Have you ever wondered if your own unique talents and abilities have something to offer to others. Most people have a desire at some point in their lives to “give something back” in service to there fellow man. The following is my personal foray out of my comfort zone and complacency and into a profoundly meaningful adventure for myself and my family.
In February of 2007 I traveled to Central America’s Nicaragua, where I taught blacksmithing for a week at a recently created vocational school. For several years my wife and I had considered organizing a blacksmithing related mission trip. I felt it was an interesting concept to share my passion for the benefit of those less fortunate than myself. I always joke that my businesses consists of making stuff for rich people that they don’t really need. One of the things that first attracted me to blacksmithing was the fact that you could make such a vast array of tools, hardware and utensils with a few very simple tools. The traditional blacksmith up to the industrial revolution was an integral part of virtually every society. Today a blacksmith is viewed as a curious oddity with little practical relevance.
But I digress…so part of me yearns for the days of yesteryear when my chosen profession was a key component to the everyday lives of local culture. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy making high end, unique forge work for my well to do clientele. I guess I just felt that there was a component of my trade that was missing.
I started teaching weekend blacksmithing courses a few years ago and discovered that I really enjoyed teaching. During this time my wife Ang, felt a calling to serve in the missions. In September of 2005, she stumbled across a posting from Mike Diebert on the Internet. Mike called himself a missionary/blacksmith, and he was looking for help to set up a vocational school in Nicaragua. This school would teach local young men practical skills such as woodworking, mechanics, welding and, of course, blacksmithing. They began a dialogue and shortly thereafter Mike invited us to come teach at the school. We jumped at the opportunity. We then approached our church for sponsorship with the idea of taking a small team with us. I would teach, and the rest would take part in other related service projects in the community. The idea was well received and we soon had a seven-person team consisting of myself and my wife, our two teenage children Erik and Brittany, our niece Jessica, and Tom, a teenager who had worked at my shop for several years. Rounding out the crew was Mary, who had recently retired and was eager to explore the mission field. Since both Erik and Tom had extensive shop experience, it was decided that they would assist Mike and I at the vocational school ,while the ladies served at the local school teaching bible school and also assisting at local feeding centers. We determined a 9 day trip was feasible, worked out our costs and got started.
What followed was 18 months of planning and fundraising. This turned out to be a very extensive and complex process. Many people devoted countless hours to the various fundraising activities and Ang literally spent hundreds of hours planning and preparing all the details of the trip. It should be noted that mission trips of this type are not for the lazy or for procrastinators. We were not headed for an all-inclusive 5 star resort to lie on the beach. Despite the fact that we worked through a mission trip organization, this turned out to be largely a do it yourself tailor made adventure. The effort and commitment we needed to prepare for the trip was an excellent training period for the actual trip itself, and it strengthened our resolve to do our best. Our fundraising efforts were met by an enthusiastic response from our local community (and beyond), which made our efforts feel worthwhile. During this time the seven of us became a solid team with a clear conception of our individual purpose in the project. By the time February came around we were ready.
Before I tell you about the trip I will give you a quick history lesson on Nicaragua to better your understanding of the culture and situation of the Nicaraguan people. This will provide a backdrop for the need of vocational schools such as Mike’s.
Nicaragua’s history for the past 200 years consists mainly of series of heavy-handed dictators intent on exploiting and suppressing the common man. Coupled with this, the years of Marxist-Leninist socialism, have removed the concept of working for a better future. Rising above the status quo through education, hard work or self-improvement is not recognized or rewarded. These people are extremely poor and for them the future means the next 24 hours. Hence, they do not plan for a better future. Food is a very integral part of Nicaraguan culture. Despite extreme poverty, we saw little evidence of starvation. They focus on the moment; they spend what money they have on food. Unfortunately a fair share of that money is also spent on junk food and booze. Alcoholism is a huge problem in Nicaragua, especially among the men. This is perhaps a result of living in the moment combined with low self-esteem from generations of oppression. The common man feels emasculated by his inability to make a difference or even provide adequately for his family. Turning to alcohol to escape the pain, he ignores his family and community obligations, perpetuating a vicious cycle of generation after generation of broken homes, with children being raised primarily by single mothers. Because of the intensity and duration of the civil war in the 1980’s, there is also a noticeable shortage of a whole generation of men. I saw very few men of my (and Mike’s) age while in Nicaragua. This makes Mike’s ministry all the more profound. Few of the young men he teaches have fathers or positive male role models in their everyday lives. Now, Mike is an imposing character. At 6’2” and about 250 pounds, he dwarfs the local population. With his shaved head and Harley Davidson T-shirts, he looks more like a bouncer than a missionary. But he is gentle and soft spoken. His “muchachos” respect his knowledge, skill and sense of humor. He says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care”. Nicaraguan students are not known for their discipline, but Mike’s genuine passion and compassion for these young men made them eager students. He is a powerful male role model and father figure, so lacking in their lives. Providing this character for these young men is perhaps even more important than the skills that he is teaching.
