Yesterday I took my first excursion of this journey into el campo. For those who don’t speak Spanish, el campo does not mean “the camp”. El campo means the countryside—and when you’re speaking about Nicaragua, don’t make the mistake of thinking about the countryside as an idyllic, peaceful place where people are one with nature and sheep frolic to the sounds of an adorable shepherd playing pipes. (Have the people who write about sheep frolicking ever SEEN a sheep?)
El campo in Nicaragua is the place where you will find the deepest poverty. In the U.S. many people (mistakenly) think of cities as the place where poverty is the most problematic. But in Nicaragua, people who live in el campo are isolated. Isolation means no electricity. It means no telephones. It means no newspapers. It means no roads, not even ones where a motorcycle can pass. We’re talking steep, steep footpaths, and you’d better be wearing your hiking boots because of the mud and loose rocks. Unless you happen to be a child living nearby and generally do it barefoot. Isolation means that the nearest school might be 3 hours away… distances are measured in time, just like in the U.S., but in el campo, three hours means three hours walking. When school is 3 hours away, some children get up very early in the morning and walk. Alone. Many other children, too young or too scared or just too tired, don’t go at all. Illiteracy is way, way too common.
My excuse for going yesterday was that I attended the meeting of a cooperative. This cooperative is a group of coffee farmers, who created this group in order to take advantage of specialty markets like fair trade and organic. Getting this group together, and helping the members get the certifications, has been a struggle, largely because of illiteracy. For example, both organic certification and fair trade certification require that each farm keep a notebook with their work plan. The inspectors want to know how many days they spend doing various chores around the farm—in the case of fair trade, this is mostly so that the farmers can’t buy coffee from non-certified farmers and pass it off as their own to be able to sell it at the higher price. But keeping this sort of detailed record is a big barrier for people who can’t read. Some have children who can do it. Others muddle through, putting Xs in boxes and getting neighbors and extension service officers to help them. And some give up.
This meeting they tried to fill an officer’s position which had been vacant. But in order to fill it and perform the duties, the person has to be literate. All the literate people already have officer’s positions, and you can’t hold two positions at once. They finally ended up recruiting a new soon-to-be member, with the understanding that when he joined he’d have this position. Meanwhile, the room was chock full of members, sitting silently around the edges. They weren’t asked, and they didn’t volunteer.
I was sitting next to a tiny old lady—standing, the top of her head didn’t reach my shoulder. (Protein deficiency in childhood causes stunted growth.) She had a small, brown, wrinkled face and long, long grey hair that she wore braided and pinned up on her head. During the discussion about the vacant position, she leaned over to me. “We need someone to come and teach us to read”, she whispered. “Many people here can’t read—at least, I can’t read. We need to learn.” She glanced at my small notebook where I had been scribbling, trying to keep up with what was going on in the meeting. “Not knowing how to read, it’s like being blind.” I felt like crying.
The cooperatives are doing good work in these communities. If nothing else, people come together, and this reduces the isolation. If all goes well, the cooperatives will also help people receive better prices for their coffee, bargaining directly with importers instead of taking whatever price they can from intermediaries. Sometimes successful coops can bring social services to the communities. Like someone to come and teach them to read.
I’m going tomorrow morning to stay for two nights in a different community in el campo. I hope to do a lot of talking with people, designing an economic household history survey. I want to know how a family’s economic situation changes over its life cycle—whether young people start out poor and generally get richer and richer, or whether some people start off a little better off and keep that advantage throughout life. It’s kind of a complicated set of data that I want to collect, so I’m doing a lot of talking and consulting with people to figure out how best to do it. It’s probable that some of the information I want will have already been collected in the recent census. At least I hope so! Keep your fingers crossed for me!