Town meeting in the village of Silvio Mayorga by Jennifer Sohn

by tuftsigl
Jun 13

After four and half days of work throughout the village of Silvio Mayorga, my trip to Nicaragua with Tufts Engineers without Borders concluded with a town meeting. Just before our return to Managua, we brought everyone together, from the community water board to neighborhood children. In plastic chairs outside the church, trying to stay out of the sun, we set to talking about the trip’s results and what they showed us about the future.

A community is always diverse – and Silvio Mayorga fits the bill, with families large and small. I was surprised by the united drive of the community, despite the differences between households. While there were a few houses with good quality private wells and thus less desire to improve a community well, the force of the village was overwhelmingly in the same direction. For a project like ours to work well, there must be a united drive to see it through, something that is certainly present in Silvio Mayorga.

The town meeting demonstrated this community drive, but also a certain need for explanations. At this stage of the project, we are mostly gathering information, sometimes through means unfamiliar to community members. Water tests – in which an agar plate is soaked in well water (to test for bacteria) or acid is dripped into a sample until a color change occurs (to test for hardness) – must be given a significance, their results explained and quantified. The surveying we did – to analyze altitude differences to understand why water pressure was sometimes failing – also required explaining. At the meeting, when these explanations were received by the community, it was clear that they could better understand what our project would look like. Presenting real data to the community at the meeting was satisfying. For the first time on the trip, I felt like we were contributing in a way that the community could not have accomplished on its own.

Talking about our project and goals at the meeting also meant talking about the timeframe for our project – our most delicate topic with the community. It was exciting to work with such well-organized people and fulfill such a clear need, but their urgent desire to complete the project worries me. As students, we have a strict schedule to keep – travel is only possible during academic breaks. Aside from that, the paperwork and preparation required for trip approval from Engineers without Borders often interfere with our work, slowing everything down. Only in a perfect world will we be able to travel in the next possible window of time (January of winter break). Even January is not as soon as some in Silvio Mayorga would prefer and our trip may, realistically, take even longer to assemble than that, possibly until May of next year. We can’t travel again until we have a completed design and all paperwork is squared away. Time is precious and I understand that well after meeting this community – the sooner the project is completed, the sooner their lives improve markedly – but I worry that time will get away from us.

What cannot get away from us, however, is the connection to the community built during this trip. Toward the end of the town meeting, we asked for questions of the people we were serving. The first question was a profound one – what if we returned to the United States and forgot about all of them? The looks on the faces around us said that the woman who had asked was not alone in wondering. For me, it was an easy question to answer. In awkward Spanish, I told the woman that there was no way we would forget this village. Our trip introduced us to the men, women, and children who benefit or suffer if we do or do not complete this project. How could we forget them when we’ve seen for ourselves how little they have and how much we can help, even with just one project in their community? It feels sentimental to say it, but traveling to the community was, for me, life-changing. For all of us, it represents a significant change in our work.

This trip was my first foray into how international development looks in the context of the communities it serves. Those communities, though, look different from the lists of facts and goals and plans we make at home, on campus, in meetings or standing in front of a whiteboard. They are bound together by common desires and they want information – they want to educate themselves, so that they may improve their lives even before a structure is repaired or a new system built. They have needs as a community, the urgency of which is much more apparent when you speak face-to-face across the dirt courtyard of a cinderblock church. Most of all, they care deeply that these unknown foreigners do not return home unaware of these things – they wanted us to know them, to know their problems and their joys in life so that we would not forget them.

As our meeting drew to a close, the village pastor stood, opening a well-used Bible and reading a line from the first book of John – “Amémonos unos a otros; porque el amor es de Dios; cualquiera que ama, es nacido de Dios, y conoce a Dios.” Let us love one another, for love comes from God; everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. I am not Christian, but that didn’t matter. It was the meaning behind his words that resonated with me. I felt as if this week’s trip had slipped a rope around me, connecting my work – in Nicaragua or back at Tufts – to the people of Silvio Mayorga. As the pastor spoke, I felt that rope tighten, forming a knot of purpose and drive within me. We are partnered with this community for a real, concrete project – the improvement of their water system, but we are also people just like them, and this trip taught me that serving people should mean loving them too.