Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alaska and Nicaragua: Could there really be similarities?

I know what you’re thinking – Alaska and Nicaragua couldn’t appear to be more different places. In one, some schools in the north don’t cancel recess until the temperature reaches below -20 F. In the other, people refer to the weather as “freezing” when it dips below 70 F. However, during my approximately two months here “in-country” I have been noticing too many similarities between these two places to not write a blog entry about it. Overlooking the many nuanced differences in culture, demographics, government, physical location, climate, etc. I have observed quite a few similarities between my home state and my host country.

The first similarity I noticed was in the rural life and remoteness of many Nicaraguan and Alaskan regions. Some Peace Corps volunteers have been placed in sites that are up to 12 hours away (by bus or boat) from the capital of Managua. Even in my own site, in the north of Nicaragua (and readily accessible from Managua) people often must travel to the Health Center from the surrounding communities, walking up to three hours on foot or by horse. This instantly reminded me of Alaska. I was born in a community that only had float plane access and weekly ferry service. In the “bush” of northern Alaska the situation is much worse, especially in the winter, and snowmobile and small plane use is often the only means of transportation. In both Nicaragua and Alaska, residents of these rural, small villages need to buy their groceries and daily necessities during bi-weekly or monthly trips to the regional hub – a trip which may take up the entire weekend. Although I don’t think that Nicaragua has a Costco or Sam’s Club to stock up on bulk items like we tend to do in Alaska :)

Alaskan pregnant women who live in the isolated small communities have to come into the larger city where the Health Center or Hospital is located weeks before their due date to ensure a safe delivery, as the medical personnel and supplies are limited in their home village. My own mother had to first travel by float plane out of our small fishing community with a population of a few hundred, and then by jet to give birth to me in Washington. I was surprised to learn when I arrived in Nicaragua that they actually have special “Maternal Houses” in most departmental capital cities where these pregnant village women can live while they are awaiting a birth for free. (Maybe this is something Alaska could consider!)

I’ve also noticed that in Nicaragua, just as much as in Alaska, people in these small, remote communities have very strong ties to one another and their family and friends are held close and relationships are not superficial or sporadic. People have known each other’s family’s for generations. There are no secrets in small towns, as we Alaskans well know, and perhaps even more so in Nicaragua this is true. In Nicaragua, families often are “extended” to the point of up to twelve people living in a two-bedroom house. Children are raised just as much by their Aunts and Grandmother as they are by their Mother or Father. Cousins, second-cousins, adopted brothers and sisters of all ages are common and the word “family” often includes half of the town you live in. I think this is true of some Alaskan villages just as it is here in Nicaragua. Since isolation and lack of stimulation are common to both places, it is logical that family members would support and be involved in the lives of each other.

Another similarity I have noticed is in the economic situation of the rural communities. Alaskan villagers are struggling to heat their homes as the price of fuel rises, and this affects everything else that is brought in by barge, plane, or vehicle to the community including food. Nicaragua is a poor country (2nd poorest in the western hemisphere I believe), but in the Nicaraguan rural villages, this poverty is augmented by a lack of job opportunities, limited access to electricity and running water at times. Compared to those who live in the larger cities, such as Managua in Nicaragua, or Anchorage in Alaska, the economic situation of rural villages is strikingly different. The health of the community is correlated with this, and more respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, maternal and infant mortality, etc. is seen in the rural areas.

Nicaragua, like Alaska, has a strong presence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are doing the work the government cannot or will not. Alaska has the highest per capita number of NGOs per person, and in Nicaragua I see a similar situation. Development workers from Japan, Spain, Germany, United States, and Denmark are the most common. Unlike Alaska, many of the projects are infrastructure-related rather than socially-oriented. However, the culture of development, the target-audience in the small communities, single mothers, and homeless persons, are the same.

The diet in Nicaragua also resembles rural Alaska. Junk food and soda replace fruit and vegetables more than they should (although they are readily available here in Nicaragua). In both places, Type II Diabetes rates are high in both places, and childhood obesity is rampant. And in both Alaska and Nicaragua, this disease has disproportionately higher levels in the Indigenous populations.

Some of these comparisons should be taken with a grain of salt, since I realize that Alaska is part of a developed nation and these similarities may be more superficial than I have seen them to be in the past two months. Being able to see these similarities has helped me tie my work here as a Health Volunteer back to my previous life experiences, and I can think of strategies and reasons for behaviors that may be similar. When I go out on a “salida al terreno” (a visit to outlying communities) to go house-to-house to administer health surveys, it helps me to think of the family I talk to as being not that different from an Alaskan rural family. Replace the chicken and cheese they are eating with moose meat and herring eggs. The chickens running around the yard with sled dogs. The horse grazing nearby with a snowmachine (as they both are used for transportation). While some Nicaraguans must collect their water from a community well, many Alaskans who live in “dry” cabins without running water must do the same, although they usually haul it in their pick-up truck rather than by donkey. The husband who works seasonally in the coffee here in Nicaragua could be an Alaskan man going to fish, or to work in the oil fields on the North Slope for weeks at a time.

So it seems, although I’ve traveled halfway across the Americas, I can see glimpses of familiarity in my new country.

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