(Written November 2011)
Green hillsides are tinged with yellow, signaling that it's time to start pulling beans again. Coffee farmers are scrambling to line up workers to start “buscando la rojita”, looking for the little red-haired girl, the bright red coffee cherries that account for such a large part of the country's exports. In my garden, the eggplant bushes (I call them bushes because they are gigantic and because eggplant plants sounds funny) are weighted down with bright purple fruit. And after a year and a half of working with the same kids, I'm preparing five of my 200 students for the national business-plan competition. That's what the coshecha is all about. You work hard all year long; you pray for rain and a little luck; and when the time comes, you get to see the fruits of all your labor. Si Dios quiere.
Finding your cosecha moment can be tough in Peace Corps. The vast majority of projects do not turn out the way we intended or go as smoothly as we would have liked. We work with people. Most of us work with kids. Since we don't have resources, we mostly teach people things. Well, we try to teach people things. You can't make someone learn. If you do succeed, you may never even know. What my kids learn in their entrepreneurship class may help them out down the road, but I probably won't be around to see. I have enjoyed watching my eggplants grow because they provide such a nice foil to that experience. Sure, I can't control the rain or the sun, but I know what is supposed to happen if everything goes right. The seeds germinate. Little seedlings grow to transplant size and move to the garden. They grow bigger, put down roots, and eventually flower. Along the way I help them along the best I can: providing some water when the rain fails, battling caterpillars and grasshoppers, staking the plants so they don't blow over in the wind. If things go well, I am rewarded with bright-purple eggplants.
My students take no such easily identifiable path, nor journey to such a readily defined destination. The grasshoppers and caterpillars that impede their growth are not so easy to see or deal with. We set the end-of-the-year business plan competitions as a goal to work toward, but when the time comes even those can serve as a stumbling block for the teams that don't advance to the next level. Only two of the thirty-five student groups I worked with this year advanced to the regional competition. Only one of those groups (and only one of the more than 150 student groups formed in the department of Nueva Segovia) will have the opportunity to participate in the national competition.
I am not overly concerned with whether or not my kids win the national competition. Sure, it will be nice to watch them stand up on stage and prove that they learned what I was trying to teach them, but if it earns them a prize is of little interest to me. The group I am taking is from a small, rural community. In October, our trip to the regional competition was the first time most of the kids had ever been to Ocotal, which is only two hours away. Now, they are preparing to go to the nation's capital. They will have an opportunity to meet and get to know (and sure, compete with) kids from all over their country. Most of them will never visit the communities (or even the departments) represented at the competition, but now they will have names and faces to put on kids their own age that live there. For me that is more than enough.
(December 2011: The student group Naturalmente Alternativa and their banana flour, which I will personally attest makes great pancakes, did a wonderful job and had a great time at the Feria National de Emprendedurismo. They also took home a prize for Most Creative Product.)