"During my time in Nicaragua, the lessons that I learned about myself have been priceless and the motivation I've gained is more than I could have ever hoped for. I worried in the beginning that I would become overwhelmed by all that I would see. I thought that my desire to make a difference would suddenly become a romantic, impossible goal. To my surprise, however, even after seeing the magnitude of the problems in the developing world I feel more empowered and capable than ever before." - Stephanie Kleven, Class of 2006
January 18: When I arrived at the Managua International Airport on December 11th, I had no idea what to expect. My first trip through the streets of downtown Managua at 9 pm introduced me to the incredible disparity and diversity of Nicaragua, something that I continue to learn about daily. Slums and garbage filled streets sit next door to a new mall and state of the art movie theater. It is a disparity that is difficult to both see and understand.
We (Dr. Jackels of the Seattle University Chemistry Department and I) spent the first week of our time in Managua preparing materials for our experiment, working out logistics with the CRS staff, and practicing our salsa skills at the two parties we went to in the first 3 days! We began meeting with a professor and student from the University of Central America, Managua who are collaborating with us on the project.
Just a week after arriving to Managua, we relocated to a small mountain community outside of Matagalpa called la Corona where we spent the last month conducting our experiments. The farm where we lived, la Canavalia, is a beautiful model farm that is owned by ADDAC, an NGO that works on agricultural improvement projects. We were immediately welcomed and taken in by the entire farm staff.
In the coffee production process, coffee cherries are first picked by hand, washed and pulped mechanically to remove the cherry from the coffee bean. Next, the beans must be left in a tank to ferment anywhere from 10-24 hours in order to remove a thick mucilage that surrounds the bean. At the moment when fermentation is complete, the coffee must be washed thoroughly, hand selected for defects, dried, dehusked and finally roasted. Coffee is a highly laborious crop and very expensive to produce, yet farmers for the past several years have been experiencing a coffee crisis where market prices have dropped to unsustainably low levels. Though the coffee crisis is slowly improving, low prices persist and many coffee farmers are still desperate to improve their income. Those who continue to lose money often end up joining the many farmers who have already had to abandon their farms and move to cities where work is sparse and poverty in on the rise. To lessen the blow of the coffee crisis, many NGOs are currently working to diversify farms and improve the quality of the coffee that farmers are producing. Our study is specifically focused on the fermentation process, a step in coffee production that appears to be crucial to flavor quality. The study was initiated by Dr. Susan Jackels, a chemistry professor at Seattle U along with her husband Dr. Charles Jackels of the University of Washington.
In their past few years of coffee research they have found consistent patterns in the coffee fermentation process. Specifically, they found that as coffee is fermented there is a regular pH pattern regardless of the variety of coffee. Furthermore, they found that at the first moment that coffee is ready to be washed, it is at the pH of 4.6. In the same year, they visited several farms and found that each and every farm was over fermenting their coffee. Over fermentation is generally seen as negative and commonly associated with poor coffee flavor; however, no specific correlation has been found between over fermentation and reduced quality. This year our experiment is focusing on finding out this relationship.
We conducted two experiments at the same time at la Canavalia. One experiment involved distributing 100 kits to 100 coffee producers throughout the region of Matagalpa. The kit contained everything that the farmers needed to monitor the pH of their own fermenting coffee and record the data. We asked farmers to first complete at least two batches of coffee as they normally would without making any changes. One sample of coffee was taken from this step to be cupped (taste tested). Next they were asked to shorten or lengthen the time of their fermentation in order to "optimize" or stop the fermentation when the pH was in the range of 4.3 to 4.6. After they had made changes to stop the fermentation at the optimal time, they were asked to continue this practice for several batches. One sample was also taken from each farmer after they had optimized their fermentation practices. Most farmers have completed the two samples and we are now waiting for cupping results. We will be looking for an overall increase in cupping scores, indicating that by improving the fermentation process (an improvement that means being more vigilant) farmers can increase the amount of money they receive for their crop.
At the same time, we were conducting a controlled fermentation experiment. We produced six small batches of coffee a day for 11 days, all of which were treated under the same conditions except for the pH at which we stopped the fermentation process. Two samples a day were allowed to ferment only to a pH of 4.6-4.9, two fermented to 4.1-4.3, and two were fermented to 3.6-3.9. A sample was taken at the initiation of fermentation when the beans were pulped and at each of the three washings each day totaling to 44 samples. These samples were immediately frozen and transported back to the US to be chemically analyzed in the spring. All 66 samples that were produced in this portion of the experiment are also in the process of being cupped in order to compare the difference in quality and flavor.
