Saint Mary's Students Learn Lessons About Crops and Coffee in Nicaragua

Class Members Live in “Campos” and Tackle a Road-Building Project

Class and workersFor a group of 14 Saint Mary’s students who embarked on an adventure to learn about food justice in Nicaragua, the ordinary trappings of college life, like textbooks, computers and classrooms, soon became obsolete.

We were immersed in this new culture and for a month our old lives seemed like a distant memory as we learned about the origins of things we take for granted, like food and coffee.

Soon after we landed, our class was abruptly split up as each of us was paired up with the host family we would live with for the next six days. We had to quickly adapt as we were thrust into one of two coffee plantation communities. It didn’t matter whether we knew any Spanish or had any prior experience with rural life or agricultural know-how. In an instant, everything changed.

Our lives soon mirrored that of our host families: eating a steady diet of rice-and-beans, sleeping in close quarters with our new family, learning to bathe in creeks, and, for some, learning to live without electricity. The lack of comforts seemed bleak at first, but soon they became the highlight of the trip – the glue that bonded students, teachers and local families as one.

Shomari Carter and youngsteriving on a coffee plantation, affectionately known as “the campo,” allowed us to understand the origins of everyday agricultural products and to see first-hand the struggles and hardships of agricultural workers, who we now know as family, like my Nicaraguan “brother,” Franklin Rios.

After living with our new families for a week, we were bused to the city of Granada, a popular tourist location that presented a complete contrast to life on the campo. But what seemed like a treat soon became an opportunity for reflection on the privilege that life in the United States provides. Professors Michael Barram and Aaron Sachs released students into the city for a dinner that would guide the reflection for the night: “What did you eat, and why did you choose it?”

Reflection became a theme for the trip. Along the way, we learned about the history of food in Nicaragua and food security issues. We also heard about the history of the Nicaraguan revolution from former Sandinista Commander Dora Maria Tellez.

During trips to a cacao plantation and a chocolate museum where we learned to make traditional chocolate drinks and our own chocolate bar creations, we learned the importance of cacao (cocoa) and café (coffee) to the Nicaraguan economy and its people.

After these vastly different experiences, we wondered what else Nicaragua could hold. As it turned out, it held plenty, including a trip to a farmer’s co-op and cotton plantation, a tour of a sugar production facility, ecological training, and an impromptu clinic visit to help sick children by assisting the doctors.

There were fun-filled adventures, too. On a trip to the postcard-perfect Zapetara Island in Lake Nicaragua, wild waves turned what was supposed to be a routine boat ride into an amusement park water ride. Everything was soaked, and the beach soon looked like a shipwreck, with drying clothes strewn about.

Our experiences were far from over.

class in hardhatsIn Diriamba, we learned about the 11 steps from coffee seed to cup of coffee, and their implications on the earth and people around the world. Finally, in Diriamba’s  San Carlos community, we tackled a service-learning project to help build a road. The labor was back-breaking because we had only the simplest tools – picks, axes, shovels, wheelbarrows and our bare hands – but we relished working side by side with community members.

The hard work, along with home visits within the community, had a profound effect, as we learned how our very presence changed the community forever. I can still hear longtime resident Roberto Jose Arias saying, “I have been living here for 45 years and they have never done anything about the road until you guys got here.”

Nicaragua was an experience of a lifetime, and by the end of the trip we were on the path to becoming more responsible global citizens. We had learned to think globally and act locally – and all without the use of textbooks, computers or conventional classrooms.

By Shomari Carter ’12

Photos by Shomari Carter