Helping to sort the harvest
Sitting on the dirt road outside of a rural primary school, the 4 x 4 truck that had been driven here by translator Nohelia Talavara has groups of men swarmed around the driver-side and passenger-side windows – focused on formulating a strategy for recovering keys locked inside in the ignition.
We had come to the school, located in the hills outside of the coffee-production hub of Jinotega, in order to meet some of the pupils that had benefitted from social programmes run by coffee cooperative SOPPEXCCA.
As part of this project focuses on the impact of masculinity, it felt apt that it was probably male pride motivating the different men to take an hour and a half out of their days to focus on retrieving these keys – one of whom even called his boss to explain that he would be late coming back from his lunch because of what was going on.
Of course, this is not to overlook their absolute decency and willingness to help strangers – and their hard work bore fruit when the door’s catch was finally pulled up using a length of wire and a piece of string.
In the school next to where the key incident was playing out, it was just before lunchtime and around 100 children were receiving their lessons in three adjacent classrooms.
Speaking outside, two students Linda and Luis, aged 12 and 13, shared their views on gender equality with us.
“Women can do all the jobs a man can do,” Luis says, when it is put to him, before giving examples of the jobs involved in each different stage of the coffee production process, some of which might have traditionally been viewed as male.
They’re less sure when asked if men can do all of the jobs that women can do. No, Linda says tentatively, it is much more common for a woman to do the washing, cleaning, ironing and other domestic jobs.
While aware that these roles still exist, the gender-focused part of the curriculum seems to be having an impact, and Linda confidently states that she plans to study medicine.
The community surrounding the school consisted mostly of small coffee farmers and we were brought around to meet with SOPPEXCCA member Marta Carolina and her daughter Nelly.
Marta Carolina and her daughter Nelly
Both Marta Carolina and her husband were members of the cooperative, she explains, as they are both landowners. The 23-year-old Nelly is also considering trying to acquire her own land, but is still also weighing up possibly going to study mathematics with the goal of becoming a teacher.
We are then given a tour of the family’s coffee plots, which are neatly packed together on the side of a nearby hill. After this Nelly brings me and translator Nohelia back to the house, where she introduces us to her young son, Lupe.
Like so many other young women in Nicaragua, Nelly is bringing up the child without the help of the father. But like so many of the other young women, she also seemed assertive and independent.
Sitting in her house surrounded by an extended family, it also seems to me that Nelly is fortunate to have such a good support network behind her.
Nelly’s son, Lupe
Heading back down into Jinotega it was time for an appointment with Fatima Ismael, the leader of SOPPEXCCA. Back in the 1990s she took over a failing organisation based on a model that allowed anonymous shareholders.
As one of the first female leaders of a coffee organisation in the country, Ismael changed over to a cooperative model and gradually gave the organisation a gender focus.
Today it is thriving, working with 650 members – 195 of whom are women – and providing financing for local schools, like the one that Carmen and Luis attend, and a women’s health centre.
We sit down to talk to Ismael in a cafe next to the SOPPEXCCA’s offices, where the cooperative’s produce is sold and the offspring of farmers work as baristas.
One of the first topics we get to is the women’s health centre that SOPPEXCCA funds.
“Supporting the health clinic was something that we were able to do through contact with the buyers and also with some support from the health ministry of the government. It has had a big impact in Jinotega,” she says.
“When we started with the health centre we found women who were 70 years old and older who had never had a smear test… we’ve had 4,000 appointments with the doctors so far.”
Leader of SOPPEXCCA, Fatima Ismael
After discussing the support and accompaniment that SOPPEXCCA gives to women who use the service, many of whom are nervous about attending appointments, Fatima Ismael pauses and tears come into her eyes.
“During the process there were five women that we were not able to do anything for and they died. That was very sad for us. We couldn’t make it on time.”
SOPPEXCCA was the first coffee cooperative in Nicaragua to have a gender focus, and when she took over, the idea that the then failing organisation would be supporting a women’s health clinic would have seemed fanciful.
Even if they were the first, and even if they have given support to those who didn’t have it before – it was quite remarkable that Fatima Ismael still felt responsible for those that they couldn’t help.
Summer 2016 recipient, Michael Shiels McNamee, travelled to Nicaragua to report on the emergence of women in the workplace and in public life in Nicaragua. His article was published by thejournal.ie in April 2017. Read it here.