Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Changing Farming Practices in Nicaragua, By Rachel Lindsay, 2008-2009, Nicaragua

The original concept of my Fulbright project was to strengthen the link between technical and financial resources available to small farmers in Nicaragua to promote more sustainable farming practices. My contacts included the National Autonomous University (UNAN) and the Center for the Promotion of Local Development (CEPRODEL), a micro-finance institution. A reforestation project involving the two institutions was already in the works, and by mid-April I was working full time organizing trainings and processing the participating farms’ evaluations.

With faculty from the Agroecology Department at UNAN, we organized trainings for the families of 24 CEPRODEL clients in soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic pest control as well as proper establishment and care of trees. We emphasized the importance of ecological and financial sustainability through long-term business planning.

Teaching the workshops and following up with technical assistance required us to stay with participating families in the countryside. I have been warned by all my Nicaraguan friends that life in the country is very rough. The roads are often in terrible condition and are notorious mud traps during the rainy season. On our way out to the community, our pickup truck slid sideways, and we found ourselves jammed into a soft bank of mud with the back wheels elevated, completely blocking the road on the first day of trainings. After we tried to free the truck futilely using tree branches, 4-wheel-drive and pushing, a neighbor accomplished the task with his two oxen in minutes.

I was prepared for stark poverty, no electricity, no running water, simple meals and lots of mosquitoes. All of the above proved true. What I wasn’t prepared for was a host family so generous they hunted iguanas and killed a sheep so that we would eat meat instead of just beans, finding that my mosquito net was more useful in keeping bat dung off my bed than protecting me from mosquitoes and realizing that tropical ant bites hurt a lot more than mosquito bites. After the workshops ended, I spent my evenings with the family’s children, trying fruits growing wild in the nearby woods, exploring a river with waterfalls and rapids, making compost piles and helping to clear the acres of brush where trees from the reforestation project will be planted.

After several nights of long conversations by candlelight with my host family about my life in the States and the differences between our cultures, I began to realize that what I want this project to become is more than the strengthening of technical and financial resources available to Nicaragua’s small farmers. Instead of feeling deprived and being labeled poor, I want them to admire their beautiful land, to treasure the abundant natural resources and to be proud of the riches they are passing on to their children. Like the oxen who proved much more effective than our pickup truck in the mud, many elements of rural life are undervalued in our current society. In addition to changing our fiscal practices to work toward a just world, we need to change our value system to include the priceless riches of rural life.

Linking technical assistance with financial credit has helped Pedro Mendoza (left) maintain an impressive diversity: he farms cattle, five different grains and vegetables, three different fruits (including cashew) in addition to producing organic compost and honey. Along with providing loans to buy seeds and calves, CEPRODEL has helped him find new markets for his crops and improve the genetic makeup of his cattle herd.

Technical assistant Vernonn Berios and I use a motorcycle to visit as many clients as we can in one day and navigate the dirt roads that larger vehicles can't access. Limited transportation options hinder market access for small farmers who sometimes have to travel whole days with oxen to reach a market.

Top photo: Engaging the reforestation project families in project and educational activities, especially young children, promotes an ongoing community dialogue about sustainable farming practices such as making compost piles and helps ensure their implementation.

To read more about Rachel Lindsay's Fulbright experiences, please visit her blog.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

On Being a Fulbrighter in the Developing World, By Michelle R. Kaufman, 2007-2008, Nepal

My Fulbright grant took me to Nepal, where I lived in Kathmandu and studied women’s reproductive health. I consider receiving a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant one of my greatest achievements so far, and as cliché as it sounds, it really was the experience of a lifetime. I was fortunate enough to be there during one of the most historic times in Nepali history—when the monarchy was abolished and the Maoists were elected to a majority of the Parliament seats.

My research involved designing and pilot testing a sexual health education program for Nepali women. With the help of a Nepali research assistant, I first completed a series of interviews and focus groups with various women about their experiences and previous sex education. Based on the data gathered from these interviews, I then designed a program called Let's Talk!, which taught women about basic sex education, STDs/HIV, proper male and female condom use, various forms of birth control and how to discuss using protection with one's partner. The results were far more successful than I anticipated they would be, and I established what will be lifelong relationships with several people.

But undertaking a Fulbright grant in the developing world is not easy, nor was every day fun. To be perfectly honest, there were many days when I would have jumped on a plane and left had I been given the chance. Battling things like fuel shortages, 40 hours a week without electricity, pollution, a lack of hot water (or no water at all), and being paranoid that everything I put in my mouth contained parasites or bacteria made my fellowship challenging in ways that pushed me to my limits. To be a Fulbrighter in the developing world takes a whole other skill set that many people, including myself, could not have anticipated.

Nepali people are so kind in general and genuinely helpful that even when things were tough, I had a supportive community. I made close friends with Nepalis my age, was offered help with my research and was invited for tea and
dhal bhaat (a traditional Nepali meal) on many occasions. I was treated just like a member of the family. When I was dealing with challenges and missing my support network back in the U.S., my Nepali family stepped in.

Reflecting upon my time in Nepal, I now realize that even though it was occasionally a challenging experience—perhaps the hardest experience of my life—it was also one of the most valuable. I now appreciate more of the little things I took for granted in my life back in the U.S. (clean water, reliable transportation, sanitation, and uninterrupted electricity). And I find that I have a better understanding and deeper level of empathy for the way most of the rest of the world lives. But most importantly, I understand how important family and close friends are in getting through trying times. Living among Nepali people taught me that as long as you have that support, everything else is
tik chha—Okay.

My advice to those pursuing a Fulbright grant in the developing world is threefold. First, keep in mind as you apply for the fellowship, additional challenges will exist. The experience of a Fulbrighter in France will be far different from that of a Fulbrighter in say, Uganda, simply because of the additional challenges of meeting your basic needs. While a Fulbrighter in these two countries will have similar experiences in terms of adjusting to cultural differences and perhaps the language barrier, the additional adjustment of going from the developed world to the developing will be tough.

Second, when you get to your host country, take the time to immerse yourself in the local community and find a support network. Having a “family” in your host country will be your most valuable asset. Also, find other foreigners, whether they be other Fulbrighters, expatriates, or Embassy staff. Having a community of people to talk to as you go through the adjustment process will make it much smoother. When you can laugh together about picking up intestinal bacteria, it makes it easier to handle!

And finally, go with a sense of humor. Leave behind your need for control. I found that the best way to cope with the adjustment to a different culture, environment and way of life required accepting the fact that most of what was happening around me was completely out of my hands. And when I could laugh about it, laugh at myself and how I reacted in the situations, I was better able to cope. This was probably the biggest change I saw in myself as a result of my Fulbright experience and it was for the best.

My time in Nepal as a Fulbrighter will continue to transform me and my research—perhaps for years to come. I continue to be in close contact with my Nepali family and look forward to visiting them again in the near future. Although it challenged me and pushed my limits in many ways, I would never trade the experience for anything.

Michelle R. Kaufman, 2007-2008, Nepal, shows a group of rural Nepali children a digital photo of themselves on the trail to Nagarkot.

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