Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009



How Do Coast Women Understand Poverty?

Can one not have and not be poor? Be wealthy and yet be poor? Have riches and not have God? How much do identity, dignity and culture free a community from poverty?

Carla María Bush

In the conventional literature, poverty is related exclusively to the lack of material goods and is measured by calculating the capacity to satisfy basic needs. Such measurements are based on the different capital people generate as they construct their survival and on their ability to transform it into more capital, into sustainable income, dignity and power. In short, poverty has to do with income versus consumption.

In recent years, however, poverty has been increasingly conceived of as a multidimensional phenomenon. This conception considers not only the lack of income for covering basic needs or the degree of access to health and education services and employment, but also includes other determinant components, such as the structures and practices that generate and reproduce poverty, resulting in an unequal society. As a consequence of these multiple levels in which poverty is reproduced and expressed, poor people suffer physically, mentally and spiritually.

In the case of indigenous peoples and ethnic communities, it is also important to include cultural values in the analysis of poverty, to determine which elements condition it from the perspective of their own cultural systems. Learning the individual and collective situation of poverty of each indigenous people and ethnic community helps us understand how it is experienced and interpreted according to the particularities of these cultures and what influence they have on the community’s economic, political and social development. Furthermore, those engaged in the struggle to eradicate poverty in ethnic groups and indigenous peoples increasingly understand cultural poverty as these groups’ lack of participation in the design of development plans and strategies based on their own cosmovision, given that such participation helps motivate socio-cultural changes.

A reflection on cultural values is essential

Until now, the cultural perception of poverty by those suffering it has not been taken into account in Bilwi, historically a Miskitu village and now the capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region and one of Nicaragua’s poorest areas. Morals, motivation and volition are never discussed as cultural tools for dealing with the elements conditioning material poverty. Nor are these values typified as a necessary precondition for strengthening and empowering the poor, as determinant knowledge in the struggle against poverty.

On the contrary, the tendency is to minimize the power and dimension of cultural values, reducing them to prehistoric folkloric acts, dances, language and different lifestyles. This has gotten in the way of understanding them as means of survival. Without recognizing these local cultural values and knowledge, it is hard to motivate people to participate in climbing out of their own material poverty with actions designed to increase their wellbeing and human development.

Another problem with the traditional view of poverty is that it has always been analyzed from a globalizing focus that leaves the situation of women invisible. For both these reasons, I wanted to understand the concepts of poverty and wellbeing of one sector of Bilwi’s population, specifically Miskitu and Creole (Afro-descended) women.

I wanted the informants to talk about how they conceive poverty and wellbeing via their belief system and how they perceive the relationship between the two, to determine the similarities and differences in their traditional practices and cultural values. Basically I was seeking an anthropological understanding of the phenomenon of poverty and wellbeing, considering both their multidimensional nature and how they are experienced and understood “from the culture” of these women.

The women interviewed

I interviewed 17 women in 2006: 9 Miskitus and 8 Creoles who live in Bilwi, although a number of them were born in rural communities of the same region. I classified them in two groups: middle-income women and poor women. Those who could cover their basic needs to live “well” with their middle income are 8 professional Creole and Miskitu women between 45 and 56 years of age trained in the social area: one as a teacher and the rest in health. Some have a university degree and some have even done graduate studies and now have very responsible positions.

The poor group is made up of 9 domestic workers ranging in age between 30 and 65, the majority of whom earn an average base salary of a thousand córdobas (US$50) a month. Because this cannot cover their basic needs, they have to do chambas, as occasional jobs and extra work in peak periods are known, to help buy their daily food, generally rice, beans and some starchy filler such as plantains or cassava. They live in overcrowded, inadequate housing without indoor plumbing or even water on their property. They have a basic education (none of them completed high school) and have spent their whole life cleaning other people’s homes. They know no other type of work.

All 17 women are mothers, many also grandmothers, and all are bilingual in their native language and Spanish, using the latter in their work environment. The native language predominates in the domestic worker’s homes while three of the professional women communicate with their children and the rest of their family in Spanish or a combination of their own language and Spanish. The majority belong to either the Moravian or Anglican Church (all the domestic workers are Moravians). Most of the professionals are married, divorced or widowed, while the domestic workers are mainly single.

