“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Meade
“Bainbridge is one small island, but we stand with our sister Ometepe, as an example to our human family of the hope that can prevail with an awareness of human suffering, social injustice and the great unfairness in distribution of resources. Our example also affirms the many lessons we learn from each other.” — Kim Esterberg
“…We proved so many people wrong [who] thought that little kids couldn’t make a difference or see the big picture. Even though the kids on Ometepe are so far away, I still feel very close to them.” — — Stella Wilson, 3rd grader in 1999
Bainbridge Island peace activists were frustrated and enraged by the U.S. government’s backing of the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. In hopes of circumventing governments and creating a different relationship with people from the embattled nation, 90 Islanders held a pot-luck dinner fund-raiser and sent Kim Esterberg off to Managua with the Seattle Sister Cities delegation in search of a sister island.
The most Kim expected from this initial foray was more discussion with the Sandinista’s Sister Cities Office, but before he could consult a map to pinpoint his destination, he found himself aboard a rusty blue ferry crossing the 9 mile stretch of Lake Nicaragua, taking in his first view of Ometepe. His guides from the Sister Cities Office found Moyogalpa’s mayor Diego Martinez who was intrigued by the idea of a sister island. Martinez set off with Kim on a tour of the Island in his ailing red jeep. In 1986, Ometepe’s roads consisted of a few dirt tracks and Kim was riding in one of only 27 trucks belonging to a population of 24, 000 people. After a swim in the Lake at twilight, Diego introduced Kim to Altagracia’s mayor: “This guy is from our Sister Island!” When Kim asked the mayors what would be the one thing future siblings from the U.S. could do for their country – thinking to himself “They need everything!”—the response provided the cornerstone for the emerging relationship: “The one thing we need is respect.”
While Bainbridge Islanders’ first reached out to bridge a foreign policy chasm, the Sister Island relationship quickly broadened beyond political affiliations. When Islanders from each country started getting to know real people from the other Island, there was no need for or room for political identities. BOSIA’s intentions to be more than a Sandinista solidarity group became clear to Ometepinos when students helped build a classroom in San Silvestre, an anti-Sandinista community.
How do new Sister Islands get to know each other when there is a war going on and an embargo against trade? One way is to send messages of friendship in the hands of travelers passing through, as Mary Gleysteen when she relayed to Managua a suitcase of school supplies destined for Ometepe.
Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin packed their video equipment to Ometepe after a visit elsewhere in Nicaragua. They set up a TV on a corner in Altagracia and curious passersby gawked at footage of the main street of Winslow, T&C market and Frog Rock while Melissa explained in her flawless Spanish that people from the Island where she had grown up wanted to reach across the continent for relationship. “You mean they live on an Island?” someone asked incredulously. Mark and Melissa filmed people and places on Ometepe for a documentary. During their stay, they attended Arlen Siu school’s bake sale where parents were raising money so they could build, at the least, a thatch hut to protect the children from the sun. There, they met principal Maria Elena Martinez and the idea for the two Islands to collaborate on this project was born.
Traveling round-about through Mexico City to circumvent the trade embargo and stopping first in Managua to participate in the Sister Cities Conference, the “Delegation of Eight” (in ’88) hauled 16 suitcases of medical and school supplies. They also brought funds to team up with Arlen Siu preschool families to fulfill Maria Elena’s dream – an actual preschool classroom with four walls and a roof. The Sandinista government hoped to control decisions and funds on Ometepe, as elsewhere in Nicaragua; but BOSIA’s fledgling standing on Bainbridge as a broad-based, non-political organization depended on Islanders’ donations being handled with neutrality: no involvement by a government of any political stripes, here or there. The delegation looked for a trustworthy person to keep and disperse the preschool money. Padre Juan Cuadra was everyone’s unanimous choice.
The Delegation of Eight formed bonds with the families they stayed with that have lasted 20 years. One of the homestays was at the Carlos Diaz Cajina coffee cooperative on Cerro Maderas. The delegates met the socios (members), listened to their stories of hardship during the years when they worked the land for the plantation owner, and shared their hope for a better future as collective owners themselves.
This first delegation set a standard that has been repeated on adult and student delegations since:
- Travel light except for suitcases of material aid to be dispensed for the whole community’s benefit;
- Stay with families who offer their homes and food as their contribution to the equality of the relationship;
- Listen and learn;
- Leave with the intention expressed by Kim when he said goodbye to the Arlen Siu children in 1988: “I’ll be back, and I’m looking forward to one day meeting your children!”
