November 24, 2014

Interviews, War and Peacebulding [Part 1]

Our students just turned in my absolute favorite assignment of the semester.  It must be the Social Worker in me because I always anticipate this full-week of reading and grading.  In our Conflict Transformation course, we ask our students to interview someone who was involved in the revolution of 1979 and ensuing contra, the disarmament and peace process that followed.  Many of our students participated themselves, as service was required for young men.  Our students are always a bit apprehensive about the assignment, wondering if some of the questions will trigger painful events, but in the end, the majority of them share that it is a helpful assignment that encourages them to learn more about their own selves and culture, and the continued impact of war in their lives and their country.

What does national reconciliation mean? What have been the successes and challenges in Nicaragua from the perspective of those who were involved? How did the armed conflict impact individuals and what did does this impact look like today? How can we improve our understanding of the peace building process here in Nicaragua?

Instead of highlighting or summarizing the papers of our students, we asked them for permission to share their writing with you. And so this week and next, we will share with you their perspectives on armed conflict and the reconciliation process in Nicaragua. Here are their voices.



Peace is Possible, but it is a Choice by Jessica Azucena Valdivia Montenegro

This oral history interview was very interesting for me because I had never before talked about the theme of reconciliation in Nicaragua with someone who participated in the war and the process that followed. To be face to face with someone and imagine all of the pain, fear and anxiety that one lived through and then later adjust to a life without war was very meaningful for me.

I interviewed Don Mario Rocha Gutierrez, a gentleman with a relaxed appearance, who is 57 years old and lives in the Belen Neighborhood in the city of EstelĂ­. He participated in the armed conflict on the side of the National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) and was responsible for training soldiers for combat (physical training, assemble and disarmament of weapons).

To understand the relationship between the interview and conflict transformation, we need to start from the lived experience of the person. The feelings of guilt and rage that marked his life and his felt helplessness in overcoming these and the point in his life where he realized these memories may last a lifetime. Don Mario described the war and conflict as a place that causes many emotions for him, including anger, as well as vulnerability, fear, intimacy and hope.

Don Mario recounts that when he began his service, a superior warned him that he would need to turn in his weapons if the negotiations with the Contra began to bring successful results. For Don Mario, this was excellent news as he “did not want to know anything more about war.” The first step in the process of conflict transformation is the desire to change violent actions into peaceful behavior. One of the Beatitudes of Reconciliation states, “Blessed are those who are willing to enter the process of healing, because they will become leaders.” Don Mario was willing to enter into this process and when the demobilization process was initiated, he became an advocate in his community for the turning in of weapons, placing an emphasis on the importance of leaving behind the ways of the past and working towards new times of peace, and the importance of building peace together.

Transforming our destructive conflicts into constructive experiences is an important task in the reconciliation process. Don Mario shares, that setting aside negative aspects that had occurred in the conflict and reaffirming certain values such as loyalty, discipline, brotherhood, love and family are integral in this process. Conflict transformation is therefore a process of engagement of relationships, interests, debates, expressing one’s lived experiences and learning how to be more loving.

When I asked Don Mario what the word reconciliation means to him, he said that it involves forgiveness and reconstruction. If we want to better understand the processing of the conflict, we need to understand ones thoughts, emotions, self-esteem and personal perceptions that were impacted by the conflict. Don Mario shares that there was a time when he did not want to talk about what he experienced during the armed conflict, until later when he realized that this was not healthy in his processing of the event and his healing.

While the armed conflict was very destructive in the life of Don Mario and many others, he shares that the spirit of the conflict on the side of the FSLN was to achieve social change for the wider population and bring about common good. This encouraged him in his work towards reconciliation because he believes that while the armed conflict was devastating, what followed provided a collective opportunity for growth and change. He affirms that healthy conflict creates life and thanks to conflict we are able to respond, innovate and change. Conflict can be understood as an engine for social change, which is alive, sincere and sensitive to a community’s needs and aspirations.

Don Mario is also grateful for the contribution of the church in the process of reconciliation, which served as a mediator in many of the negotiations, accompanied the signing of the peace treaty and helped survivors of the conflict.

Don Mario is as a product of the reconciliation process. He is no longer afraid of war. He is grateful for improved economic stability, foreign investment, employment opportunities and continued hope for a better future. Don Mario does not consider a future culture of peace as a possibility for Nicaragua; he says that it is already happening.

November 16, 2014

Power and Privilege

Truly, this is the message of the Kingdom of God, the first will be last, the powerful will be the last, a child will lead them, the captives will be freed.

