March 15 – 21: Bilwi, Nicargua – Diversity and Autonomy on the Caribbean Coast

Our two weeks in Nicaragua were filled with emotions for Deborah, as memories were tapped of her experiences working on the Pacific side during the years of the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s and then on the Atlantic side in the first decade of 2000, teaching a course on popular education at URACCAN university and collaborating with its youth-run cable television station BilwiVision through the VIVA project.

We are offering different blog entries for both: our second week on the Pacific side (colonized by the Spanish, primarily mestizo, and dominant in national politics) and our first week on the Atlantic or Caribbean coast, colonized by the British and marginalized by the Pacific side, creating a unique “pluri-ethnic” mixture of Indigenous (Miskitu, Rama, Sumu-Mayagna), Creole, and mestizo populations. During the Sandinista years, this region was drawn into the contra side of the war and fought for a limited form of autonomy, resulting in two regional governments.

Autonomy poster (1 of 1)  coast at muelle (1 of 1)

It remains poor, exploited by mining, lumber, fishing, and agricultural interests from both foreign and mestizo intruders, as well as on the path of the drug trade running from Colombia up the coast to North America.

Puerto Cabezas or Bilwi, the town

John initially wanted to take the challenging 12-hour drive on a new dirt road, to the coast, but we chose the safer option: a small plane from Managua to Bilwi, the Miskitu name for Puerto Cabezas. It is the major port in the northern region of the Coast, where we were hosted by Margarita Antonio, VIVA partner and Miskitu woman leader.

Margarita 2 (1 of 1)

We were told to be careful walking during the day and only take taxis at night. We visited the market, where used clothing, fresh fish and meat (including deer and guardatinaja, a large rodent) are aplenty while most vegetables and manufactured goods are imported from the Pacific side.

Used clothing market (1 of 1)  Bilwi market 1 (1 of 1)

There are 13 churches, with the Moravian (pre-Luther German) being the dominant one, and many protestant sects. One afternoon, we found a good beach for swimming and eating, as well as for cows and cars..!

Bilwi market and town


Casa Museo and Canal 22

16 years ago, when Deborah first came to the coast with Joshua (13 at the time), they stayed in the B&B of Judith Kain, a beloved artist and mother of Mirna Cunningham, first governor of the autonomous region and rector of URACCAN, former chair of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, and currently special ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Now the house has been transformed into a hotel, a museum of coastal Indigenous groups and arts, and a cultural centre where the launch of Deborah’s VIVA book in Spanish was held five years ago.

Casa Museo mural (1 of 1)  Denis, Deb, y Margarita

It also houses an organization founded by Mirna, CADPI (Centre for the Autonomy and Development of Nicaraguan Indigneous Peoples) and Cable Channel 22. Denis Mairena, current director of CADPI and former student in Deborah’s course in 2000, organized a meeting with the 15 young staff persons of the television channel. They described the programs they develop in three languages (Spanish, Creole, and Miskitu) committed to highlighting the voices and positive developments in coastal communities, as well as to educate the public around environmental issues such as climate change. We were shown some of their programs on you tube (see their overview of autonomy:, and asked to comment. It was very inspiring to hear the young aspiring broadcast journalists talk about what they had learned from the process of gathering peoples’ stories and making them heard creatively on air, a counterpoint to the influence of global satellite TV programs.

Casa Museo and Canal 22


Mujeres Creativas

One of the most moving experiences of our visit to the coast was to witness how Margarita, inspired by our VIVA project exchange, has created a collective, Mujeres Creativas, for Miskitu women to express themselves in multiple forms – through popular theatre, traditional dance, painting murals, biointensive gardening, and flower arranging.

Mujeres Creativas inside and outside (1 of 1)  Deb and Mujeres Creativas (1 of 1)


Deb and Mujeres Creativas 7 (1 of 1)

During a two-hour dialogue with a group of them outside their building, we heard testimonies of how this group creativity has helped them develop confidence and strength to speak out, to talk about issues, and to perform in public.

We had two chances to witness that creativity. One was a mural tour led by one member, Natividad, who showed us murals around the town that the women had worked on.

Bilwi murals

The other was an evening event during which they performed two dances (the dance of the mermaids and another of a woman liberating herself from a violent man) as well as two theatre pieces. The first portrayed a Miskitu family on the coast being visited and belittled by a daughter who had gone to the capital, Managua, and become more mestizo than the mestizos. The second revealed the complexity of situations arising as mestizos from the Pacific try to buy up land communally owned by the Miskitus; it showed a Miskitu community leader selling off some communal land and then being sanctioned by his community through a process of restorative justice. Video clips of these two pieces:


Krukira, a Miskitu village

Margarita took us one day to her hometown, over a dusty road and savannah, to Krukira, where we explored the small town (almost destroyed by Hurricane Felix) with its houses on stilts and fishing boats. We hung out at the home of her uncle Roger and enjoyed a great fish dinner with yucca, which along with a Toña beer, sent Deborah happily into a siesta on the porch hammock.

3 dugouts (1 of 1)  house on stilts

On our way back from Krukira, we stopped at a small riverside park for a swim, and returned two days later to the same spot for a longer swim. Margarita and Deborah went exploring in a dug-out canoe while John did his exploring while swimming off into the jungle in both directions.  Led by master chef Margarita, we cooked fish, lobster and yucca over a wood fire for a luxurious picnic dinner served on large tree leaf (biodegradable!) plates.

Krukira and river swim

We had several dinners with Margarita and her partner David, giving us a chance to learn more about the complex history of the coast, inter-ethnic and political relations, and a sober assessment of autonomy on the coast under the Ortega government (more on that in the next blog entry about the Pacific Side!). In any case, we felt especially lucky to have these two wonderful guides as our main partners for the week…!






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