Rich Little Poor Girl

What is the definition of poverty? What is rich? Rich can be owning a big house, filled with amenities and possessions, but it can also be used to describe the flavor of a chocolate cheesecake, heavy, but oh so delicious. In the case of our cheesecake, the word rich has become a quality rather than a quantity. And so, by the same logic, our term “poor” is also more complicated than we assume. It too may be qualitative and it may be quantitative.

Talolinga is an agrarian community in Nicaragua divided from others by the large mountain they call home. In Talolinga there is no running water, no sinks, no showers, no flushing toilets, there is little if any electricity, certainly no cars or smartphones or TV’s larger than 13 inches and meals pretty much only consist of bland rice with bland beans. Yet when challenged to consider what the community has rather than what is missing, I found they are rich, not poor. They may not have a material wealth, but rather a qualitative richness to their lives.

There’s a deep respect for each other, the community and their culture. Members of Talolinga are close with each other. The support each other. For example, they sell tomatoes to each other before shipping them out of town and when one person sings in the street everyone else joins in. Yet beyond just a community tightly-knit from a common need, there is also a wealth in their absence of material. For example, because the community cannot afford to visit grocery stores or afford the preserved foods at them, they are forced to eat locally grown foods. This may lead to less variety in their diet, but it also minimizes plastic waste and preservative chemicals we Americans are constantly on “diets” to avoid. Furthermore, the farmers who are then necessary for the survival of the community cannot afford chemicals and pesticides. Instead they are forced to use ingenuity, to find local, organic alternatives, such as tree leaves which naturally repel insects and irrigation methods which maximize growth over time. The combination of lack of grocery store accessibility and access to modern farming techniques results instead in fresher, healthier food, albeit with less variety, but also less negative environmental impact. In the end, the community of Talolinga may have to work a little harder, but they also naturally live the way many of us strive to. Happy, healthy and long.

Much of this can be applied more largely to Nicaragua. There is certainly a wealthy quality of life, while a general poverty in quantity. And a lot of the time foreign Trans-National Organizations, megastores, governments, tourism companies and even non-profits have trouble recognizing the wealth many Nicaraguans (though certainly not all) possess. Foreign efforts think in terms of accessibility to a variety of products, techniques and industries, in general “material wealth” which may encourage a greater quantity, but also potentially threaten the quality of wealth. For example, while the canal project may increase the significance of Nicaragua in global context while driving up GDP and creating jobs, it also threatens the individuals who live on the land and thus more largely the governmental allocation of land while also potentially threatening the Lake Nicaragua ecosystem and the livelihoods of thousands of fisherman, farmers, pulpería (small store) owners and communities. Yet, it is still hard for us as foreigners to understand why not all Nicaraguans want more, or why when they do they don’t strive or work harder to get it. It is a careful balance, for many Nicas, between modern convenience and respect for family, culture and traditional life. Why work more hours to buy your children a TV when you can work less hours and spend more real time with them? But it’s not just foreigners, there are many Nicaraguan companies too who fail to recognize this and introduce irresponsible tourism or are confused when their company plans turn out to be unsustainable. This lack of understanding between foreign and domestic companies/non-profits/governments/organizations and so happens because despite the wealth I have outlined here there is certainly still a need, a material need the communities have defined. But their wealthy qualities, leave many questions perplexing those seeking development. How does development look when we reconsider the definition of poverty? Who is rich and who is poor? Who needs to learn and who needs to listen? How do we address the very real need while still preserving the community’s wealth and strengths? How do issues such as environmental concerns and irresponsible tourism threaten the wealth communities do have? And finally, what can we learn about ourselves from looking outwards?

Rebecca Duffy ’15