La Cuculmeca was established in 1991 by three women. It started life as a popular education group which aimed to support the struggle of the communities that made up La Fundadora. The name La Cuculmeca comes from a medicinal plant which was once typical of the area but which is now threatened by extinction. The plant has traditionally been used to treat anaemia. La Cuculmeca use this as an image: “In our society today we suffer from many types of anaemia; anaemia of values, of principles; anaemia in or organisations; anaemia in our conception of sustainable development; anaemia of vision; anaemia between our beautiful discourse and our actions; anaemia of our culture.”
Initially Cuculmeca focused on adult literacy, using this as a space for promoting environmental and cultural awareness. Despite the apparent success of the 1980 National Literacy Crusade run the year after the Sandinista revolution, illiteracy rates had risen again by the early 1990s and it was felt that now more than ever literacy was vital for the new Association to function effectively. Over the following years La Cuculmeca extended its work to other rural communities in Jinotega and is now starting work in a marginal urban area. It has also extended the scope of its work to include initial and pre-school education, primary and secondary education, cultural and environmental education, gender education, education for organisation, and wider communication work. The organisation now has 25 permanent staff. It began working with Reflect in 1997 following workshops and exchange visits with CIAZO and now regards Reflect as an approach which it is using in all its areas of work.
Context: La Cuculmeca is based in Jinotega in the North of Nicaragua. It was founded in 1991 as an organisation focused on education, specifically to support the communities of La Fundadora. The area now occupied by La Fundadora used to be a large coffee plantation belonging to the family of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza. When Somoza was overthrown by the Sandinista revolution in 1979, the land was taken into State hands and it became a collective farm. It ran effectively as a collective owned by the State until 1990 when the Sandinistas suffered their shock election defeat. The Chamorro government, with strong backing from the US immediately initiated plans to return the lands to their former owner. The same happened across Nicaragua and in many places the former collectives were dismantled. However, there was strong resistance in Jinotega. Members of the collective started large scale mobilisations and demonstrations both in Jinotega and the capital Managua. After a long struggle, in 1992 they won the right to buy 50% of the land with a mortgage over 15 years. The rest of the land was split between the former owners and demobilised combatants (both from the Sandinista army and from the US backed Contras).. The 230 families who actively fought for the land organised themselves as a Production Association called La Fundadora. This was a small victory given the wider national picture but a massive victory locally.
Below are a few snapshots of the work of La Cuculmeca with some ideas of how they have conceived, integrated and extended Reflect within their popular education work:
ENVIRONMENTALIST CHILDREN: In La Fundadora and in some of the other rural communities where they work, La Cuculmeca have developed work around environmental education and action with children. In consultation with the Ministry of Education they have created a space for one hour each week to do environmental education in local schools. In these sessions they create a participatory dynamic using a wide range of co-operative games. One example of this would be cooperative musical chairs in which a chair is removed each time but the players remain playing, having to sit on the laps of other players; in the end all participants have to end up sitting on one chair.
This sort of game helps to create a different environment than the usual school classroom. La Cuculmeca then use this new space to provide practical training to children on how to set up their own “patios” (small gardens) and how to care for hens. The sessions cover a wide range of issues, including how to clear and fence a piece of land (usually about 100 square metres), how to conserve soils on slopes using barreras vivas y muertas, how to make organic compost, how to plant different vegetables, trees and medicinal plants, how to identify and deal with pests, how to build a small pen for hens, how to vaccinate them, what to feed them and how to care for them. Prioritising girls La Cuculmeca then provides direct support to the children, giving them seeds, tools, fencing material and 5 young hens to rear. In la Fundadora alone over 40 girls have benefited from this support and have now established their own patios.
For Cuculmeca, these patios, as well as being an end in themselves, are also importantly a means to other ends. By giving children, especially girls, direct responsibility for a productive project which has clear benefits for the whole family , the aim is to challenge traditional attitudes towards children. By having something substantial which is their own, which they have created, the children gain in confidence. He children bring practical knowledge of new approaches to production and conservation into the home and their parents realise that they can learn from their children and forced to give them more respect.
Once children have established their patios they are also encouraged to join a club of “environmentalist children”, strengthening their sense of identity and organisation. They meet outside school hours and are encouraged to discuss issues that affect them. Initially many of the discussions will focus on their patios (eg ranking problems that they have experienced and finding practical solutions to them). However, they move on to discuss other significant concerns. Violence and child abuse have come up as issues in these sessions and so La Cuculmeca have developed participatory approaches and games to enable children to share and communicate their experiences. La Cuculmeca also use the work with children’s “patios” to create a space to work with their mothers - addressing similar environmental, productive and social issues,, and helping them to play a supportive role to their children
Special environmental camps have also been held, bringing children from different communities together. In one of the children developed their own report on their experience of Hurricaine Mitch, taking photographs and documenting the devastation to the environment. Strong connections were made between the extent of damage and previous deforestation which had left certain areas particularly vulnerable. Extended games were played in which the children were formed into groups, each identified with endangered animals of the forests. They each tried to track their animals, identifying their routes by means of a symbol and colour. They identified their common enemies: the hunters, those who cut down trees for timber or firewood, those who clear their land using fire. They wrote stories on issues that they discussed, for example: “once upon a time there was a man who made a living cutting down trees. Each day he would cut down a tree and then go and take a drink at the small spring nearby. On the day that he cut down the last tree he went to the spring and found that it had dried up … and so he died of thirst”.
The result of this work is striking. The children have clearly gained in confidence. When they show outsiders their patios they do so with pride and can talk as experts on all things they are growing. They know the uses of each of the medicinal plants and how to cook each of the vegetables. They identify strongly with the trees they have planted and the hens they are rearing. They communicate clearly and exude a tangible sense of achievement. For La Cuculmeca this is the essence of Reflect:
- starting work with one of the most oppressed groups in society (children, particularly girls)
- working with participatory and co-operative approaches to strengthen self-esteem;
- challenging the existing power relationships in which children are silenced at home and in the school;
- helping children to become creative subjects, confident in communicating their knowledge and concerns;
- focusing on building and reinforcing practical knowledge, particularly that acquired through experience;
- enabling children to Reflect on values and principles, and to become more sensitive in their relationships with others (self respect being seen as the basis for respecting others);
- providing children with the capacity to translate learning into action so they become active agents in the family.
The results of such an approach are not easy to measure but observing the children one can see that a difference is being made and one gets a sense that the experience will stay with them and affect not only themselves but their whole families. So, what appears to be a small, humble initiative of supporting “patios” becomes a wedge through which the existing dynamics and power relationships of the school and home are challenged.
La Cuculmeca is extending its work with children to include work with pre-schools. Once again the focus is on introducing cooperative games and participatory activities that encourage children to express themselves. This is conceived as laying a vital early foundation. A wide range off materials have been produced for use in schools. Most striking are the original story books. These are books with about 12 pictures each being A3 size, a black and white photocopy that is later coloured in. They are mounted on old x-rays which would ave been discarded from the local hospital. Each story is adapted to the immediate context of rural Jinotega and carries a strong message concerning the empowerment of children. The text is written on the back of the pictures as a guide for the teachers but improvisation is encouraged. A number of mimicking games, songs and activities are integrated with the stories to ensure that the children become actively engaged rather than simply passively listening. The whole integrated approach to original local story-telling interwoven with games and activities is a clear sign of the creative commitment in La Cuculmeca to breaking traditional practices.
TRAINING FOR DEMOCRATISATION and PARTICIPATORY SURVEYS: As a Production Association La Fundadora has 230 members. The Co-ordinating Collective of the Association is elected but there are some concerns about the level of accountability once people have been elected. To strengthen the democratic practices of la Fundadora, La Cuculmeca works with the “Council of Members” in a training programme within which they have also introduced many elements of Reflect. Approximately 20 people attend an ongoing capacity building programme which aims to develop their potential as future leaders and help them take a more active role in their communities (which have separate organisational structures) as well as in the Production Association itself. By building up this second level, La Cuculmeca hopes to ensure that there is reduced dependency on, and increased accountability of, the existing leadership.
The workshop sessions address a wide range of issues which are identified through consultation with the participants. An initial participatory diagnosis provides the basis for developing curriculum materials uniquely adapted to the group. Issues that have arisen include:
- community organisation;
- critical analysis of organisations;
- the environment,
- problematising the concept of “development”,
- conflict resolution
- local government
La Cuculmeca have developed a problematising approach to all subjects, forcing participants to develop their own definitions and understanding. However, they also bring in some key information too enrich discussion. Much of this material is a direct illustration of the way in which literacy is linked to power. For example, the Municipal Law is introduced for people to be able to understand the roles and responsibilities of local government and to be able to understand their rights and how to assert them in the context of local government. Participants are able to match their experience with the law and de-code the complexity of accessing local government resources, the bureaucracy involved and the various ways in which the law is being used and abused. This generates an analysis of the power dynamics by which the local mayor, in practice, is responding to the needs of the urban communities (who are close at hand / visible) and is able to ignore the rural communities (who are distant and ill-organised even though they pay equal taxes). The Environment Law is also introduced as a basis for mapping out areas such as river banks and water sources which should by law be protected.
This type of work has considerable potential. It is linked directly to the power structures of the communities and the production association and is being developed in a flexible, participatory way based on thorough initial research. The aim is to generate, through these courses, a participatory dynamic within the communities themselves so that the principles and approaches introduced at one level become organic to the process of local change. The sort of techniques which would commonly be introduced by Cuculmeca are:
Analysis of names - emphasising the individual as the starting point; looking at the personal histories embodied in names and how people feel about their names (This was always the starting point for Cuculmeca’s adult literacy work, in recognition of the power of names and the importance for participants of being able to sign their name);
- Community maps (often done in wooden trays and constructed as models);
- Ideal community maps (in which participants construct an ideal around the real);
- Map of problems which prevent the realisation of the ideal vision;
- Preference ranking to identify level of importance of different problems;
- Socio-drama to elucidate the nature of key problems;
- Trees to analyse the causes and effects of each major problem (and identification of those roots and branches that can be feasibly addressed);
- Preparation of action plan based on the above analysis;
- Further work on specific issues as they arise in the course of implementation.
Other approaches are also introduced in some contexts, for example, the following approaches have been used to address gender issues:
- Men draw their image of a woman as they see women now and then their image of an ideal woman. Women do the same for men. The men then report back first (this is key as the men otherwise adapt their discourse in the light of what the women say!). As Iouri of Cuculmeca comments: “our challenge is to do gender work without talking of gender”
- Socio-dramas in which men have to act as women and women as men . This brings out stereotypes and leads to intensive and often outraged discussion afterwards.
- Gender workload calendars / daily routines
However, the techniques used are only ever a means to an end. The aim of all Cuculmeca’s education work appears to be to enable people to make links between their public and private selves. Unless people are touched by the process at an emotional level as well as at a work level then they are unlikely to change or unlikely to secure a process of wider change. You need to get under the skin - under the professional discourse or colloquialisms or the normal behaviour of people. You need to recognise that any analysis of power starts with the self and ones own power. This is often a process of un-learning - of removing past practices and finding new ways to do things.
INITIATING A PROCESS WITH WOMEN IN AN URBAN BARRIO: La Cuculmeca began work in Barrio Villa La Cruz very recently. Their starting point was to respond to a specific problem that had arisen after Hurricane Mitch. The Hurricane had caused serious flooding and landslides that had destroyed some houses and specifically had flattened the pre-school that had previously functioned. Other agencies had helped to resolve housing but the lack of a pre-school was proving to be a major problem for the women. Having heard of this situation La Cuculmeca called a meeting of interested people. About 25 people turned up, 24 of them being women. Rather than start with an open session the people were divided into four groups and each group worked on developing a detailed profile in pictures
- a profile of the ideal boys and girls
- a profile of the ideal mother
- a profile of the ideal teacher
- a profile of the ideal pre-school
These were presented back to the full group and were added to and revised in the process. In the second meeting these same profiles were referred to and the women in four groups were asked to identify the major problems or obstacles to achieving the four ideals. In each group the participants did a preference ranking exercise to establish which problems were of overwhelming significance. This analysis proved very surprising to the participants because each group identified independently that the lack of community organisations was the most fundamental obstacle to achieving any of the proposed ideals.
This recognition led to a passionate discussion within the group about strategies for strengthening community organisation. One of the major problems is the disillusion with traditional forms of organisation and the fact that to have any weight the barrio would have to work together with the large neighbouring barrio which has a serious problem of violence as it has a mixed population of demobilised Sandinistas and demobilised Contras.
This now sets the agenda for La Cuculmeca to develop materials for the next sessions. The aim is to use a series of workshops like this, with each one designed in response to the last. The next session will explore community organisation and develop possible models that the women would like to explore. Future sessions will also include mapping of the community (which has never been done) and of the neighbouring barrio. The subject of violence and the histories of the communities is also likely to arise.
La Cuculmeca hopes that this tentative initial work will lead to an increasingly intense education and capacity building process closely linked to the strengthening of local community organisation. The process has its own organic origins and momentum and is very different than trying to work with the same techniques in a literacy class where the construction of graphics can so easily become an artificial exercise. It is probable that some concrete literacy work will arise out of this new process. In the last workshop many of the most powerful debates concerned the written word:
- the corruption of the local mayor,
- the falsification of documents by ex-Contras,
- the manipulation of emergency aid after the Hurricaine by people who knew how to “gestionar” projects and money;
- the complexity of making “solicitudes” to the local government;
- disputes about land titles in the community;
- the problems of the neighbouring barrio where people had different forms of government registration.
The power of literacy is very clear to these women and it is likely that using that power will become an integral part of their process. Much better for literacy to emerge as an issue within such a real process than for it to be seen as a self-contained learning process in a literacy circle or class.
ORGANISATIONAL WORK One of the fundamental learnings of La Cuculmeca is that we should practice what we preach. Any process of change needs to start with ourselves and our own organisations. This is particularly necessary because the “development industry” is sick. Rather than being part of the solution many development agencies are part of the problem. We preach sustainability but act unsustainably. We teach environmental awareness but our own offices are models of bad practice. We promote participatory approaches but our organisations are hierarchical, traditional and vertical. We talk about gender but our organisations are male-dominated. We run empowering literacy programmes but our own practice of literacy is one that reinforces existing power relationships.
In many respects as NGOs we have a tendency to regard ourselves either as neutral or invisible but in practice we are a major agency of power within communities. Our own means of using this power communicates infinitely more than all the content of our training courses and all our interactions with communities. In many cases we reinforce power relationships rather than challenge them. We accrue power rather than share it. We create dependency more than we promote independence.
La Cuculmeca is different. It has a horizontal structure and treats people as human beings rather than members of staff. The office is open-plan with no hierarchy clear in the use of space. The office recycles everything. Individual responsibility is promoted. There are no cleaners because everyone cleans. Almost nothing is regarded as waste. The office is visually stimulating with photographs, pictures and a strongly personal feel. The same approaches that Cuculmeca promotes are used in its own practice. Staff engage in collective analysis of problems using participatory approaches and they join in cooperative and team building games.
In its work with communities a guiding principle of La Cuculmeca is that people are human beings like you and me. They do not just focus on “problems” and nor do they see people as needing to be “developed” along pre-determined lines. The aim is to ensure that people are the engine of their own process of change. The starting point is the self: how we perceive ourselves and our relations with others. People are not some form of textbooks to be read or written by others. They should all be authors. To achieve such a change we cannot rush. Rushing is part of the problem. We need time to analyse, act and Reflect. In a sense the participatory approach which most encapsulates the philosophy of La Cuculmeca is the river of life - as the uniqueness of people is the essence of their humanity and there is nothing more important to “read” than ourselves and nothing more important to “write” than our own lives.