The purpose of his vocational project, ESVO, is to teach practical skills which can be readily utilized by his students in their communities. Some of his challenges and frustrations include the tendency of “Nicas” to make things as cheaply as possible with little care or pride for their workmanship, rarely thinking outside the box. When you first go to the market you find yourself captivated by all the wonderful handmade merchandise. But as you go from stall to stall you begin to realize that they all contain the same things with very little variation in style and design. Original thinking and unique design are very rare concepts.
In Latin America, every door and window contains security bars. The vast majority of these grills are crudely constructed with little thought for aesthetics. Rebar and angle iron abound. I was constantly horrified by this callous, indifferent approach to ironwork. Mike told me that he cringed at it on a daily basis. We both understand nevertheless, that the need for security is the paramount concern for this grillwork, and fancy high-end forge work is not in most people’s budget. However, there are an increasing amount of people there with the money and desire for better quality and design. The market does exist, but there are few craftsmen there to supply it.
Six months before our actual trip, in the summer of 2006. Mike Diebert came to visit Ang and I at our home. Mike is from Ohio and spends part of his summer there every year with his family. In fact if there was a bridge over Lake Erie, he would only be a few hours away from us. He came and spent a few days at the shop with me where we worked on a few projects. This was a great way to get to know each other and gave us a good amount of time to develop a curriculum for my week in Nicaragua. We worked on ideas that highlighted my strengths and his weaknesses in blacksmithing as I was teaching him as well as his students. We also wanted to work on practical techniques for their community, using the tooling and resources available. We decided that building a gate embodied all these requirements and could be completed within my week at the school. During our preparations I collected and made tooling to send ahead of us to Nicaragua. My business suppliers, students, fellow blacksmiths and OABA members were very generous with their skills and resources.
Erik, Tom and I spent a Saturday forging 15 pairs of tongs. I approached different tradesmen I knew, machinists, welders, electricians etc. and asked them to build different components of a knife grinder from scratch. It was very exciting to see a knife grinder built by 10 different guys. The end result was a sturdy and versatile tool that would normally cost in excess of $2000.00. Various other tools were donated such as an anvil, hand crank blower, vises, tongs, swage blocks, hammers, punches etc. We carried many of these items with us on the plane which maxed out our luggage allowances, as well as making us nervous going through customs. To the general public, many of our handmade tools would look to be medieval torture equipment. Luckily, none of the non English speaking officials gave us or our luggage a second glance. At long last Friday February 9th arrived and we landed in early evening in Managua the Capital of Nicaragua. It was 20 below when we left Ontario and stepping out of the airport we were greeted with a humid 30degrees Celsius. We spent Saturday and Sunday touring the breathtaking countryside and meeting people who were participating in the various mission projects that we as a team would be involved with.
Nicaragua’s landscape is very rugged with a lot of lush vegetation. It seems everywhere you turn, you can spot at least one volcano. Although this was a busy working “vacation” we did allow 2 days at the beginning and one day at the end of sightseeing. And this we did with a vengeance….. We toured the oldest European city in the western hemisphere, boated and zip lined through the jungle, toured a coffee plantation, hiked on top of an active volcano and surfed (or at least tried to surf) All this stuff would have been common of a typical vacation, but we went to Nicaragua for a very specific purpose.
