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Potters for Peace

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Potters for Peace February 2011 Brigade

Back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan was sabre-rattling (and illegally funding the Nicaraguan Contras), I made little pins out of clay, saying:



war is bad for

people and other

things made of clay

I gave some to other peacenik potters and sometimes wore mine.  Then one day in, I think, 1996, I was in the Pottery Supply House, waiting to be waited on, and wandered over to their bulletin board, where I saw a newsletter from Potters for Peace!  My jaw dropped.  I had had no idea there was actually such an organization.

I wrote to the contact person, saying the brigades sounded like fun, that I have some Spanish, but that I'm a North American wimp.  I have an electric wheel and and electric kiln.  I buy my clay in bags.  What would I have to teach that Nicaraguan potters could use?  I got a lovely reply saying, Don't worry, we'll put you to work.  I went on the 1997 brigade.  The 2011 was my second.

Potters for Peace began in the 1980s, when a group in Washington, D.C. decided that if Ronald Reagan was going to give ten million dollars to the Contras, they were going to try to raise ten million for the Sandinistas. Some of them were potters, and they made contact with Nicaraguan potters.

Ron Rivera, the first paid staffer, had come to Nicaragua “for a woman and a revolution, in that order.” (The woman became his wife.) He tried to visit every potter in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had done a cultural inventory – that’s how he found the potters – but he didn’t manage to meet them all; there are too many. He had looked at ten different methods for purifying water, including Manny Gutiérrez’s filter, which Potters for Peace took up as a major project after Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, attracted grant money from the first world to develop it. There are now filter factories in a number of countries. Ron was working on one in Nigeria in 2008 when he contracted a virulent, and fatal, form of malaria. He is greatly missed.

The present Nicaraguan coordinator is Robert Pillers. His wife, Bev, was a member, with me, of the 1997 brigade, and after he retired they moved to Nicaragua. His assistant, Alvaro, is also his son-in-law.

The other brigadistas were Meg, from New Jersey; Doug, from Brooklyn; Moriah, from Oregon; Tom, from Pennsylvania; Maria, from El Salvador, and Erica, who came with her but is not a potter; Lilian, from El Ojoche (of which more later); and Jorge, our driver.Brigada at Kairos


In 1997 we travelled in a pickup, with many of us riding in the truck bed. This time we had a minibus, air-conditioned!, with a driver. Much more comfortable!

In Managua we stayed at a hostel run by Kairos Nicaragua (no relationship, so far as I know, to Kairos Canada), in a suburb – comfortable, lovely garden, good food. Cold showers, but that is standard in Nicaragua, and in that climate it’s not a problem.


Our first day we had a little tour of Managua, which included a trip to the volcano – active – at Masaya. There are signs telling people to park facing outward, just in case. Then an orientation session in the Pillers’ back yard, where their neighbour, who is a journalist, told us a great deal about the history of Nicaragua and its current political situation. (If you want to know more, let me know!)



On Monday we went to the filter factory, saw how they are made and even made some ourselves. It is not high-tech, but it is tech. They are made in a mechanized press mold, though the ones we made were done in a mold worked by human muscle power. It isn’t Filtereasy. They look like great big flower pots. Just the filter itself is ceramic; the bucket it sits in is plastic. They filter one to two litres an hour, and remove everything except viruses. They are impregnated with colloidal silver, which kills the bacteria. Robert said the weak point is the spigot, which can be contaminated very easily. A problem with, so far, no solution. But if the spigot is kept clean, a filter can supply a household with clean water, preventing water-borne diseases, which kill a lot of children in the third world.


On Tuesday we loaded up the bus and went to another filter factory, the original one, smaller and less successful. They also make glazed stoneware, the only place in Nicaragua to do so. (It really isn’t very good.) Their cinder blocks bring in most of their income.

Then to La Paz Centro, where we met some of the potters that Potters for Peace works with. Mercedes Vega demonstrated how she makes her charming hen-shaped pots. Looks easy, but it isn’t – we tried. I said I would try making one on the wheel when I got home, and I did.

We carried on to León, a largeish city, where we made like tourists (well, we were tourists) and explored the cathedral, including going up on the roof.

Outside our motel was a billboard – see the photo – with the slogan “Viva León Jodido!” Jodido means “screwed”, though I am told that it’s not as vulgar in Spanish as it would be in English. I think it had something to do with losing at soccer. We borrowed the slogan for our t-shirt, of which more later.


Viva Leon Jodido!On Wednesday we went to a little village called El Ojoche, in the north of the country, named for a tree that doesn’t grow there any more (like Oakville, Ontario). We spent three days there, building a kiln. We stayed with people there, and did our best to communicate.

