Nicaragua

Project HOPE 2014

A month has passed since my time in Nicaragua pushing to complete Project HOPE, so it’s seems fitting to recap the experience more broadly here. Our project involved repairs to six high school classrooms and the construction of a multipurpose room at Reina de Suecia – a secondary school in Barrio de 14 of Esteli, Nicaragua. These infrastructure projects will directly benefit 1,600 students and indirectly benefit their families and the wider community of people living in the Rosario community of Esteli.


This initiative could not be possible without support from MacEwan University and the management of Ceiba Association, who provided educational retreats in Canada and the logistical planning for our time in-country. Since 2002, Project HOPE has raised roughly $450,000 (including the money raised for the team experience), had impacts on the lives of over 6500 people, and engaged over 165 MacEwan students. To be involved for a portion of this ongoing legacy is truly rewarding.

From September 2013 – where me and my co-team leader Joelle narrowed down our candidate pool from 24 applicants to our team of 12 students – until April 2014, we were busy with several community fundraisers. We put on bottle drives, a cash raffle, a benefit concert, bar nights, and one large dinner with over 120 people in attendance. The Edmonton and surrounding community was also critical in helping us reach our fundraising goal of $71,000, which we surpassed! I would personally like to thank the Rotary and Lions Clubs which donated directly to the project.

We also learned a lot, through weekly meetings and retreats, focusing on Nicaraguan history, development projects, and how to be conscious global citizens.


As I described in past articles, we left Edmonton at the end of April and spent the month of May living and working in Nicaragua. After traveling from the capital city of Managua to Esteli and getting settled in our accommodations at Hostal Tomabu, we began to start the project.

We alternated out time between going to the school and doing cultural learning during out reaming fee time. The days were long. Mornings and afternoons were filled with manual labour. Tasks included demolition, painting, excavation, reinforcing metal, masonry, concrete, and moving dirt. We spent a total of 17 days on the build site, with the last 7 weekdays incorporating our mural project in collaboration with our partner organization FUNARTE. (You can find more about FUNARTE and their website on my IDW page.)

Our evenings were equally busy. We made the most of our time in Esteli with a number of cultural experiences. There was salsa dancing and Spanish classes. We tried our best but ultimately lost in a soccer match at the city’s university. We were able to visit a women’s cooperative where paper is made from recycled materials and also a cigar factory – Drew Estate Tobacco Company – where 1600 people are employed and they receive thousands of bales of tobacco from around the globe. We even had time to celebrate a team member’s birthday and to have a going away party during our last night in town.

Weekends were set aside for experiences requiring travel. We visited a FUNARTE youth workshop, where our team mixed with the group of children and worked together on painting, while also getting some information on their other projects. We swam under a waterfall one week and jumped off cliffs in Somoto Canyon the next. On a trip to El Jalacate, the team met Alberto and saw his rock carving art. He is a man who enjoys sharing stories of his past and bringing people inside his home. Our last weekend journey took us to Matagalpa to visit two enterprises: a chocolate factory and a coffee plantation.

We used Sundays as a time to re-energize and get ready for the upcoming week.

One of our biggest accomplishments was working together as a team to create and paint a mural at the school. Even with a very short window of time, we were able to come together with the idea of showing the transformative power of education and the partnership we’ve experienced between Canada and Nicaragua.

During the month of June, while our team either returned home or toured the countryside for a bit longer, our construction team, which included a group of three brothers, continued the process of construction. They finished the walls and added a roof to our multipurpose room. They started laying floor tiles, as well. They finished the two classrooms we started and worked on the other four that were being occupied during our time there.

I am excited to see the final result.

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Similar But Different

Canada and Nicaragua are different countries. This may seem redundant to point out, but it’s always good to start with the truth.

These two countries have different national languages, different climates, different histories, different economies, different political structures, and even different flags. Even with all these differences, they are similar in that they both have these common marks of a country. These two nations might be different in almost every possible  way, but it is also possible to see similarities in the struggle for progress that both possess. I will try to highlight three of these differences/similarities below.


Transportation

One thing that you can reflect upon when
traveling outside Canada is on our use of technology. When we board a bus or other public transportation, you can purchase a ticket ahead of time and it might even stamp the time that ticket was purchased. This makes it easier for the driver as he doesn’t have to worry about collecting fares. This is doubly true if a Canadian utilizes a monthly bus pass; then all that person has to do is flash it to the driver and move on
board.