The experiments have been incredibly fast paced and at times overwhelming, but really interesting. I was so excited to see how the coffee producers and technical staff took too the study and have put all their effort into doing a thorough job. The amount of support and interest that we have received from both participating and non participating producers and NGOs has been incredibly encouraging.
Nicaragua is a fascinating country in that it experienced a long and traumatic revolution that ended just 15 years ago. I can sense that people have the desire to make changes and are eager to help with any project that is pushing for improvement. From what I can tell the country lacks infrastructure and has an overall poor public education system, two of the main factors that limit improvement and change. However, I can also see that Nicaragua is a country full of potential.
On the 15th we said a sad goodbye to the farm and staff at la Canavalia and moved to Matagalpa. I love it here. It is a beautiful city and we feel so safe and welcome. We are living with an incredibly sweet woman named Dora right in the center of town.
We have been spending the better part of our days trying to set up meetings and interviews with various NGOs, most of which have been cancelled, forgotten about or postponed. It is frustrating at times, but the interviews and meetings that we have managed to complete have been wonderful and informative.
We are also preparing to do a "social impact" portion of our study where we plan to visit many of the farms that participated in the study to find out how their lives have been impacted by similar projects, fair trade, the coffee crisis etc. We are still working to decide the best way to measure the social impact, but very excited about doing so. So far, the farmers and families that I have had a chance to talk to (none of whom were involved in our study) are very excited about sharing their experiences, however, we worry at times that they are telling us only what we want to hear. Our potential goal is to compile a series of vignettes that give both stakeholders and outsiders a realistic perspective on the work that we are doing. We are also looking for feedback that will help us make improvements to the project.
My experience with the scientific aspect has been incredible, but I am also finding a lot of time to experience the culture of Nicaragua. Here are a few highlights:
- I have made several wonderful Nicaraguan friends from both the city and the country
- I saw Harry Potter (dubbed in Spanish, of course) in Managua.
- Learned how to make real tortillas in the country side! Mmmmm...
- Spent Christmas in Matagalpa with an amazing family with two young boys. They cooked us a delicious Christmas Eve dinner and then invited us to their large family gathering where they had a gift exchange, Christmas music and lots of laughs. It was so great to feel apart of a family during the holidays.
- I learned about the medical system first hand when I got dengue for New Years!! My doctor, Dr. Rosado of Cuba, was great (even though he was less interested in the fact that I felt like I was dying and more interested in explaining how I should sneak into Cuba and visit la Havana)
- Spent a night at an NGO called Casa Materna in Matagalpa that brings pregnant women from the country side into the city right before they are due to care for them give them immediate access to the hospital when it is time to deliver. It is a beautiful organization of 15 years that has significantly reduced the maternal mortality rate in the area. That night, I sat in on check ups, talked to the girls and even helped take two women to the hospital when they went into labor!
- I found a volunteer job teaching English once a week for four hours on Sundays
- Spent two days at Selva Negra, a huge coffee farm close to Matagalpa that was originally started by Germans over 100 years ago. They pride themselves on sustainable farming despite being so large. They have an amazing operation an I was able to learn about coffee production on a big scale which was fascinating since we are only working with extremely small producers.
- I went to a beauty pageant in Dario City, named for the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. Each year the city chooses a muse, who represents the beauty that inspires poetry. All the participants performed traditional dancing and recited poetry by Dario. The pageant was followed by a performance traditional Spanish flamenco, my favorite!
- Tonight I am heading to an area south of Managua for one of the biggest festivals in Nicaragua to celebrate San Sebastian!!
February 4: My past few days here have by far impacted me the most. I spent the past three days on small farms south of Matagalpa in the communities of Payacuca and El Castillo. Both communities are located high in the mountains which generally makes for excellent coffee. However, they are also on the edge of the dry zone, which means water, a resource that must be abundant in coffee production, is very scarce. For this reason the crop is undependable from year to year.
We did not have nearly enough time to really take in the culture, but plenty to scratch the surface and be completely inspired by the people that I met. I was both shocked and inspired by the living situation, expectations of the people and the incredible spirit that they all exuded. Within just minutes of our arrival, we were sitting at the table having a refresco with our hosts, feeling completely at home.
We stayed in Payacuca the first night. The couple that we stayed with was older and well established. Their children no longer live at home, and having owned their farm for 20 years, they have slowly created a comfortable and beautiful place for themselves. Despite the dead tarantula hanging from the ceiling of our room when we arrived, we really felt lucky to be staying in such a comfortable place. There was never a lack of food, water or conversation.
