By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 27, 2012
The Costeña aircraft that took us to Bluefields on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua landed on a narrow airstrip located on the edge of a lagoon that buffers the land mass from the Caribbean Sea. A narrow lane, a tract traversising a ravine, acted as our path from the aircraft to a tiny building that announced itself as the immigration office. The building was modesty itself. The immigration officer demanded our passport before we entered one of the more neglected parts of the country that reminded me of Trinidad during the 1950s.
Bluefields has always been a neglected part of Nicaragua. Its unemployment rate remains around 70 percent of the population. The only future of most of the young people of the area lies in the “ship out,” that is the yearning to work on a tourist ship that provides them with five or six hundred US dollars a month. Those who are not as fortunate move to Managua on the Pacific Coast, to work at the call centers where they can make about five hundred US a month. For the rest of the youths, things are bleak. The increasing pregnancies among teenagers have become a troubling phenomenon.
Traditionally, Bluefields, like Salvador Bahia in Brazil, has been the center of Nicaragua’s black population. This, too, is becoming a thing of the past as the Mestisos and other ethnic groups move into the area and overwhelm the black population. Presently, there are about 70,000 persons in Bluefields of which 57 per cent are Mestiso (a combination of whites and Spanish), 36 per cent Creole or Blacks, 3 percent Miskitos, 2 percent Garifuna (traditional Black population) and 2 per cent Rama, the indigenous Indian population.
From the beginning of the last century the Black population has tried to maintain its cultural heritage. After the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, the desire to maintain the culture of all of the ethnic groups has grown in intensity. The hunger for education and a desire to understand the Black/Creole heritage led to a government mandate to encourage URACCAN, one of the two universities in the area, to develop an Afrocentric curriculum.
I was invited by the Afro-Commission of URACCAN to spend a week among its members in which I delivered several lectures at the university and in the community; at church and groups; and at various secondary schools. I spoke on topics as varied as “the importance of keeping family values that construct healthy black communities” to examining the importance of “studying and preparing ourselves for the challenges of this new global era.” My week’s visit culminated in a lecture, “Trinidad and Tobago: Fifty Years after Independence.” Had it happened before, I would have “big up” Jack Warner’s triumph as a testimony to our multi-racial democracy.
URACCAN has a close working relationship with the community even though some topics are off limit. After speaking at one of the churches about the importance of family values, a member of the audience asked about the implications of the visible increase in same sex relationships and the possibility of gay marriages. I answered as honestly as I could (I saw nothing wrong with any of these phenomena) only to be reminded rather politely that it was a topic that was not discussed openly in Nicaraguan society although gay relationship are much more open than it was several years ago.
The questions of jobs and keeping young black men in the community came up time and time again. Although I pointed out that many societies have used emigration as one way to solve their economic problems (England in the eighteenth century; Ireland in the nineteenth century; and several Caribbean countries in the 20th century), the absence of young men at their most productive years kept nagging at me. While I understood that young men and women have to go where the jobs are, I couldn’t help but think that the absence of workers at their most productive period was having negative effects on the community.
I tried to point out that part of the way out was the development of a country’s human resource base and the need to develop industries and technologies that can be competitive in the modern world. In other words, finding a niche, as Costa Rica has done, might prove to an inspiring example. The achievements of Taiwan, Finland and Singapore, in the absence of natural resources, were important examples to leave with these teachers and students.
The question of racial or a racicalized consciousness was a more slippery animal. Reading the nation in terms or race, as we use the term in the Caribbean or the United States proved to be a bit elusive. Given the mixtures of peoples that one finds in these regions (although their Caribbean roots are strong) many of the people in Bluefields identified with other aspects of their heritage (such as their Mestizos or Indian origins) rather than commit exclusively to an African heritage.
Hence the interchangeability of the terms Creole and Black kept coming up in our description of the “Black People.” Even when one spoke of the other ethnic groups a similar thing occurred. Nor, for that matter, did it seem inconsistent to see a person who, in our setting, we would call black or even madras but who would identify as Mestisos. Reading the nation in our African-American, African-Caribbean eyes, one would have expected a mestiso, as most of them self-identified, to be more light skinned, looking more European than black.
And then most of them were tri-lingual. They spoke, Spanish, English, and some variant of their nation languages.
When I was invited to the deliver the lectures, Grace Kelly, the director of the program wrote: “We are looking forward to sharing and learning with you.” It was one of the few times I have really achieved such a mandate. I learned and shared much from my Nicaraguan hosts. It may not be long before I return to Nicaragua to continue my education is such a productive and educative setting.