The Hurricane Carried Away All Harmony
Reflections on the past, present and future
of Nicaragua’s north Caribbean region,
now devastated by Hurricane Felix.
I live in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), and when they started saying a dangerous hurricane was advancing through the Caribbean, the first thing that went through my mind was the Latin American masters course in Intercultural Health we have in URACCAN [the University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast]. There were 23 Latin Americans from 12 countries doing that course in Bilwi. We also had 100 students between the ages of 15 and 17 in the leadership school. I checked that they and all the other people in Bilwi’s hotels were safe and I also checked the university’s computers. Then I went home, totally calm. I had no reason to worry. My house is made of cement with a new sheet metal roof, so I was sure there wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t even put plastic sheeting over anything in the house. Besides, they were always saying that hurricanes might hit land at Bilwi, but it never happened. This time, however, it did. Part of my roof blew off, and roofing blew off in the university, the hotels, everywhere.
No one was prepared for this tragedy. The electricity blackouts played a part, because the hurricane suddenly gained strength and dropped off its anticipated course, and no one heard about these changes. There’s a chronic problem of electricity cuts in Bilwi. There’s hardly ever any electricity in my neighborhood. How can anyone stay on top of what’s happening if that’s going on? Everything happened very quickly. The coordinator of Bilwi’s civil society was in the regional government building that night, where an emergency center had been established. At 4 in the morning he went out to fetch some formats for recording information. The hurricane entered with such speed and force that he nearly didn’t make it back. He was almost hit and killed by several falling trees. We were all shocked at what happened to us and we’re still shaken today.
Even before the hurricane, the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), roughly a quarter of the national territory, was highly vulnerable. And that’s how Felix found us; it came to demonstrate our vulnerability more crudely.
The damage is more profound The damage caused by the hurricane is incalculable, invaluable. There will never be exact information about it. We still didn’t have the final number of dead by the end of September, much less an approximation of the material losses. The hurricane winds blew down churches, schools, houses, trees. The forest, mangroves and reefs were all destroyed, wildlife and domestic animals, as well as fish and lobsters were killed… Even more serious, the hurricane shook the very structure of community leadership, destroying the territory, which is where the spirits maintain the balance of life and our ancestors’ thoughts flow…
than outsiders can understand
Production has been severely affected. When we got to the Miskitu community of Tuapí, for example, we saw incredible destruction. The women there earn a living selling the fruit from their trees and fish and shellfish they catch in the Miskitu Keys. “I don’t know what we’re going to live off now,” one woman lamented. “All our fruit trees are on the ground and many fish have died of poisoning. We’re not going to be able to produce on this ground either, because the land is poisoned too.”
Where did that poison they talked about come from? The mangrove trees were destroyed and washed into the sea and the natural chemicals they contain poisoned the habitat of many fish after a few days. All the mud in the rivers was poisoned as well and the hurricane also dumped a lot of salt water on the land, which poisoned it, too, making it unproductive. Everything that has to be done to un-poison the water and drain the salty land must be done with community leadership and the people have to participate in that process.
The disaster in the Miskitu Keys is tremendous. The reefs—home to the tiniest fish eaten by the larger ones—have been totally wiped out. The habitats of fish, lobsters, birds and animals were destroyed and, like us human beings, the surviving animals are completely bewildered. The large number of fallen trees also represent a major problem because the wood and leaves will dry out and could cause forest fires when the agricultural burning begins, which could be another disaster. With such a precarious situation, the communities will need all kinds of food sent in, because the land and water won’t provide us with sustenance for a long time to come.
The grief for the fallen trees is notable. One of the most painful things right now for the older people is having lost their fruit trees. Their house fell down, but what hurts most in the depth of their soul is that their trees came down. “Look at that tree; my grandmother planted it… Do you remember my grandma?” And with that fallen tree goes the whole history of the grandmother who planted it. It’s as if the dead died again. The hurt for the trees also expresses grief for those no longer in the community…
Development must be viewedEven before the hurricane we coast people always proposed that development be viewed, designed and approached from our culture; from health, because what we mean by health is wellbeing. And wellbeing includes housing, production, learning, interchange and coexistence with the biodiversity around us. We must now make this vision of development reality. The Caribbean coast’s development, its wellbeing, must be hammered out together with the coast peoples, as contemplated and established in the autonomy law.
from our culture, our vision of health
Indigenous peoples don’t talk about biodiversity. They speak from it. The Sumu-Mayangna people who live in Bosawás have their own norms and regulations for maintaining the forest, the trees, the birds, the animals… For example, if someone hunts too many animals, he will get sick, because he has broken the equilibrium of the spirits that control the water, the seas, the forest, the air, the planting. For indigenous peoples, biodiversity is the inter-connection of all the spirits of life, which reproduce and conserve it so the community of men, women and children can live without destroying it.
Our great reconstruction challenge And if that is our cosmovision, Hurricane Felix was responsible for much more than the physical damage shown in the photos. It destroyed communities: the spaces in which all forms of life coexist, where we attend the school of life and intercommunicate—an oral, not a written exchange—with the elders. It destroyed churches, which are the spaces where indigenous and community leaders reach agreement. It destroyed the schools where we share knowledge. It destroyed the rivers, which are the spaces that provide us with food and wellbeing. All those spaces controlled by the community leaders—who in Miskitu communities are known as the wihta (chief or judge), the midwife, the sukia (spiritual healer)—have been destroyed because the hurricane broke the balance and harmony among people, their families and their community.
is to restore the balance and harmony
So our great reconstruction challenge is to restore the balance and harmony. And we’re facing that challenge at a moment in which we are all in mourning, all crying. We’re extremely sad because we’ve still haven’t found some of our people. When we go to the communities and talk to the leaders, they all say: “We now know how many dead we have, but we don’t yet know where they are; we haven’t been able to find six of them…” And they keep looking. It’s like that everywhere. It’s a new situation that today’s community leadership just isn’t used to.
Reconstructing balance and harmony isn’t easy. We have to start with our values, with how to reproduce our vision of the world. That’s why for some time now we’ve been preparing our own teachers in intercultural bilingual education in the coast universities. We black and indigenous populations have to feel proud of who we are. We’re different. We speak differently, organize ourselves differently and have to feel proud of those differences. But that pride has to based on what we are learning and this emergency is the moment to apply everything we’ve learned so far.
The traditional healers must First, we must turn to the traditional healers to help us find the lost equilibrium. Who managed to return the harmony to the community in the case of the grisis signi spiritual illness? Not the psychologists, but the sukia, the curandero, the spirit man, the obia—as the traditional healers are called in the different ethnic communities—because they’re the ones who know how to work with the spirits. The national doctors have reported with some frequency about grisis signi, an illness that appears in the Río Coco communities. Western medicine understands it as a form of collective hysteria, but the traditional healers in the Caribbean know it to be an ailment that affects people when they lose their balance with their environment. The Health Ministry has sent doctors from Managua to the affected community , but they can’t cure it or resolve the problem that causes it. Only the traditional healers know what to do when it crops up. They’re the ones called to heal people, to find the balance needed to return the harmony between the person and the family and community. But their challenge is greater than ever now, because they’re suffering as well; they too have lost relatives.
help us find the lost equilibrium
The community organization has already identified 32 effects of this stage of the crisis. One of them, isingni, is an ailment experienced when a family member or close friend dies but its spirit doesn’t find peace and rest because the death was traumatic. We can expect many cases of both isingni and grisis signi and other similar ailments related to spiritual traumas because the harmony of life, the normality of life, was destroyed.
Traditional medicine is moreBy the way, traditional medicine on the coast isn’t just knowing about and using medicinal plants. We’ve learned that it’s not enough to study plants and their medicinal properties, to know what such and such a plant is used for, what it cures. Traditional medicine goes far beyond that, involving the way to cut down a tree, the way to prepare the medication. It also involves the ritual with which the medicine is applied... Accompanying traditional healers has taught us that in order for the plants to heal they must be accompanied by traditional practices, by rituals. In response to the emergency, we’ve already begun to work on spiritual healing manuals.
than just medicinal plants
The churches must help as wellOne of the largest challenges we have right now is to avoid looking for scapegoats and to organize better so that what happened doesn’t happen to us again. We have an ongoing exchange with the traditional healers so we can interpret this catastrophe together, so people won’t think it was a punishment for some failing, some sin. Many people believe the balance was destroyed because the community norms for managing the biodiversity were not well respected so the spirits got angry and reacted with such destruction. There’s also a feeling that all of this was the result of people breaking moral norms and there are pastors accusing people on the radios, claiming that the hurricane was a punishment for not leading a good moral life.
The Moravian Church plays a very important role in the communities and the whole region. It was the Moravian pastors who historically taught us the norms of a good, moral life. They are always part of the community leadership and whenever people get together to exchange opinions in any community, the pastor’s always there. He has a strong influence on individual and community life.
In addition, there’s an Ecumenical Council of leaders from the various churches, which meets with the regional and national authorities. Both Catholics and Moravians participated in an ecumenical service in Bilwi’s main square in mid-September, a couple of weeks after the hurricane.
