There is the smell as I disembark from the plane in the Managua airport that immediately welcomes me back to Nicaragua. It’s the combination of a certain clean agent, humid air and thick wood fire. My nose seems to find it everywhere. The supermarket, Duilio’s house and even the hotel room. As strange as it sounds, somehow those three distinct odors mix in a way that makes me feel like I am back amongst friends.
Fourteen days will pass quickly with meetings, coffees and visiting our artisan partners so we got to work immediately. Yesterday Jairo (my in-country coordinator) and I spent the majority of the day talking over product ideas and pricing with a new recycled aluminum workshop that is able to cast smaller pieces. It’s another small family workshop and the husband was kind enough to give us a quick tour. After working on this product line for over 5 years with our other artisan partners, Pewter 21, I am quite familiar with the process. I have to admit though, this explanation was more like a Mr. Roger’s “How things are made” live video. We were given a full demonstration of the work that goes into making one of these pieces: Tamping molds, shoveling humid black sand and finally closing the mold. This is all before the pouring and polishing. What I enjoyed most was the pride that I saw as the owner described to us how he has been working in this casting process for over 20 years. I told him that my brother was a caster as well but in bronze. His eyes lit up and he left the room to return with a bronze duck statue to show me. He commented admiringly about the fact that my brother worked with a more delicate metal.
In the majority of the families that we work with, the wives are the ones who manage the accounting, completion of orders and pricing. This workshop was no different. After the demo, we were passed from the casting room to the front of the house where we sat with the wife for over a hour discussing pricing and designs were were interested in.
In the end, I decided to ask them if they would be able to cast a new request from my brother: 3 different shoe horns with bird heads for a new art exposition. Again, I loved the husband’s enthusiasm as he looked over the shoe horns. He agreed to try them out and felt confident that he could reproduce them. We told him that we will return in a week after our journey to the island.
It was already 1:00pm by the time we regrouped and drove to another contact that Jairo had met in the last few months. This time it was a Nicaraguan woman who used to be a nun with the Sisters of Charity. She moved to Managua from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua about five years ago. She tells the story how one day we was walking about 30 minutes away from her home and encountered a barrio that was made up of mostly single mothers who were caring for children with disabilities. Since that day, she has made it her mission to partner with these women to try and find ways to bring food and income into the households. We were standing on the front porch of her house looking through different items that she has taught the women to produce. As I carefully sorted through all of the little plastic bags, Illana began talking about the women. She then suddenly she looked at us and said, “Do you want to go? Come on let’s go. I’ll take you there so that you can meet these women.” How could we say no. We all climbed into the car and Illana started talking about how there was no water in the barrio, only once a week the government sends 2 “pipas” of water to the barrio. Then she explained that really you could only collect that water if you have a jug or something to collect it with. She kept scrolling through photos on her phone showing me the children and pointed out how dirty they were because there was no water for them to clean themselves. She went on to tell us how she started by building a little “Comidor” with a kitchen out of wooden pallets so that 40 children in the barrio could have food three times a week. After the first few sessions, more and more children were showing up at the door, then elderly folks, then pregnant women who were malnourished. The kitchen now is servicing 130 people and she is looking for anyone else who wants to help provide food so they are able to eat everyday. She said that when there is not any food in the homes, the mothers give the children a spoonful of sugar water. As we pulled off the main road and started up the rough dirt path, I thought about how much food waste we have in the States. I thought about the reality of having to tell your child there was no food to eat. On my first few trips to Nicaragua, I would break down in tears, wondering how such extremes exist in the world. After working here for almost six years though, I find myself looking for solutions instead of having just a gut emotional reaction to the reality of life.
We arrived at the barrio which looked like a desert. Very dry packed dirt roads with no plant growth. Two children were playing with a flattened cardboard box, pulling each other around, laughing. Illana introduced us to Marta, a resident, who coordinates the cooking and distribution of the food.
They searched around for the key to the pallet structure so that we could see inside. The small one room had a few crudely constructed wooden tables placed around and the light streamed in through the wooden pallet slats. We talked a little more to Marta who shared how they hope for the future to be able to cover the walls so that in the rainy season the room can stay dry.
Illana talked more about how she was working on training the women in jewelry-making and simple sewing with two treadle sewing machines that she donated. On the car ride back to her house, I started giving her a quick lesson on markets and the idea of looking first looking for a market and then creating product to fit that demand. I admire the idea that Illana is looking for a way to help these women become self-sustainable and not create a cycle of dependency for them. It’s a process though. This is one of those instances of where you have to meet the basic needs and stabilize these women and their families and then take the next step forward. We dropped Illana back her house with a promise to brainstorm product ideas and look for folks who were interested in contributing to the food kitchen.
It was now 3:00pm and we hadn’t eaten since 8am, my head was pounding but there was a part of me that kept thinking about this position of privilege. The idea that we could leave that barrio and decide we would go and buy something to eat to satisfy our hunger so easily. I wrestle with this idea most days. Not about eating but more about privilege and how if one could choose, no one would choose to be born into a barrio with no water, no food and no opportunity.