In contrast, Nicaragua uses a person in photoplace of a machine. On our morning bus ride to work, each person would get on the bus and either find a seat or stand. After a few minutes have passed, a man (I never
saw any females doing this job), like the one in the photo, would walk through the aisle and collect the fare, which was 4 cordoba, or about 16 cents. The fare is a flat rate to ride the pass and it travels in a loop.

The Nica method has some interesting benefits. For one, the fare taker will help an elderly or pregnant women get off the bus, if they need it. They will take over for the driver, if need be. And they (along with another helper) will tell the driver when to leave. This last one is very handy if you are racing to get on and don’t want to be left behind.

It also is a tough job when the bus is 110% full and they have to walk from the front to the back with an aisle full of people, bags, and whatever else is brought on board.


Commerce

If you walk through Esteli, you will see a variety of commercial establishments. Some are massive, with everything you would ever need. Some are small roadside stores selling a single product, like shoes or clothes. And some might be just a man and a cart, selling vegetables or phone accessories.

It’s even more surprising when you see all ophoto (2)f these within a few feet of one another, as in the photo to the right. PALI is a chain of supermarkets, owned by Wal-Mart, found throughout Nica. There are even larger MAXI PALI stores that are on the outskirts of town which have more room for parking.

In North America, we can sometimes romanticize the memory of “Mom and Pop” stores where you could walk in and speak with the owner. They would answer your questions and in doing so, you would build a relationship with your retailer. This is still a reality in many developing countries, where the worker behind the counter is usually the owner as well. But due to globalization and open markets, the large transnational corporations are also able to get a piece of the pie. It is an interesting contrast between large and small entrepreneurs and one that affects Canada as well.


Construction

One final contrast I found was the way construction happens.

Small-scale building, like a house or school imageblock, is more labour intensive in Nica versus the machine-intensive style you would find in Canada. Many people are skilled at construction tasks, such as excavation or building. I believe this is owed to the high cost of machinery in Nica as compared to the high cost of labour in Canada.

It is also important to note that the building
materials are different. In Canada, you find a lot of wood used in framed homes and in hardwood floors. This is a result of our easy access to lumber. In Nicaragua, the vast majority of urban homes are constructed from concrete – a mixture of sand and cement.

(On the build site, we mixed 1 bag cement : 9 buckets sand : 7 buckets gravel for foundation concrete. To make mortar for the beams and touch-ups, it was 1 bag cement : 7 buckets sand; no gravel. Both cases required water to mix.)


I highlight these examples as a means to show that all people have a shared humanity. It is easy to identify differences, but it’s just as important to consider the common thread that links different parts of the world together. We have a shared drive to improve our lives through hard work and determination.

We all have family and friends.

We all experience love and loss.

We all share this planet and are connected to one another.

Saying ‘No’

A few weeks ago, while enjoying a day off from the work site in Esteli, an incident at the nearby burger joint – Downing’s Burgers – made me stop and think. A woman and a girl child walked in while I was enjoying a Coke with my burger and fries. Before we get there, I feel like I should add some context.

While in Edmonton, Canada, it is very common to walk around downtown and be asked for spare change. It can be difficult to gauge who is needing of financial help, as you may come across an individual every single day. I’ve even heard the same story – “My vehicle ran out of gas down the road and I need 5 dollars for a fuel can deposit. Can you help?” – from a guy a whole year apart. My usual response is to say “No” as Edmonton has a number of support services to help people in need, even if they are poorly funded. I also feel that I am not in an informed state to hand over money, in case the individual is currently using alcohol or drugs.

Now, moving back to Nicaragua and nearing my point. Within the first few hours of arriving in Managua and touring the city, our team was hit with requests for money. The most memorable was a young boy selling bags of water in the city square. Here we were, a group of 14 privileged Canadians with our iPhones taking photos, and there he was, a boy whose name we never learned, carrying around a bucket filled with water sachets repeatedly asking us to buy one. The cost? 4 cordobas or about 16 cents.

No one purchased water from the boy.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. He was selling something – bags of water – that none of us needed. We all had bottled waters from our tour guide and did not need more.

