Tahoe woman recounts her time as Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua
Petite and pretty, you wouldn’t imagine Jennifer Harrison digging latrines in central Nicaragua. Or for that matter haggling over the price of beans with burly farmers.
But armed with faltering Spanish and a desire to help those less fortunate than her, Harrison, 25, of South Lake Tahoe, spent two years in the central Latin American nation doing just that as a Peace Corps volunteer.
“Before I went there, all I knew was that there had been fighting in the country between the Contras and the Sandinistas,” said Harrison, referring to the civil war that was fought in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Moving out of a secure environment into a country ravaged by war and poverty intimidated Harrison a little, but her desire to travel and see a world that was different from America kept her going.
After being accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1999, Harrison barely had three weeks to pack her bags and absorb the fact that her life was about to change.
Raised in South Lake Tahoe, Harrison attended Whittell High School and later studied International Business in Boise, Idaho. Except for a vacation in Europe in 1996, Harrison had not traveled, much less been exposed to the hardships of the third world.
Harrison had indicated to the Peace Corps that her area of interest was to advise small business. Therefore, she was assigned to work with a farmer’s cooperative in Santa Lucia, a small town of 4,000 people in central Nicaragua.
After arriving in Managua, the capital, and being stranded in a nearby town for six days because of a nation-wide transport strike, Harrison settled down with a Nicaraguan family of five to learn the language, culture and local etiquette.
“My family was lovely. They took me everywhere, from parties to the local fiesta,” said Harrison.
Three-months later, with her Spanish still faulty, Harrison boarded a local bus that took her to Santa Lucia.
A far cry from the casinos of Lake Tahoe and the shopping malls of San Francisco where she was born, Santa Lucia was a small town with no restaurants, no markets, no bars, no discos. Only a church and a school adorned the town.
Most people lived in tiny homes, especially the families that lived outside the main town of 2,000 people. In the countryside, where Harrison worked, people had no electricity and no running water. They lived in homes with dirt floors.
“The poverty there was unbelievable. Americans cannot imagine it,” Harrison said.
At age 23, Harrison began working with about 80 farming families that were members of the 10 De Mayo cooperative. The cooperative bought beans from the farmers following the harvest , stored it, and then sold it in the market when the beans were out of season. Harrison advised the farmers how to make better profits, how to keep accounts and better manage their money.
During her two years there, she also started a latrine project in the town, which had no plumbing. A bakery, which had been losing business for quite a while, was scrapped, and in its place Harrison helped start a chicken farm so that women entrepreneurs were able to make more money. She also helped local women to learn business skills to assist them in running a grinding mill and in selling woven rugs.
“My main goal became to work with women because they were neglected,” said Harrison. Nicaragua, like many traditional societies, is male dominated.
Seeking donations from voluntary organizations like Partners of America, and the Finnish government, Harrison helped start a sewing group for women, which gave them the skills to start businesses of their own, or at least to make their families clothing and save their scant resources for other necessities.
Funds collected from such organizations, including the local government, bought sewing machines, needles, threads and a place to hold lessons for the women. Harrison also arranged for a teacher to come and teach them sewing.
“When I left, they were planning to set up a sewing center,” said Harrison.
During her stay, Harrison met her future husband, Hamlet Guevera, who was a student in a town two-and-a-half-hours away from Santa Lucia. They married before Harrison returned to the United States in September.
Harrison said her years in Nicaragua made her self-assured and helped her grow as a person. She also developed life-long relationships with the women and the farmers she worked with.
My experience “opened my world, the other side that is so different from America,” Harrison said.
Since 1961, more than 163,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers, working to fight hunger, disease, poverty and lack of opportunities in the developing world. Today, 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers are at work in 70 countries.
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