Power is a word that inspires strong feelings, both negative and positive.  Because of power many have been killed, many have been corrupted, and others have suffered terribly.  At the same time, power is that which makes us able to achieve any constructive change which we desire.

We have talked a bit about our power and privilege in this place previously, but we probably have not talked about it enough.  If this page on the internet is going to honestly reflect our lives here in Nicaragua, then we should be writing about it much more frequently.  Power and privilege are something that we think about and interact with every single day.

Every morning when I step out of my front door and start the long walk to our bus stop, I think about my power and privilege.  Sometimes it works to my advantage and at other times it works to my disadvantage.  

I have the advantage to go to and be accepted in places where others cannot.  I may be offered a seat on the bus, when others remain standing.  I might be granted more respect as I teach in the classroom, when others have to earn it.  I am constantly reminded of my privilege.

Other times my power works to my disadvantage.  I am often charged a higher rate by a taxi driver, I cannot bargain for the same low prices at the market, I may be treated differently by the police (read more about a recent occurrence by our friends when they dropped us off at home), I am targeted more often for theft and I am a constant oddity in society.

“The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves.”  -Nicholas Kristoff in a recent New York Times article

In class a couple weeks ago, we were discussing the impact of power in conflict transformation.  Each time I discuss this theme in class or in our workshops, I share about the importance of admitting our power.  I begin by sharing that I am a powerful person.  I am white, from a middle-class family in the United States, a person with a good education base, without special needs and heterosexual.  I have a strong support network and a job that provides for more than my needs.

I continued by sharing that almost everyday I wish that this was not my situation.  I wish that I could walk up and down the streets of Managua and not be noticed.  I feel like I would better be able to live in solidarity with my brothers and sisters here in Nicaragua.  But the fact is, I cannot change this.  I have to admit to my power. 

I must confess that each time I share this, I cannot get through it without tears.

It is important that we are honest about our power for several reasons.  If I want to avoid abusing my power, I must recognize it.  Power is addictive and can control us if we are not aware of it.  I cannot control it, if I am negating it.  I desire to use my power responsibly.  There is energy in power and it can be used for good.  I want to build just relationships with my family, neighbors and community and this requires that I acknowledge and observe my power in these relationships.  Ultimately I want to use my power to empower others.

We ended class by reading through the following concepts of power.  I hope that you find them as a helpful tool to reflect on.

Key Concepts of Power
1.  Nobody is completely without power, to be alive means to embody and utilize the power.
2.  Social power exists between people, it exists in individuals and in social relations.
3.  Power is not a finite resource or something that can be traded or bought.  It is relational, fluid and difficult to measure.
4.  Power is neither positive nor negative, but can be used constructively or destructively.
5.  When a person denies their power, it is a small step towards the abuse of power.  It is very important to be conscious of your power.
6.  Inequalities of power create occasions for the abuse of power. In the long run, these inequalities can destroy individuals and their relationships.
7.  Individuals internalize the social patterns of domination and oppression, and they are formed by their membership in a group with a specific identity. However, individuals are not fully defined by this identity, because each has the power to act in its own interests.
8.  Healthy conflict transformation will work towards a balance of power.
9.  The desire of God for the world order is a place without domination.

Conflict Transformation and Restorative Justice Manual

Mennonite Central Committee Office on Justice and Peacebuilding

November 9, 2014

Three Years

We have just finished up our third year in the lovely country of Nicaragua and are currently in the States on our home leave.  This is a two-month time for rest and connection that MCC provides to workers after they have served for three years. 

In the same format that we used for our first and second years we want to share with you how this last year has gone.  We hope that you enjoy reading.

Things we love:

