The Best Birthday Ever Part I
Last week we launched a new program with our coop partner Prodecoop in Nicaragua aimed at encouraging children to read and providing them with quality books and the opportunity to do so. It was one of the most profound experiences in all my years doing people-centered development, and a great way to celebrate my birthday (I even got to eat cake and ice cream and play with a clown!). Here’s what happened.
For years I have been aware of the Dirty Little Secret of the coffee industry. Whether it is a big plantation or a fair trade cooperative, once the coffee is picked, depulped and dried in parchment by the farmers it goes to the Beneficio for milling, patio drying, sorting and grading, packing and shipping. The workers at the Beneficio who do the drying and the sorting are almost exclusively women. Many of them wear masks because of the dust. You can’t see their faces. They receive low pay and few (if any) other benefits. I call them “The Unseen Women of Coffee”. No matter how upscale and sustainable your coffee company claims to be, this is the reality at the processor level.
Every time we speak to these Unseen Women, they identify two things as the highest priorities for changing their lives; alternative sources of income for their families and increasing educational opportunities for their children. Creating a program to increase their kids’ literacy is a great example of direct, people-centered development that addresses one of their priorities. Once the women identified the problem, we then talked to a wonderful Nicaraguan organization that does childrens’ literacy programs, Libros Para Niños.
Libros Para Niños mission is to promote reading among impoverished children who never get an opportunity to discover the magic of a well-written and beautifully illustrated children’s story, and who’s right to access books, an unobtainable luxury, has always been denied. It should be noted that the access to children’s books is not common practice in Nicaragua and reading for pleasure in Nicaragua is almost nonexistent. Schools lack story books and even reading for learning is severely limited since most schools rarely have textbooks for their students. Books are expensive, a high illiteracy rate prevents many parents from reading to their children, and many children do not or cannot attend school. It is a rare school that has a library or a reading program Public libraries provide no better answer, as Gloria Carrión director of Libros Para Niños, explained since libraries in Nicaragua do not lend books and are scarce in numbers.
Although Libros had not worked in the Esteli area before or worked directly with coffee coops, Libros was excited to take on this project. We coordinated with them and Prodecoop to create a Reading Festival for the children of the Unseen Women. Libros figured out the cost of personnel, travel, clown, singer and other expenses for an expected group of one hundred kids. Prodecoop did the outreach, arranged the transportation for the women and kids to the Beneficio for the Saturday festival, as well as the care and feeding of such a large group. It had to be inside the large meeting room, because the outside patios were full of drying coffee being raked by some of the women (if they were working the aunts or uncles watched over their kids at the festival).
The day began before one hundred well-groomed, eager children sitting on cushions in the middle of the room, surrounded by a larger group of interested but anxious parents and relatives. The musician strummed a sing-a-long with a call and response of cat and dog noises. The kids weren’t listening. They had their eyes on the boxes of books around the room. When they were given the word they plunged into the boxes and began to read or look at the pictures. Their focus was so intense that the rest of the room must have disappeared for them. After a half hour of free reading the kids broke up into groups, to be read to by the Libros workers (and Uncle Dean, who read the story of a boy who didn’t fit in at school but was really smart - felt familiar!). Then the payaso (clown) entertained the kids with jokes and reading from an enlarged book that really engaged them in the reading process. All morning Alison, our new Manager of International Development, played with the kids and took photos – a great introduction to our work on the ground! Jello and ice cream served by Prodecoop sugared the kids (and me) up so much that some of the boys nearly flew during the dancing/games that followed (note to self – no sugar next time).
As the Festival wound down Alison and I spoke to a number of kids and asked their opinions. Did they like reading? Did they have much chance to read at home or at school? Would they like these books to come back again? This mini-“facilitated dialogue approach” resulted in the kids’ resounding approval of the program. The mothers were similarly excited. Each one we spoke to told us that they had no idea how excited their child was to read (many of the women were illiterate) and that the lack of resources at home and at school meant the kids had little opportunity to continually improve their reading and critical thinking skills. The moms unanimously urged us to expand the program.
Afterwards we met with Prodecoop and Libros. We talked about how to follow up with possibly monthly visits to the Beneficio of Libros’ mobile library as a start, and a longer term goal of training local volunteers in the distant small farming communities on how to do regular community-based reading. Dean’s Beans paid all expenses of this experiment. Going forward we are working out both our and Prodecoop’s financial participation.
One of the true joys of being a Dad was reading to my young daughters. I know it did so much for their reading skills, critical thinking and imagination, and allowed me that closeness so important for child development. My girls are out of the house, but now I have the joy of reading with kids in Nicaragua and helping parents savor that experience. To me, true social change means changing peoples’ attitudes about themselves and arming them with the tools to improve their own lives. Here’s hoping that the little readers of the Beneficio will grow up to make the world a better place.
Here are some more photos of our trip!