Change and a Chance in El Campo

May 16, 2011


By Kendra Langdon Juskus and Jennifer Ruppelt

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011

It’s the golden time of day. We’ve had lunch, and while we ate a brief rain shower dappled the countryside—el campo here in Nicaragua. Now, as we drive through avenues of overhanging trees and past bucolic cow pastures, everything wet is ablaze with the afternoon sun.

It’s fitting, then, that the village we’re traveling to is called Buena Vista: Good View. The pickup we ride twists up a red dirt road into the blue mountains that surround the pastures we saw just moments ago. It stops at a precarious angle in front of a small, cement house with a corrugated tin roof and laundry on the line. Chickens and dogs scurry under fruit trees as we walk up to the front entrance of this homestead, the dwelling of a woman who is boldly changing the trajectory of her own life and the fortunes of the land that makes this place such a buena vista.

This is Doña Fabia. She wears a blue tank top, her hair in a short fuzz around her head, and a wide smile. Like the big, bright personality that her small figure belies, her modest home, too, is more than it appears. It is, in fact, a store, which we realize once our eyes adjust to its shadows and we see the products—laundry detergent, bubble gum, crackers—lining its walls. Several years ago Doña Fabia connected with the Luke Society, a Christian organization building healthy communities around the world, to earn some money and supply her neighbor’s needs with this small, but successful, operation. The business is now a steady source of income.

But her in-home store isn’t the success that tickles Doña Fabia the most or makes her the proudest. She takes us outside the house, back into the yard where the chickens scatter, to show us what really sets her apart.

In Luke’s footsteps
Like its namesake, the disciple Luke, the Luke Society is in the vocation of health. Concentrating on equipping local, indigenous leaders with tools to promote physical health and community development in some of the world’s poorest regions, the organization also prioritizes the spread of that spiritual health Luke himself experienced firsthand: the knowledge of the Gospel of Christ.

In Nicaragua, one of over 30 Luke Society sites in the world, the organization is based out of the small city of Jinotepe.

“We work in Carazo,” explains Dr. Francisco Moraga, who, with his wife Reyna (also a doctor), runs the Jinotepe office and directs its projects. “[It] is one of the poorest municipal districts in the country, in which over 80 percent of the rural population lives in extreme poverty with little access to basic services such as health, education, drinking water, latrines, suitable housing, and electricity. Infant mortality has reached over 50 per 1,000 live births due to diarrhea and respiratory diseases.”

The husband-and-wife duo spends much time and effort in the rural communities, such as Buena Vista, that surround Jinotepe. There they train local health promoters in community health practices, empower and equip

Like its namesake, the disciple Luke, the Luke Society is in the vocation of health.

community members—especially women like Doña Fabia—to lead in the development of their villages, support and educate couples and families to strengthen marriages and family units, train teachers, and educate community members about their rights and responsibilities as Nicaraguan citizens.

“The role of our foundation is to facilitate holistic community health development through training and study of the Bible that leads to acquiring the necessary values to change the lives of families and communities,” Francisco explains. “Our main emphasis is on preventive health through education, providing skills to health promoters and local community organizations that are the main promoters of plans based on the issues they feel are important.”

That holistic understanding of health extends to the enrichment of the physical surroundings these communities depend on for their livelihood and survival. The Jinotepe team has equipped women in communities like Buena Vista with tools to enhance their families’ nutrition: a seed-and-garden program that includes a seed bank from which local farmers choose and plant healthy crops. It has also provided many households with clay water filters, reducing the occurrence of diarrhea and other intestinal maladies that result from polluted water.

One particular environmental challenge that farmers have faced in recent years is an uptick in annual rainfall in

Those are costs to the surrounding environment that the citizens of Buena Vista cannot afford.

el campo. The increasingly wet conditions jeopardize or destroy farmers’ bean crops; the health of which farmers rely on to feed their families and earn income. The Moragas and the farmers they work with conducted research and concluded that a wetter growing season is a new fact of life in the Jinotepe countryside, dictated by a shifting climate over which the subsistence farmers have no control. Instead, they must shift their practices and expectations from generations-old ways to plant crops that will thrive in and support them in this new climate. Now the farmers are armed with rain gauges from the Luke Society, equipped to track and record how much rainfall their land receives each year so that they can make a wise decision about how to shift their crop choices and agricultural practices accordingly.