  • Our Nicaraguan friends and family - We have created many more memories with our friends in Nicaragua and look forward to another year to do life with them.
  • Nicaraguan food - Even though a lot of the food is fried, we love it.  There are very few meals that we do not enjoy.  We are already worried about how we will find this amazing fritanga and comedor food once we move back to the United States.
  • Access to fresh fruits and vegetables - We are absolutely head over heals with the fruits and vegetables that we have access to.  We enjoy them in all forms, from eating them whole to juicing. 
  • Our work - This year has been a fruitful year for us. Cassie has continued to lead workshops on the culture of peace and conflict transformation throughout Nicaragua and our seminary classes have led to deep relationships and (we hope) beneficial changes for our students, their families and their communities.
  • The land – This past year, we have had the opportunity to visit more places in Nicaragua.  Each time we go somewhere new, we are overwhelmed by the beauty, culture and people that fill each place.
  • Year-Round gardening – Our little urban garden on our front patio continues to flourish.  It is a joy each and everyday to see and smell our growing flowers, and to get creative in the kitchen with our basil and mint plants as well as other herbs.
  • Year-Round summer - We already talked about our love for fresh avocados, mangos, pineapples and coconut year-round, but Cassie more so than Kevin is thrilled with the fact that summer is never ending.  We swim laps in an outdoor pool year round, have gorgeous palm trees swaying back and forth in December and never have to bring along a long-sleeve shirt when leaving our home.  Yet for some reason, Cassie still has the desire to move back to SnowSota someday.
  • Public transportation - Each and everyday we are grateful for the wonderful public transportation.  Whether we need to get across Managua, head an hour or two out of town, cross the country or head north or south to another Latin American country, the bus systems are super reliable, almost as fast as a private vehicle and very economical.  We love the fact that we don't have to sit in traffic or get frustrated with other drivers, we just get to relax, talk to our neighbor or read a book.  There are downsides - the heat, crowded busses and sometimes having to stand.

Things we find difficult:

  • Economic poverty - We are surrounded by the difficulties of poverty each and everyday.  From the conversations that we have with our neighbors and coworkers, to the sights and sounds of the street, we are a witness to the daily struggles that our brothers and sisters have each and everyday.
  • Knowing how to respond - It is difficult to know how to respond to the needs of those around us.  We ask for your support and thoughts about how to best act in ways that empower and do not create dependence for those that we interact with and also those that we meet on the streets and buses each and everyday.
  • Spanish – Language acquisition is difficult.  We continue to study, to meet with a tutor and to struggle with the Spanish language.  Each and everyday we learn something new, we say something completely inappropriate and wish that this was easier.
  • Being white – Our skin color makes us stick out here in Nicaragua.  We are easily noticed as we do daily life here.  The struggle for us comes in the fact that so much privilege and position is given to us because of our skin color.  We are asked to speak, given seats when no one else has them and are always finding ourselves in a constant place of not wanting to seem rude and not appreciative for what people do for us, but also not wanting to be in a position of privilege because of our whiteness.  On the downside, we have had frequent issues with theft and mugging.
  • Violence against children and women – It is difficult to live among and witness violence against women and children.
  • The heat and weather in general (more for Kevin than Cassie) - It is constantly humid, my (Kevin) shirts are usually wet with sweat before I even am out of our neighborhood each day.  The sun is often unbearable and the conditions are almost always the same day in and day out.  We look forward to the day in which we will experience fall colors again and the changing of the seasons.
  • Cats - We still have Brisa who we love for her cuddles and her willingness to catch the pests and rats in and around our home.  However, we are not so fond of the friends she has been making and the welcome mat that she has rolled out for the neighborhood strays.
  • Earthquakes - We both experienced our first earthquake this year and we have both decided that we are not fans of the earth moving below us and the walls swaying beside us.  We spent plenty of nights sleeping outside with our neighbors during the month of April as the earth continued to move for almost 3 weeks!

Things we have learned:

  • Time - Throughout our time here we have gotten pretty used to and accustomed to the ways in which time functions differently in the Latin world.  However, our boss at the Seminary is Cuban and we have learned from our interactions with her that Cubans are the most relaxed when it comes to punctuality.
  • Gardening - We have the opportunity to grow food all year long.  However, this opportunity has also produced a learning curve of what grows well during the different times of the year and how to care for plants during those times.
  • Peace as a process and not an event - There is no switch to turn on or button to push in order to make a difficult situation peaceful.  Peace takes work, it takes dedication and it takes people who are committed to the process.
  • Difficult subjects are hard to talk about, but the conversations are worth it - This year we introduced new themes into our culture of peace classes at the seminary.  The Dean was worried, the board of directors was concerned, but everyone agreed that the subjects were relevant.  In the end, we had many fruitful conversations with students and staff at the seminary and are looking forward to the ways in which we can improve our presentation of these topics next year.
  • We are learning all sorts of new hobbies – From photoshop to painting to plumbing and rewiring.

Things we do automatically:

  • Our TUC card - Things have changed in Managua in regards to its bussing.  Now whenever you want to get on one of the many buses in Managua you need to pay with your TUC card.  Thus, we do not leave home without it!
  • Water - We are still drinking lots of water.  From the time we get up to the time we go to bed and throughout the night, we find ourselves hydrating.
  • Saying hi to everyone in the room when we enter offering handshakes, hugs and giving/receiving besos.
  • Saying goodbye to everyone in the room when we leave offering handshakes, hugs and giving/receiving besos.
  • Writing down all of our purchases in order to create a record of ALL of our expenditures for MCC.
  • Throw our dirty toilet paper into the trash.  This is automatic and hard to remember as we are back in the States.