On Monday morning Mike drove us to Lighthouse Christian School, which also housed his project ESVO, the vocational school. After touring the elementary school with our entire team (this is where the female component of our team would spend some of their time serving) we were introduced to the vocational students. For me personally this was very intimidating. This was the reason why I was there. For a year and a half we had planned for this. Many, many people had contributed their time money and energy to put me right here. Now I was to teach them something useful to empower them to improve their lives. At that moment I felt my team, those students before me and all the people who had contributed to this little venture were all focused directly on me. Holy cow, talk about performance anxiety. This moment of terror quickly passed when I saw that Mike’s students seemed more nervous than I was. During this awkward moment Tom, Erik and I slapped our thrift shop suitcases full of tools onto the school layout table. Like Miami drug lords we snapped open our suitcases and began unloading piles of tongs, hammers and hardy tools. I asked Mike to light a forge so I could demonstrate. Mike began giving instructions in Spanish and very quickly his students began scurrying about the shop and soon the charcoal forge was ready to go. I grabbed a hammer and a piece of steel and began forging. I started forging hooks. This is comfort food for me, its what I started my career with at the Forge and Anvil, what I spent 10 years doing for Kootenay Forge and one of my first things I teach in my basic course, so forging little coat hooks was a logical starting point for me. I was feeling out of my tooling,(especially the forge) as well as Mike’s students.
Coal or at least smithing coal is not available in Nicaragua. The fuel of choice (the only choice) is charcoal. Luckily I had a little experience forging with charcoal when I hosted a Japanese Sword smithing demonstration at my shop a few years back. After watching and sometimes participating with the sword smith for a week, it gave me a slight understanding of charcoal. For one thing, you get burned a lot with charcoal because of the sparks constantly jumping out of the fire. Also the charcoal is very light and can be blown out of the forge pot quite easily. It also burns up a lot faster than coal so you are constantly adding more. Despite these differences, it was business as usual. Once I began forging I felt in my element and back in control.
Before the trip, I had spent over a year on a valiant daily ritual of learning the Spanish language. I listened to CD’s and made up flash cards, which I used nightly in hopes of mastering Spanish. By the time the trip arrived I despaired in my abysmal failure to learn the language. Thankfully I came to realize that my year of diligent effort had given me at least a smattering of Spanish and when combined with gestures and demonstrations, I was able to make myself understood. This was fortunate, as I found Mike was very often unavailable to interpret for me and it was necessary to make my point clear all by myself.
The “muchachos” as I referred to the students as were very patient and eager to assist me in learning Spanish. In any event as I began demonstrating and then asking the students to emulate my demonstrations, I fell into familiar territory, teaching blacksmithing.
Very soon I developed a rapport with them, assessed their abilities and got to work.
My curriculum, as I have previously alluded to was to build a gate, so as to teach them practical, applicable techniques for their community.When we arrived in Nicaragua, I was asked if we could design and build a security entrance for a soon to be opened Niamiah center. On the Sunday before I began teaching, Eric and Marilyn Loftsguard gave us a tour of this facility and explained its purpose and mission statement. Eric was the coordinator of this project, essentially a multi-denominational Christian organization to act as a resource and training center for indigenous pastors in Nicaragua. Both Eric and his wife Marilyn are very intellectual and articulate people. They delivered to me a mission statement so intense and passionate that I felt compelled to create a front entrance worthy of their personal conviction. That Sunday afternoon, lying on the beach of the Pacific Ocean after an exhausting failed attempt to master surfing, I began to design. Eric’s physical criteria were for an iron security grill within a wooden doorframe with a very colonial Spanish feel. It should be noted Eric was an architect before entering the mission field. Anyway as I lay on the beach I wrestled with how to create a design, which satisfied all the physical and esthetic requirements, which could also be made with the limited tooling time and materials at hand. There were a lot of variables to work with, and for me at least it was a sink or swim situation. I believe art thrives on adversity and necessity is the mother of invention and all that, but this wasn’t too shabby a setting to face my adversity as my family and friends frolicked and laughed in the warm tropical Pacific. This is, in fact an excellent atmosphere to cope with stress. Soon I had a concept, which I sketched out full size into the sand. Not a very portable sketchbook but it served its purpose quite nicely.