It is appropriate then that mental health is one of the concerns of la Cuculmeca. After Hurricane Mitch this was particularly important as many people were traumatised by the experience, including staff members. Representatives of la Cuculmeca attended a workshop on Emotional Recovery and then conducted their own workshops both within the organisation and externally in the communities. As people began talking about trauma it became clear that the Hurricane, for all its horrors, was only the latest in a long series of traumas and people began talking much more about the Contra War and the violence that is so embedded in society. This led La Cuculmeca to develop participatory approaches to conflict resolution, but rather than publicising this as a mental health or conflict resolution programme (which would not have attracted people) they started working with the approaches with all existing groups including with the environmentalist children, the women’s group and with youth groups.
One of the reasons for focusing on the self and on diversity is the need to break the traditional development pattern in which communities are recipients or beneficiaries. The aim of Cuculmeca is to place communities right at the centre of their own process. As one of their documents quotes:
“Things that you do for us, without us, are against us”
Another key slogan for la Cuculmecca, which captures their philosophy and that is widely used comes from Jose Marty:
“The best way to say something is to do it”
DEFINITIONS: So what is Reflect for la Cuculmeca? Comments from different Cuculmeca staff and from participants in the meeting facilitated by Cuculmeca in July 1999, indicate that each person would give a different definition and that this itself is part of the definition:
“It is a blank page. It is not a law or set of laws but something in the permanent process of construction”
“It is a pre-text. The techniques are pre-texts to promote communication and engagement”
“It is the creation of spaces so people can take responsibility”
“It is a means to put people in the centre rather than on the margins of their own development”
“It is a way of living not a set of methods”
“It is the internalisation of a participatory philosophy”
“It is about humanity and power”
“It is an internal process - internal to ourselves and internal to communities”
“It is about giving power for a change rather than taking it or using it ”
“It is dangerous: it provokes crisis because it forces us all to change”
“It is a new way to pull together many elements of popular education”
“It is feeling power and enabling people to have the power to communicate.”
“It is generating new hope, new horizontal revolutions”
“It is the use of a set of techniques as an organic part of people’s own process”
“It is not a recipe, it is an open and evolving concept which needs to be interpreted.”
“It is in permanent construction”
“It is communication”
“It is a way of generating new energy to change ourselves and our organisations”
”It is about creating a new sense of self as an active agent of change.”
“People who use Reflect and think they know it should be reminded that day by day you need to Reflect and change your way of being”
In a whole range of definitions collected from diverse people, literacy never appeared. Communication and power, process and participation are the key words. There is no single definition which Cuculmeca would adhere to but is appears to offer an evolving philosophy which is as valid for people working in the organisation as it is for the people with whom they work. It concerns respecting people as full human beings and helping them to express themselves as such. The power structures in which we all live prevent this but given space and time in a participatory process people can develop the means to express themselves fully, to communicate and in doing so to start asserting their organic power. Horizontal organisations which work with people in a democratic way can help to advance this process.
Literacy is still a concern for La Cuculmeca. However, literacy is conceived in a different way and the starting point is different. The starting point in this case the organisation itself and its own practices. What are the ways in which the organisation uses literacy? How does the process of planning and budgeting and reporting and monitoring and evaluating either share power or consolidate it? How can field workers develop a habit of documenting their experience so that work can be systematised and shared. Literacy I not just a problem for the illiterate. The use of literacy is also stratified in organisations. A handful of people usually do all the writing and field staff do not. The traditional response to this is to develop formats for monitoring so that field staff have certain things they are required to complete. But such formats are much like literacy primers. People learn how to read them and fill them in but do not learn anything else. Formats become an obstacle to Reflection rather than facilitating it. They become an obstacle to real learning. One idea is for field staff to be given cameras and to be asked to write illustrated stories about their work, capturing the essence of what they do either as romances, comedies, anecdotes, extended jokes, histories, tragedies or some other genre. Each story would end with some Reflections on whether this was typical or rare - to contextualise the specific story in their wider work. The best stories would be published. This would certainly break the mould of development practice which is so bound up with indicators and formats and instruments of control - all of which can be powerful examples of how our own practice of literacy distorts our work rather than enhances it. Once again the focus is on changing ourselves before we expect other people to change