A Tales of two Islands
The Bainbridge - Ometepe Sister Island Association in Nicaragua and the United States

By Gaëlle Sévenier, correspondent for The Review

Since 1986, Bainbridge Island, in Washington State, and Ometepe Island, on the Lake of Nicaragua, have had a sister relationship. The American island imports the organic coffee grown in the Nicaraguan island, and reinvests the profits in humanitarian projects on Ometepe.


Sunset on volcano Concepcion, Ometepe, Nicaragua

The Island of Ometepe is often called "the island of the circles or the spirals" due to the two magnificent volcanoes forming the island located in the middle of the Lake of Nicaragua. Bainbridge is also a small island in the State of Washington, with a similar population to that of Ometepe. In 1986, while the United States was supporting a civil war in Nicaragua and had a trade embargo in place, a hundred families in the American island of Bainbridge contributed $10 each for the cost of air fair for one person to travel to Nicaragua and begin a sister relationship between the two islands. "Bainbridge is one small island," explains Kim Esterberg, the founder of the association, "but we stand with our sister Ometepe, as an example to our human family of the hope that can prevail with an awareness of human suffering, social injustice and the great unfairness in distribution of resources." The hundred families are today an association: the Bainbridge - Ometepe Sister Island Association. Nancy Quitslung, one of the members, explains that the relationship is an example of how people in the world can "create understanding and foster respect, two key ingredients necessary for peace". "Our interaction", she says, "began with the idea that peoples from very different cultures could learn and grow through friendships with each other."

When the Americans first came to Ometepe, the Sandinista revolution had confiscated the farms from the rich owners who weren't using their land, and distributed them to the workers who had been used as slaves for centuries. At the time the association started, the workers were fighting the counter-revolution financed by the United States. At the beginning of the relationship, since the United States had placed an embargo in Nicaragua, the cooperatives in the island of Ometepe had piles of coffee they couldn't export. At the time, there was nothing their American sister island could do, but after the elections in 1990, when the United States managed to overthrow the Sandinist government and lifted the embargo, the sister association could finally help their partners -The farmers of Ometepe grow one of the best organic coffees in the world. However, they are not trained to export their agriculture abroad. In 1990, the people from Bainbridge managed to fly back from Ometepe with 3,200 pounds of coffee in approximately 15 suitcases. "We had some interesting responses from the customs, says David Mitchel, another member of the association, "but it was legal!" Back in the United States, they roasted the coffee, sold it, and the American costumers of the Washington State island really enjoyed its quality. "So we got brave and we said "we want all your coffee" explains David Mitchel. "In 1991, we brought 2,500 pounds of coffee. We didn't have the money so we borrowed $100 from 250 families, and we gave them back one pound of coffee as interest." For the last 13 years, Bainbridge has bought the coffee at fair trade prices so that the farmers in Ometepe can receive fair salaries. Every year, the organization makes about $30,000 of profit, which is all reinvested in projects for the Nicaraguan island.

With the money proceeding from the Café Oro of Ometepe now sold in the United States, Canada and Europe, the communities have built potable water systems around the volcano Madera. "Doctors came here and found out that the health problems came from the water" explains David Mitchel. "We built a water system each year for 8 years: the Nicaraguans did all the work, and our organization bought the pipes and the cement. It's a partnership and it is the kind of work we like to do best." Twenty eight classrooms, two small libraries, a community garden, a street kids project, midwife training, a playground, delivery of ambulances, school, sports and medical equipment… All of those benefits in the Ometepe Island come from the Bainbridge - Ometepe Sister Island Association. "We have projects all over the island" says David.

Since 1990, every year, the association brought high school students from Bainbridge to work on projects in Ometepe, practice their Spanish, and most of the time fall in love with the island. This year, 21 students came in April, and were split up in small groups into the different communities of the island for a better integration with the local communities. "I was a stranger," tells Colin Hill, a high school student who came to Ometepe, "a stranger whose country had hurt their people. Yet, I was welcomed into the family. In the short time we spent on Ometepe, I formed a bond with a land and people thousands of miles away. All of us delegates and everyone in my village cried when we had to leave. I have never seen people with such a warmth as these." As young people have this power to "naturally" bond with the locals, this cultural exchange benefits to everyone. Nearly everyone on the Nicaraguan island has heard about the Bainbridge - Ometepe Sister Island Association, just as much as everyone in Baibridge knows of Ometepe and its amazing organic coffee.

For Nancy Quitslund, "our brothers and sisters of Ometepe share wisdom, hospitality, whatever food they have, and an invaluable opportunity for us to learn from their way of life and sense of community. We share our caring and resources. We all get a gift of understanding and friendship. My hope is for 1,000,000 "sister islands" worldwide."

For more information on the Sister Island Association, write to BOSIA, PO Box 4484, Rollingbay, Washington, USA, come visit the office in Alta Gracia on Ometepe, Nicaragua or call 800-400-2233.


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