Bridges to Community: Building in Nicaragua

The Bridges to Community group along with Nicaraguan families gather in front of one of the new homes in El Mojon.

Fifteen volunteers from the Bridges to Community group along with Nicaraguan families gather in front of one of the new homes in El Mojon.

Our companies have long supported Nicaragua, in small but valuable ways. Starting with a Solar Oven Project a few years back and earlier this year a Clean Water Distribution System, both done in partnership with the Victor-Farmington Rotary. My son Jake and I went to Nicaragua for a week, returning in the wee hours last Sunday. Exhausted, for sure. Glad we went, very glad to be home. Here’s a short report for those interested:

Nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, rainy season was in full swing in El Mojon, NI.

Nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, rainy season was in full swing in El Mojon, NI.

 

The trip was organized by Bridges to Community, a NY-based secular NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that focuses on housing and sanitation in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

 

 

 

Jonathan and Jack joined the mud-boot trend while laying up walls for two homes.

Jonathan and Jake joined the mud-boot trend while laying up walls for two homes.

We went with 15 other volunteers, totaling 8 teens and 9 adults, to a tiny village called El Mojon, in the mountains above Jinotega, NI. Elevation was about 1,200 meters (almost 4,000 feet) and it’s the rainy season in Nicaragua so rubber boots are all the rage. There are no paved roads where we were. We stayed at a small farm (or finca) that has accommodations for groups. One of their crops is coffee, and at harvest time numerous hands are needed to pick the ripe berries. An average adult can pick about 80 liters of berries a day, for which he or she can earn $4.20 USD, plus some square meals and a place to sleep. During the off-season, general farm labor and crop maintenance pays $3/day. The farm we stayed at was third generation, but only about 50 years old. It’s almost non-existent carbon footprint is fascinating. Electricity came from a water wheel fed by rain-collection pools higher on the mountain. The generator could produce either 220 or 110 volts, and was shut off, with the water re-directed, for much of each day.  Most all the food (except rice) was made on site. Crops of lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, beans, corn, and tomatoes are grown. Cows are raised for milk and beef, pigs and pelliwags (a cross between goat and sheep), are grown for meat. Milk is made into cheese and any food left over is sold at the market in Jinotega.

The 9 men slept in bunk beds with 2” mattresses in an 11×14 room. Each day, we were all ferried 30 minutes to the job in the back of 2 pickup trucks. Meals were served at the finca, rice and beans (of course), fresh salad (typically a no-no in the third world), flautas and tortillas, farm cheese, fresh chicken sometimes, and even American-style pancakes on the last day. Each morning I would wake to a rhythmic tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump, thut, thut, thut and repeat, beginning around 5 and going on until after we would leave. I walked into the kitchen to see what it was, finding one of the women hand-making tortillas, as she likely had been for the previous thirty years. Her rhythm was so perfect, one of the guys was convinced it was the water pump.

Buckets of concrete were hand carried up the hill to the build sites.

Buckets of concrete were hand carried up the hill to the build sites.

Our job was to lay up the walls of two new homes for two families. Both foundations had been set already. The house Jake and I worked on was above the road a bit, perhaps 50 meters up a path. We needed to move block to the site, sift the sand to eliminate stones, mix concrete and water, fill buckets, then carry it up the hill to the house. Three skilled masons laid block, set re-bar into the walls (Nicaragua is extraordinarily prone to earthquakes) and applied parging. The water well was 80-meters one way, although the sand pile was a bit down the road, while the 46kg (101lb) bags of concrete were up another rise in the grandmother’s wood hut (in the room where she slept, because it was the only room around that seemed dry enough to store them). The masons were amazing guys who cared for their work, their jobs, and for us, knowing that conditions were neither ideal nor efficient, they were just conditions.

The interior of the homes include dry-laid tile and steel frames. As one mother said: "I can now raise my family off of the wet dirt and lock my doors when we leave."

The interior of the homes include dry-laid tile and steel frames. As one mother said: “I can now raise my family off of the wet dirt and lock my doors when we leave.”

In three days the walls were up on both homes (6-meter x 5-meter floor space). The 300 sf new home will be divided into 4 rooms: a kids’ bedroom, a parent bedroom, a sitting area, and the kitchen. There are 2 doors and 2 windows in each house. The “Tiny House” movement here in the states has precedent, for sure. We then took a break while the masons welded a steel frame and panel onto the top of the walls (for the low slung gable roof), and dry-laid the tile onto the dirt-and rubble floor we had prepared. The final day on site included the presentation ceremony from us to the recipients. Our work there had saved construction time roughly 20 days, but more importantly, the group raised the money to pay for the masons and materials. Of the many things said, the mother’s words hit hardest: “I can now raise my family off of the wet dirt, and lock my doors when we leave”.

Our group ranged from the most conservative Texan to the most liberal Oregonian (guess), and we can all bring our opinions and knowledge to the reasons why these families needed our help, but none of us questioned the value of being there that moment, that day. As always, friendships were born, and yup, that redneck Texan is sure-‘nuff heading to Portland for a good visit and wine tour.

Thanks a million to my co-workers, who as always, totally had my back while gone. And to Maxine, who, as always, remains my home beacon of warmth and sanity.

As you likely know, “us is lucky”. (Thanks, you-know-who-you are) -Jonathan