In 1984, at an intense and violent time of the Sandinista revolution, I picked coffee with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. So now I am back working in Nicaragua, one of my first trips was to go back to the farm, to try and find out what had changed.
The early 1980’s were a time of optimism in Nicaragua with the early enthusiasm of the Sandinista revolution. One symbol of this was our brigade of students and workers from Managua who picked coffee to help bring in essential foreign currency. Seventy of us slept on two long bunks in a wooden barn, and we queued up three times a day to eat a diet of beans and rice served on ‘plate’ of a banana leaf.
1984 coffee brigade in Matagalpa, Nicaraguans & European volunteers
I have had the old black and white photos since then. A column of pickers, every sixth one armed, winds up the slopes. Women pick coffee under the rain. European volunteers fumble with rifles when asked to do sentry duty. Last weekend I went back to Matagalpa to see if I could find the village. And to see how Nicaragua has changed in the last 30 years.
1984, volunteer brigadistas set off towards coffee fields
Driving up the winding road towards La Dalia, green coffee bushes on each side, brought back memories. In 1984 we drove in a convoy of trucks – red bandanas, khaki rucksacks, students singing revolutionary songs. A few weeks later a similar truckload of students was ambushed by the U.S. backed contra rebels and 14 young students killed. The road today is empty and peaceful, though with many more houses than I remembered. Arriving in roughly the area I remembered I began to ask around, if anyone remembered the co-operative where we worked.
At first people were quite suspicious, and didn’t want to talk. It was also a challenge to find anyone over 40 – most of the Nicaraguan population is young. But when I pulled out the old photos they became interested. Older people came over and studied grainy pictures of children, recognising some of the adults of today.
2016, community leaders study photos of the Coop 30 years earlier
Little remains from the photos of old. The wooden barn we slept in has long ago been knocked down. But I found the old kitchen we ate in. The waterfall, where one brigadista drowned, remains of course. And I half-recognised the sweep of the hills where we walked and slipped in the mud of the coffee fields. The foreman from those days came up and reminisced. He was the one who shouted at us every day, ‘stay in your own row’, and ‘Only pick red!’
The foreman was unsure I had really been on the brigade in 1984, until we both remembered the worst incident of that time, when one drunken campesino blew his brains out playing Russian roulette. Apart from that unhappy memory they were pleased to see me. “You’ve not changed a bit” said the foreman, “except now you are fat!” What a cheek!
So what has changed? Sadly the co-op. itself no longer exists. Coffee is still grown, but now by private producers. It’s every family for itself. The Sandinista cooperative did not survive the economic turmoil of the end of the contra war and the hyper-inflation that followed. The river now runs drier in summer and floods with torrential rain in winter. The biggest trees on the hills have been cut down. My memory of little wooden shacks with few amenities, has now been replaced by little brick shacks with few amenities.
The biggest difference is that there were 25 families there in 1984 – now there are 200. But, the road is very good and transport around the area is much better. The farm is no longer ‘remote’ and isolated from the world. There is a technical college in the area. I thought the local school was (comparatively) good and well equipped.
In the end, there is one overwhelming difference between today and the 1980s. I came here various times in the 1980’s and yes there was optimism, a spirit, an enthusiasm to build a new future. But it was a war-torn country. That was the fundamental description. The shops were empty, transport was appalling, electricity unreliable, teenagers were drafted into the army, and the steady succession of funerals sapped the energy of a population who were undernourished and tired of war. Today the country is at peace. Things are not perfect of course, but roads are good, shops are full, tourists hang out, people are cynical about the government like anywhere else, most kids go to school. People go to work if they have any, sit in the sun in the evenings, and life goes on. The country is at peace. That is a huge difference.