some of you!) about Nicaragua. And I really don't know where February went to, but apparently we're in March already. Anyway, new blog posts will be  coming along shortly -- for now here's a picture of Quinn having fun at her school's Kermess (fair).

Las disculpas que el blog se ha quedado en silencio. Pasamos el fin de diciembre y todo enero en los EE.UU. visitando a la familia y hablando con iglesias (incluyendo algunos de ustedes!) sobre Nicaragua. Y realmente no sé donde fue el mes de febrero, pero parece que estamos en marzo ya. De todos modos, nuevos mensajes de blog va a venir pronto - por ahora aquí está una foto de Quinn se divierten en Kermess de su escuela.