Don’t do it for us; do it with usFrom the very beginning we’ve seen enormous solidarity. We’ve never known such a huge mobilization on behalf of the Caribbean Coast from all departments of Nicaragua, from civil society, from the universities, from national and international organizations… Everyone wants to help. We feel like we’re really being accompanied.
We would like all the help that comes to be consulted and agreed with the coast people with the aim of achieving development with identity. That implies dialogue, concertation, hammering out agreements and each one doing their part. And I say this because some aid brigades have come to the communities with no knowledge of our people’s ways of seeing the world. Brigades of psychologists and others go directly into a community and start making decisions. Don’t people usually let you know first when they’re going to pay you a visit at home? May I come over? Are you going to be home? Why do they just show up at an indigenous community without asking first? Not only that, these brigades often come assuming they can tell us what’s best for us. It’s all very traumatic, especially now, because we’re feeling extremely fragile. Brigades arrive saying that they’ve come to work with the children. Why the children? Because children are our priority, they answer. But it doesn’t occur to any of them to work with the members of the community leadership, which is causing them shame. Despite their own suffering, they are the ones who have to direct the territory, especially now, when everyone is still in a state of shock. Any development that really respects our culture must prioritize the community leaders, help them to get back on their feet and start making the best decisions in the community.
Others also came to work with the children, trying to cheer them up, encourage them with a “carrousel.” But our children have never seen such a thing before and we think that if you’re going to work with the children in our community, especially right now, you have to surround them with things they know, words they know, in their own language, their way of organizing, respecting the ways of the community in which they live.
We don’t want charity assistance. We don’t want things done for us; we want them to be done with us. They can accompany us to facilitate processes, but we want to reach our own agreements and do it together. Even before the hurricane we were already used to people coming to the communities and telling us, “Build the houses like this, make latrines, dig wells…” There were so many latrines in the communities that were never used. Wells? They aren’t used either. It’s a different culture! Why work with children if it’s the older people who are suffering most and have to take the lead? Prioritizing children may have become the agencies’ new fad, but it’s not our culture.
Organizing ourselves better Another big challenge is how to organize ourselves better so that what happened to us never happens again, and so we can rebuild together. The northern Caribbean Coast was one of the territories that most suffered the effects of the war of the eighties, but we never had the “opportunity” to receive any kind of psychological treatment other than traditional wisdom. The traditional healers have helped us heal the scars of the war. And also, one way or the other, we’ve been healing ourselves, because those of us who were enemies during the war have had to work together. I was an elected Regional Council member for eight years—the first two terms of the new autonomous government. And at the beginning, the Yatama and Sandinista council members came to the sessions armed. It took us two years to understand that we weren’t enemies; that we were there to figure out how to resolve our region’s problems together. Just recently we did a study on the Río Coco to see the mental state of the population of children and youths. The result was surprising: children who hadn’t even been born during the war years are still drawing tanks and weapons and soldiers. They’re even drawing the evacuation of their communities to the Tasba Pri resettlement, which happened in January 1982! Really, we never recover from a war.
to reconstruct together
There were many dreams and aspirations on the Caribbean Coast before the hurricane: dreams of having a region in which development could be seen from the point of view of identity; development in which the indigenous and black peoples could identify their own vision and understanding of development. And that means being able to live according to plans designed with the people, from the people, with us participating in the kind of development that seems best for us. For that same reason, our proposal now is to see the emergency provoked by the hurricane as an opportunity to reconstruct with an intercultural focus.
To some extent we’ve already been able to do this. For example, people came from Los Pipitos, the Pacific-based organization that works with and for children with disabilities and their families. They came cross-country by land with material aid. We managed to talk to them about our cosmovision and the communities’ spirituality when they got here and then, based on how we see the world, we created joint teams that included experts from Los Pipitos, intercultural health personnel and our own mental health nurses, all indigenous people from the region. Together we designed how we would go into the communities.
There’s a need for intercultural brigades to work with and from the community. This will let us turn the crisis into an opportunity, exploiting the solidarity that has been and will continue to be given to let everybody know how we want the development to come, with each ethnic group maintaining its own identity. While the communities are still receiving food aid—because they won’t be able to produce for a long time—these joint brigades must figure out how to get the poison out of the ground and purify the water so people—and animals—can drink clean water.
