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Small Businesses, La Purísima, & Solar Panels: Karen Parkhurst's Nicaragua

I recently completed my fourth journey to El Sauce, León, Nicaragua I have grown to care about deeply. I made this trip primarily to see the results of my Rotary Club’s (Victor-Farmington, NY) most recent project that supplied solar panels to some homes in the mountain community of Ocotal, in the municipality El Sauce.

I stayed once again with Alita who is part of the tourist cooperative Sauce Aventuras. She always delights in providing me with my favorite fruits (pineapple and bananas) and fresh made lemonade. She speaks no English and I speak very little Spanish, but somehow we manage to communicate (sometimes it’s just a matter of who can talk louder).

I have to mention that my visit was during a holiday festival – the feast of the Immaculate Conception, or La Purísima. So, while we were in León, we toured the shrines that had been set up in the square for the feast. This is a charming way to celebrate a Catholic feast day. Families, municipalities, and businesses all design and build shrines to the Blessed Virgin and, on the eve of the feast day (December 7th) whole families walk around neighborhoods, singing hymns to Mary while viewing all of the shrines. And then there are fireworks, many of them. It is truly a wonderful celebration time and I am so pleased I was able to share it with my friends.

We arrived in El Sauce on Monday morning, where the staff of Enlace had set up many activities for me. Monday afternoon, Enrique took me around El Sauce visiting small businesses who had been recipients of Enlace microloans. First on the agenda was a leather shop owned and operated by three “angels” – father, son, and son-in-law. Yes, all three were named Angel. Their work was so creative and detail oriented. They gave me the story of their shop, their marketing efforts, their designs, and what they have achieved with the help of the loan program. Truly amazing!!

Next was a visit to a woman who does sewing, sells shoes, and makes tapas for a living. She, too, has positive results from the loan program.

And, finally, a visit to a bicycle repair shop. This young man amazed me. As a result of his loan, he was able to obtain a computer and was learning Excel, using it to keep track of sales and expenses and cash. He was so proud of his ability to use the spreadsheet application that we in the U.S. pretty much take for granted. I am sure that with his shop, bicycle skills, and ability to track his finances, he will have a successful small business.

Then, on Tuesday morning, we proceeded to go to the mountain community of Ocotal, not as easy as it sounds. Picture a 1987 Toyota 4 wheel drive truck (and yes, it looked 27 years old). Now picture a road made completely of cobblestones thrown haphazardly in some mud. Now you have a complete picture of where we were and how we were getting there.

Our first stop was a coffee farm and home to Freddie, Christina and their two boys, Nelvin and Miguel, and their baby daughter. They immediately sat us down and went through the coffee farming process – picking the beans, running them through the mill to remove the outer skin and pulp, then putting the beans in another mill and pounding them until the outer shell came off. (They use the pulp and skin for fertilizer.) Then they let the wind blow off the light outer shell until just the bean was left. Then Freddie put these over an open flame in a flat pan until they were dark roasted; then through a coffee grinder; and finally Christina brewed coffee for all of us. What a treat this was!

The family makes approximately $200 a month from this process.

Freddie and Christina showed me the solar panels that now provide them with 5 hours of electricity a day for 2 outlets. They are proud that they have electrical capability and I was moved by their gratefulness. I saw personally one of the results of this installation. While we were waiting for the coffee to brew, Nelvin (10 years old) came up to me and said, in English, “My name is Nelvin and I am learning English.” It turns out that he is part of an English class and is indeed learning English, because we were able to speak simple sentences to each other. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up and he replied “a coffee farmer like my dad.” In such a remote area, I was so pleased to see that the youth are receiving (and appreciating) their education. Having electric lighting in the evening is allowing children more time for their studies and will definitely have a positive impact on their learning capability.

Our next stop was the Tourist Cooperative close to the top of the mountain. What an amazing spot – so beautiful and peaceful. We enjoyed a great lunch in the pavilion that had been built by the cooperative. (They also have running water from a cistern and very clean latrines.)

There were 8 members of the cooperative present. They each introduced themselves and told me what a difference the solar panels have made in their lives, particularly in the following areas:

·Communication: being able to communicate with their relatives and business partners from the mountains.

·Children studying in the evenings: The light provided by the solar panels allows the students to read and write even after the sun goes down around 6pm.

·No smoke: Prior to the solar panels, fires provided all of the evening light.

Once again, I was overwhelmed with their gratefulness for something most of us take for granted – electric power.

Finally, we visited Fuente de Pino, the basket making cooperative. I think I was most impressed by these women for a couple of reasons:

·These are women who created a small business and worked hard at maintaining it, marketing their product, and tracking their receipts and expenses.

·Without exception, they were all intelligent and knowledgeable about running a small business.

·And, they were so creative with their designs.

They had a sturdy, attractive building with display cases and a lock to protect their products. They, too, were thankful for the solar panels providing them with the ability to work into the evening on their crafts.

All in all, visiting the recipients of this solar panel project was a reward for me. While I have been to Nicaragua several times and have seen many struggles there, this was a step forward. I learned with my first visit to not take for granted the blessings I have in the United States. While we do have poverty in the U.S., we still have electric power, potable water, sewer systems, and available transportation. Many people in Nicaragua have none of these luxuries. I leave each time humbled by their creativity, hard work, and never-ending friendliness and optimistic outlook.

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