Making gender equality a reality.

Dollar a Day 2008 Diary: Nicaragua

Posted on January 1, 2008 by Women Thrive

In February of 2008, Ritu Sharma Fox, President and Co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, traveled to Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, with Catalina Rojas, Director of Global Partnerships, and Nora O’Connell, Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs, to assess how U.S. assistance programs are (or are not) impacting women.

She spent one weekend of this trip trying to live on $1 a day (20 Nicaraguan Cordovas), much like millions of women and mothers all over the world, in the rural area of Terrabona in the Matagalpa state of Nicaragua. As she finds out, it is not easy even in rural Nicaragua.  Click here to see what she could buy with a dollar in the local market, and read her diary below.

Diary of Dollar a Day: Saturday, February 23 - Sunday, February 24, 2008

JUMP TO:  FEMUPROCAN: Empowering Women Through Agriculture  "Land is Everything": Lunch with FEMUPROCAN |  "Water is Key": Farming in Terrabona  Maria's House: Dinner and Sleep | Betilde: Living on Less Than a Dollar  |  Leticia: Hard Choices  |  The Market: What Can a Dollar Really Buy?  Final Thoughts


Saturday, February 23, 2008

6:30 AM – FEMUPROCAN: Empowering Women Through Agriculture

Our day starts bright and early in Managua, the capital.  I have brought the following provisions for my weekend:

  • 1 hand towel – which doubles as a shawl, hat, seat, pillow, or pillowcase, depending on the situation.
  • Bottled water
  • Hairbrush
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Notebook and pen
  • A thin plastic Radio Shack bag to carry it all in


    We are greeted by our colleagues from FEMUPROCAN, a women-run agricultural cooperative that helps women in poor rural regions grow and sell crops sustainably.  Our host is Maria Elsa, a FEMUPROCAN organizer for the Terrabona region in the Matagalpa state, one of the poorest rural regions where FEMUPROCAN works.

    We drive by car the 60 miles from Managua to the small town of Dario. At a Shell gas station, we board the ubiquitous retired Blue Bird school bus, turned Central American color mobile, and start off towards the small rural village of Cuajiniquil (Koo-AH-hee-nee-KEEL), where I am to see some of the members of the cooperative.

    The 16 km (10 and a half miles) bus ride alone costs 25 Cordovas: over a dollar.  This means that the poorest women must walk from their village home to Dario, a town where services are located. I suggest that we walk, but am quickly overruled by Maria Elsa, who says that the walk will take hours, the roads are dangerous and as Americans we would be likely targets for attack.


    12:30 PM - “Land is Everything”


    After a bumpy bus ride, we reach the home of Treminio Torres, a campesino (rancher) and friend of Maria Elsa’s, for lunch. Our extremely generous hosts have prepared a delicious meal of roasted goat, rice, tortillas, cabbage and tomatoes. I eat some of it, remembering that this meal would be impossible to do on a daily budget of $1.

    Our talk turns to women, and I hear over and over that there are two types of women in rural Nicaragua: those pulling themselves up and out of poverty and those who are still stuck.  With little industry here, the ticket for women is having access to land to grow vegetables and fruits. Women who don’t have access to land are not able to leave the house, and forced to survive off the income of their husbands, most of whom work as day laborers and give them little money to buy things for themselves or their children. Without economic opportunity, they are dependent on their husbands and have no means of escaping domestic violence, which we know, though no one discusses it, is a problem in the area. Without a way to earn an income, these women struggle to survive on 20 Cordovas a day – the equivalent of one U.S dollar – or even less.


    3:00 PM – "Water Is Key"



    We spend the day touring the farmed plots around Cuajiniquil and learn another fact: water is as important as land, especially in an area that is very dry and in the middle of a severe drought. Ground water is there to be had, but only those with the resources for building wells and irrigation are working (or growing, to be precise) their way out of poverty.

    At the farm of Claudia Martínez Gutiérrez, a FEMUPROCAN loan to dig a well and put in a very basic irrigation system has benefited her and her family tremendously: we see the most gorgeous round and tight tomatoes as well as beautiful long peppers growing in the little plots of land.

    The women tell us that they have produced a huge crop of tomatoes, but the price has become so low that they may actually lose money. They do not have even a basic storage facility, let alone one with refrigeration. 

    It struck me that if they could process and can these beautiful tomatoes, they could make the excess crops usable for local families as well as sell the product at a higher price than they could for raw tomatoes.

    One of FEMUPROCAN’s goals is to help women access international markets, so that they can sell their products abroad, earn more income, and lift their families out of poverty.  I ask Maria Elsa what is holding them back: she says that they simply don’t have the infrastructure, the knowledge of what to grow, how to market it, or the expertise in international customs to make it happen.

    I note to myself that this is EXACTLY what U.S. trade capacity building assistance is supposed to be for.  It’s a multi-billion dollar pool of money that is geared toward helping countries take advantage of trade with the U.S.  They need some of that here in Cuajiniquil.


    5:00 PM – Maria Elsa’s House


    We wrap up our visit to Cuajiniquil and take the bumpy bus ride back to Maria Elsa’s home in Terrabona. Her house is made of hard material and the roof of metallic sheets. In the back is a dirt patio where many dogs, pigs, hens, and roosters coexist in relative harmony. They seem to be competing for who can make the most noise. 