We visit several of these farmers—Doña Fabia’s neighbors—and learn how excited they are to be participating in determining how they will adapt to the changes that have burdened their harvests for years. But the talk of the neighborhood—the special project cultivating a healthier community environment—is situated right in Doña Fabia’s back yard.

Dirty in, clean out
At first all we can see is a confusing jumble of tarps, poles, corrugated metal, and PVC piping surrounding something dug deep into the red earth. But Juan Carlos Cortez, who is in charge of agricultural initiatives at the Jinotepe office, explains what we’re seeing.

“It is cow . . . matter,” he says in English, laughing a little at his attempt at delicacy.

We are looking at the first biodigester to be constructed in Buena Vista. In a sturdy plastic container buried halfway into the ground there is a sludge of cow fecal matter that has been collected from the cows in those bucolic pastures we drove through earlier. As this organic material decomposes, it releases methane gas. When this happens in the outdoors, the methane released damages the atmosphere. But here it is channeled into a pipe that leads into Doña Fabia’s kitchen and, with the turn of a valve, releases the gas into her stove.

She rushes inside to show us, putting a pot of coffee on the stove and lighting the burner. The flame burns a shocking blue: a clean blue. The gas given off by cow dung burns hotter and cleaner than any other fuel Doña Fabia has ever used.

She shows us the old, wood-burning stove, now de-commissioned, that sits next to her new methane gas stove. With Francisco translating, she explains how the wood smoke—a source of indoor air pollution that contributes to respiratory infection, chronic lung disease, lung cancer, asthma, low birth weight, blindness, and heart disease in poor communities all over the world—stained the inside of her home and made her and her family cough and gag. With the bright blue flame now roaring under the coffee, she explains, their home and bodies are clean and clear.

There was another disadvantage to the wood burning stove: The wood had to come from somewhere, namely the mountains we can see from Doña Fabia’s yard; the beautiful, wooded mountains that are home to so many diverse species and the source of clean streams and rivers. Without trees on those hills, the species would die, the rivers would be filled with eroded soil and agricultural chemicals, and farmers’ fields would degrade without the nutrients provided by surrounding foliage. Those are costs to the surrounding environment that the citizens of Buena Vista cannot afford.

The good and the beautiful
Cow dung, on the other hand, can be collected without a care. It goes in the biodigester, clean gas comes out, and without a single tree being chopped, Doña Fabia has the peace of mind that comes from a safe stove, a few more trees on the mountainside, and a hot pot of coffee.

That coffee is now boiling, and Doña Fabia hands us each a cup of it along with a large hunk of homemade sweetbread. As we leave her home, store, and the yard that holds an unexpected tub of sludgy hope, the hot sun is already baking the red road and drying all of the day’s goldenness from the tree leaves. Doña Fabia has

The flame burns a shocking blue: a clean blue. The gas given off by cow dung burns hotter and cleaner than any other fuel Doña Fabia has ever used.

acknowledged that having a stove fueled by manure is an oddity in Buena Vista, but it’s clear that she is not a woman unduly influenced by the opinions or biases of her neighbors. We cast a final look around her homestead and recognize that, in fact, she is an inspiration to this neighborhood; choosing to make what change she can and cultivating the goodness of this already very buena vista in the process.

Jennifer Ruppelt is a 2011 graduate of Wheaton College who spent six months in 2010 interning with the Luke Society, Nicaragua. Kendra Langdon Juskus is a writer and editor and managing editor of Flourish magazine. In August of 2010 she visited Jennifer in Nicaragua and saw the work of the Luke Society and the indomitable spirit of Doña Fabia.

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