Friday, November 27, 2009

Investment in the Future: Barrio Avelardo Enrique Electricity Project

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all of my fellow American readers out there. I have to say, eating a plate of nachos in 95 degree heat doesn't feel quite the same as eating my Grandma's broccoli casserole after the Thanksgiving Day parade. Regardless, yesterday was pretty amazing for a Nicaraguan Thanksgiving .

Well, let's start from the beginning. On Wednesday night, we hosted another Trivia Night for Esperanza-Granada, where we raised upwards of 600 cords (about $30 USD) for the group. In the middle of the game, the Executive Director, Pauline, called me over to tell me about a great new barrio that is forming in the outskirts of Granada, called Avelardo Enrique. Esperanza has already built a three classroom schoolhouse out there and they are in the process of putting up another three rooms right now. However, as you can see by the picture above, the electrical lines that the members of the neighborhood have put up are quite ineffective and very unsafe. Pauline invited Isabel and me out there to see if there was a way that we could help.

When we arrived yesterday, the neighborhood was bustling with hope and energy despite the fact that its inhabitants were living in little more than cardboard and iron-scrapped shacks. The members of the barrio are INCREDIBLY organized in spite of the lack of much money or decent living conditions. They've already received quotes from a local engineer on the estimated costs of installing better power lines in their barrio. The 40 neighborhood families have even raised about 2,000 cords ($100 USD) to go to the project. Just to put that into perspective, the average Nicaraguan in these parts lives on about 20 cords a day ($1 USD).

So that's where we come in. For less than $5,000, we can build the six cement posts needed to mount the transformer (provided by the local government) and provide adequate electricity to the entire neighborhood, including the new grade school. If these families are able to receive electricity, they will be able to work after dark (about 5:30 here) to create products for sale in the markets and vend items that require refrigeration.

We still have to meet with the community leaders to make sure that our help would be most effective there. Upon first evaluation, however, it looks like a great project that is much needed. It's true that yesterday was not quite the typical Thanksgiving, but it was definitely an experience for which I will forever be thankful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Warm Welcome

About a month ago, I ventured out to the outskirts of Granada with my friend Silvia. Silvia is the hired help at the hostel San Angel, my first home upon arriving in Granada. We went to her neighborhood, Sabaneda. I intended to present our proposed program, Cena con las Madres, to interested mothers.

Upon arrival, Silvia invited me into her home and introduced me to her 4 children. There were no doors; curtains separated areas of her home and the floor was simply dirt. Despite this, everyone seemed happy. Then I heard a noise coming from the corner of the room. Sure enough, there was a television tuned to the World Series. In no time I was chatting with Silvia's teen-age son and his two cousins about how much I wanted to Yankees to lose! They found my passion very amusing. Like most Nicaraguans, they were quite indifferent on the outcome because Nicaraguans are Dodgers fans. The pitcher Vicente Padilla, who was Nicaraguan born and raised, is a Dodger. While we were chatting about the players we liked and disliked, Silvia went outside and gathered up the women who had displayed interest in the program.

Silvia's sister, Alba, lives next door. We all gathered outside Alba's home so I could personally meet each woman. My goal was to explain to them what I hoped could potentially come out of this program and receive receive their feedback. This meeting was particularly stressful for me because not only did the women interested in the program come out for the meeting, but also THE WHOLE COMMUNITY.

As dusk set upon us and the outdoor lights began to shine, I broke out into a nervous sweat. It seemed like the entire neighborhood was gathered in a semi-circle before me. I was personally introduced to each and every person. I also received a hug or a kiss from everyone in attendance. Then I spoke with the group at large while the younger children chased a pet chicken throughout the crowd.

By the end of the meeting my audience was excited about the program's potential. When I asked for feedback, people were shy at first. Then I explained to them that in order for this program to reach its potential we all needed to work together to eliminate any weaknesses in the structure. Soon enough, a gentleman spoke up with a suggestion. Conversation spread like wildfire.

I believe that the meeting was a success. I was able to connect with the community and gain their trust. I also presented our proposed structure of Cena con las Madres and received plentiful feedback from the community.

Everyone gave me another hug or kiss upon my departure. Silvia, her daughter and two friends walked me back towards Granada's center until I assured them that I felt completely safe to continue alone. Silvia also believed the night was a success, and gave me a wide smile and a big thank-you as I walked away.