    We share a delicious plate of beans, eggs, and tortillas that Maria Elsa prepares for dinner. 
    Exhausted, I settle onto my metal bed, which was carried over from a neighbor’s house: it had no mattress, just a cardboard-thin pad on top of steel mesh. I hope no neighbor had to sleep on the floor tonight on account of me, and was very grateful not to be on the on the cement floor or in a hammock like most families in the area.


    Sunday February 24, 2008

    8:30 AM - Betilde del Salmeron Rojas


    Betilde has a husband and 5 children ages 23, 22, 19, 16 and 14. When she heard about FEMUPROCAN’s work organizing women, she became curious and began to attend meetings. Not long after she became a member of the cooperative.
    Betilde describes her typical day as “light.” I’ll let you be the judge of that: She wakes up at 5 am, lights the fire, prepares coffee, washes the corn, hand prepares tortillas, cooks breakfast for her family and packs food for those who work outside in the fields, cleans, washes the dishes and does the laundry. She then attends to her youngest children, feeds the family’s animals, and leaves lunch for the workers on her plots. THEN, she says she goes to “work.”  I’m not sure what all the previous activity is….

    Betilde does not own any land, but rents the plot she works on from a neighbor.  She lives on far less than 20 Cordovas a day. During the rainy season she has food for her family and is sometimes able to sell her surplus crops for income. In the dry season, however, she has almost nothing to eat or sell, and receives support from other FEMUPROCAN women, and from a government program called “Zero Hunger.” The assistance consists of 5 hens and a rooster, a cow, and a pig. This is helpful, but doesn’t fundamentally alter the poverty she is in.

    Click here to watch the conversation with Betilde.


    11:00 AM – Leticia Manzaranes Lanza



    Next we arrive at the house of Leticia Manzaranes Lanza, one of the founding members of FEMUPROCAN. Like Leticia, she lives on less than 20 Cordovas a day.

    Leticia’s typical day is one of hard work and hard choices. She wakes up at 4 am and fixes and eats breakfast. She must always choose between two essentials: Rice OR Beans? Tortillas OR oil?  She can rarely buy both. Next she feeds the animals, cleans the house and works with a day-laborer in her plot of vegetables. She goes to bed at 9 pm, and because her children are grown, she says she has fewer caretaking responsibilities than before. She smiles and tells me that Nicaraguan women are the first ones to wake up and the last ones to go to bed.

    Prior to FEMUPROCAN, Leticia tells us, most women were left out of cooperatives. 

    When FEMUPROCAN was founded many husbands resisted letting their wives become involved, a mentality she called “machista” (“sexist”). In fact, Leticia’s own husband left her because of her involvement in FEMUPROCAN. Nowadays she is thrilled to see young husbands encourage their wives to work at the cooperatives.

    "> Click here to view the interview with Leticia.


    2:00 PM – At the Market: What Can a Dollar Really Buy?

    That afternoon, we stop by an outdoor market on our way back to lunch in the town of Terrabona. We calculate the cost of our food and transportation and conclude that I have lived on a little over two dollars a day for the last two days. Still, I am curious to see how much a dollar could buy for women like Leticia and Betilde. This is what I am able to buy in the market:

  • 1 very fresh tortilla, hot off the pan—what one very poor person might eat for an entire day.
  • 400g of rice—enough for a family of six to have 1⁄2 cup of rice each
  • 1 500g bottle of purified water—1/6 of the amount a person needs in one day. Clean water is simply not possible for women like Leticia and Betilde.
  • 1 egg—enough for one person, splitting an egg in half is pretty pointless
  • 1 small piece of candy—with the 50 Centavos I had left over

That’s it. Not enough to meet one person’s daily nutritional needs, let alone a family of four, five or six.

I think about my two boys and how I could possibly feed them with 20 Cordovas a day. And this is just food: if medicine or clothing or bus fare are needed, women and their children will have to forgo food for a while.  It makes me feel pretty upset that this kind of poverty is still going on in our world.

7:00 PM -- Final Thoughts

Back in Managua I sit down to reflect on the last two days. So many things struck me about the experience.

The first is how critical it is that women living in poverty be organized into a group. Alone they cannot access credit, land, or help.  Together they support one another, empower one another, share with one another, and teach one another. 

The second is how tremendous the obstacles are that the women of Terrabona face. At first sight, many of the women we met didn’t fit the stereotypical image of a poor person: they were far from emaciated, had on clean clothes and beautiful clear skin. But as soon as we delved even a little into the details of their lives, we saw how extreme their poverty was. We saw that every day was a constant struggle to eat.



Watch videos of the Ritu's trip and browse her picture album! Click Here.

Picture Credits: Women Thrive Worldwide

Which leads me to my third reflection: how truly incredible FEMUPROCAN’s work is. They are taking women with almost no means and giving them the loans, training, and support they need to improve their lives. Even more importantly, they are doing it in a way that is sustainable, organic, and viable for their communities. It is so  vital that our international assistance support local groups like FEMUPROCAN, groups that know their communities and know what they are doing.

Finally, I was moved by how much women here help one another, giving each other things they grow, even if they themselves are surviving on very limited means. The eggs, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and maize for tortillas all come from their fields or in-house (literally in the house) chicken farms. It is the only way many families in extreme poverty survive.  Teach a woman to fish (or grow tomatoes or peppers or corn), and everyone really does eat.                                      Back to Top