We were not there to provide charity through small cash handouts.

A few weeks later, we were exposed to a similar, but different, experience.

On our morning commute, taking the ‘Rosario Hospital’ bus for about 30 minutes, a change in the normal ride occurred. A man walked up the front of the bus, lifted up his shirt, and began ranting. There, on his chest, was a large, diagonal scar going from above his hip to the center of his sternum. Now, because he was talking in Spanish (quite quickly, too) and my understanding was still very low at that point, I did not get the reasoning for his rant, but put two-and-two-together. He then starting walking down the aisle and people began giving him change out of their pockets.

Should our team have given him some small change? How do we know what he would use it for? What impact would that give to other people?

I’m not sure what the right answer is. I didn’t give the man with the scar any money and I’m not sure if anyone from the team did.

So, going back to where I started. I had walked just a few short steps from our hostel to the nearby restaurant for a burger. While I was enjoying my cool, refreshing soda and waiting for my order, a woman walked in. She outstretched her hand to me and asked for money. I’ve not sure if she said “Uno” meaning one, “Dinero” meaning money, or even if she said anything. But I went to my instant response of “No”. I didn’t consider why she was asking for money. I didn’t even notice that she had a small girl with her.

She then moved to another patron and did the same action. He gave a few coins. She moved to another table, where a man was eating a sandwich, and they talked for a bit. I don’t know what was said but in the end, she reached towards his plate and took half of the sandwich. She was about to leave, but then came back to me, hand stretched out in the usual fashion. Now I was thinking more about it.

I had no coins. The smallest bill I had in my wallet was 100 cordobas, equivalent to 4 dollars. After some hesitation, I again said “No”.

Around this same time, I was reading Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save and reflected upon the part where Singer tells the reader that although we set up rules to govern our behavior – tithing 10%, tutoring a schoolchild – and try to be fair, sometimes we need to do more. He gives the following thought experiment:

  • If 10 kids were drowning in a lake and 10 adults were standing at the shoreline, it would be entirely reasonable for each adult to save one child. But, if only 5 adults rushed in, saving a total of 5 children, since the other 5 adults could not be bothered, would it stand the the other drowning children should not be saved? Surely, the answer is no. You would do your best to save as many as possible, even if the burden was not shared equally.

If I tell myself that I will not hand out spare change because I support causes that tackle the issues of poverty, does that mean that I should never hand out spare change?

After my interaction with the lady at Downing’s Burgers, I started to question my prior notions.

Here I was in a country of lower standards of living, as compared to Canada. Should that not be considered?

I was in a restaurant ordering food, so obviously I had money. And here was a woman who was hungry enough to beg for help. I didn’t give her anything because I gave myself enough excuses not to.

Was $4 too much of a handout? Or would it have helped her through a challenging time in her life? I’m not sure.

But I wish I gave her something.

Hand Wash Only

What is it like to wash all your clothes by hand and have no access to a washing machine. Mostly, it takes time.

Here is how I would wash a week’s worth of dirty laundry while in Nicaragua (or anywhere with a lack of machinery to do the work).

  • Bring your clothes to the local source of water. This might be a tap in your home or the nearby stream.
  • Fill a bucket, pan, or any other large container with clean water. Add detergent. This will be your equivalent of a ‘wash cycle’.
  • Place clothes in bucket to soak.
  • While these are soaking, fill a second container with water. This will be your ‘rinse cycle’.
  • To wash your clothes, you can use a washing board, like I found in my hostel in Esteli, but I prefer to do it the way I was taught in Ghana. The basic goal is to rub clothes vigorously over themselves to agitate and remove dirt. This is a long process as you have to clean each item, one at a time, repeatedly to make it clean.
  • For example, to wash a shirt: hold with your left hand, then grab a bit of it with your right hand and rub over your wrist; move the shirt up a bit and rub again; move it up again and rub. Do this two or three times by re-orientating the garment so that you have washed all of it.
  • Do this with each item.
  • Tip: ring out the water over your bucket first to save detergent.
  • Once you have completing washing, place clothes into the second bucket.
  • After they’ve had a bit of time to soak out the last bit of detergent, repeat the hand washing cycle again for an extra clean.
  • Once all items have gone through both cycles, they are ready for hanging. This is the equivalent of a dryer – using the sun instead of heat.
  • Give each item a quick snap of the wrist to get out some extra water and then attach to a clothes line with clothes pins. It will take several hours or up to the next day for them to dry. Watch out for the rainy season, as you may need to take items down and out of the rain momentarily.