Speaking of smiles, as I walked home thinking over the night, I too was grinning from ear to ear. The feeling of acceptance by the community was empowering. My evening in Sabaneda with Silvia, her family, and her friends was one of the best experiences I have been fortunate enough to have in Nicaragua.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Update from Nicaland

Good evening, fellow PHP Global supporters:

First off, I have to apologize on behalf of Isabel and myself for our lack of blogging skills. We have been working diligently to get everything done here before we leave in mid-December, and it has been quite the task. Every time we think we are nearing an end to our research, we get a ton of new leads. Let's be honest, though - this is a great problem for a new NGO to have.

So, let's see what has happened over the past month...
  1. We just got our website approved by our parent company, so it's officially open to the public. Check it out and let us know what you think of it. PLEASE let us know if you have any suggestions that could improve the site. It's
  2. We're working on a potential project with another NGO called Women of the Cloud Forest. The group works with women in the rain forest regions of Costa Rica to create jewelry which is sold in many museum gift shops and fair trade stores in the United States (e.g., Ten Thousand Villages and the Museum of Latin American Art). Our task would be to help them develop a new branch with Nicaraguan women cooperatives. It's an exciting project. We'll have to see how it all works out.
  3. Right now, we're trying to put together a few kick-off parties in the States for when we get back around the holidays. Two of our big programs will be an event somewhere in Burlington on the weekend of the 19th (here's the short list: Skinny Pancake, Flatbread, Three Tomatoes, Bangkok Bistro) and a New Years Eve event (probably) at Baja Bean in Richmond.
  4. We're developing a relationship with Equal Exchange right now to be able to sell their fair-trade coffee as an ongoing fundraiser for our organization.
  5. We're scouting out some places that we would like to convert into the Granada Hostel. We're putting together some proposals for the owners to try to lower the cost or take a tax write-off to help out our organization. We'll keep you updated on the progress of this project.
  6. We're hosting a pub trivia tonight at a place called O'Shea's here in Granada. Teams of 6 pay 10 cords a piece (or $0.50 USD) to play a trivia game. The winners get a bottle of rum and 100% of the proceeds go to Esperanza Granada, a local NGO that focuses on education programs. It's a great way to network among the local expat and traveler communities.
  7. We're reaching the roll-out point for our first Business Development Project, Cena con las Madres. Isabel will be posting something in the next few days detailing what we have developed - for the moment, I'll just say that I'm really excited about it.
I'll stop the serious information overload for now. We'll stay more on top of this blog after Cena con las Madres gets going. Thanks for following us. Please spread the word about our organization, sign up for all of our different media (Facebook, Twitter, Causes, and Our Newsletter), and of course, if you can, donate.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The People We Meet: Marsela

We met Marsela at Hostel San Jorge. She keeps the hostel clean as a whistle. Marsela is 16 years old. She works at the Hostel from sunrise until sunset, then walks through the market to her mother's vegetable stand. She spends another hour or so chopping up the extra vegetables that were not sold. Later, those vegetables will end up in pickled salads and stews. I detailed an idea to join Marsela and her mother for an evening's work in the "Preliminary Appointments" post. I would like to ask her mother if she would be interested in participating in our potential project: Ceña con las Madres, or if she knows of any other women in her community that would be interested in becoming involved.
As for Marsela, I would like to learn more about her dreams of attending the Public University in Managua. Nicaragua's Public University is called Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (UNAN). UNAN offers a substantially more affordable education than many private colleges in Nicaragua. However, this Public University is very difficult to attend. In a nutshell, one either has to graduate high school with perfect grades and high class rank or know people who have connections within the system to get it.
Fortunately for Marsela, her grades have always been excellent. She is confident that she will win admission to UNAN. The problem that remains is the cost: although it is a Public University, it still costs more than the average Nicaraguan has to offer. To accommodate the modest means of many college students, many colleges in Nicaragua offer weekend classes so students can still work . The most common schedule for a typical student would be to work six days a week then attend classes on either Saturday or Sunday from 8 to 12am then 1 to 6pm. Without this arrangement, most Nicaraguan college students could not afford higher education.
One large difference that I see between higher education in Nicaragua and in the US is that students in Nicaragua must work to attend College-University on the side as compared to students from the US who attend College-University and maybe work on the side.
Marsela would like to join UNAN's specialized program for tourism. She told me that this program is far more expensive than the other degrees offered at UNAN. The program would last 5 years and cost Marsela 80 dollars a month plus transportation and books. By comparison, a standard degree at the UNAN costs each student around 80 dollars per 10 months! As Marsela informed me, "que vale la peña" (It is well worth it) because evidently a tourism degree from the UNAN makes one far more likely to land a decent job.
I would like to learn more about how and where the tuition fees are spent within UNAN, especially those fees that make the tourism program significantly more expensive than any other. If the tuition fees are directly returned to the students through program development and job placement, I could understand them. If the short-terms costs of higher tuition fees strengthen the tourism industry in Nicaragua, then future graduates from the tourism program will reap the long-term benefits of numerous job opportunities.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The People We Meet: Silvia

Silvia- My first native Nicaraguan friend. I met Silvia at my first hostel, San Angel, a family-run mid-range accommodation right in town. She cooks delicious meals for the hostel's guests and keeps the place spotless. She has 4 children: three teenage boys and a 7-year old daughter, Jael, who comes to work with Silvia whenever she is not in school. Silvia works really hard so she can afford to raise her children. While she is not married, she has lived with the father of all her children for her entire adult life. This situation is not common in Nicaraguan culture, but she is happy and believes that the formality of marriage is not what is important in a relationship. She doesn't have abundant amounts of money but she does not live in poverty. When I asked her about her day she told me that she works at the hostel from sunrise to sunset, then returns home to cook for her family and care for her children before they all go to bed (her three teenage boys share a small room!!!)
Silvia is one of the women who I hope to incorporate into our program Ceña con las madres. She could help us connect to her community, which lies on the outskirts of Granada. I hope to meet with her this week and ask her if she would be willing to show me her home and introduce me to her friends from the barrio.

Potential Projects: Ceña con las Madres

Ceña con las madres (Dinner with the mothers)

We want to develop a network of women who will prepare and serve typical Nicaraguan dinners for paying guests. We expect that this program would appeal to tourists looking for a taste of authentic Nicaraguan cuisine.

Benefits of the program:

  1. A substantial amount of revenue for participating families.
  2. Tourists looking for an "off-the-beaten path" experience could explore a community outside of Granada proper. The average traveler does not venture into these surrounding communities, which offer fresh perspectives on Nicaraguan culture. A homemade meal in the intimacy of a residential neighborhood would be a rewarding travel experience.
  3. Communities will improve. Tourism would bring more money into them, and greater awareness by the tourism industry would encourage economic development.

Preliminary Appointments

Today I made two important visits.
The first was with Silvia and the second was with Marsela. I went to the two hostels where they work, Hostel San Añgel and Hostel San Jorge.
I discussed our ideas surrounding Project Ceña con las Madres with Silvia. I was happy to find out that she thinks our ideas would help the women of her community. She offered to ask a few of her neighbors if they would like to sit down with me and discuss ways in which we can work together to make this program successful. I asked her if I could accompany her to her neighborhood one day next week after she was done work so I could personally meet some of the women in her area. She said it would be her pleasure!
My second visit was to Marsela at Hostel San Jorge. She came out to greet me with a beaming smile from ear to ear. She showed me the vegetable stand where her mom sells their families produce each day. Marsela works at the Hostel from sunrise until sunset then she walks through the market to her mothers vegetable stand where she spends an hour or so chopping up the extra vegetable for pickled salads and stews. I told her I would like to help her chop vegetables one day with her and her mother and asked her if she would first check with her mother to see if this would be okay. If her mother agrees, I hope to explain our potential program Ceña con las Madres to them and see if Marsela's mother would be interested in participating. If she is not, I hope that the two of them may be able to direct me to a family that could participate and benefit from this program. If nothing else I hope to learn the secret to the amazing pickled vegetables down here!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Getting Started

Alex and I are both safely in Granada, Nicaragua. We are excited to have arrived in the location where we will be settling down and making our home for the next year or so. Speaking of homes, tomorrow we are looking at a shared home located a mere 5 min walk from the city's center. If we like what we see we will be moved in by Friday the 9th of October! Until then we are staying at San Jorge's Hostel tucked away in the far corner of Granada's bustling market.
Today is our first full day in the City. Currently we are attempting to maximize our work day by spending time developing the website, blogging our experiences, exploring Granada, connecting with other NGOs in the surrounding area, getting to know the local businesses and people and last but not least improving our ESPAÑOL!