The interviewees had many similarities in the life they lead. Almost all live with other members of their nuclear family, including grandparents and often their children’s families. Another coincidence is found in their daily routine. The family life of Creole and Miskitu women in Bilwi is very similar: all end their workday socializing within the nuclear family, and if they don’t live with the extended family they get together as often as two or three times a week.

So how do they define
poverty and wellbeing?

The first point of reflection attempts to answer the central question: How do these women conceive poverty and wellbeing from their cultural space?

Women from both ethnic groups offered significant expressions about poverty. The Creoles base their perception “on the absence of the values of prestige, solidarity and ethnic identity” while the Miskitus base theirs “on the absence of solidarity and the loss of traditional values.” Converseley, both identify wellbeing with the practice of traditional values, spiritual peace and material betterment.

Looking further into these two states, poverty includes three basic dimensions:
• Loss of traditional values.
• Absence of solidarity, which means not having a culture of sharing.
• Loss of faith.
Wellbeing also has three dimensions:
• Cultural identity.
• Solidarity, which refers to having a community life.
• Being on good terms with God, which means knowing that God is accompanying you in the struggle for material and spiritual survival.

All these dimensions are important to grasping the relationship between cultural values and both poverty and wellbeing. Cultural values, which make up the women’s life style, don’t get in the way of development. On the contrary, they provide us a more comprehensive image for understanding human poverty and unmet basic needs, the approaches applied by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.

What defines a poor person?

The second basic point has to do with another key question: What are the elements that define whether an individual is poor? According to the focus on lack of material goods, the relationship among poor, poverty and causes that impoverish is based on an economic or economicist vision whose central defining element is the degree of ability to cover one’s basic needs. But this conception doesn’t take culture into account, whereas this research reveals that the practice of cultural values is precisely how one improves one’s material conditions, because these values motivate the mind and spirit.

For Bilwi’s Creole and Miskitu informants, a poor person is one who not only doesn’t have his/her basic needs met (house, health care, the children’s education), but also has no one to help alleviate these needs and doesn’t have God at his/her side. These people are “poor in spirit,” for they have lost important ties to very significant elements of their cultural system: identity, solidarity and mutual support.

The informants base their ideas on an ancestral cultural ideology, in which poor and poverty is a physical state reflecting the causes that impoverish. They thus depend on the practice of cultural values. These women divide poor people into two broad groups: those without either enough income to satisfy their basic needs or an external source of material support; and those who are also spiritually poor (without God). The situation of the latter group is characterized by factors for which there’s no evident remedy: not only a lack of income to cover their basic needs but also the loss of traditional values.

The relationship between
poverty and cultural solidarity

The third point responds to the question: how is poverty related to solidarity? According to these women, the philosophy behind the concept of cultural solidarity lies in the perspective of having and not having, and of not having and having a lot, the latter ideally reflecting the cultural solidarity required to deal with the causes of economic poverty. In the words of Mirna Cunningham, a 56-year-old doctor, Creole and indigenous leader and director of the Center of Attention to the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI), “External family solidarity is conceived of as the cultural value that motivates one to help others so all can live well.”

The significance of this relationship has different connotations according to the dimension focused on. Seen from the economic aspect of basic needs, they sometimes use the term “cultural solidarity” as a synonym for wealth and/or living better. It means that even without money or food, there are at least alternative options and the security of turning to them to cover basic needs when required.

All the Creole informants have an “outside” reference point (a person living abroad) who guarantees them help to palliate material poverty. For them, not having income from outside the country to help alleviate the lack of material goods is a fundamental aspect of poverty. That outside income is conceived as an expression of solidarity and firm cultural ties. Conversely, wellbeing is having people outside the country who, in accord with their values, are a cultural manifestation of family solidarity.

People who have such a reference point—which centers on monetary resources—are recognized by their flashy clothes and the furniture and household appliances from the United States in their homes. Cunningham says, “Those who don’t have family in the United States are poorer…; they don’t have that person who sends them something monthly to live better… to show off.”