A few weeks before the trip started, Robert sent round an email saying that our hosts in El Ojoche were afraid the gringos wouldn’t like the food. I wrote back saying rice and beans is fine with me, as indeed it was with everyone else, though iguana, which was served to one of us, was perhaps a bit too far.

I should tell you that I can say things in Spanish and (I think) be understood, though my vocabulary is limited, and I have a lot of trouble understanding what is said to me. Erica, who has been working in El Salvador, is fluent, as is Maria, of course. Moriah has a bit of Spanish. Meg had spent a week in a Spanish school in Granada, and that was it! Tom has some Spanish, and so does Doug. When he didn’t know the Spanish for what he wanted to say, he would make it up. It worked fine. Robert, our leader, is fluent, though with a gringo accent.

El Ojoche is poor, though there are poorer people and poorer places. The houses are solid. There is electricity – for a few lights, radio, and TV. There are proper latrines, courtesy of an NGO. There are water pumps, also courtesy of an NGO. Until a couple of years ago women had to go fetch water and carry it home on their heads. To bathe, you fill a bucket, take it into a curtained enclosure, and pour the water over yourself. It works just fine. There are chickens in and out of the houses; cattle and pigs; dogs – skeletally thin – and the occasional cat. The paved roads in Nicaragua are better than they were in 1997, but the unpaved roads, including the one into El Ojoche, are still as bad, and that means very bad indeed.


The kiln is a Manny-kiln, designed by Manny Gutierrez, the same man who designed the water filter. It is wood-fired, efficient, a downdraft kiln (this will mean something to potters). It is built out of bricks made locally. Robert and Alvaro did the measuring and supervision, and we brigadistas started the work, but were soon joined by the women of El Ojoche who will be using it. They wound up doing most of the work, which is a good thing. Since they built it, it is theirs. If we had built it, it wouldn’t be. Alvaro did the last bit, which was to finish the chimney while standing on the roof.

Alvaro starts the kiln


Kairos had been working with these people for several years to help them weld themselves into a community, without which there would have been no point building a kiln. We were told that they used to be all Catholics, but a few years ago some evangelicals came and converted some of them, and that caused dissension.

My first night there, my host asked me if I was Catholic. I said no, that some of us were Catholic, some not, and I didn’t care. I wish now I had had the chutzpah to add “and two of us are Jewish.”


The first thing we had to do was get the bricks down the hill to where the kiln was to be built. People started by carrying them down, two at a time, until Doug got us to form a human chain, so the bricks moved but the people didn’t. Simple, and brilliant.

North American bricks are regular, and they are twice as long as they are wide. These were not, and a lot of them had to be cut to fit. This was done with a machete (didn’t do the machete any good), or a trowel, or, in a few cases, a saw (didn’t do the saw any good either). Cutting bricks took a lot of our time.

Alvaro makes the chimneyOur last morning there we gathered in a circle for a little ceremony. The leaders of the brigade and of the community spoke of their hopes for their work, and then just about everyone else said a little something. These women have serious problems to solve: access to clay, access to decorative slips, and getting their pots to market along that dirt road. They also have to get a roof up over the kiln before the rainy season, and dig a trench to divert water around the kiln, which is near the bottom of a hill. But I think they will manage to solve these problems. I was impressed by the spirit I saw there.


In the middle of this meeting someone told me to turn around – by then everyone knew I’m a birder – and there in a tree, in full sunlight, was a guardabarranco (guardian of the ravine), the national bird of Nicaragua – in English a blue-crowned motmot, a stunning bird. A good omen, I hope. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-crowned_Motmot

El Ojoche was roughing it. Accommodations after that were cushy by comparison, and the food was excellent, especially breakfasts. Nicaraguans believe in breakfast. You get some or all of: Rice and beans. Scrambled eggs. A slab of cheese. A tortilla. Fruit, and maybe fruit juice as well. Possibly a baked goodie. And lovely coffee.


ArmadilloThat day, Friday, we went to La Sabaneta, where they gave us lunch and demonstrated their wonderful hand-built pottery animals. We tried it too. I tried the wheel – good clay, but it has to be thrown fast, and of course the wheels are kick wheels, and I’m used to electric (!).


Saturday we went to Santa Rosa, a Sandinista coop, the only one, of dozens if not hundreds, which is still a going concern. Very interesting history. And fabulous pottery, done by both men and women. Traditionally, in most of Nicaragua, potters are women; if a man is a potter he is assumed to be a maricón. This is changing, and in particular men are working on the wheel. Machinery is considered to be a guy thing.


Tom had brought along a huge bat, with which he demonstrated a method of throwingSlip trailing decoration multiple large plates on just the one bat. The Santa Rosa potters demonstrated their method of slip trailing: they sieve the clay by squeezing it through an old t-shirt, and use a plastic bag as a slip trailer. I’m going to try it. Works a lot better than any slip trailer I’ve ever used.



Then to La Maisuta, where there is a new factory being built to make filters, named after Ron Rivera. (I’ve got the t-shirt.) We went to Somoto for the night, to a hostel run by the Instituto de Promoción Humana. Dorm rooms, a bit like summer camp. We could hear the men snoring next door. Dinner was at a pizza joint (some of us, not me, were tired of Nico food). Erica and Alvaro had a theological Pizza and beerargument, in Spanish, over whether beer or soda is worse. It was fun.  That's me in the foreground.



Next day we had to switch to a four-wheel-drive pickup to go to Loma Panda. (I pulled the age card and rode in the cab.) You go quite a ways down a serious dirt road, which the minibus could not have handled. You cross a stream (there are stones), and go up a hill for twenty minutes or so. Loma Panda means “winding hill,” and it’s accurate. I was there in 1997, and their work, wonderful then, is even better, if possible. They make dolls with jointed limbs; airplanes; animals; figures; and lots of other things. Their customers come to them, dirt road, stream, hill and all.Loma Panda - airplanes


The others went to see the duende, which is a petroglyph of unknown age and unknown meaning. I wasn’t feeling up to it, which was a pity, since Moriah saw a pale-billed woodpecker, as large as our pileated but with a solid red head. Moriah threw a batter bowl, and I threw an elephant. Maybe they’ll copy it. I’d like that.


On the way back to the main road we stopped at Río Arriba, where two elderly sisters make charming piggy Piggy banksbanks – and the only banks I saw with slots big enough to actually accommodate coins.


Next day we went back to Condega, where we visited the local historical museum. Ancient ceramics, stone artifacts, some Spanish artifacts, fossils, and murals. It was next to a historical park with real pots for basureros (trash cans), and huge fake pots made out of concrete for fountains. Then to Ducuale Grande, where I had also been in 1997. At that time they had just landed a contract with Pier I for eighteen thousand pieces, and Ron Rivera was running around looking for more potters to work with them, especially ones who could throw; a carpenter who could make a mold to produce one of the pieces; a roof to keep firewood dry in the rainy season; etc. (As I said, not high-tech.)


They had pieces ready for us to decorate, using their technique of slip resist. You paint your design on a fired pot with slip, and then it is fired again in a smoky kiln. The smoke darkensPottery at Ducuale the clay except for the areas covered with slip. You wash the slip off, and there’s your design.



By now it was Wednesday of our second week, and we had a long drive to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a crater lake, where we stayed at a small resort called the Monkey Hut. We bought food en route and cooked for ourselves. Again, dorms with bunk beds, but wonderful swimming in Laguna Apoyothe lake.


Next day, to San Juan de Oriente. This is a town of potters, the best in the country. We went to see Valentín López, who travelled with us in 1997, guarding the truck when needed. He has done very well indeed. He has a large studio and a school. He gave us a talk on indigenous history, including dancing, and demonstrated on the wheel. The work was very good but ….. a little hackneyed. I bought a mug, but nothing more. I’ve got one of his pots from my last visit, with Mayan designs, which he doesn’t seem to be doing any more. Lots of birds and animals, to please the tourists. Well, can’t argue with that.


We visited several other potters’ studios. Elio Gutiérrez is the best. We weren’t allowed toElio Gutierrez: triple pot take pictures! Everyone imitates him, and no wonder. StoveLester’s work is good, but what I found most interesting is his design for a stove that uses very little wood to cook with. Gregorio Bracamonte is doing excellent copies of pre-Columbian pottery, including a couple of huge statues. Gregorio Bracamonte: Pre-Columbian replicas Duilio was filling an order of lamps and plates for a restaurant that wants traditional-looking stuff.



José Ortiz is basically a painter who works on clay. He is Jose Ortiz: platealso a musician, and (by pre-arrangement, since he and another man spent a day with us earlier in the tour) I borrowed his guitar and sang a couple of verses of Gracias a la Vida, and then, unaccompanied, Lucky Man – in both languages.  (The words, in both languages, are on this blog.)