Things we are looking forward to:

  • Deepening the friendships that we have with those around us
  • The arrival of one, maybe two children through the blessing of adoption
  • A home leave this November and December to see all of you, enjoy some different foods and a change in climate
  • Another year of Spanish acquisition means that our work and relationships will be that much easier
  • Continued work in Peacebuilding

How do you measure a year in the life:

  • in gallo pinto: 300 (the fried rice and bean mixture is still good, but we are starting to mix things up a bit)
  • in bus rides around Managua: 2,190 (approx. On average we each take day 3 busses a day, each bus ride costs us 12 cents)
  • in bars of chocolate received from home: at least 25 (each and every one was greatly enjoyed)
  • in pounds of coffee: 28 (it is delicious and always freshly roasted)
  • in animals killed:  no longer measurable (Brisa continues to kill anything that moves - this seems to be her favorite activity)
  • in floors cleaned: more than 365 (at least once a day we sweep our floors, both inside and out—yes we sweep our lawn—and we are sure to mop at least three times a week)
  • in Cokes drank: 52 (every week, Kevin takes pleasure in a Coca-Cola, an exquisite treat here in Latin American simply because it is still made with sugar instead of corn syrup)
  • in papers graded: 597 (every week our students have an assignment to complete along with various projects and papers that are due throughout the course of the class)
  • in foreign visitors we’ve had: 13 (we always enjoy your visits!)
  • in books: 48 (for Cassie) and 29 (for Kevin): (up from last year)
  • in tears: just a few (we miss friends and family back home and some days life is just plain hard here)
  • in smiles: many (life here is hard, but good. we love the relationships that we have built and look forward to this next year)

Thanks for your support throughout this year. We hope that you have enjoyed our blog updates and that they give you a glimpse of life here, the work that we are doing and more importantly what God is doing.

November 3, 2014

Life Lately

Here we are again with a simple “life lately” post.  We are currently back in the U.S. on a two-month home leave.  This is basically a time to rest, reconnect with family and friends and share about our work.  We hope you enjoy seeing some glimpses of our Nica life over the past couple of months.
This sweet girl, Casey Dyanna is the newest to arrive in our neighborhood.  She lives right next door and is perfect to cuddle with after a long day at work.
Here are a few more kiddos from our neighborhood.  We host movie nights on our patio (year-round because of the amazing weather) once a month.  The kids love the buttery popcorn that Kevin makes!
I think I have shared this before, but our experience has been that Nicaraguans love to celebrate each and every occasion.  We seem to be invited to a birthday party almost every weekend.  We love their parties, full of music and dancing, great food and conversation.
And when you need a break from the party, you take a walk with the kiddos to see the gorgeous views of Managua.
Here we are at our friend Gretel’s surprise birthday party.  It was a wonderful (and late) evening!
We continue teaching at the Baptist Seminary and enjoy our work there.  The best part?!  Friendships with our students.  Here we have Lester and Guillermo, who came to visit us at our house one morning.
Here is a view of our Saturday classroom.  They are busy and full days, but so very worth it.
This is the latest photo of our MCC team in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  These current workers and those of the past have been very important to us during our time of service.
Our friends Isaac and Karen recently celebrated their one year wedding anniversary.  To celebrate we headed to the beach, they preferred the shade and we enjoyed the sun!
My dream for my time in Nicaragua finally came true!  I was a taxi driver for a morning.
Kevin and I participated in a weeklong workshop for Seminary professors on the theme of colonization and it’s effect on Christianity.  It was a week full of learning and conversation.
I headed up to Santa Luz, a community north of Matagalpa to facilitate a Culture of Peace workshop with AMC staff.  We had a great couple of days together learning how we can be agents of peace in our communities.
As we were on our way to visit two of our students (daughter and dad) at their home, we came across the best juice bar!  I am craving this plastic bag of juice all the way from Minnesota.
We have taught Juan in all three of our classes at the seminary.  He and his family have been very kind to us over the past few years.  We are pictured here with Juan and his wife as we visited a lake near their home.
Here is one other food item that we are missing while back in Minnesota, the quesillo.  It is seriously the best thing ever!
One last photo of our all time favorite food!