Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands

Building Friendships since 1986

History of the Sister Islands Association

Printed in the summer 2000 Voter, the newsletter of the League of Women Voters of WA; updated November 2004 by Nancy Quitslund

Many of you have seen the video “Island Sisters” by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin on PBS. The show effectively brings to life for the viewer the 18- year relationship between the islands of Bainbridge in Washington state and Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. The relationship began in 1986 when dozens of Bainbridge Islanders funded Kim Esterberg’s trip to Nicaragua in search of a sister island. Kim envisioned a long-term relationship, based on mutual respect and trust, which would grow and deepen over time through many different types of exchanges. One short term goal was that the peoples of our two islands would learn about each other directly, bypassing the propaganda of both governments during the Contra war. The long term relationship would provide an opportunity for us, our children and our grandchildren develop lifetime friendships across language, cultural, and economic lines.

In 1988, after three more visits by Bainbridge Islanders to Ometepe, the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association (BOSIA) was incorporated “to encourage mutual understanding, education, friendship, cultural and peaceful exchanges between the people of Bainbridge Island and Ometepe Island, and between the peoples of the United States and Nicaragua.” Our written philosophy expanded to include “We help with projects which are initiated by groups on Ometepe and which are important to the community rather than to individuals or one family. We are non-partisan and non-sectarian. Working together we learn about each other and derive mutual benefit. Keeping this process in place helps prevent us from seeing ourselves as “do-gooders” and helps our partners on Ometepe to not see us as “patrones.”

Within that framework, the relationship expanded to include myriad exchanges. A Catholic priest, several artists, a member of the coffee-growing cooperative, an Assembly member from the English-speaking portion of Atlantic coast, the founder a project working with street children, and cultural speakers have visited Bainbridge. In 1992 a delegation of high school students and young adults lived with families here while planting “Peace Trees” in Tacoma through Earth Stewards. Since then seven English teachers from Ometepe have stayed with families on Bainbridge in order to practice English and understand our culture, and ten friends came to help celebrate our fifteenth anniversary. As our friends on Ometepe showed us their projects and shared their visions, the number and variety of our delegations to Ometepe expanded.

In 1990 a Bainbridge delegation was on Ometepe at the time of the pivotal election, and seventeen members acted as observers. This election removed the revolutionary Sandinista government, and set the stage for changes that continue today. It also brought an end to the Contra war. Because the outcome of a national election affects such local positions as mayors and school directors, its impact is felt by every Nicaraguan. Its non-political nature has allowed the sister island relationship to grow despite dramatic changes in the political life of Ometepe, and several different national governments in each country.

Early in the sister island relationship, people from Bainbridge were befriended by the members of a coffee-growing cooperative on the slopes of the Maderas volcano. In 1991 a medical delegation returned with suitcases loaded with green coffee beans, which were roasted by Pegasus Coffee on Bainbridge. The coffee caught on, as did the idea of providing a market for the cooperative and helping its members keep the land that had been theirs since the revolution. With dozens of small loans from Puget Sound citizens, BOSIA bought an entire year’s crop, and we now receive an annual container of beans. This year’s shipment was 15,000. Coffee is roasted once a week by Pegasus and bagged by volunteers to meet the week’s orders. Coffee can be ordered via the Association’s web site (www.bosia.org), but most of the sales are through local groceries and restaurants. The coffee is organically grown, but also “shade grown”–under the forest canopy that provides a home for myriad birds and other animals. This program is not only self-sustaining, but generates profits which have funded materials for potable water systems for several communities on Ometepe, and for school construction.

Members of the Bainbridge Fire Department and medical community became interested in Ometepe early in the sister island relationship, and staffed several medical delegations to help fill gaps in the well-qualified, but understaffed, clinics on Ometepe. Traveling from village to village on the south end of the island, they encountered a variety of medical problems, but the most prevalent symptoms were caused by a lack of potable water. These communities relied on water carried from the contaminated lake. Villagers were eager to have safe and convenient water. Fortunately, the Maderas volcano that comprises the southern half of Ometepe is inactive, and holds water in its caldera. Springs from this source show up at intervals around the mountain. With thousands of hours of volunteer labor from the affected communities, and materials and engineering assistance provided by BOSIA, seven simple, gravity-fed water systems now serve communities around Maderas.

Every year students from Bainbridge High School spend their spring break on Ometepe and work with community members on a project that the community has selected. The kids cover their expenses, sometimes with scholarship help, and contribute part of the cost of the projects. For ten days they live a very simple lifestyle in tiny homes, usually with dirt floors, outhouses, and occasionally the family pig under their cot. They return home feeling that they have experienced a richness of family and community that their material comfort can’t replace. They also are acutely aware of the uneven distribution of resources in the world.

In 1990, students on Ometepe shared their desire to go to college in Nicaragua with our first student delegates. As a result, the Esterberg family sponsored the first student in the Bainbridge Ometepe scholarship program. The Spanish Club at Bainbridge High School decided to raise funds so that another student from the town of Altagracia could study in Managua. At that time there was no tuition, so students who could stay with family or friends in the city could study for $30 or $40 a month. The program has expanded so that there are currently 29 stipends of $80 per month for Ometepinos, which committees from eight high schools on Ometepe administer and monitor. So far thirty-six students have graduated with the help of families, three churches, and the Spanish Club here.

In 1993 student delegate Tom Neil showed slides of Ometepe, Nicaragua to his mother, Alice Mendoza’s, class. Later Kim Esterberg brought the children of Ometepe to life with his slides. The children in Alice’s class drew a picture of a full-sized ambulance, one of three donated to Ometepe, and challenged the children of Wilkes school to fill it with school supplies. They did. But that was just the beginning of the story. The kids had a project that taught business and social studies. They were to do research, create a calendar, borrow money to have the calendar printed, and then sell it to raise money for their field trips connected with their Pacific Rim and port study. One of the children in the class raised his hand and said “This isn’t fair”. Alice asked what wasn’t fair. The child said that it wasn’t right to be raising money for field trips when children on our sister island were having classes outside because there weren’t even enough classrooms. The kids in the class discussed the situation and decided that they wanted to help build a classroom. They unanimously decided that they wanted to send ALL the money they raised to the elementary school in Los Ramos to build the preschool (our equivalent of kindergarten) classroom.

Every year since, Kim has shown slides introducing people on Ometepe, talking about their lives and their spirit. Alice has led the kids in discussions, asking them what they saw in the slides, in the faces of the people, how it made them (her students) feel. The children are amazingly astute in their observations and compassionate and respectful in their responses. Every year for the last seven years the kids have unanimously decided to continue the calendar project. In 1999 they raised the price by $3 per calendar to fund first Hurricane Mitch relief, Earthquake assistance in Turkey, help for orphans from the bombing in Bali, and purchase of land in Belize for the Nature Conservancy. They have paid for the construction of six classrooms, three small libraries complete with desks, bookcases, and quite a few books, a carpentry shop for the former street children in the Si a la Vida project, and several sleeping rooms for the same kids.

The relationship between the islands of Ometepe, Nicaragua and Bainbridge, Washington provides a model for a sustainable relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. People on Whidbey Island have developed a similar relationship with the people of the Dominican Republic.

“Island Sisters” is available from www.bullfrogfilms.com.