This is the question everyone asks me. They all want to know what I did. Did I help someone? Did I build a house? Install a well? Teach English? Teach in a school? Well, the short answer is that I didn’t do much–but in truth, I did quite a lot. I listened. I learned. I built relationships. I visited. I learned a whole lot more. And, the only actual product I made were some lessons, along with the other teachers there on the trip. Here is what I wrote upon coming home:
It was definitely NOT a mission trip! haha! I tried my best to share that as much as possible. It was an educational trip for teachers who have worked with The Pulsera Project in the past. We learned more about the organization, the other partnerships they have, the people they work with and employ, and the culture, economic systems, history, business climate, and language nuances. Then, we took that information and collaborated on lessons that will be used in nearly 2000 schools here in the United States that participate in the project. It was a whirlwind, entirely exhausting, and completely exhilarating.
In a conversation I had after returning home, another person observed that it was nice that we made lessons that would be used in Nicaragua. I corrected him by saying that The Pulsera Project believes we are the ones who have much to learn–and that the lessons would be used here in U.S. schools. He replied by asking, “And after your trip there, do you still believe that?” I gave him a resounding YES.
What more do we need to learn?
- All of us need to continue to be educated on other cultures, languages, and economic systems/ realities.
- All of us need to develop continued competency in Global Citizenship.
- We need to develop an understanding of poverty and a better definition. Poverty is NOT the inability to get what we want. It is the inability to get what we need on a daily basis. Not one time. On. a. daily. basis. I guess we could start by defining “needs”.
- We need to realize that we are not God’s gift to the developing world. We are not the solution to their problems. In fact, they have solutions. And in fact, often times, we are the problem.
- Along those lines, we need to understand that just like someone cannot walk in and solve all the issues in our classrooms or in our marriages, we cannot walk in for a week or a month and solve all the issues in a person’s life, community, or country. These people are capable and willing, and they are often hindered by their economic or legal realities.
- We need to be educated on responsible consumer practices. We should all know where our products are made, to the extent possible. We should be concerned that the people making our products are fairly compensated and work fair hours. We should be aware of the environmental impacts of our products and companies that produce them.
- We need to contrast simplicity with poverty and critically examine consumerism and materialism.
- Most of all, we need to be taught to think critically. Looking at another culture and the realities they face forces us to examine our own culture. In a global reality, we have to realize that while you and I do not directly create issues in other places, our actions are intimately tied to the system we participate in that does directly impact their realities.
One thing we shouldn’t be doing is focusing on how poor other people are so that we can revel in our own comparative richness. Humble gratitude is something we could all stand to continue developing, however focusing in on the lack of resources that other people have as a method of producing gratitude is sort of a sick twist on that (in my opinion).
I’d like to show you what I mean by this.
These two houses are right next to each other. The woman in the photo owns them both. In fact, the mud and bamboo construction was her original home, until she received a grant through the housing project at the Pulsera Project (available to the people employed by them as an employee benefit), which she used to build the brick home she is pictured with on the right. The grant has to be used for housing, but it is up to them what they do. They can improve their homes, buy land, add walls, add windows, or build a new structure. She chose to use the money to build this brick addition. I want you to notice something here. She did not tear down her mud and bamboo home. SHE ADDED TO IT. She did not tear it down. I’ll repeat myself again here: she did not tear it down.
I’m guessing here, because although I asked her a ton of questions, it did not occur to me to ask this one at the time. But, one thought I have is that she isn’t ashamed of the house. I took the picture because I was amazed and impressed with it. I was in awe of it. She talked to our group about “re-taking” her heritage when she started weaving as a young woman, and re-taking is right! During a previous repressive government, indigenous traditions, including the style of weaving her group is renowned for, were not permitted. This home should not be the backdrop of some fifty-cents-a-day orphan commercial. This is a source of pride for her family. And I look at it now and I am amazed by the intricacies and skill it took to build.
I don’t feel sorry for her, nor do I feel sorry for a single person I met while I was there. I did not come back and hug my leather couches, though I thanked the Good Lord for air conditioning, because I’m a wimp. Rather than looking down on someone for what they don’t have, or giving others our pity, maybe what we should feel is righteous, justified anger that perfectly capable, well-educated humans don’t have access to the resources they need to implement the solutions they already have.
One of the Pulsera Project staff members related his experience owning a restaurant in Nicaragua and struggling between the “western standard of hospitality” and the Nicaraguan standard. He realized that the goal shouldn’t be to provide a western standard of hospitality, but to provide the appropriate cultural standard to their guests unapologetically. He said that when he stopped trying to fight the culture, his job got so much easier.
I believe we can all learn something from his story. We can’t fight their culture, and it isn’t our fight anyway. Our standards don’t apply, and they really shouldn’t. While we can all learn from each other, it should be just that: learning. What they do with it is up to them. And, in the end, we should be focused on helping capable people have access to the resources they need to create their own paths, not the paths we think they should follow.
So, 1200 words later: what did I do? I listened. I learned. I built relationships. I worked on some lessons designed to help students think critically about language, culture, and global citizenship.