In the end, this process would take me easily an hour to go through my own clothes after a week. Some shirts, a few pairs of socks, underwear, and maybe a pair of pants. It is intensive and draining.

Or, to avoid all this hard work (and time) throw everything into a washing machine and walk away.

This is the great privilege we have in the West, which is to have the money to buy technology to save us work, time, and effort with daily tasks. It allows us time to do other things, like further our education, earn more money through working, or have spare time to exercise and enjoy life. It’s easy to forget how labor intensive an activity would be if you’ve never had to try it, as many Westerners have been able to with laundry.

Hans Rosling (in his TED Talk embedded below) beautifully describes the power of the washing machine in opening up opportunities for the women and girls who would other have to do laundry by hand. I have to agree with him and say that the washing machine is truly an invention difficult to give up.

Rojo y Negro

“Red and Black”

A common theme that fills the history books of developing countries is the role of outsiders in influencing policies, mostly political, but also economical. In the past, European countries – France, Belgium, Spain, England, Portugal, Germany – played a major role in determining how countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia ruled themselves. When many of these European colonizers began returning power to their colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, a new power filled the void: the United States of America (USA, US, or so-called “America”). The role of the US in other countries is very evident in the history of Nicaragua. For centuries, the US has tried to either influence or outright control the lives of Nicaraguans. The fact that is most interesting about US-Nicaraguan relations is that the United States has repeatedly been defeated!

image (1)

Nicaragua – now made up of 8 million people – has time after time won the long game against the US – a country of over 300 million and defended by the world’s largest military. In every instance, one would have to give the better odds to the US, but sometimes things can’t be predicted.  While in Nicaragua, you can spot two very different flags being flown. This first one is the official national flag. Made up of two blue bars on the the top and bottom – representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that Nicaragua borders – with a white stripe in the center. There is also a triangle in the center with its own symbolic meaning.

But this is not the flag that I wish to highlight.

The one I find more interesting is the party flag of the FSLN. The party flag of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN (in English: Sandinista National Liberation Front) is a very simple design. It’s top half is red (rojo) and bottom half is black (negro), with the middle spelling out the four-letter acronym “FSLN”. It’s not exactly the flag that’s interesting, but rather, what it stands for.

During the 20th century, Nicaraguans have had to mobilize and fight for their freedom on three separate occasions. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Augusto César Sandino led a national rebellion against US occupation. Unfortunately, Sandino was assassinated by the police forces of the Somoza family and they would rule (with American support) for over 40 years.

In the 1970’s, building upon Sandino’s legacy, the FSLN and its Sandinista membership started a revolution against the American-backed President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Wanting an end to the corruption of Somoza and a more socialist set of policies, the Sandinista fought many battles in a civil war of urban warfare, eventually winning in 1979 and overthrowing Somoza.

But, with the election of American President Ronald Reagan came a new chapter in the USA’s presumed need to determine Nicaragua’s future. The year 1981 saw the start of the Contra War. Now that the USA could not manipulate a puppet leader, they used their own form of guerrilla warfare to try and destroy the presumed threat of a small, leftist government in Central America.

The Contras were made up of remnants of Somoza’s National Guard and were secretly financed and trained by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Much of the actions taken by the Contras were later determined to be illegal, such as bombing schools and health centers. Terror was the main tool of change that the US tried to use on the Nicaragua peoples.

It is inspirational to hear stories of everyday people standing up to determine their own future. At the same time, it’s sad that Nicaragua has had to shed so much blood for such a simple goal: freedom.

Today you’ll find FSLN flags and colors on every street and every town. But rather than focus on the violence of the past, Nicaragua is joyous and celebratory of the peace (paz) that fills the country now. Bullet holes can still be seen in historic buildings. But you can also spot people working tirelessly to earn an income and educate their children. It is a country that welcomes outsiders (like myself) and it proud to celebrate its national heroes.

My hope is that Nicaragua can remain independent and fulfill their dreams and those of their ancestors in their long battle towards freedom.