“Adios amigos!” was the refrain on Thursday when Kai, Camelia, Becky, Ethan, Kevin, and Celine said goodbye to their Cornell colleagues Mary, Mitch, Gosia, Edbert, Mandy, Christine and Allie. It was an emotional moment, hugging one another two blocks from the bus terminal in Leon. We have worked hard this week, endured minor injuries, stomach ailments, tropical heat and frustrations on the worksite. Despite setbacks, their spirits never flagged. We accomplished a lot this first week, setting the stage for a second wave of students, Lee, Thomas, Carolyn, Aiden and Sadmun, arriving on Friday.
As a going away event (known here in Nicaragua as a “despedida”), our group traveled from Nagarote to Leon – some by public transport, others in our “rabano” (the ruby red “radish” van). After a brief tour in Leon, conducted by Rachel Lindsay, we piled 19 bodies, Nicaraguan style, into the Rabano for the final miles to a Pacific beach for a going away lunch. La Barca de Oro is an open-air thatched roof restaurant in the village of Las Penitas.
For one bliss filled hour, students body surfed, paddled kayaks through a mangrove forest, lounged on a beach known as La Isla de Juan Venado and reveled in the secluded natural beauty.
Today, it’s back to the two work sites. The first adobe blocks have been positioned at the eco-center while the foundation for the Perez family composting toilet is all but complete.
We eagerly look forward to the arrival of the second group of students, with their clean clothes, willing spirits, and yet-to-be-tanned skin.
Francisca Perez is a lovely campesina. She lives with her husband Mario, on three manzanas (about five acres) of very dry, compacted, deforested land just outside of Nagarote. They share their small home with two of their three sons – Francisco and Jose, a daughter-in-law and two very precious grandchildren.
Francisca put a lot of effort into her first garden, some years ago, even though her soil is really exhausted. With significant effort, she managed to get some annual vegetables growing. Then, when she wasn’t looking, her chickens escaped. It’s amazing how much damage twenty-five chickens can do in just a few hours. The devastation so discouraged Francisca, she gave up on gardening.
Her sons haven’t shown much interest in farming. Jose works as a bouncer at a bar in Nagarote. His younger brother Francisco aspires to be a singer. He really has a nice voice, as he demonstrated to our group, accompanied by his guitar, despite its missing one of six strings.
When some of the Cornell students arrived to help build a new composting toilet, Jose and Mario at first only watched. Eventually, they joined in with surprising enthusiasm. Then, when the landscape crew started watering the parched citrus orchard, laying out an expanded garden area and digging a hole for a banana plant to take advantage of the overflow from their shower, Francisca rekindled her fire for gardening. She works hard, every day, frying pork scraps to sell in the Nagarote market. They call it “churasco”.
Despite her many family and market responsibilities, today Francisca and her daughter-in-law prepared an impressive “sopa de gallina con albondiga” – a hardy chicken stew with corn masa dumplings, tomato, yucca, quequisque, chayote, elotes, potato, and assorted herbs. At 1 PM all 18 of us had gathered in the yard, seated on hay bails where she served us an impressive country style lunch of soup and tortillas. Can you imagine whipping up a meal for 18 guests as well as your seven family members at short notice?
While Francisca is very special, she is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of women in Nicaragua work from sun up to well into the night, without complaint. They are as loving as they are talented and hard working. It was an honor for us to dine with Francisca and to devote some of our sweat and ideas to the future of her household.
With the arrival of Becky yesterday, our Cornell contingent has reached lucky 13 – not counting the 5 SosteNica support staff. The students have organized themselves into four working groups: communications, landscape, composting toilet and house construction.
The communications team (Kai, Camelia, Celine) has been doing outreach to media outlets, supporters, university publications and the like. Their job is critical to “getting the word out” which, in time, will give the project legs needed to walk to housing cooperatives throughout Nicaragua. They have already met the publisher of a local Nagarote newspaper, sent out press releases to publications in the US, started this blog, and set up an interview with a Nicaraguan TV channel for Saturday.
The landscape team (Becky, Celine) has begun taking soil samples and drawing maps of the two areas which they plan to design and install during their return delegation in June. They plan to develop both a model edible landscape for an urban setting, as well as a rural system that can demonstrate the production and use of compost, irrigation using waste shower water, perennial fruits and vegetables and the like. Yet another team will return to Nagarote at the start of the rainy season (June) to install their designs.
The composting toilet team (Edbert, Ethan, Gosia, Celine) has been working hard at Mario Perez’ family farm, where a demonstration composting toilet will allow for more of the organic fertility to be captured and reused without wasting or contaminating surface water or the aquifer. Yesterday they rode down to the shore of Lake Managua in a 1-horse-powered cart to collect large stones for the foundation of their edifice. The day before they visited an artisanal brick in La Paz Centro where they bought the materials needed to build their “obra d’arte”.
