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Lessons Learned on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Chris Brunner, August 22, 2014

OHV Tream in El Corozal

OHV Team on rounds with Dr. Sandra at El Corozal community clinic. Pictured L-R: Tom Jeffreys (TAMU); Ariel Loredo (UCD); Analise Rivero (UCD); Dr. Cheryl Scott (UCD); Dr. Sandra (Nicaragua); Ashton Richardson (TAMU); Sylvia Tangney (UCD); Christina Babu (TAMU)

For one month a team of students and faculty started their days at sunrise, poured sweat, cried tears, laughed often, and stayed up late for rounds and more planning sessions. They spent many days at community health clinics, coordinated Health Fairs in two villages, built chicken nesting boxes, planted small sustainable gardens in communities, and helped initiate a Kids Café.

The One Healthy Village at a Time (OHV) project consisted of faculty and students from the University of California at Davis, and Texas A&M University. Their fields of study include veterinary medicine, human medicine, public health, economics, epidemiology and ecology.

The eight week rotation started with two weeks of pre-trip training at UC Davis that included classes in food animal husbandry, team-building, and cultural sensitivity rounds. This was followed by two weeks at Texas A&M, College Station, where the team participated in human medicine and public health classes. All of this was in preparation for the four week “boots on the ground” rotation on the Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua.

There, on the island, in rural farming and fishing villages, the team worked side by side, from the ground up, with community leaders, physicians, teachers and families to improve the health of people and animals from the perspective that all things – human, animals, and the environment, are connected.

Ongoing discussion and thinking sessions by the team about the OHV mission produced some insightful thoughts about food, food safety, nutrition and health. It gets complex when visiting another country and attempting to impart lessons about nutrition and balanced diets, food safety and public health. As the teams’ daily diet shrank from a western diet with multiple, nutritious options, to the limited diet of families living on the island, what the team learned about life on Ometepe, is that every day is spent thinking about food and where it will come from. For parents, the biggest challenge of the day is finding food for the family’s nightly meal. The choices are simple for Ometepe families; it is fish from the lake, plantains and fruit when in season, a chicken from the yard, or an egg if you can find one.

The team agreed it was not their place to arrive as outsiders and thrust their western nutritional and food safety standards onto their hosts. While we might believe that kale and quinoa are healthy choices for our dinners in the USA, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these foods would be preferred or available for Ometepe families. Instead, the question became not “How can we make them eat healthier food”, but “How can we help make the food they already have healthier?”

Instead of coming in with fancy tests, expensive remedies and unattainable standards, the OHV team decided that they would work from the ground up, working with the food and preferences that already exist. The team observed that milk is consumed immediately after milking, eggs are found in random locations on the ground, and chickens from the yard are prepared for the day’s dinner. Food safety standards have to be viewed differently on Ometepe because food goes straight from the yard to the table.


A typical Ometepe hen and her brood

As the team began to adapt to life on Ometepe, the project’s goals evolved to include teaching techniques to prevent mastitis to make the milk healthier, and helping families resolve the issue of spending time hunting for eggs in random locations by building nest boxes. Also, in order to encourage sustainable gardening, the team worked with community members to design and implement small fenced produce plots where the products will be used for a Kids Café.

Family inspecting their garden in Ometepe

Augustine, with wife and children, inspect the new raised vegetable garden.

Dr. Cheryl Scott, veterinarian at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFSS), and an OHV faculty team leader, gives an example of how one family connected the dots between the health of their animals, their family and the ecosystem they all live in. At Augustine’s smallholding, the team helped him, his wife, and two small children, build a raised, fenced garden to keep animal waste out of the garden. Chicken nesting boxes were built to be utilized for hens to lay their eggs in a protected environment, sheltered against predators, and not randomly laid on the ground. In addition, the team introduced easy ways of cleaning the teats of the cow to help prevent mastitis and lead to less contaminated milk.

Dr. Scott said, “Our hope is that Augustine’s family now has choices for healthier milk; produce with less contamination and eggs that are safe and in one spot.”

Describing some memorable teaching moments, Scott said, “We shared lessons about dental health, hygiene, and healthy food with the kids, played soccer and other games, and left with some incredible bonds and tons of optimism.”

OHV team members have returned to classes and life at UC Davis and TAMU. During the four weeks they spent on the Isla de Ometepe they achieved the goals of Phase One of the project to collect data, deliver childhood education, and provide service to humans and animals. The project looks forward to returning often to the island when they will continue to help the villagers to work toward a sustainable food supply.

Dr. Bennie Osburn, Director of Outreach at WIFSS sums the project up as, “A perfect opportunity to not only assist families on Ometepe with increased animal health and food productivity, but ultimately begin to tackle poverty.”

Team members share their memories of Ometepe in the Journal.