So the remainder of Monday morning was spent demonstrating tongs. At lunch, Mike and I drove back to the city to purchase steel for our grill. After the typical death- defying, hair- raising, roller coaster ride through the streets dodging traffic, open manholes, malnourished dogs and fearless pedestrians, we arrived at a small one-room building. Inside it was literally crammed to the rafters with racks of steel in various sizes and cross sections. Unfortunately most of my favorite sizes were not available. So I had to do a lot of improvising on the spot to come up with suitable stock for our project. As I jumped from pile to pile, hunting for appropriate materials, Mike quizzed the workers on whether they had such and such a size. This elicited the usual response of si si (we have that). Then Mike would challenge them only to discover that they did not in fact have that size. This is a typical cultural idiosyncrasy of the Nicaraguan people especially in the business place. They answer in the affirmative to almost every inquiry, as they are eager to please and loathe to disappoint. It is a frustrating habit however, as it makes getting accurate information a laborious process asking the same question repeatedly. Another thing I noticed in the business place is that they had at least triple the employees we North Americans would employ in a similar situation. Labor is cheap, so they share the workload. Anyhow after Mike and I found the appropriate steel, the army of workers dragged the 20ft lengths out onto the sidewalk and took turns hack sawing them into 7ft lengths so they’d fit into Mikes Land Rover. I truly enjoyed this experience and found it highly entertaining.
The next several days were spent with me demonstrating, followed by the “muchachos” forging up the various components for our grill. During this time Erik and Tom stayed busy working on various shop improvement projects as well as assisting the students cutting charcoal and forging components. Despite the fact they could not speak each others language at all, they soon developed an easy rapport. Erik and Tom were the same age as most of the “muchachos” and were at about the same level of training on the forge.They saw each other as peers. They worked, played, horsed around like teenage boys everywhere transcending all cultural and language barriers. Every day was noisy, sweaty, dirty, laughter filled chaos. We all had the time of our lives. Myself, I finished each school day completely exhausted but at the same time exhilarated.
The school had 3 charcoal forges with hand crank blowers and 6 anvils of various sizes and conditions. This allowed 6 students to work comfortably at anyone time, this was the theory at least. I found often times they worked in pairs with one guy cranking the bellows, the other hammering then switching and sharing the same anvil and same side of the forge. Sometimes I would see up to three guys working on the same anvil at the very same time, each finding enough space to work. After a few attempts to spread them out, I gave up. They seemed happier working in each others space. Mike explained that they spend their lives in such close proximity that they have no concept of personal space. As the week progressed, the grill fell into place right on schedule. This surprised me greatly as I assumed that with all the variables and unforeseen obstacles of working in a 3rd world country that Murphy’s Law would apply with a vengeance. However, other than a few temporary power outages, the aggravation of sharing one electrical receptacle with 12 people using various power tools and annoyance of welding “stick” when I’ve been spoiled by 20 years of M.I.G welding, everything went as smooth as silk.
The “Muchachos” were eager students and followed my instructions to the best of their abilities. The grill utilized splitting and drifting, various decorative twists, forged leaves, collaring, scroll work and some chiseled detailing. Many of these techniques were new to Mike and his students. Mike had no prior experience with railings or gates so he and I talked a lot on that subject. As a lot of the potential local work for blacksmiths would be in this area, this is what we focused on. By Friday the grill had been ground and painted so we spent our last hours at the school with a striking competition. We broke up into 4 teams of 3 and went to it. This was a very awkward but hilarious exercise, which ended in a 3 way tie. It was a great way to end the week and everyone sadly said their goodbyes with many requests for us to return in the future.
I am continuing to work with Mike and his ministry in Nicaragua and hope to return to teach in the future. In the mean time, Mike is looking for short or long term teaching commitments from qualified trades people interested in serving at the school. He also requires ongoing financial support, as he receives no compensation for all his work except what he has found through personal sponsorship. Myself my family and the rest of the team found this project profoundly meaningful and have committed to continue helping Mike as we are able. If you have a taste for adventure, want to experience a different culture “hands on “ and a desire to empower your fellow man, perhaps you could get involved.