This viewpoint is rooted in Creole idiosyncrasy, but that doesn’t mean the salaried professional with a relative outside the country depends on that relation and/or that it becomes a kind of reserve for survival. In this case, a relationship of solidarity becomes one that strengthens cultural values. As one of the interviewees explained, “In general terms, the aspiration and goal of Creoles is to educate themselves to opt for better job opportunities, whether inside our outside the country, so they don’t have to depend on that material solidarity as a means of subsistence, but rather as a show of affection and recognition of cultural identity.”

Of course, for Creoles who don’t work or have insufficient income, this person represents survival. In such a case, the relationship becomes one of economic dependence, without undermining the simultaneous sense of spiritual solidarity. Those with neither enough income to cover their material needs nor someone to ensure their survival live in material poverty. For Creoles, lack of solidarity means having neither material nor spiritual support.

For the Miskitu women—both professionals and domestic workers—the solidarity reference point is found within the family and community more than outside the country. It’s about going deeper into the cultural practice from where one is both materially and spiritually. Material poverty implies having neither enough income to cover basic needs nor family and community solidarity.

On the emotional side, i.e. from a spiritual and mental focus, “solidarity” means providing spiritual and moral support in moments of emotional crisis, for example a death in the family or community. Within the Miskitu culture, cultural solidarity is reflected at all levels of the communal structure (religious, economic and cultural).

Solidarity is the fundamental ancestral base most tuned to in Miskitu and Creole culture to understand and fight against poverty in its different dimensions: material, mental and spiritual.

Values and identity
make you less poor

The fourth point has to do with the identity-poverty relationship, and specifically responds to the question: How does identity, understood as spiritual and emotional peace, and education in values and cultural norms, help surmount poverty?

The women interviewed associate personal and collective/ethnic identity with the sense of belonging and acceptance, based on wisdom, ancestral knowledge and cultural values passed down through the generations. According to them, identity is strengthened by knowledge and the wealth of these values, which help intensify the efforts to overcome poverty. Wellbeing assumes the practice of traditional values to face life and achieve spiritual tranquility and personal satisfaction. They call this practice of their knowledge and acceptance of their personal and ethnic identity “ancestral solidarity.” It is a spiritual and mental underpinnings, a consciousness that motivates one to fight material and human poverty, and is thus needed to improve one’s living conditions. So one of the study’s most important findings is the view of poverty as the loss of personal and collective identity, which leads to a lack of unity, i.e. the absence of traditional values such as family and communal solidarity/social fabric and mutual cooperation.

Religion is another crucial tool

The fifth point responds to the relationship between poverty and religion, based on the individual and collective spirituality of Miskitus and Creoles. According to this criterion, analyzing the poverty-religion relationship unquestionably involves both individual and collective spirituality and the role played by the churches—particularly the Moravian and Anglican ones—in influencing the individual’s change of mentality to climb out of poverty.

Religion is a very important symbol for the mental and spiritual health of the Creole and Miskitu cultures. It’s the link between human beings and their Creator; internal calm and peace with God. Most of these cultures profess the Moravian religion, a seal that forms an important part of their identity. The education they receive at home and school is fundamentally rooted in this religious philosophy, although both cultures complement it with other traditional spiritual practices. For Creole and Miskitu women, spiritual poverty is the root of material poverty because it generates a barrier that fosters and plays into low self-esteem, a low educational capacity and lack of moral values, thus contributing to the lack of economic resources.

Given its impact on the formation of generations of Creole and Miskitu families, the Moravian religion can work as a tool that keeps women from becoming aware of their knowledge to get out of cultural and material poverty, but can also act as an ideological doctrine that influences a change of attitudes to shake off poverty. Whatever the direction it takes, the starting point is recognition that cultural poverty is the loss of cultural values, including spirituality.

Considering the churches’ role in spiritually strengthening the individual, it is essential to exhort a change of attitude to confront life. Both the Moravian and Anglican churches observe their congregation’s economic, political and social development very closely and congratulate their members when they distinguish themselves in their life outside the religious setting. They also use them as examples of following the word of God and call on others to follow their examples.

