October 22, 2014

SUSSMAN | The Hammer That Could Change Lives

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I am dancing with Don Juan, leader of the community of Fonseca, Siuna, at the goodbye ceremony for my group after a week in Nicaragua. As he spins me around and around, the faces of my fellow students combine with those of the community members in a whirl of sounds and colors, and I reflect on how much I have learned in Fonseca over the past few days.

During spring break of my freshman year, I traveled to Nicaragua with the service learning organization Cornell Bridges to Community to participate in service projects in the region of Siuna. The Cornell Chapter of Bridges to Community sends around 20 students to Nicaragua at the end of March each year. Students involved with Bridges take a class in the spring semester that teaches them about the social, economic, political and historical factors that make Nicaragua the nation it is today.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, I wanted to be more than just a passive observer in a foreign land, to participate in service learning in the true sense of the word. I wanted to be educated about the issues with which I would be dealing so that I could make an informed contribution to the community’s projects. So I attended weekly Bridges seminars and read up on the issues we discussed in class. I spoke to family members about their experiences in Latin American nations (my mom, for example, had been a volunteer in the Nicaragua Coffee Brigades in 1986). I spoke Spanish to anyone who would listen. And I came to Nicaragua with an open mind, ready to learn.

It is difficult to put into words how much I learned while living in Nicaragua for a week. While working on our group’s projects — constructing latrines, installing a community-wide potable water system, and constructing energy-efficient stoves — I was struck by the complete warmth and welcome given to us by the people of Fonseca. Despite their limited resources, they were happy to share everything they had with us, whether it was knowledge of how to use a handsaw or giving us a lesson in how to make tortillas. This co-operation and friendship was not only extended to foreign volunteers, but was also one of the foundations of community life in Fonseca. As one of our group leaders, Hugo, put it: “We learn to respect our neighbors. If we need a hammer to fix our home, we go to our neighbor. If we don’t have good relations with our neighbors, we will not get the hammer, and we will not be able to fix our home.”

In Nicaragua, I learned that communication is one of the most important aspects of human relationships, and one of the best ways to learn. Some of my most memorable moments from the trip were simply talking to the masons, to the boys with whom we worked in the trenches, or to the women cooking our meals. I was astonished at the way the community members opened up to us, despite our entirely different experiences and backgrounds. They were just thankful that we cared enough to come to Nicaragua.

However, most importantly, I discovered that the actual contribution I could make to the community was very small. I didn’t have the technical experience needed for any of the projects on which we worked, and was often very aware that I was, in fact, slowing the masons down. But the value of my group’s contribution did not lie in our physical work in Fonseca. Our gift to the community was the ability to advance projects identified by the villagers themselves. We were not in Nicaragua to teach Fonseca how to build a latrine. We were there because they needed people to help build it. Our work was valuable not only because we could help the community achieve its aims, but also because we could raise awareness back in our own country of the problems affecting Nicaraguans today, so that the volunteers would keep coming. Our contribution was to help the community members tell their stories.

Through this trip, I became more informed about issues in Nicaragua, and learned a huge amount about myself and my values. As a result of my work for Bridges — last year as Fundraising Chair and this year as Academic Chair — I have been able to share my own experiences with friends, family, and other members of the Cornell community. I have been able to pass on to them what I learned in Nicaragua. That is ultimately the greatest gift I can give to the community of Fonseca.

The music stops, and Don Juan grasps my hand warmly and smiles. Upon this gesture of friendship and compassion, I feel my eyes beginning to well up. For the first time since starting college, I feel at home.

Caitlan Sussman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected].