As a group, this year's HNGR interns have commited together, among other things, to "listen to the unheard voices and know them by name." (To see the rest of our 2008 HNGR covenant, click on the link to Michael's blog on the left). This past Thursday I had the opportunity to hear the voices that lay behind statistics and buzz words with which we so quickly become numb to. I leave them here for you. It is a long account, taken from my field journal, which I keep as a part of my anthropological study while in Nicaragua.
First, for those who don't have 15 minutes to spend reading, I will include some pictures.
Thursday, June 19
....Our next stop was the community of Santa Maria, about a half hour drive from León. This community started as a refugee camp nine years ago for victims of an extremely large mudslide from the Casita Volcano which completely wiped out three villages and greatly affected three others. Residents of Santa Maria all lost family members, usually several family members, in the mudslide. During the relief efforts in the two or three years following the disaster the government of Luxemburg organized a large scale project to 350 cement brick homes for these residents. Therefore, upon first entering the community you would never know the degree of poverty and difficulty that these people face on a daily basis. Although they have homes, they have lost not only family members, but also their agricultural land, their source of income and their known way of life. They have had to switch from their rural largely subsistence lifestyle, to now living in a “suburban” setting with no work opportunities. Because no income generating opportunities were created during the relief efforts, almost all of the able bodied men in the community have left. Some of these men send money back to their families, others “become irresponsible” and do not send anything. Among the men who have stayed in the community there are high instances of incest and domestic abuse.
Ken told me that the work here has been difficult. The people in this community largely lack initiative to proactively change their situation. Many have grown accustomed to waiting for handouts after the relief efforts. Those who do have drive and initiative leave the community for education and vocational opportunities, and thus there is a great vacuum of leadership from within the community. Obviously there are many factors at play contributing to this: results of short term relief efforts, depression from tragedy, pre-existing conditions of poverty, lack of emotional, physical, and Spiritual resources – the list goes on.
Further contributing to the difficulty of recovery from this tragic event is actually rooted in the Pentecostal tradition this community is part of. This particular community was not Catholic, as most of the country is, but were 90% Protestant-Pentecostal. The Pentecostal church in Nicaragua is known for strict legalism – regulation of women’s dress, strong separation of male/female roles, etc. One particular aspect of this tradition is a strong taboo against grieving. It is believed that sadness is equal to a lack of faith. Thus people were expected to hold celebration ceremonies for the loved ones lost in the tragedy, rather than mourn their loss. Ken has been working these nine years in the community to facilitate a healthy grieving process and to train leaders who can help with counseling needs. There are also large problems within family dynamics which have arisen out of this situation which I will discuss in greater depth during a following case study.
The first family I spent time with was the home of Juan-Carlos (pseudo names are sometimes used). Juan-Carlos is a cheerful man of 38 years. His leg was injured in a work-related accident four years ago, and he is now confined to the home with his leg elevated, or walking with crutches. His two room cement block house is home to his wife, three kids, and his wife’s sister and her two children. When I first entered this home he was sitting and watching television. The furnishings of the home were sparse including four plastic patio chairs, one functioning rocking chair, and one broken rocking chair, and a small table which he used to support his leg. The electronic appliances in the house included a television, a DVD player, a cell phone, an iron. Cooking was done over a gas stove in the corner. These devices had the effect of fooling me, upon initial observations, into assuming this was not a greatly impoverished family. However, after Juan-Carlos accident he lost his ability to provide for his family with regular work. The family’s main source of income is from his wife who cleans peanuts at a near-by plantation for a total pay of $2 a day. This family of eight people is supported on $2 a day, as well as occasional side jobs in welding and embroidery that Juan-Carlos can do from home. I have often heard the statistic that over 50% (sometimes I have heard as much as 70 or 80%) of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 a day. These are the faces of that statistic.
Irania, Kim and Ken told me, is a strong Christian woman and one of their best resources of leadership in the community. She lives with her four children and her sister (or maybe cousin) and her two children. They lost a brother in the mudslide, as well as their land. Her husband is was described to me as a controlling and “strange” man. He spends most of his time up on the Volcano, I believe with their land. At times he would force the daughters to come and stay with him for multiple days on the volcano. Domestic abuse and incest are a strong possibility in this family.
This particular day was among the more painful of Irania’s life. Her fifteen year old daughter, Maria, had run away from home with a twenty year old boy tweleve days prior. Kim told me that Maria had always been the good daughter of the family – while the older daughter who had sustained damage to her eye and face in the mudslide had been more of the worry. However, this boy, who was described to me as a low brown pot smoker type, and started “working on” Maria when she was just 13 years old. In these parts “marriage” is still practiced in the form of bride stealing – in which the man (usually with previous permission from the parents) steals away the girl in the middle of the night, and from then on they are considered married, although an actual marriage ceremony rarely takes place. This happens when the girls are between 13 and 20 years old. In this particular case the young man had asked the parents for their daughter, and they refused him. The daughter ran away with him anyway, causing extreme pain to her mother.
On this day Maria had returned to the home to ask her mother’s forgiveness, possibly to return to stay. Kim and Ken spent over an hour counseling and listening to Irania, before she saw her daughter. Irania wept as she told them about the situation. She wasn’t sure she was up to facing her daughter face to face after the pain she had caused. Kim and Ken listen and talked and prayed with her, at the home of a neighbor. The neighbor and her older daughter also aided in the reconciliation. Kim told the story of the prodigal son, highlighting the different characters and their roles. I stood by at a distance, a spectator to this woman’s grief.
After over an hour of counseling, she was convinced to return to her house and face her daughter. We walked with her along the road as she cried all the way to her house, Kim singing a Spanish worship song softly and holding her arm. When we arrived at the house, Irania took a seat and Maria walked toward her. For several minutes Irania could not look her in the face, but could only continue to cry into her handkerchief. Maria stood by, looking unsure what her next step should be. The older daughter sat with her mom and spoke into her ear. After about fifteen minutes, Kim moved a chair closer to Irania for Maria to come and sit in. Kim and Ken were both very conscious about not wanting to force this to happen, or else it would not be genuine. They took turns sitting with her and mostly only spoke if it was to affirm something that someone else said – such as one of the daughters. Maria asked her mother’s forgiveness. Irania could still not respond to this for several minutes. Her other daughter urged her mother to forgive Maria. Kim stepped out to let Ken take over the mediation, because this is where he works on a regular basis, and not him. By the time we left they had begun to talk, but when we went to check on Irania again later in the afternoon, the pain still filled her face.
Ronald and Darling Gomez are a couple in their late thirties. Kim and Ken told me that they were the most motivated and proactive people in the community. They are strong leaders and dedicated believers Therefore, when they left to find jobs in Costa Rica, it was a major blow to the work Ken has been doing. Today they were back home for a brief visit. We talked with Darling about their life in Costa Rica. She happily reported that they have their own apartment there, and have started a store which sells a variety of goods, with her mother-in-law. Darling tried to convince Kim to come to the hotel she works at as a maid for a visit. Darling told us that she wakes up at 4am every morning to take a bus to get to work. She does not return home until 9pm. Her face glowed as she told us about their improved life and the new opportunities they have in Costa Rica. She hopes that some day, when they have raised enough money, they will be able to return to Santa Maria and continue their business their. Kim hopes that will be the case, though it does not seem very likely.