Now it was Friday, our last day, and we had some free time in the morning. I went birding with another guest at the Monkey Hut, Rodrigo, who had excellent English, excellent eyesight, and a camera with which he had taken a lot of very good photos of birds. I did not bring a camera – I figured, correctly, that everyone else would have a camera and we would share photos – but I did bring binoculars and a borrowed bird book. It seems that I am a better birder than I thought I was. I usually go on walks with the Toronto Field Naturalists, where there are people who are better at finding, and identifying, birds than I am. Here I was on my own, and I found that I could tell roughly what kind of bird it was – a robin (different species from ours), a flycatcher, a grebe, etc. – so at least I knew what to look up in the book. I did lots of opportunistic birding everywhere we went, and learned some of the Spanish names.  Here's an uraco. Looks like a blue jay on steroids.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-throated_Magpie-Jay


Then to Granada and Mi Museo, the name intending to tell Nicos that it belongs to them. It is the private collection, open to the public, of a Dane who has amassed the best collection of pre-Columbian pottery in the country, better than the National Museum’s. The story of how the Minister of Culture stole his best pieces, and how he got them back, is really something.


A Potters for Peace tradition is that each brigade chooses a name and designs a t-shirt. OursHorno Hoy is the cover of an imaginary magazine called Horno Hoy (Kiln Today), with a photo of the finished El Ojoche kiln. There are titles of articles to be found inside, such as “Qué es Más Macho: Machete o Cuchara? [i.e. for cutting bricks]” Doug did most of the work, on Robert’s laptop. Something that is new since 1997 is that you can find internet cafés in every town. Robert used one to email our t-shirt design to Bev, so when we got back to Managua our t-shirts were ready.


Back to Managua and to Kairos, where Doug did the massive job of editing everyone’s collected photos, and burning a DVD for each of us. He was up until 1:30 in the morning, with an 8:15 flight to catch. Doug would have been worth his weight in gold just for his humour – and then he did this too. (I asked Robert if every brigade had someone like Doug. “Unfortunately, no.”)

Would I recommend going on a Potters for Peace brigade? Not, perhaps, for everyone. You really should be a potter. And if you are like an old friend of mine who used to say that her idea of roughing it was the Harbour Castle Hilton, then it’s not for you. Having some Spanish is good, though not necessary. But if you are interested in what I call purposeful tourism, and would like to spend two weeks of the winter in a hot country, go for it.


Songs. At one point, after we built the kiln, someone said, "Of course Elizabeth will have a folk song."  I came up with the following (tune: "The Garden Song," by David Mallett):

Brick by brick, row by row,

Gonna make this horno1 grow,

All you need is Alvaro

Y tague con cenizas2,

It'll fire your pots in spring and fall,

Fire your pots both large and small,

Fire your pots, come one, come all

Ceramistas por la paz.3

1kiln    2slip mixed with ashes, which we used for mortar   3potters for peace

Birds. I restrained myself from telling you about all the birds I saw.  Here are links to some of them, for those who are interested.  (Note: After looking at the referenced article, click on the arrow to go back to the blog.)  I don't think I saw anything that wasn't fairly common in Nicaragua, though most of them were new to me.


Turkey Vulture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_Vulture Black Vulture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Vulture Turkey vultures come to Ontario in the summer, and black vultures have extended their range as far north as Pennsylvania, so perhaps we'll see them soon.  Both ubiquitous in Nicaragua.  Turkey vulture in Spanish: zopilote.

Grackles, Nicaraguan and Great-Tailedhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Grackle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great-tailed_GrackleUbiquitous.  Spanish word is zanate.

Clay-coloured Robin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clay-colored_Robin Doesn't look like our robins, but acts like them, and (I am told) sings beautifully.  In Spanish, yigüirro.  The national bird of Costa Rica, chosen for its song.

Great Kiskadee http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_kiskadee One of several flycatchers that look more or less alike - very striking - pretty sure I identified it correctly.  In city parks.

Hoffmann's Woodpecker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoffmann's_Woodpecker www.birdforum.net/opus/Hoffmann's_Woodpecker Saw them in the garden at Kairos, starting to build a nest.  A woodpecker is a carpintero.

Masked Tityra Saw a male at Kairos.  Unmistakeable.  Look in Google images.

White-winged Dove http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-winged_dove or check Google images.   Common in parks - along with pigeons and house sparrows.  Very pretty, especially in flight.  Dove: paloma.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferruginous_Pygmy-owl We saw one in a tree, in daylight.  A good sighting.  Spanish for owl is buho.  Potters make clay buhos.

Spot-breasted Oriole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spot-breasted_Oriole Saw it, along with other orioles that come here to breed, in the Pillers' garden.

Blue-gray Tanager http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-gray_Tanager In the Pillers' garden, which backs onto a bird sanctuary.

Pale-billed woodpecker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale-billed_Woodpecker Alas, I didn't see this one, but Moriah did, at Loma Panda.  Spectacular, eh?