Bainbridge hosted its first delegate from Ometepe when Padre Juan Cuadra visited the Island in 1989. Padre Juan had instilled in the first delegation his philosophy: always expect and accept what Ometepinos can give you because a long-term, sustainable relationship must be built on equality and dignity, not on handouts. This applied both to homestays – nortenos should not pay for food or lodging because it can be given freely, preserving dignity—and to Ometepinos’ contribution to projects. Padre Juan insisted on community involvement in projects, keeping a tight grip on the donated money and dispersing it “poco a poco,” only as people worked for the community benefit.
Since Padre Juan’s visit, Bainbridge Islanders welcomed Ometepinos, usually funded by One Call For All donations:
Manuel Calero, Martin Alverez, Arlington Barahona and Rudolfo Alfaro helped re-forest through Earthstewards’ Peace Trees Project.
English teachers Josefa “Chepita” Diaz Cajina and Dorita Guitierrez Trana, traveled to Bainbridge, donned their heaviest clothing. During the trip, they improved their English language ability.
Bernabe Lopez, CDC Coop leader, warmed Bainbridge hearts during the 10th Anniversary celebration.
Ana Petrona Mendoza Bravo and Maria Estela Alvarez Gonzalez, also English teachers, spent one month on Bainbridge.
The 15th Anniversary celebration brought Dorita Guiterrez Trana, Karla Varela, Emelina Barrios, Maria Elena Martinez, Freddy Ortiz, Bernabe Lopez, Lidia Lopez, Soledad Amador, Berta Olivia Aleman and Melania Avellan to Bainbridge.
English teachers Darlin Mairena, Lucibeth Cruz and Yissell Potoy learned language and culture on Bainbridge Island for six weeks.
Two mayors from Ometepe visited Bainbridge Island briefly when they were in Washington State for a conference in Seattle.
Big political changes were occurring during the year Christine Marinoni spent teaching English in Altagracia. Impoverished by years of the US-backed Contra War and trade embargo and facing disillusionment of campesinos who opposed the draft, the Sandinista government was forced to agree to elections in late 1990. Timed so that delegation members could observe the election, a contingent of 19 people, including a medical team, a student delegation and officially trained election observers, descended on Ometepe with over ½ ton of school, sports and medical supplies.
1990 also launched BOSIA’s scholarship program. Manuel Calero, a high school teacher in Altagracia who motivated and inspired hundreds of students over the years, asked BOSIA to help with the college education of graduating seniors. Nicaragua’s desperate economic difficulties meant that students had no hope of working their way through college. Calero put together a scholarship committee that screened, selected and monitored students, while Bainbridge donors contributed monthly stipends to send seven students to school in medicine and engineering.
Early on, medical assistance to Ometepe was a high priority of the Sister Islands Association. Though the Sandinistas had established community health clinics, ably supported by Cuban doctors, the US trade embargo left Nicaragua without medicines and supplies. Between 1990 and 1993, six Bainbridge medical teams visited Ometepe, primarily Maderas. With no road for vehicles around the southern volcano, the teams walked from village to village holding clinics. They came to realize they were seeing recurring, serious illnesses that resulted from one major problem: each community’s drinking water came from the Lake which livestock frequented. No amount of outside medical help would ever improve health on Ometepe as long as there was no source of clean water. BOSIA turned its efforts towards preventative health projects and workshops rather than practitioners attending clinics.
The change in government in 1990 brought near collapse to the Carlos Diaz Cajina cooperative. With no government buyer for their coffee crop, the Coop faced default on their bank payments and loss of the land, their beacon of hope. A year earlier, David Dessinger, dueno of Pegasus Coffee, had tasted some of the coop’s coffee and pronounced it “Good!” The 1991 medical delegation returned to Bainbridge with 3,200 pounds of green coffee loaded in the suitcases that had ferried medical supplies south. Dessinger agreed to roast it as a test run on sales through T&C.
Bainbridge coffee aficionados savored the first shipment of Ometepe coffee that Pegasus roasted for the Association. In late 1991, Asha Esterberg and David Mitchell returned to negotiate the purchase of some of the ’91 crop, then being picked. In the course of the negotiations, the Northerners learned a stark lesson in Nicaraguan economic reality: it was not possible to determine the price of labor because wages based on hours worked meant nothing – people arrived when it got light and worked until the work was done. And “profit,” although appearing in Asha’s Spanish-English dictionary, was not a term the socios knew, not a concept they could even imagine.
The coffee was grown by a cooperative and bought cooperatively: the money raised to buy the 25,000 pounds came from $100 loans by BOSIA members, each creditor receiving a pound of coffee as interest after the coffee was sold on Bainbridge.
