San Benito is a community of 88 beautiful families (350 people) located in the Department of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. There are 94 energetic, curious students enrolled in primary school in San Benito. They currently study with two teachers in a private house. Since the house is only comprised of one room, the children attend school in two groups: Kindergarten through third grade in the morning and fourth through sixth grades in the afternoon.
In Nicaragua, the school year runs from February to November (based around the harvest season), and elementary education is free and compulsory. Although it is still customary for children to work for their parents from a young age, especially in farming communities like San Benitio, this village has made the commitment to their children to make education a priority, and to give their children a choice when it comes to creating their future.
Jerry Samuel, pictured above, was my favorite kid I met in San Benito. I know you’re not supposed to do that. Pick favorites. But if you had met this kid, you’d understand. Jerry followed our group around during our week’s stay in the village; not like a lost puppy, but a benevolent mayor. He smiled with his lips only slightly parted, but laughed in a way that made you feel like your jokes (or at least your broken Spanish words) were funny. I played Jenga with Jerry after dinner most nights, and gave him half of a leather shoelace the day we departed from the village. I kept the other half and tied it around my wrist. Jerry tied his to a plastic bottle and swung it in circles on the ground, like a Nicaraguan village version of SkipIt. I’ll never forget him.
A San Benito community member, Sandra Miranda, said: “Education is the biggest need in our community. We would like to have a nice and comfortable building where our kids will receive the bread of knowledge. We want to see future doctors and teachers. I would also like to learn to read and write because I did not have the opportunity when I was a kid.”
Worldwide, there are 57 million children of primary school age without access to a classroom. Nearly one in six people around the world cannot read or write. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having at least 40% of its adults literate.
The above photo is of a student in the neighboring village of Los 40. He carries his desk to school because there aren’t any in the classroom. Through our project with buildOn, each new school is supplied with necessary supplies, including desks.
The people of San Benito are farmers, are their staple crops are coffee, cacao, corn and beans. In Nicaragua today, coffee supports the 45,000 families that own and operate small farms. Though the farmers are extremely proud of their land and product, they are also vulnerable. People’s vulnerability to the fluctuating coffee prices depends upon their location in the coffee commodity chain and their access to assets such as land, credit, diversified income sources and social networks.
One night, sitting outside on white plastic chairs under the blanket of stars, I asked our host dad, Arsenio, if he was happy with the price he receives for the coffee he grows and sells. I was told that Arsenio grew a unique variety of bean, one unlike his peers, and it was very special. Still, Arsenio shook his head no. The coffee farmers we spoke with receive $.50 to $1.00 for one large paint bucket full of beans. It’s unjust, because the labor it takes to grow and harvest coffee, as you can imagine, is quite extensive.
However, from my understanding, farmers like Arensio are less vulnerable to losing their livelihood, and that of their family, if coffee prices were to plummet below the already low selling price. This is because San Benito is aided by another nonprofit organization who has helped the village thrive in self-sufficiency: Agros International provided the resources for the San Benito families to set up shop in this growing village – namely land for homes, gardens, and cash-crops.
“When you educate a man you educate one person, when you educate a women you educate an entire family.” – African Proverb
When women and girls have the chance to advance their lives through education, the entire community reaps the benefits. At buildOn, the partner organization with whom we built the school, gender equality is the cornerstone of their methodology.
On the job site, men and women worked side-by-side performing the physical labor to build the school. Women are encouraged to step outside traditional gender norms and try different tasks, such as laying bricks, digging the foundation and mixing concrete. Indeed, the women of San Benito plunged their shovels deeply and fervently into the earth, literally breaking ground on their children’s’ futures.
As a condition of partnering with buildOn, each village makes a promise to send their daughters to school in equal numbers with their sons. Dina, pictured above, will certainly hold her own among the boys. She is feisty and fun, sassy and smart. I can’t wait to for the world to meet her.
We stayed with host families in San Benito, sleeping on cots, and living as they did: simply and purposefully. We generated no waste; there is no trash pick up in San Benito. Meals consisted primarily of rice and beans, though we also ate yucca and eggs from chickens kept in the back yard. We fell asleep to the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs barking, and monkeys howling.
Three meals daily were cooked over an open fire by the woman of the house, an idea that sounds quaint, but is truly terrible for their lungs. I hated hearing our host mom, Perla, coughing at night because of her work to cook our meals. This detail of her life is one of things I want to be different for her and her peers. I researched this issue upon my return home, and discovered that open-fire cooking is a major health issue in developing countries: exposure to cooking over an open fire causes over two million deaths from chronic lung diseases every year. To me, someone who has studied and celebrated the beauty of food, I felt like I had discovered another dark underbelly of its life. It was unsettling, to say the least. The good news is that there are people working on this issue – namely The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to whom the U.S. government has committed up to $105 million for research and debt financing for large-scale cookware businesses.
Perla had the most beautiful garden in the village. She spoke lovingly of her three-year-old daughter, Anna, who was staying with her mother in town for the week on holiday. Her daughter, she told us, would learn English. In fact, Perla traveled to the city of Matagalpa once-a-month or so to take English classes. My friend (and roommate) Mary Kate discovered Perla’s interest in English by finding a page torn from an English work book lying in the compost pile. Indeed Perla was shy about her English at first, shy about a lot of things in the beginning. But by the end of the week, we were exchanging words in both of our mother languages. Mary Kate and I were brought to tears during the closing ceremony when Perla got up in front of the whole village to speak, to say her thanks, and her goodbye; she was the first woman in the village to do this, followed only by two others, and it must have taken a lot of courage and conviction to make the decision to speak up and out in public.
Though our Spanish was lacking, or probably because of it, Mary Kate and I formed a quick and solid bond with Perla and Arsenio. The day we left, Arsenio told us that we would live with him forever – “en el corazon” (in his heart).
buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.
Our group raised $50,000 to build this school in San Benito and to travel there to be a part of its construction. We worked every day from 7am to 11pm, alongside men and women who live in the village and will directly benefit from the construction of the school. Barriers between our two groups were quickly disassembled. Working side by side, for a common purpose, blurred the lines between an “us” and a “them”, and it was clear that we were all there for the same reason: for the education of the 94 children of San Benito.
Leaving San Benito was emotional. Since our goodbye and subsequent return to Philadelphia, I’ve come to the conclusion that sincere, deep, and lasting connections are formed in environments saturated by vulnerability. Not vulnerability as in a place of imminent danger or doom, but vulnerability as a state of uncertainty, awkwardness, discomfort – or a farmer’s perpetual uncertainty of his crop – because in the attempt to soften these blows you reach out your hand to the person next to you. And because that person may be a perfect stranger, or just someone you don’t typically sleep next to, you expand – you have to crack open or you’ll crack up. You let yourself be vulnerable by falling back into a night of Nicaraguan stars deep enough that you’re destined to swim up with a discovery, or at least a shoelace, in your pocket.