Let There Be Electricity

Early morning at Ramacafe estates in Matagapla, Nicaragua
Early morning at Ramacafe estates in Matagapla, Nicaragua

This is the third of three posts about the intersections between education and agriculture. The process of making a living and thriving through growing products intended for resale is exponentially enhanced if involved parties have secondary and post secondary education. Whether it’s a degree in agronomy, business, finance, or a proficiency in a second language, farmers with formal education are able to take quantum leaps that prove near impossible for farmers without formal education.

There are plenty of examples of successful farmers who left school at elementary age, but in those cases farmers have done something extraordinarily innovative (or just gotten lucky enough) to compensate for their absence of formal study. Farmers sans degrees might have successful businesses and infinite respect, but they are usually also working alongside people who do have such formal education backgrounds.

Farmers who have bested the cogs of the commodity market, carved new markets, or launched unprecedented enterprises have to know how to budget, communicate with international buyers, and navigate trade. These skills can’t happen without skills acquired through time in the classroom.

Knowing how to coax something amazing from the loins of nature is a talent most certainly not learned in school, but the process of commercializing that one-of-a-kind is most certainly enhanced by the stuff you do learn from books. Access to those benefits of formal education is not quite as equitable as it could be.

Access to education means access to trained educators and quality materials, but the ability to make education work is dependent on two social factors: electricity and societal permissions of solitude.

At the onset of my travels for “When Coffee Speaks” I was planning to spend months just immersed in doing, spending full days working and living the coffee life. I quickly realized that if I had any hopes of maintaining the kind of notes that permit book writing, I would have to balance my time in the mountains with time in the city. When I stayed with rural farming families there was little opportunity for me to even hand write notes because light bulbs and personal space are not regular parts of daily societal life.

As I realized that getting work done would mean monopolizing the one lit room, draining flashlight batteries, swatting away bugs from the bare bulb, or keeping a light on that was keeping someone else awake the next room over (most walls in rural Latin America don’t reach the ceiling), I realized that I would simply have to get less “work” done while doing the work of rising early and getting out into the coffee fields.

I decided that my writing work would have to be reserved for time spent alone in cities, because trying to do it while staying in the mountains with farming families would also mean excusing myself from the conversation and going to sit in a room alone, which is not something people often do in many of the places I visited. I could get away with it occasionally because I’m a foreigner and any odd habits I have could be excusable under that explanation. I realized that I simply could not get academic work done in environments that were designed for agriculture (early nights, earlier mornings, always working collectively as to not strand anyone with an overwhelming task), so I structured my schedule to include time in towns and cities where I could spend some time in hostels (and even a few hotels!) with internet, electricity, and space where I could sit and work for hours on end without offending anyone.

Discovering that the physical environments and cultural expectations surrounding agriculture-centric lifestyles are not conducive to paperwork reminded me why it is so hard for people who’s lives are centered around agriculture to transition into doing all the tasks associated with “graduating” to the symbiotic sphere where farming and education mutually supporting each other: where would that transition happen?

The hard truth is that it is extremely difficult to spend a full day farming and then nit-pick your budget if you don’t have electricity. Without fake sun, the number of hours you can literally see well enough are significantly diminished. Even with electricity, a house with one bulb will probably devote that precious set up to cooking or socializing—activities everyone benefits from collectively. To do school work you need a school, but to do school-like work when you’re in a non-school setting, you need the same basic environmental support of enough light to read, write, and calculate by. And it isn’t free.

The other academic work permitting component is free, but it is far from easy to get. There is a reason people like to do work in quiet libraries: there we can hear ourselves think. Have you ever tried to run a cost benefit analysis while surrounded by screaming children and barking dogs? It’s not easy nor is it likely to yield one’s best work. In lots of agricultural cultures, the collective society is not very understanding of wanting alone time. People want to be close to family members; sleeping in the same room, working side by side, and passing children around from lap to lap at meal times is the expected norm.

When I described the way lots of New Yorkers live alone in apartments or with roommates they aren’t particularly close with, my hosts shook their heads in dismay. “How terrible. You can come move in with us if you want; no one should have to live like that.” Being by oneself is societally synonymous with lacking—and therefore being in cultural need of—company. But, usually our deepest thinking comes from solitude. Of course communal brainstorming is great and many heads are better than one for creative problem solving and motivation, but to work through and wrestle with university level academics or the kinds of tedious record keeping that yields the most lucrative businesses, you need to have time and space to work alone.

I personally experienced how much of a struggle it was to literally find enough light to see by and enough quiet to think in. Part of the reason that education can’t take root over night and can take time to transform a society is that the physical and cultural infrastructure that makes learning possible takes time to implement.

For education and agriculture to mutually support each other in even more households, simple things like electricity and personal space have to be a part of both the agriculture and the education. When we bathe objects in light and space (think museums) we communicate their value. When we give people’s jobs light and space (think corner offices) we also communicate their value. When we begin to value agriculture as much as we value education, we can start to give both activities the light and space they deserve, and both endeavors will be all the richer for it.


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