Finally, the house construction team (Kevin, Mandy, Christine, Mary, Allie, Mitch), under the direction of Eric Gomez, has been busy beyond words. On day one, they led the charge checking the quality of the stem wall and removing the parts that were deemed unacceptable. They have moved tons of building materials, including lumber and adobes, mixed lime putty in 50 gallon drums and lime mortar with sand so they could rebuild the stem wall they had demolished. Yesterday they completed digging the “mortar pit” which they filled with a combination of clay, sand, chopped straw and water, to be danced and massaged into adobe mortar, and organized the storage area where tools and building materials are kept.
Despite sunburns, blisters, cut fingers, sore muscles, and a few digestive challenges, the students are robust, energetic, and hard working. More importantly, they persist in showing kindness to one another, respect for their Nicaraguan counterparts, and the love of life which is undoubtedly responsible in part for their choosing to spend a part of their Christmas break doing manual labor in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua has a housing problem. Too many of its citizens live in homes that are overcrowded and in disrepair. To make matters worse, the Nicaraguan population grows faster than the housing stock, which means that, every year, the housing crisis gets worse. As the economy grows, which it did last year, by an impressive 4+%, there is more money in circulation for the purchase of new construction. Unfortunately, the majority of that growth does not go to favor low-income families.
In 2012, the Sandinista government built 4,800 units of social housing for families in extreme poverty. According to Judith Silva, president of the Institute of Urban and Rural Housing (INVUR) an additional 4,000 houses with affordable price tags were constructed by non-governmental organizations or by for profit companies. This housing is provided to families who cannot obtain bank mortgages.
Kai, director of SNN, has noticed that whenever affordable housing is discussed here in Nicaragua, the conversation begins with the price tag, followed by the square footage. If the description goes into detail, it would next mention layout.
For example, 220 “affordable homes” were completed in Rivas recently. One of the Rivas programs benefitted public employees whose salaries are limited by International Monetary Fund conditions. Municipal workers and employees at the ministries of Health and Education were offered 42 of the houses. The homes cost $12,000, measured 452 square feet, had two bedrooms, a living-dining area, and a bathroom as well as front and back yards.
Never mentioned are the building materials used to construct the houses, the kinds of technologies integrated into the structures that will serve the occupants, nor any details of the landscaping or the community layout. Why is this?
Is it because one assumes that the homes should be built using a single criterion – lowest cost – without consideration of comfort, beauty, sustainability or cultural continuity? Is it thought that landscaping is nothing more than a cosmetic add-on, to be determined by the occupant in the future? Is it assumed that the acceptable technologies are universal – municipal water with a flush toilet, electric hook up to the grid, perhaps with a bottled gas stove?
If so, our project’s construction has been designed, and is being built, to challenge these notions.
Natural building really is different. Starting from the foundation, we are using stones and lime, not steel and cement. If the stones are too small (as in our case) they don’t really create a foundation, just a pile of rocks. That is not all that stable. If the lime is not fresh, it doesn’t bind with the sand. In fact, it’s really just crushed limestone with no bonding ability at all. It’s all about the chemistry, and what happens when you heat crushed limestone then put it in water. If done properly, the outcome is quite impressive. If done incorrectly, leaving the lime in sacks to reabsorb CO2 for example, it gives natural building a very bad name.
On day one, when we arrived at the Nagarote construction site, we found high quality adobe blocks waiting in a storage yard next to our construction site where a stem wall had been poorly done — at least in parts. We phoned the supervising architect who agreed to drive from his home to meet us, despite it being a Sunday. Apparently, neither the maestro de obra, nor the masons under his charge, had ever worked with lime. That technology has been abandoned for so many years. Add to that, the sudden and unexpected death of the maestro de obra’s wife, and a deadline of approaching gringos, and you have a formula for poor workmanship. So our Cornell contingent, after an impromptu meeting with the Nicaraguan architect, spent the first day undoing a significant portion of the stem wall, removing conduit for electrical outlets, forming up the demolished areas, and starting over.
The students have understood the science and, like fish to water, have taken to the process of mixing mortar and laying stones. They are hard working, good spirited, and never complaining. Despite the heat, the wind, the sun, the cut fingers, the sunburn, the broken tools, and having to walk everywhere to get anywhere, they are optimistic, supportive of one another, and eager to tackle the next challenge.
That challenge comes when we meet with the complete team – the CEPRODEL decision makers, the maestro de obra and his team of masons. Our plan is to reform and lay the stem wall, on top of which we will pour a conventional antiseismic bond beam complete with a ring of steel rebar. From there, we will begin to lay the adobe blocks.
These first few days have convinced me of the wisdom of having contracted with one of Latin America’s premere natural builders — Eric Gomez — to guide the delegation as well as the construction process. He’s an excellent teacher, patient, experienced, wise and funny. At the same time, he relates well to the Nicaraguans — respectful, generous, flexible. This project is sure to have bumps in the road, but I predict a positive outcome when all is said and done.