Erna Patterson, an Anglican Creole nurse with a degree in epidemiology and a researcher at the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast’s Institute of Traditional Medicine, says: “That’s why you do your best to get an education; to be viewed well in the church. The church applauds this. If you’re educated, it assigns you tasks in line with your capacity and doesn’t tell you what you have to study.”

Cultural values that strengthen identity

The final fundamental point responds to the question: what values strengthen identity? The Creole women who do domestic work talk about a spiritual and material fulfillment with which they struggle to survive and improve their own and their family’s living conditions, while the Creole professionals get an education as a form of social mobility to live a better life, to put the worry about survival behind them. The fulfillment of Creole women’s lives comes when they get an education. The mandate within Creole families is: “If you don’t get a professional education, the family automatically prescribes that you get out of the country, mainly to the United States, to work as a survival alternative.”

Creole women achieve a state of wellbeing when their nuclear and extended families live according to their cultural values and solidarity, and have an education. This vision is theo-centric (a greater proximity to God), with the practice of unity and family solidarity allowing spiritual satisfaction. They perceive that education is the only way of achieving the social mobility that allows them to practice solidarity and understand spiritual values, thus improving the relationship between God and the family.

For Miskitu professional women, cultural solidarity can be practiced without necessarily having an education that allows them to improve their material situation. They recognize the absence of solidarity only in the loss of cultural and spiritual values, although they do see education as a means to understand and buttress their relationship with God, their family and their community.

For Miskitu domestic workers, fulfillment is centered more on material resources. They are concerned with getting what they need for themselves and sharing it with their nuclear and extended families. As with the Creole domestic workers, they also become theo-centric when they get an education. Because their concern is to know that God is accompanying them, that they aren’t alone in the struggle for survival, they concentrate more on understanding God’s plans in order to strengthen their individual spirituality and thus improve their relations with their family and community.

The ancestral cultural values as interpreted in the present-day life of Miskitus and Creoles tend to encourage a formal education, but even more important is guaranteeing identity through education in cultural values: spirituality, ethics and morality. Starting with the same system of values that underpins the paradigm of cultural solidarity to alleviate the effects of material poverty, their capacity to exercise it depends on their economic and spiritual stability. Paradoxically, economic stability isn’t indispensable to the exercise of material solidarity, but spiritual stability is essential because it’s the framework within which poverty in its different dimensions can be effectively dealt with using the different tangible and intangible resources provided by the cultural systems. This analysis is very important for a state that wants to develop public policies to combat poverty in the Caribbean coast region because it shows us that individual and collective identity based on cultural values is the most important human capital for confronting the region’s material poverty.

Poverty in Creole women’s own words

The cultural elements that define poverty for the Creole women interviewed are:
• Having nothing to share with others.
• Having no source of external assistance.
• Having no family help.
• Having no education.
• Having no hope.
• Having nothing to give the children to eat.

A person is considered poor when he/she no longer has the personal ambition to get ahead, feels sorry for him/herself, doesn’t study and has lost the moral values of solidarity and identity. Mirna Cunningham characterizes the poor as “those who have to prostitute themselves, to send their children into the street to beg, those who’ve lost the value of solidarity and adopted the culture of not sharing.” Conversely, they aren’t poor if they have a good relationship with their family and the surroundings in which they live. In that case they live in harmony and have something to eat.

Another aspect that influences their condition as poor people is having no access to health care and education, even that which is imposed by the Western world and alien to their reality. Poverty also has to do with a lack of opportunities and options in life, linked to how one feels in the medium in which one is developing. As Alta Hooker, who worked for many years as a nurse and is now rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN), describes it: “Creole women are either nurses or teachers for lack of other options.”

Comparing the situation of the three main groups living in Bilwi—Miskitus, Creoles and mestizo migrants from the Pacific side of the country—Cunningham notes that mestizos relate poverty “to the lack of opportunity to generate economic income. The mestizo who feels poor is someone who knows how to do something, but doesn’t have the opportunity to do it.” A mestizo women confirmed this when she told us that poverty is not having the possibility of working to sell her product. The Creole informants, in contrast, understand it as the loss of traditional values, having no options in life for development based on their own culture rather than an outside one, and no hope of being someone beneficial and useful in life.

