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Bonnie St. John

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Searching For "She-roes" in Nicaragua

Posted: 12/09/09 03:30 PM ET

Through the eyes of Darcy (15 yrs old):

Yesterday was life-changing. I could write a book about this one part of my visit to Nicaragua, so describing it in a few paragraphs is going to be a challenge. I'll start at the beginning. The main reason for our visit to Nicaragua: to interview a woman for the book my mom and I are writing together. The book, "How Strong Women Lead," which will come out in 2011, will feature women of all backgrounds - famous, unheard of, and everything in-between- who are leaders of their community or even the known world! We have already interviewed the President of Liberia and are setting up interviews with the Chairman of Deloitte and the CEO of Eileen Fisher Clothing (namely, Eileen Fisher).

The woman we wanted to interview in Nicaragua is Noemi Vivas Ocana who promised to be a shining example of how women lead everywhere, at all levels. She had received a micro-finance loan through Opportunity International when her life was on the edge and now she worked full time empowering other women to improve their lives. Opportunity International had graciously agreed to introduce us and help us meet and interview her co-workers and family to get the full story.

We took a taxi from Granada (where we were staying) to Managua where we met up with the rest of gang before heading down to Masachapa. The cast of characters:

Veronique - our professional photographer, with beautiful, curly black hair as thick as her French accent.

Raquel - our Spanish translator. We would have been completely lost not only without her translations, but her warmth and wisdom, as well. Ruth - an Opportunity International employee from Chicago who took far more notes as we went along than even I did.

Although most of us were complete strangers to one another at the start, by the end of the day we were closer than some become in a lifetime.

The road from Managua to San Rafael carved up a mountain covered in rainforest, the twists of turns of which almost made me sick before we reached the village. Once we got there, we interviewed Noemi for an hour to get a sense of her history and life story.

Noemi grew up in the rural, sea-side village of Masachapa, selling fish and jewelry as a child to support her eight other siblings while looking after them and attending school as well. She had funded her school fees out of her own earnings and often had to take a sibling or two with her to school rather than miss out. Her passion for learning earned her a scholarship to complete high school and a certification that landed her a good government job. But 14 years later when her job was eliminated, she could find no other job to support her three children. She found herself right back where she was as a school girl: selling fish and homemade jewelry to tourists for survival. Living in one of the poorest countries in the world, education sometimes is still no defense against poverty.

In 1998, she received a micro-finance loan from Opportunity International that helped her grow her small business. Moving up from fish to selling shrimp was a boost to her income. Another loan allowed her to buy a freezer and have more quantity to sell with no waste. Gradually, through a series of loans, she worked her way up to a better life.

Noemi was named by her peers as the Treasurer and then President of her "Trust group"--the group of women who support one another with their businesses and loans. Soon she was asked to become a loan officer and help multiple Trust Groups. Now she works as the head of the regional office for Opportunity International overseeing the 17 or so loan officers who support and empower over 1200 women working to support their families.

We broke for lunch--although I abstained, as my stomach still hadn't recovered from the ride up. Afterwards, we continued on in our team van to one of the "trust groups" that Noemi oversees in the nearby village of Masachapa. These are groups of around 20 women who meet on a weekly basis to support each other as mothers, women, business owners, and Christians, in addition to just making loan repayments. It was truly inspirational to see these women of one of the poorest countries in the world coming together to take care of each other and their community.

We also got to see some sharks in a cooler, a couple of guys riding in the back of an open trunk, a lady with a very whiskery chin (but not quite a goatee), and half a dozen stray dogs. What stuck with me the most, however, was when Noemi's daughter burst into tears trying to
describe how much she admires her mother. We interviewed two of her four daughters on the front porch of their house. With Noemi's adopted 3-year-old - who possessed one of the cutest smiles known to man -running around with a teddy bear in hand as Veronique snapped dozens of pictures of her, Rachel humorously translated the girls' responses to our questions about life with their mother, different aspects of leadership, and their ambitions for the future.

The whole experience, however, became its sweetest when we interviewed Noemi for the last time back at her office in San Rafael. By then, I think, the whole gang had become much more comfortable with each other, and everyone had a question of their own for Noemi. It was difficult to end the interview, with the flow of conversation barely halted by the language barrier. Not only were Noemi's answers unique and full of wisdom, but her eyes penetrating and sincere as she spoke. She is motivated by creating a deeper connection between human beings than most people are even aware exists. I don't think I'll be able to resist sharing some of what she imparted to us with teachers and classmates when I return to school on Monday. I wish more of my classmates shared Noemi's passion for education, spirituality, and improving the life of others.

 
 
 

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