Just a few hours after our arrival, we walked to another farm near by for the monthly cooperative meeting with about 20 of the 33 member producers. As usual, we were offered an amazing plate of food and confronted with questions of how one might obtain a visa to travel to the US. We happily accepted the food, and apologized that the US is not offering many visas to Nicaraguans.
The wife of the house proudly showed me pictures of all her beautiful children. She was a very light skinned woman, probably of German descent. She showed me a picture of her fair skinned daughter and emotionally told me that I reminded her so much of her daughter. She went on to tell me that she missed her terribly because she was already married. Her daughter is 14. This too became a common theme of the weekend. When people found out that I was 21 and unmarried with no children, they explained to me that Nicaraguan girls in the campo "like" to get married when they are 13 or 14, 15 at the latest and start having children soon thereafter. I'm still trying to decide what "like" means. This is a cultural difference that I have struggled with probably more than any other. Not surprisingly, families are huge in the countryside. It's amazing how many children a woman can have when she begins at 13 or 14. I met one young man who was one of 24 children. Being the main attraction in town, at any given time we were surrounded by at least 10 young boys (the girls "prefer" to stay home in the kitchen).
The majority of the children that we talked to were either not planning to go on to school past the 6th grade, or were older and had already passed up the opportunity. We were reminded by one family that sending girls to school is almost always considered a waste of time and money since by the 6th grade they are ready to get married and have children. Many of the young men we talked to felt that school was boring. Since they plan to take over their father's farm, they can’t imagine wasting 5 years learning things like science and history. It is more difficult than it may sound, however. All the secondary schools are located in the cities so people who want to continue past the 6th grade have to move to Matagalpa, Sebaco or Terrabona. If they don't have family or friends to live with they are forced to rent a room. In order to rent, they generally have to find full time work and only go to school at night or on the weekends. For many who I talked to, the idea of getting married and staying in the campo is all too comfortable to risk moving to the city and struggling.
The problem of education is something that has been directly reflected in our project over and over again. Producers struggle to make simple measurements or correctly record numbers. They have learned everything from their fathers about how to run the farms, however, when tragedy strikes such as a plague, water shortage, hurricane etc., I worry that they lack the knowledge to quickly adapt and work around the problem. These disasters become so much more damaging when producers are forced to rely almost solely on outside support and relief.
Our experiment involves making pH measurements by dipping a piece of pH paper into water, comparing it to the colors on the box and recording the two digit number. While some producers returned excellent data, we are finding that some struggle to properly record the time off of both the provided digital watch and the pH box, often confusing numbers like 3 and 5. It is frustrating to be working with such intelligent, resourceful people who lack some basic skills because they didn't go on to high school. The determination and work ethic that I have seen in the campo is so much more than I have ever seen anywhere else, but the resources to really cultivate these qualities are simply missing.
On the second day of our visit, we travelled Nicaraguan campo style, on foot to the next community, El Castillo. At 1 pm we packed all our gear on to a horse with our host, Don Roman, and walked 3 km to El Castillo. The view was incredible, but I would never recommend to anyone walking for an hour in the middle of the day at 3,000 ft in the tropics. We arrived tired and sweaty at the home of our second host, a much younger less established couple with far less land than the first family. The producer was one of many young men who received a plot of land from the government during the FSLN revolution in the 80s. He has the standard few hectares of coffee and few hectares of clean land to crow basic grains. In other words, they have just enough to make a living if they have a good harvest. Last year for example, the coffee crop failed, so the couple was forced to travel to Costa Rica along with thousands of other Nicaraguans that leave to find higher paying work abroad. Unfortunately this is just the phenomenon that leaves Nicaragua with a huge shortage of labourers for the harvest.
The second community was suffering not only a lack of water, but the inability to access any electricity at all. The home of our second host was void of pretty much everything including food. We happened to bring a bag of food as a gift which they ended up feeding to us while we were there. It was hard to determine what they would have eaten had we not been there. The couple that we stayed with had a wonderful 11 year old son. They were a unique family in that they only had one child and didn't seem to have plans for more. They were also planning to send him to secondary school. We unfortunately did not get to spend much time with the wife because she had to travel to Matagalpa with her sick mother.
After arriving in El Castillo and resting for a short while, we headed up the hill to an old school house to have a meeting with the producers of the cooperative that were a part of our study. In contrast to the meeting that we had with the other co-op the day before, this meeting quickly turned into an emotional discussion of needs, gratitude, trust and the many other issues that these producers struggle with daily. The producers opened up to us in a way that I could have never hoped for us. They expressed so much gratitude for our presence and the project that we are doing, but more impressively opened up to us about the distrust that they have often felt towards projects like ours. They honestly explained that they have struggled and fought for so many years, usually to no avail. They have been cheated by so many people and lied to over and over again that they often don't know who to trust anymore.