Stereotypes condition poverty:
How they see me, how I see myself

The conditioners of poverty identified by the Creole women are linked to others’ prejudices and stereotypes. As Hooker explains: “It has to do with perceptions, with how those who see you perceive poverty and the context they put you in.”

The mere fact of having a different culture is a characteristic of poverty from the perspective of how others see us. Stereotyped ethnic distinctions, such as that we’re uneducated, lazy people with no job, who speak bad Spanish and only know how to dance, are conditioning elements of poverty. They call us poor because we have a “poor spirit,” believe in traditional healers and witchcraft, and believe production is governed by astronomy. The external perception of the culture determines the degree of poverty. “But I’m not as poor as they are,” jokes Cunningham.

Other prejudices about poverty are found in the generalized attitudes of the national-level government institutions: they don’t understand us because we don’t present our proposals, problems, plans and projects with a single voice; our universities and regional governments are poor because their educational philosophy responds to an autonomous regional vision based on the diverse cultures inhabiting the area…
Other frequently employed representations of how others see us are the multicultural knowledge in the region and the fact we belong to ethnic minorities, speak our own native tongues and have a different cultural behavior than the majority.

Hooker adds that poverty drags on if one has a poor soul. The poverty of the poor talked about worldwide comes from the spiritual emptiness individuals can feel at a certain moment in their life that results in stagnation and lack of hope for a better life. In this regard, the refuge of the poor is to have a contented soul, with hopes and dreams of a better life.

To be labeled “poor,” Creole women only have to embrace their ethnic identity, ancestral cultural values and respect for their way of living and cultural wellbeing. Others censure them as poor simply because they have another life style and customs and a different phenotype from the great majority of Nicaraguans.

Nonetheless, the more one’s self-esteem outweighs these negative stereotypes, the less room there is for the conditioning factors of poverty to prosper. This necessarily has to do with how deeply the traditional cultural values of Creole ethnic identity are rooted in the individual. On the one hand is the saying, “As they see you so will they treat you,” and on the other, “Be proud of who you are; black is beautiful.”

Poverty in Miskitu women’s own words

Asked which cultural values, when lost, most determine poverty, the Miskitu informants particularly mentioned the traditional indigenous value, “Together we have, together we do and together we share.” Poor people’s space for interaction thus depends on their knowledge and skills for practicing the cultural values that contribute to cultural and material wellbeing. It is the critical loss of such values, according to these Miskitu women, that causes the state of poverty, as synthesized in loss of identity, including spiritual identity, and a non-sharing culture.

During the interviews, the Miskitu women frequently reiterated that they don’t feel poor even though others consider them poor according to the UN focus on unmet material needs. Asked what gives them this fortitude and security and why they refuse to be catalogued as poor when the global parameters to measure poverty define them as such, the women responded that it’s because they have dignity, which they see as their greatest wealth and strength of identity, an inherent part of their ancestral cultural values.

The cosmogony of indigenous peoples and their relationship with the environment links poverty to production as well. This comment by Elizabeth Henríquez, former mayor of Bilwi, board member of the regional indigenous party Yatama and board president of the Association of Indigenous Women of the Atlantic Coast, sums up this idea: “Poverty is the lack of production according to custom, our vision as peoples.”

Cunningham described this phenomenon eloquently: “Insofar as you have a community that accepts your identity, it means you’re using your own production systems, your own value systems, your own systems of spiritual relations. It means you have more possibilities of being less poor. But if instead of giving you rice and beans they give you noodles, they aren’t using your systems, aren’t valuing them, aren’t using local products, such as orange leaf tea, so your identity isn’t being strengthened.”

And she adds another aspect, which links Miskitu values to age: “For Miskitus, poverty is a transitory element, tied to age. If you’re a minor, it’s acceptable and permissible to stray from traditional values.”

“Mental poverty is being conformist”

Poverty also has to do with mental barriers and the absence of a vision of the future. Anicia Matamoros, a 53-year-old Miskitu teacher, Moravian Church leader and director of the URACCAN-Bilwi Preparatory School, sees poverty as “something that doesn’t let us move forward. We don’t develop. We can have everything and still be poor. That’s what mental poverty is: a lack of vision, of aspirations of new ways of seeing things, a lack of dreams. It’s being conformist.”

Asked if some cultural values have greater weight than others in the self-perception of poverty, the Miskitu women answered that cultural identity is the most influential factor in their sense of poverty. Because it encompasses both individual and ethnic identity, it sows the basic values of solidarity, leaving very little space for poverty to emerge.

For Cunningham, a poor person is someone “who has no type of spiritual moral value,” which she defines as “mutual respect, a sense of collectivity and spiritual identity.” Poverty in Bilwi is represented by people who have lost their spirit, who have no chance to live in dignity because they live in an environment that doesn’t provide the conditions to be able to grow culturally, spiritually and materially, according to their own culture rather than an alien one. They are people with no hope of being someone in life.

Unequal opportunities

One of the causes of poverty is the assumption that because we’re Miskitus we must be poor, or that we have no right to education,” says Matamoros. “There are different conceptions of poverty: educational, economic and mental. [The mental conception is that] I’m poor and that’s it. But life is like a hill that you have to keep climbing, developing yourself.”

According to the Miskitu women, poverty involves abandoning individual and indigenous sentiments and identity and assuming the role others see them in and value in them. Personal feelings take a back seat because their self-esteem is low. For Henríquez, “the factors conditioning the poverty of Bilwi’s women are external dependence and isolation.” So it’s a question of avoiding assuming the role assigned to you by others who don’t know either your nature or your cosmovision.

Miskitus don’t relate to accumulation

In this study we’ve observed that, from the perspective of the Miskitu culture, the concept of wealth has a very different connotation than is generally held, especially among international cooperation agencies. Because Miskitus don’t relate to the concept of accumulation, they have no other vision of wealth than simply living according to their traditional values.

Jorge Fredricks, who was coordinator of the Nicaraguan Indigenous Movement when I interviewed him for a different study, offered this interesting profile of his own people: “Miskitus don’t see poverty, so it’s hard for them to improve the quality of their life. They have a mentality of passage, which doesn’t involve improving their quality of life or their social condition.”

While Lottie Cunningham, a Miskitu nurse, lawyer and director of the Center for Justice and Human Rights in Nicaragua, argues that Miskitu women “don’t feel poor because they have their own wealth [territory, culture, language],” she shares a concern that the indigenous communities “are leaving our culture and trying to adopt Western culture,” which is weakening them culturally.

She adds that quantifying the spaces provided for the professional development of Miskitus and Creoles would show that Miskitus haven’t had the chance to develop professionally in accord with their cosmovision; they haven’t been provided the same kind of space for ethnic development as the Creoles (due to the latter’s knowledge of English). She sees this as “precisely because the values inculcated into the Miskitus are of a more spiritual nature. The Miskitu cosmovision and idiosyncrasy form the basis of their spiritual philosophy, while for the Creoles it’s a combination of material and spiritual elements.”

Notwithstanding the differences experienced by the two cultures, stereotyped ethnic distinctions both in government circles and institutions and in private organizations revolve around the paternalistic view that both Miskitus and Creoles are like children.

The women’s criteria for measuring poverty

Neither the Creole nor the Miskitu women interviewed identified with indicators usually used to measure their living conditions from a Western perspective: income versus expenses, food (balanced diet), housing, education and health care. They don’t consider these elements pertinent to Bilwi’s particular situation because they don’t take into account the cultural values that help reduce and/or palliate poverty. In addition to defining poverty from their own perception, these women contributed important criteria for a discussion of new indicators for measuring poverty in Bilwi and the rest of the Caribbean region.

The indicators the Creole women are culturally willing to accept as representative are framed within the concepts of development with identity; opportunities for work, study and a social and political life; right to land and to work it in line with their cosmovision; and respect for their ancestral cultural values.

The Miskitu informants also have a clear perception of how international organizations measure poverty and have contributed elements for the construction of their own parameters to measure cultural poverty in Bilwi. For them, the representative indicators they are culturally willing to accept are framed within the following concept: how harmonic relations are in the community among family, community and environment. Damaging this harmony causes imbalance, which aggravates poverty.

They also include among their indicators the strength of their own identity. The concepts used up to now to measure poverty, according to the Miskitu women, become much more complex if one acknowledges that they must be based on indigenous people’s wisdom and cosmovision to generate development with cultural identity. For the Miskitu and Creole informants, the referential aspects in constructing indicators begin with the articulation of these elements of collective and individual identity: the right to land, organization and participation, development with identity, opportunities for work, study, and a social and political life.

There is thus a great distance between the indicators used internationally to measure poverty and those accepted by the women interviewed. Furthermore, for all the women from the study, these international indicators produce apathy rather than strengthening wellbeing and development, because they reflect a chaotic situation in which the women don’t feel represented.

The women’s view of wellbeing

The Creole women base their perception of wellbeing on the cultural moral values passed down through the generations, relating them to a quality of life that combines the following elements: material and spiritual solidarity, happiness, education with identity and spirituality. This cultural model is related to different states of emotion, such as happiness and pride of spiritual identity. They see living well and cultural wellbeing as being in harmony with the family and having spiritual peace and material satisfaction.

For the Miskitu women, wellbeing is the solidarity and family backing they receive from some family and/or community members that allows them to live well. It is also sharing and applying the knowledge and cultural values for individual and collective life. While they see this as a cultural right, it isn’t realized if the cultural values and knowledge aren’t passed on to the next generation. Those who have this education perceive such a process as normal and inherent to their life, i.e. the practice of solidarity is the normal thing.

The state of cultural wellbeing, however, isn’t usually an automatic process, nor is it guaranteed just because one is indigenous. It is achieved only if one lives according to the culture’s values and wisdom.

More cultural solidarity,
less economic poverty

Whether they are Moravian or Anglican, both Creole and Miskitu women understand the term wellbeing as spiritual peace, and solidarity as the connecting point between culture and Christian faith, the cultural and spiritual tool for combating poverty.

Sharing and taking on the difficulties and satisfactions of the nuclear, extended and communal families actually amounts to the struggle against poverty. And this cultural solidarity concerns everyone equally. It is the cultural power of those who have extended a friendly hand towards those in need to help them up. It is the chain that binds and unites the cultural identity of the family and community from generation to generation.

What is the cultural underpinning that explains the fabric that binds this solidarity process? And how are the different relations of power and dependence established, either by one or both of the parties?

It must be remembered first that Bilwi’s Creole and Miskitu women require solid economic and spiritual conditions, rooted in ancestral cultural values, that permit them to practice cultural solidarity; second that solidarity is not reduced to a merely economic relationship, but is an ancestral practice that combines the economic, social, mental and spiritual spheres; and finally, that solidarity is an option for dealing with poverty. From this perspective, relations of power and dependence affect the economic, cultural, mental and spiritual planes.

Considering that poverty is the result of a multidimensional process, the search for alternatives that contribute pertinent solutions must also be addressed from different viewpoints. No single alternative has the certainty of eliminating poverty because it depends on how society defines it, experiences it from within its culture and, particularly, how it deals with it.

Despite the evident influence of cultural values, there is still a clear set of unmet basic material needs among Bilwi’s Miskitu and Creole women. The study shows that the levels of economic poverty would be even greater without cultural solidarity, as observed in the case of some Miskitu domestic workers, who have inadequate income, no options and no opportunities. Cultural solidarity allows those who can and do have better living conditions—health care, education, housing, a different life style—to practice pana pana (Miskitu for mutual support) with those who don’t.

Carla María Bush is a Creole social anthropology student at the URACCAN. This text is based on her master’s thesis, “El saber y la riqueza: enfoque cultural de la pobreza por las mujeres creoles y miskitus de Bilwi” (Wisdom and wealth: a cultural approach to poverty by the Creole and Miskitu women of Bilwi), to be published by the university’s Center for Study and Research on Multiethnic Women (CEIMM).

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