Opinions, Column

Visiting Nicaragua: The Bitter Reality

“It’s all about the encounter,” Father Keenan said to us from the front of our tour bus, as we cruised down the hot asphalt roads of Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Nineteen fresh-faced Boston College sophomores looked back at him, scribbling the words in our new journals—all about the encounter—without quite knowing what they meant. We knew we were here to understand the need for human development and social justice in a developing nation, but that concept was already abstract enough. Seeing our puzzled expressions, he continued: “When you go to a foreign country, you don’t remember the place, you remember the people you meet.”

The truth of that statement was, at first, dubious. I’d never been to a third-world country before, and my first moments on the road were already overwhelming. Apart from the obvious language barrier, the palm trees, and the punishingly humid weather, I was not prepared for the reality of the Nicaraguan streets. Corporate ads for Coca-Cola and Firestone were pasted on massive billboards, only feet away from the crumbling shacks. Spray-paint graffiti that read “Long Live Daniel Ortega”—the country’s controversial dictator—was scrawled across concrete walls. It was a hasty mixture of two different worlds, a series of mediocre attempts to jumpstart an economy with too many foundational problems to avoid, only to result in a nation that seemed half-fantasy, half-reality. I snapped pictures of dilapidated homes on narrow streets, of garbage trails on wilting grass, and of the structural aftermath of repeated earthquakes and thought: This is a third-world country, and this is what I’ll remember.

Perhaps it was exactly this attitude that made me so unprepared for the wave of human emotions that followed. Right from the start, it was clear that I was wrong—so wrong that I will never again forget that a country is not made of buildings and streets, but of human beings. For those seven long days, we “encountered” a series of fierce defenders of human rights—representatives at women’s centers, workers’ unions, poverty rehabilitation programs, and champions of disability rights—each of whom painted for us a new face of the reality of Nicaragua.

One of these encounters was at the Acahualinca Women’s Center, which focuses on women’s issues in Nicaragua. Acahual is situated in the neighborhood of Chureca, Managua’s massive dump—a landfill for most, but for Managua’s poorest, “home.” We learned that many residents worked at the dump as scavengers, looking for discarded food, toys, or souvenirs to either reclaim or resell, only to earn maybe 15 to 20 cordobas (50-70 cents) a day. Silvia, one of the nurses at the center, explained that working in such conditions led to increased cases of cervical cancer and other diseases of which low-income, uneducated women were unaware. Worse still was the deeply ingrained machismo culture of Latin America: the cultural idea that men are naturally superior to women, which expressed itself in cycles of domestic abuse, extreme gender roles, and income inequality, making Acahual’s clients primarily single mothers with few alternatives. Although Acahual offered counseling for cases of family violence and sex workers, self-esteem workshops, and health education to counter these conditions, the need for greater change was clear in both the harsh machismo culture of Latin America and the context of extreme poverty.

After Silvia’s talk, we drove around the neighborhood of Chureca to see the dump with a clearer lens. Although the Nicaraguan government had recently relocated the neighborhood out of the dump to counter mounting health concerns, it was still perfectly accessible.  As our bus drove through the reclaimed neighborhood, we could see people climbing over the wall to scavenge. Mountains of trash pressed against a disturbingly beautiful blue sky, and children played among puddles of garbage water with battered toys. We watched in helpless silence.

Silvia relayed her talk in an oddly matter-of-fact tone, calm and eloquent, the way only someone who had repeated these words many times could be. But when our class of 19 sophomores, 13 of us men, showered her with questions about the neighborhood, about machismo, and about the organization’s challenges and triumphs, Silvia finally smiled. “I love when groups ask questions,” she said, each word dipped in patience and affection. “Especially when the men ask.”

It was in that moment that I recalled my first moments on the roads of Managua and felt how deep my ignorance was, even just days prior. Nicaragua was not half-fantasy, half-reality, but wholly and horrifically real. We BC students, teeming with social privilege and opportunity, were sitting in a world where it was surprising for men to question structural systems. Where people didn’t get to debate climate change, but dealt with it directly. Where the only way to get a decently-paying job was to support the single-party dictator. Where women were scared of PAP smears because instead of learning basic medical information, they spent their time taking care of their husbands. Suddenly, we were not visiting Nicaragua—Nicaragua had come to knock down our door and show us what was really happening in the world outside America, outside our soft, warm, comfortable “fantasy-land.”

Our week in Managua was not a vacation, nor was it a service trip—it was a much-needed encounter with the real world. We did not return to Chestnut Hill feeling better about ourselves for making a dark-skinned child a bracelet. We came back feeling bitter, furious, and woken-up. We did not revel in our spiritual fulfillment. We reeled in a new understanding of Nicaragua. Nicaragua as home to the Centro de Mujeres Acahual. Nicaragua of Chureca. Nicaragua of deep government corruption, of structural sexism, of deserved anger, and of inspiration.

Silvia’s work is noble and necessary, but to truly solve Acahual’s problems, the world needs to change—the way we confront issues has to change. Students of privilege and opportunity—the epitome of what we are at BC—have the ability and thus the obligation to understand what needs to be done, and what we can do. Every organization we met with in Nicaragua is struggling: with a lack of funding, with underpaid and even unpaid personnel, with an increased demand for resources and services that are already scarce. But they also have a ferocious community of leaders with a vision of a new development, and it is in our privilege and power as young, bright, and educated students to help realize it as the new “real world.”

Featured Image by Silvia Izquierdo – AP Photo 

January 27, 2016