I was completely lost for words when one producer emotionally began to explain that they aren't the simple-minded people that people from our country (the US) think they are. In fact, he explained, they are so much more aware of what is going on than they have ever been given credit for. They know that a rich man is turning a profit every time they sell their coffee at painfully low prices despite all the labour that they pour into their crop every year. The passion that I felt from the producers at the meeting was so much more than I ever expected and left me completely lost for words. I explained to them that not everyone in the US feels the same way and that, in fact, there are people who are aware of their struggles and trying to do something to change it. By the end of the meeting, we were told by many of the producers that they had hope and trust in us, especially since we are coming as a part of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, I walked away from the meeting feeling an incredible since of responsibility. It completely changed my perspective on what my ability is to make a difference. If just our presence has brought some hope to these communities, surely the study that we are doing is going to have a big impact... at least we hope so!
In the past few weeks we have been working hard to get the cupping process of our coffee underway. Just yesterday we received excellent result for a large group of samples. It's so encouraging to see that these producers are already producing excellent coffee. As they continue to make small improvements in their processing, we have no doubt that they will find buyers that are willing to pay them a fair price.
In fact, next week a group of American coffee buyers are coming to visit Matagalpan farms through CRS and going to consider buying coffee from these same producers that we have been talking to. Dr. Jackels and I will have the privilege of presenting to them about both preliminary results of our study and the experience that we had the past few days on the farms. We will also travel with half of the buyers to another community called Las Nubes high in the mountains of Jinotega to meet more producers. I am elated to meet the buyers and hopefully help encourage them with our presentation to buy from these amazing producers!
February 15: My past week here was spent getting to know "the other side" of coffee. Both in the city and in the countryside, I spent time with a group of Fair Trade buyers and activists attending interviews, information sessions and visiting coffee producing farms. The group came through CRS and is part of a network of buyers that CRS has worked to create. The idea is to find companies who are interested in Fair Trade coffee and connect them directly to the producers without middle men- just the way it should be.
I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly all the visitors dove into the experience, trying to understand where their coffee comes from and actually connect to the people who produce it. I was disappointed and slightly frustrated, however, that they were only able to scratch the surface. By the time they left, I felt like there was so much for them to know. Then again, I realize that I'm still in the same boat. Even spending a month on a coffee farm wasn't enough for me to soak up half of it. None the less, the past week was a great experience for all of us and I think that some of the buyers made some really strong connections (that will hopefully lead to buying coffee).
Aside from the buyer visit, we have been working day in and day out to gather cupping data results and figure out how to create a report that can be returned to the farmers. It sounds pretty simple, I know, but I can't explain how much work is going into both of these things. Collecting data is difficult because we are working with cuppers who are in the peak of their "tasting season." At the same time, we don't want to rush them because we want good data. It is a matter of strongly suggesting that they hurry and cup our samples without sounding frustrated and/or impatient. This is hard enough to do in my first language, let alone in Spanish.
Compiling a report for the producers is turning out to be more of a challenge that I originally anticipated. In theory it sounds simple: write the data on a piece of paper and give it to the farmer. However, our producers are often illiterate, they don't understand things like averages. Some don't have the ability to make much sense of numbers. We really want the results of this study to be distributed AND understood by the producers. After all, this study is for them. It is meant to improve their coffee and means nothing if we can't make it useful to them. So, for the next several days, I will be working with the cupper from Caritas to create individualized reports for each and every one of the 100 producers.
I had never imagined all of challenges that we would face before I came here. As we move into the last few weeks of our stay here in Matagalpa, the task of organizing all our data and wrapping up this study seems more daunting by the second. Times like these really make me reflect on all the things I love and take advantage of on a daily basis when I'm in the US. I think of things like: going to the copy mart and knowing that they have copy machines that work, making appointments with people and knowing that they will show up at least relatively on time (and if they don't they will feel responsible to make it up to me), living and working in a one hundred percent literate environment...But then again, I can't say that I've experienced a boring moment since I got here. Despite the challenges, I really can't complain.
