After a month of Spanish classes I began working at Cenzontle, a Nicaraguan NGO "bank" that offers small loans to women who are self-employed. The 500 or so participants work in a wide variety of activities, ranging from running small stores to sewing clothes to making tortillas and cultivating coffee. In addition to credit, Cenzontle also offers workshops on business management and gender issues.
Initially I shadowed the four women who work for Cenzontle, called "promotoras," accompanying them on visits to women who were soliciting credit or when they checked in on women who were behind on payments. I quickly became the office computer guru, called upon to resolve frequent electronic crises and generally facilitate use of the somewhat intimidating technology. Being personally more of an organizer than a computer hack, I wanted to participate more in the workshops. Though I was able to help prepare materials and assist the facilitators, I didn’t feel ready to try and facilitate on my own in Spanish.
That was the general state of affairs when Hurricane Mitch hit without warninglast October. It started to rain torrentially and continued for four days. My house is only three blocks from the river that runs through Estelí, but fortunately it sits atop a small hill. Friends a block away had floodwaters waist-deep in their houses, in Mitch’s wake. About 15 of Cenzontle’s clients in Estelí lost their homes, and many more lost belongings. The worst affected were those living in Dipilto, a small town in the mountains two hours north of Estelí. Almost all had coffee farms, and fully half had all of their ready-to-harvest crops and topsoil washed away. This is what I wrote after my first trip to Dipilto three weeks after the hurricane:
I’m back from the disaster zone after helping deliver a load of food to the Cenzontle participants in Dipilto. The area, off the Pan-American highway on the Nicaragua-Honduras border, had been completely cut off—no power, no water, no transport by road—for two and a half weeks. Cenzontle had sent a helicopter load of food up about a week ago, and as soon as we heard that some vehicles were getting through we went up in the truck with another load. The area is mountainous, with pine forests and coffee and banana plantations. Most of the women we work with have small coffee farms tucked into the mountains on either side of the highway. Or what used to be the highway. What a nightmare! The destruction is incredible. To start with, a huge bridge about a half an hour south is completely washed away. We crossed through the riverbed, with the water coming halfway up the doors of the truck.