1992 was also a year of hard work for the people of San Pedro who began construction of their gravity-fed water system which piped clean waters off the upper reaches of the Maderas volcano to the community. Ex-pat water engineer Scott Renfro and his assistants Mario Diaz and Leonel Chavez provided engineering and supervision, Bainbridge supplied funds for materials from coffee-sales profits, and the families of San Pedro hauled tons of sand, cement and re-bar up the volcano and dug a mile of trenches in rocky soil.
When Alice Mendoza’s class at Wilkes Elementary saw slides of Ometepe, they were touched by the material poverty, yet how happy the children seemed. As the third graders discussed their own fund-raiser for a class field trip, student Andy Kelly brought up an idea immediately embraced by all: “We already have so much; why not send the money we raise to Ometepe instead?” The kids created and sold calendars with proceeds dedicated to build a classroom at Los Ramos school.
After Tom Kinzey facilitated the donation of three ambulances for Ometepe, an Island-wide campaign filled them with 5,000 pounds of material aid (including a dental chair) and they flew to Managua courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. The material aid was invaluable—levels of poverty in 1994 placed Nicaragua alongside Somalia, Ethiopia and Haiti as the poorest countries in the world. But the ambulances themselves proved to be a well-intentioned error: no-one could afford the gas to drive them.
San Pedro celebrated completion of its new water system. In following years through 1998, BOSIA also teamed up with Tichana, La Palma, El Corozal, Balgue/Madronal, Las Cuchillas and Merida to bring clean water to these communities. BOSIA contributed proceeds from the sale of Café Oro while community members contributed labor; for example, volunteers in Merida alone worked 9,200 people/days.
The Sister Islands contingent, the majority of whom were Ometepinos, was the largest at the U.S.-Nicaragua Sister Cities conference.
Also, BOSIA health activist Trisha Hennessy participated in the Annual Colloquium on Nicaraguan Health in Managua.
Hennessy and Esterberg both returned to share a picture of contemporary Nicaragua that was hopeful – based on grass-roots efforts such as the Coop and the autonomy movement on the Atlantic coast – and grimly precarious: Nicaragua was the most indebted country in the world proportionate to its population and Contra activities and conflict still terrorized the North. As Kim concluded, “I realized the good fortune that our fellow islanders have being somewhat isolated from the political tensions that grip much of Nicaragua today. It was another reminder that our window on Nicaragua and the developing world is a gentle one, and that we should use it to look still farther into a world struggling for justice.” .
Drawn by the lush cloud forests of Maderas and a desire to help protect Ometepe’s fragile ecosystem, the “Eco-delegation” brought binoculars and bird books to equip local guides. Delegates helped harvest the coffee crop and identified song birds that thrive in the Coop’s shady cafetales before migrating to the U.S. The Coop’s recent development of eco-tourism accommodations and its members’ enthusiasm to share their landscape and knowledge created a model for future BOSIA coffee delegations in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Commitment to sustainable coffee-growing and preservation of Maderas’ cloud forest led BOSIA representatives, including Bernabe Lopez to the Smithsonian’s first Sustainable Coffee Congress in Washington DC in 1996. BOSIA helped create Seattle Audubon’s Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign in 1999.
Long-term volunteers chose to experience Ometepe in all her seasons and possibilities. Jim Starrs spent 7 months teaching English in Balgue’s high school. Jim insisted that his volunteering not deprive a Nicaraguan of a job. The community, in turn, insisted that they contribute to the arrangement by housing and feeding him and doing his laundry.
Kim and Ela Esterberg lived in Balgue for 4 months, helping to build the Casa Comunal and communal garden. And water engineer James Templeton and Dr. Reena Koshy committed their professional skills to water systems and health clinics. It is a matter of debate who benefits more from these exchanges, the community or the volunteer who is so warmly accepted into a new family.
In later years, other long-term community volunteers included Adri Van Bianchi, Alexis Bonoff, Jeremy Shapiro, Nora Ferm, Caitlin Goertz, Arianne Llewellyn, Anne and Amy Jordon, Peter Abrahamson, Ashley Edens, David Adler, Siri Kushner, Devon Sampson, Kari Lagerloef, Katy Childers, Jim Starrs and Jackie Finkler, Linda Tanner, Russell Carroll, Maggie Petit,Charlie Kubin, Elizabeth Ward—plus maybe Sheila Kelley and Marina Heppenstall,
Expanding the focus beyond water systems, BOSIA supported Rosario Paisano’s workshops empowering Ometepe women through education about contraception, AIDS, domestic violence and other topics.
