By: Claudia Aber, Stanford University student and GE Intern in NicaraguaI arrived in Nicaragua four weeks ago to work with Asofénix and Green Empowerment, two sustainable development organizations that work together on a broad range of projects in rural communities. Before leaving Stanford University in California, I had my favorite meal, pizza with a chocolate milkshake. When I arrived in Nicaragua, I was quickly welcomed with a plate filled with rice and beans, or “gallo pinto.” Four weeks later, I have eaten approximately 65 plates of rice and beans. The food, culture, and language of Nicaragua have definitely been an adjustment for me, but these experiences have positively altered the way I view developing countries and have changed the way I view life in the United States.My second week here I lived in El Bálsamo, a rural community in the countryside of Nicaragua. I stayed in a home very similar to the one pictured, where chickens, pigs, street dogs, and cows lived all around the home, and it was common for chickens and dogs to pass through the house.
I have never lived on a farm before or in such close proximity to animals. The home’s floor consisted of dried up dirt, and the only furniture included 4 plastic chairs and a small plastic table. The first two days were very difficult to adjust to this rustic lifestyle. At the same time, it was humbling to experience this deprivation and compare the vast differences between the standard of living in suburban Florida (where I’m originally from) and the rural countryside of Nicaragua. As I was adapting to this new environment around me, I quickly realized that the local people have something that does not exist in my town in Florida: closeness. The entire community is one big family, with neighbors constantly stopping by to say hello. It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as people you love and who make you happy surround you. That is all that’s needed in life to make you resilient. Not surprisingly, I was quickly welcomed into their loving community, and I soon was enjoying my time there. As an example to demonstrate this closeness, I went to the community’s church my third day there. The celebration was to honor the birthday of a 97-year-old woman in the community. My host mother mentioned after the mass that everyone in the room (besides me) was related to the 97-year-old woman, and that in fact the woman has over 270 relatives. This shocked me, but it was very common up until about 20 years ago in Nicaragua to have around 11 children, which this woman had done. This could not have been more different than USA culture, where my family of 6 is considered large. I learned a lot about the value of family in Nicaraguan’s rural communities from the very beginning of my stay in El Bálsamo. I also learned about solar irrigation systems and residential solar panels and how they impact the lives of local people. Green Empowerment and Asofénix install these projects throughout the country. Solar irrigation systems use energy from a small solar panel to pump water from a nearby well to be used for agriculture. This system allows for an abundance of crops to reliably be grown and eaten by the family, increasing their variety of nutrients. Residential solar panels can power about 3-5 light bulbs, a radio, and a small TV in a home, giving families access to light at night to do work, socialize, listen to news, or to feel safe from the darkness. This residential solar panel is typically 80 W, compared to a typical residential solar installation in the USA that is 2,000 W. The large energy difference is due to the fact that homes in the USA use more energy for their appliances, including in the kitchen, air conditioning/ heating, larger TVs, heating water for showers, etc. Prior to these residential solar panel installations in El Bálsamo, there was no electricity and no electrical grid. Therefore, solar power is an excellent renewable option to implement here for both increasing agricultural yields and quality of life, as it does not depend on an electrical grid.
The following week I helped install a solar irrigation system in San Diego, another rural community in central Nicaragua. Serving a family of seven people, this system will diversify their family’s diet and income. Many husbands and sons of rural families in Nicaragua migrate seasonally to Costa Rica for better job opportunities, including the husband of this family. However, the family hopes that this solar irrigation system will be able to reduce their dependence on the husband’s job in Costa Rica by selling crops to neighbors. The family plans on adding watermelon, yucca and other vegetables to their harvests. I will be in Nicaragua for another seven weeks, and I cannot wait to see what lies ahead. I plan to work on solar irrigation systems in the countryside, give presentations to farmers on these projects, and create a user manual of the solar irrigation system. So far, I have adjusted to the challenging demands of living in rural Nicaragua. I have also witnessed incredible ways solar energy has been used to improve lives in these communities. I am so happy to be working this summer with Green Empowerment and Asofénix and I cannot wait to see the impacts the projects will have on society here.