Apart from the project, I went north to Esteli for a few days with friends. It wasn't terribly eventful except for the boa that I ate for dinner! It tasted like chicken, it was seriously delicious. I also spent a second night at Casa Materna with 12 beautifully pregnant women, one new baby boy, and an awesome midwife from Michigan. I'm amazed and inspired every time I see organizations like Casa Materna that have been around for so long making incredible differences. Plus, it was a nice contrast from the male dominated coffee project!
I'm sad to know that my time here is running out, it has flown by so quickly. At the same time I'm incredibly motivated to make the best of every second. I want to leave knowing that the coffee project is even stronger than when we arrived.
February 22: The most incredible experiences that I've had throughout this internship seem are by far those that have taken me out of my comfort zone. I just arrived home exhausted and overwhelmed with thoughts after two more amazing nights in the field.
On Monday traveled to a community about 30 km north of Matagalpa called Las Nubes (the clouds) where the coffee is excellent, only to be outdone by the amazing people. We stayed in the home of a producer named Pedro who has been apart of the CECOCEMAC central of cooperatives, started through the CRS coffee project, for the past two years. Just like the other times we have been in the campo, I was blown away by their hospitality and crushed to see the conditions that they have to survive in every day.
We did interviews with several producers that are a part of the project and as usual were impressed, frustrated and challenged by the responses that we heard. I asked each of the producers what they would like consumers in the United States to hear and understand when I return and pass on their story. Over and over again I heard them explain to me with emotion in their voice that they love producing coffee, they enjoy what they do, but they are stuck. They simply have to earn fair prices for their coffee, or they won't be able to survive as a coffee farmer.
I can't explain how disheartening and frustrating it is to look in to the eyes of an incredible person, a devoted farmer, understanding that it would take so little on the part of "Northerners" to turn their situation around yet have no answers for them and no power to make the change single-handedly.
When we are actually in the homes of these producers, experiencing a harsh reality that they call everyday life, it's painful to know that I will have to go back home to a place where most people are so disconnected from poverty, that they don't even begin understand the meaning of social responsibility. It gives me an overwhelming sense of responsibility and fear to know that I’m part of a small percentage of North Americans that has experienced this reality and does understand the magnitude of change that has to happen, because I have no clue how to best pass on my experiences. I know that I will continue to struggle with this long after I get home to Seattle, so for the moment I’m doing my best to prepare myself so that I can try.
March 12: As I sit and reflect back on the experiences that I've had over the past three months, I have to pinch myself. It seems like only yesterday I was preparing to leave for Nicaragua, and here I am saying goodbye. Stepping into a new culture is always scary and unpredictable, but I have been blessed to be a part of a culture that I've come to respect and love so much. I'm quickly realizing that of all the challenges I've faced during my internship, leaving Nicaragua may be the most difficult, yet the opportunities that I know await me in the near future are reason enough to keep me smiling even as I go.
During my time here, the lessons that I learned about myself have been priceless and the motivation I've gained is more than I could have ever hoped for. I worried in the beginning that I would become overwhelmed by all that I would see. I thought that my desire to make a difference would suddenly become a romantic, impossible goal. To my surprise, however, even after seeing the magnitude of the problems in the developing world I feel more empowered and capable than ever before.
The insight that I've gained in the past few months that has given me this feeling of empowerment is so refreshing and inspiring, yet so simple. I realized immediately when I arrived to the first farm that all my previous conceptions of what "capable" and "prepared" meant, no longer applied. As a college student, it was amazing to realize that the people in these communities had no idea what a GPA was, nor did they care. They had no idea where my university is, what I'm studying, what extracurricular activities I've done or awards I've won. I'm pretty sure that some didn't know why I was really there at all. All of the qualifying factors that had always meant so much to me were suddenly and completely obsolete. All of the things that qualify me in the United States became absolutely arbitrary in the Nicaraguan countryside. To the families that I met, I was nothing more and nothing less than a person taking interest in their lives-and that made me qualified.
I've always been one to think a lot (maybe too much) about what I'm going to do with my life, how I'm going to make it count. Like many, I tend to think in terms of what degree I'm going to get and what career I will follow in order to make a difference. It turns out, I've realized, that my most important assets-the ones that help me make connections, feel compassion and let others know that I truly care- I have all along.
Of course, this is the romanticized version, but on the most basic level, it is very true. The connections that I made with producers and their families came through conversations about family, reading and playing with the kids, walks on the farms to admire the incredible view, laughing at my horrible tortilla making technique and finding common interests despite unimaginably different lives.
I'm so thankful for the opportunity to share time with so many incredible people and personally experience development work. As expected, there were frustrating moments and times where I felt like I wasn't accomplishing much, but looking back I realize that I did leave a footprint-something I feel very thankful to have done.