New types of partnerships began to develop. For example, contractor Steve Deines led a small delegation that worked alongside community members from Sintiope to build a classroom with funds from Bethany Lutheran Church. The ensuing relationship was so strong that the Deines family returned to build a fence around the school in 2000, again supported by Bethany. [Seabold delegation year?] When Seabold Methodist Church needed a new roof, the congregation raised extra money for a roof for El Madronal’s school. Later, a Seabold delegation traveled to Ometepe to meet their sister church in Balgue.
This year, The Traveler began a tradition of dedicating 5% of it December profits to purchasing books for Ometepe school libraries.
Since the first student delegation in 1990, Susan Koch, Magaly McLoughlin, Nancy Quitslund, Jim Starrs and other brave chaperones sheparded scores of Bainbridge youths into the homes and hearts of Ometepinos each spring. Every year, Ometepe families introduced small groups of high school students to their way of life and changed the young people’s worldviews forever. This year for the first time, many more students applied than the organization could accommodate. Hillary Benson, a delegate in 1997 and ’98 spoke for all student delegates on the topic “Things I Want to Remember.”
- The stars – so many, so close
- The big, fat pigs
- The amazing hibiscus …
- Never knowing what time it is because everyone gets up at 4:00 to get their work done before the heat rises …
- All the breezes but no cool air
- The beautiful roosters
- All the naked kids
- The antennas on the cockroaches that go round and round at night in the latrines …
- The grandmother with all fifteen kids living within 100 feet of her home …
- Beans and rice, rice and beans …
- Everyone bringing me mangos after they learned I like them …
- ll the geckos (lizards) on my bedroom walls …
- Smoky kitchens from open cooking fires …
- Private guards with guns in front of restaurants and gas stations in Managua
- Wondering how people buy property or receive mail
- Not knowing how this will change my life.
Inspired by the Sister Islands’ model of cooperation, Carlos Mairena of Balgue organized his community to collect donations for northern Nicaraguan victims of Hurricane Mitch. BOSIA supported Balgue’s efforts, supplying money for transportation while the community generously shared 2,300 pounds of rice, beans and clothing from their own homes.
With several delegations each year and increasingly more projects to keep track of, the Board decided to open an office on Ometepe. Dorita Gutierrez Trana was hired as office coordinator and she was aided in the logistics of getting set up by volunteer Brett Clifton followed by Brook Maddocks.
Dorita’s diplomacy, knowledge of Ometepe, hard work and her gracious guidance of her Bainbridge counterparts in their cultural understanding proved to be a solid foundation of all BOSIA’s work during the upcoming years. With the office next door to her home, her mother, Dona Dora has fed legions of delegates and volunteers.
In subsequent years, volunteers from Bainbridge joined Dorita to assist her in keeping the Islands connected: Siri Kushner (2 ½ years), Kati Childers, Jim Starrs and Jackie Finkler, Kari Lagerloeff and Devon Sampson.
With an office staff now firmly rooted in Altagracia, BOSIA projects and delegation proliferated: “Geek” delegations worked on bringing free e-mail to the office and local schools. Teenaged “Hep Cats” swung their partners to salsa and taught swing dance to Ometepe dancers. Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin returned to film their sequel, “Islas Hermanas.” Former high school student delegates returned to spend more time and involve themselves more deeply in their communities:
Since increasing coffee sales profits were no longer needed for water systems, BOSIA developed a procedure designed to make sure that money went to the highest priority projects proposed by communities (rather than thought up by well-intentioned nortenos).
The Sister Islands office on Altagracia’s main street gave the association tangible visibility and became a busy place.
2001 – 2006 and beyond
The years after 2001 brought new projects and more scholarships, landmarks and accomplishments. But by now it must be clear that it is the relationships that we treasure and cultivate above all else. The next five years of this Timeline reflect the fact that every new meeting between Sister Islanders is a landmark “first”; every new relationship builds another bridge between our countries that will stand for decades, if it is well tended.
Crossing national borders to travel between Ometepe and the US symbolically by-passes government policies and national identities. Much harder is the crossing of cultural and language boundaries. But every time an individual from Bainbridge or Ometepe travels to our Sister Island, we realize that even these barriers fall before our common humanity. Our relationship is a microcosm of the possibilities that exist for world peace.
If you live on Bainbridge, please remember the Sister Islands Association when you respond to One Call for All. We use our share to support delegate travel to and from Ometepe.