Living in urban Nicaraguan neighborhoods can be intense. Multigenerational families live together in small houses, where thin walls, open windows, and shared streets are the norm. Everyone is aware of what their neighbors are doing whether they want to know or not. In our urban transformation work, we have to take this into consideration.
On the one hand, it is relatively easy to engage a community that has so much in common. Last month I visited one of the communities where we work and was impressed to see how they were all coming together to dig rainwater catchments to mitigate the intense rains that are coming in the next few weeks. Adults and youth worked together in shifts to get the task done while others cooked a communal meal — a beautiful example of shared vision led by trusted leadership.
But there is another side to high-density living. Small issues can explode into divisive and enduring conflicts which, left unchecked, can escalate into verbal and physical abuse and damage to property. That’s why World Renew Nicaragua has been promoting an alternative to dealing with conflict using restorative justice, a justice model that has been around for a long time in North America, but is a new alternative in Nicaragua. Rather than merely pursuing the punishment of an offender, restorative justice seeks to repair the harm done and restore those harmed by emphasizing accountability and making amends.
Last year we trained 50 community leaders in the facilitation of restorative justice through “listening conferences.” Here are a few examples of how listening conferences have fostered reconciliation between parties and avoided further conflict and even violence:
A pastor thought he was blessing his neighborhood by blasting Christian music into the night for several months, causing enormous resentment among his neighbors. It took a ‘listening conference’ for the pastor to recognize that not everyone felt blessed by the music and he agreed to limit it to a lower volume and certain times of day.
Two women shared adjacent homes with a small strip of land between the two. The ownership of the strip was always in question, each homeowner claiming rights. Barriers were erected, yelling matches became common, and clothes left out to dry went missing. A listening conference sorted this out and an agreement was reached.
Another music story, but this time conflict within one home: a mother who found her daughter’s choice of music distasteful drowned it out with her own. Mother and daughter escalated the conflict with the purchase of more and bigger speakers until they were the object of ridicule in the neighbourhood. This time, a listening conference that included mother, daughter, and neighbors brought about resolution — and quiet to the neighborhood.
In many communities, garbage collection doesn’t exist. Instead, trash is burned daily at a common site on the outskirts of the city. Over the past year, villagers spontaneously started a new garbage pit next to several homes. Despite the protests of the families living there, the garbage pile grew; their “No Botar Basura” (No Dumping) sign was ignored; the pit began to smolder. Smoke seeped into the neighboring homes and the pit became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Finally, a listening conference brought together the frustrated families, community leaders, and the perpetrators. This face-to-face conversation led to a mutual solution.
Nicaragua made international news last week when a peaceful protest of university students escalated into a violent, repressive confrontation with the authorities. Sixty-three students were killed, while many others are in critical condition or still missing, fueling tremendous anti-government resentment from all sectors of the country. Peaceful marches continue daily, demanding that significant government reforms be made. In response, the government has agreed to a dialogue.
This won’t be a simple process. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the lessons of restorative justice that were applied at a micro level could be applied to this process? Nicaragua thanks you for the concern you have expressed and for your prayers for future weeks ahead.
Interested in learning more about restorative justice? Check out the Center for Justice & Reconciliation, a project of Prison Fellowship International, at www.restorativejustice.org
World Renew Nicaragua