Establishing clear lines of authority The hurricane came soon after the country got a new FSLN-run national government in which many coast people are participating in very high posts for the first time ever. In the executive branch we have seven people in high national positions in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources; the Health and Education Ministries; the Foreign Ministry and the Superintendence of Property... We also have coast people representing us not only as regional legislators in the National Assembly but for the first time also as national at-large legislators, and also in the Central American Parliament. In all, we have over two dozen compañeros and compañeras in the legislative and executive branches of national government, which together make up its Caribbean Coast Advisory Council. We’re hoping that the government’s national administration will therefore allow the coast more participation than in the past.
between Managua and the coast
The Autonomy Statute clearly establishes who the authorities in the region are: the Regional Councils, the Municipal Councils and also the community authorities. The Managua government has always had a national entity to control the Caribbean Coast, to decide for us… and without us. I wouldn’t like to see the new Caribbean Coast Advisory Council doing this. I’d like to see them be what they are: advisers. Because our authorities are the ones we elected, and they are in the territory itself. Those in Managua ought to coordinate with those in the territory. That has to be the spirit. A lot of time will be wasted in the midst of this emergency if the coast officials in Managua don’t achieve good links with the regional authorities, coast civil society and community leaders.
They came from Managua a few weeks before the hurricane with a strategic planning proposal and began to form work commissions. I’m hoping that we can pull that plan apart in those commissions and put it back together based on our own aspirations. Coordination and our participation in decision-making have become even more urgent in this emergency situation.
We’ve made some progress, but much more is still needed. We already have our own professionals, prepared in the region. Yesterday I met with the technical team supporting the regional government offices: ”Look, brothers and sisters,” I told them, ”this is URACCAN’s trial by fire; we’ve been basing our preparation on our cosmovision for the past 13 years. All of our discourse is rooted in our own culture. Now’s the time to go and put all that into the plans.”
We’re not afraid to fight for what we wantWe already know that “putting all that” into the plans means fights and more fights. It means discussing and discussing until we succeed in introducing our viewpoint into the plan. And once we do introduce it that still doesn’t mean it’s going to work. From then on we can’t let go of it, we have to keep right on struggling.
We in the coast are historically accustomed to fights; they don’t scare us. We—the Miskitus, blacks, Sumu-Mayangnas, mestizos, etc.—are all used to fighting among ourselves as we all have different ways of seeing things, because that’s how things have been historically. So what unites us? Anyone from the Pacific attacking us. It upset all of us when Liberal legislator Enrique Quiñónez came to the coast and offended our regional authorities, accusing them of irregularities and saying that an investigating commission would be formed in Managua. We closed ranks and were all angry at him because they are our authorities; we put them there and they deserve respect. It’s things like that that get us all standing shoulder to shoulder, all joining together.
I think Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast needs to engage in a frank dialogue with us. We have to get together to shake hands with respect. But there’s still a long way to go before that can happen. Just as an example, lawyers educated in universities in the Pacific don’t even study the autonomy law, and that law covers 52% of the national territory! Nicaragua’s Constitution begins by saying that Nicaragua is a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural country. If the Constitution says that, any government should have to be organized to make it true. But does it function like that? No. So we’ll continue fighting to make ourselves visible.
The way the government is organized makes it hard for us to have good control over our leaders. In this emergency a small group is making the decisions. But we’ve said we live here and nobody can get rid of us. We’re getting involved as civil society and who’s going to throw us out?
The aid has to be coordinated with theThe indigenous regional party Yatama is now facing a major challenge in a new context due to its alliance with the FSLN to govern the RAAN. That alliance is a challenge for both parties, because not everybody in the coast is Yatama and not everybody is Sandinista, the population covers various different ideologies. A great deal of care has to be taken to stop them politicizing the aid and diluting our identity or taking away our dreams.
regional authorities and not politicized
We believe that all the aid must be coordinated with the regional authorities. The National Disaster Prevention System (SINAPRED), which is made up strictly of national entities, has centralized the aid. How do we get it decentralized, forging links between the regional entities and SINAPRED and other national entities? We had never achieved this before, and then came the hurricane when we still had a long row still to hoe. It caught us all trying to create respectful links, each with a different discourse. But I’m confident that we’re going to make progress, because the Autonomy Statute was approved in 1987 during the first FSLN government. I trust that it’s going to leave things to those of us who were born and have lived and struggled in the region.
Right now, the most urgent thing is to stop blaming ourselves. Looking for people to blame for all the destruction would produce a very long list indeed. Right now we have to use all our energy to rebuild. And that’s what we’re doing: we’re using our energies to produce real reports, work on coherent proposals and help people shake off that feeling of emptiness and loss currently reigning in our communities.
Alta Hooker is a black Creole and a health professional who has worked for years in her field. She is currently president of the University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast.