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Meaningful Impact from a Service Learning Trip

By John Bowman -- I came into this weeklong internship questioning whether I could make a meaningful impact. I was short on time, with only a single week allotted by Duke University for spring break, and short on relevant experience or expertise, despite my fascination with solar energy and international development. Furthermore, I spoke minimal Spanish and absolutely no Creole English. My interest in solar energy and its role in economic empowerment stemmed from a two-week internship with a social business in Guatemala. The company sources small solar-powered devices to rural communities, and I was interested to see how a nonprofit’s approach to solar power differed from that of a business.

My experience began with a tour of Bluefields. I slurped a tamarindo, a juice made from a locally grown fruit, from a plastic bag while exploring Bluefields’ many barrios, or neighborhoods, visiting its pier, and wandering through a local market replete with fruits and plants with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Following the tour I attended a distinctly Nicaraguan baseball game with blueEnergy’s staff that pitted “The Coast”—the Caribbean coast’s only baseball team—against one of its many Pacific rivals. The atmosphere was electric; fans cheered loudly only a few meters from the players while reggae music blared. The game concluded in thrilling but disappointing fashion, with the crowd chanting “Si se puede” as the Coast’s star player hit a slew of foul balls at the bottom of the ninth, with loaded bases, two outs, and a full count before grounding out. The next day I trekked to a finca, a small farm in the middle of Nicaraguan jungle, hefting a sack of compost through the jungle while enjoying scenic views of the surrounding forest.

I spent the first half of my week learning both about blueEnergy and about solar power in general. I learned about how blueEnergy marries praxis and policy to deliver renewable energy and clean water to Nicaragua’s poor, collaborating with a conglomerate of renewable energy providers to push for policy reform while implementing its own solar systems in rural communities. Part of the hope of installing solar panels, as I learned, is that the implementation of this very modern technology will in fact preserve the traditional family unit and agricultural lifestyle. The light provided by the solar panels will allow children to study at the rural homes of their parents instead of being forced to remain in cities in order to have access to the electricity necessary to do their homework. I spent several hours in the workshop preparing for the installation by constructing a battery box, painting it, and attempting to master the basics of solar power in preparation for the installation that would take place later in the week.

The day of the installation, I left in the morning with two other blueEnergy volunteers, taking with us a pair of boxes full of supplies, a toolbox, a pair of solar panels, and a heavy battery. After arriving in Kukra Hill, a town near the home where the installation would take place, we boarded a bus that took our supplies and us directly to the home. There the elderly couple that owned the home and a menagerie of animals greeted us. The house was a model of sustainable development, already sporting a biodigester and a compost bin, and the couple were gracious hosts, cooking us meals while we worked, telling us stories in Creole while we ate, helping us whenever given the chance, and letting us spend the night in their home after the installation was finished. Though my inability to speak Creole limited the extent to which I could interact with the family, I left the installation with a deeper understanding of blueEnergy’s work. It had been one thing to learn about blueEnergy’s general approach to sustainable development, about how solar panels work and how to strip wires, but meeting the family put a human face to sustainable development. Having witnessed their hospitality and excitement to have light, I could appreciate the impact of blueEnergy on a different level.

John (center) with family in Rocky Point

So at the end of one week, I do feel like an impact has been made. But while I consider the installation of the solar panel a substantial part of the impact of this week, the more meaningful impact had been the impact of Nicaragua and blueEnergy on me. I experienced the culture of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast in ways that the typical scuba diving, beach-going tourist would not. I sampled local cuisine made from scratch by two local women (affectionately dubbed “the mamas” by blueEnergy staff) and visited a museum housing relics of Bluefields’ past, including the throne of a Rama King. I experienced the finca and reveled in the baseball game. I picked up some more Spanish and learned just a “likky” bit of Creole. More important than the cultural experience, I gained a greater appreciation for blueEnergy’s work by learning about the organization and meeting both the people who do its work and for whom its work is done. Most importantly, working with blueEnergy inspired me and challenged me to continue to think critically about sustainable development and to continue to seek out experiences in the developing world like this one.

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