“I Too, Am Nicaragua”
One mural, or perhaps political statement, that I encountered on the side of a building early on in the trip featured a face of a young girl with the caption, “I Am Nicaragua,” underneath it. As I visit a variety of different places both within and outside of León, I’m constantly reminded that what I’ve seen is only a small portion of the diverse living situations and lifestyles within Nicaragua. I am reminded that not just the people I’ve met, but the people and the circumstances I’ve yet to understand all represent and “are Nicaragua.” Although it is a relatively small country, in comparison to the United States, there are still strikingly different experiences based on location and income. Something I’ve tried to keep in mind this whole trip is the importance of perspective and the risk of assuming one experience represents the entirety of a country’s people. Although there were some striking cultural differences I had to get used to when living with my host family, very few of these were due to pressing economic hardships.
You can read statistics about poverty and think that you understand the extent of challenges for people living within impoverished communities, but it is impossible to truly empathize and comprehend the reality until you meet people and hearing their stories. I’ve always enjoyed connecting with people and learning from their life experiences. To get the best understanding of Nicaragua, I’ve jumped at every opportunity I have to broaden my perspective and my experience while I’m here. So when I was offered the chance to join Las Tias’ Social Worker and the other volunteer for a day of house visits I immediately accepted. I was excited to do something different and diversify my view of Nicaraguan families and homes.
House visits are designed to talk to the children’s parents, evaluate the home life of the child, and determine if action needs to be taken, or if Las Tias needs to provide more aid to address certain family circumstances. The visits are always a surprise, which runs the risk of knocking on the door of an empty house, but they are structured that way so the social worker can assess the real situation, not something staged. We walked down a row of small houses all touching each other – definitely more cramped living than I’ve seen with my spacious garden/house. The mother started talking to us when we got there and answered all of the basic questions. We were visiting this house on behalf of siblings, a 13-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. The house was quite small and the mother explained that the two children shared a room. It’s hard for me to imagine a teenage girl and a teenage boy sharing a room, but I’m sure this is one of the small sacrifices the family has had to make. Privacy is a privilege here – something I’ve also noticed with my host family experience. Although I view living across the outdoor garden from the rest of the family as a little bit of a challenge (particularly when it’s pouring and I need to use the bathroom), I know that they view my room as one of the best in the house because it is more private.
After the basic facts were covered during the house visit, the father opened up pretty quickly and was very expressive about their current situation. He got emotional and on the brink of tears when he explained how he’d been out of work for three months because he’d been in an out of the hospital for hypertension (high blood pressure). Although Nicaragua has universal health care and a family is only charged for private care needed in more serious cases, it is extraordinarily difficult to get by while you’re down a salary. In this family’s case, the dad is the only one who works, as the mother has been unemployed for sixteen years. There’s no such thing as unemployment checks or any other type of government aid in Nicaragua either. This means that the family was (and still is) without any income whatsoever right now.
I was a little bit thrown when I found out the father was college-educated, had basic English skills, and still couldn’t find a steady job. During my First Year Seminar, “The Literature of Homelessness in the United States,” I was exposed to similar life stories where highly educated people lost a job due to illness or extenuating circumstances and things deteriorated to the point of homelessness. In the U.S, I think the sheer number of college-educated people is a big contributing factor to that predicament – by the time you’re healthy and able to work someone (from a long list of qualified applicants) has already taken your place. However, since a college education is something of a rarity in Nicaragua and more of a luxury, I assumed things were a little bit different here. This bit of information particularly affected me because I am working at a nonprofit that supports children in continuing and excelling in their education. From an international aid perspective, education is often referred to as a ticket out of a difficult situation and into a better life. I’m not saying there’s no truth to that ideology, but it definitely isn’t a guarantee. I think its important to recognize that education might provide more opportunities, but with extenuating circumstances that doesn’t always translate to food on the table. And as this family expressed, food is often the number one concern.
Programs like Las Tias provide every child lunch and in necessary cases breakfast as well. I would like to believe that the most valuable aspect of Las Tias is the educational assistance and the academic help, but I think for most families the biggest draw is the hot, healthy meal for their children that they would not otherwise be able to provide. I’ve been struggling with this reality a little bit this past week since I went into the program with the expectation that it was highly orientated around education. Everyday I do help children with homework and I’ve of course been continuing with my English class, but I also spend a solid amount of time helping out the women who work in the kitchen. I understand and wholeheartedly believe that without a healthy meal, a child cannot retain information or focus properly, but I have to admit I didn’t give the role food plays in this particular program that much thought before starting at Las Tias. Speaking with the family helped me not only get a better idea of the children’s home life, but it also allowed me to understand Las Tias’ work and its role in supporting not only children, but families as well. The father explained that knowing his children would have a hot meal every day for lunch and help with their studies relieved a great deal of stress on the family.
As I finish up this blog post, a Nicaraguan thunderstorm is starting outside the open door. (A break from this “drought” in the rainy season – good news for Nicaraguan farmers!) I’ll leave you all with the sounds of my Nicaraguan Sundays – heavy rainfall, thunder, and drum practice at the primary school across the street. A perfect soundtrack to a lazy day recovering from our daylong volcano hike up Telica yesterday – I am constantly amazed at the experiences I am able to have here. Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more!
*Title credit to Langston Hughes