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Tanya Rodriguez 1999 – A report on her volunteer work in Nicaragua

Saturday, 18 September, 1999

A month after Hurricane Mitch the Santa Rosa Fund’s first volunteer placement, Tanya Rodriguez from Bristol, flew into Managua for a spell of three months in the country, some of it spent at the Escuela Ernesto Ché Guevara teaching English to a few of the teachers. This is her report.

Escuela Ernesto Ché Guevara

I found Escuela Ernesto Ché Guevara looking very proud. A crowd of beautiful 5-6 year old children were graduating from their ‘pre-escolar’ education. The school playground was decorated with bunches of balloons. Arriving late, I expected to slip into the back-row unnoticed, but I heard an announcement concerning “Guests from the Republic of England” and was escorted in a state of shock onto the stage where several important looking people were sitting. I wanted to laugh and cry simultaneously. Facing me on one side was an audience in miniature: a fragile, demure and terribly smart crowd of 5-6 year olds, all in full-length burgundy graduation cloaks and matching tassled hats. They seemed awed by their own uniforms. On the other side, proud Mums and Dads. And there too were the press. Maybe my tearfulness arose from the innocence these children exuded, or the immense earnestness of the whole atmosphere of the event, and my laughter because there seemed something ridiculous to be dropped, green, straight out of England into this sort of honoured position at the centre of it. Each child was assisted onto the stage by a boy in a soldier’s uniform, each child treading on their cloak and seeming too frail for the big steps and big clothes, and with a serious and awe-struck expression, to receive their award. I imagined that from their eyes, such an event would communicate to them that their own personal education is such an important thing, not just for them, but to their parents, teachers and even outsiders that they don’t know, which to them may represent the world in general.

New educational reforms have been made in Nicaragua stating that English must be taught in schools. As my visit to Managua coincided with the school’s Christmas holiday, it was arranged that I would give English classes over three weeks for the teachers at the school. Though many teachers expressed an interest in coming to the classes (well, many people outside the school too, who could not afford to pay for classes) this was difficult for many who have other work and family commitments. However, around five people came regularly including teacher Marcia Isabel Rivera, 14 year old Jorge Tinois, a student at the school and 9 year old Yaritza Sandino, a niece of Modesto who works at the school.

We had a 2 hour class every morning. It was my first experience of teaching, but I felt surprisingly confident and relaxed with the group partly because they treated me with a lot of friendliness, respect and appreciation. Marcia would bring me a drink and something sweet to eat each day. Despite the short time we had we managed to cover some basics quite thoroughly. Most people, even those who have never had a formal class, know a few words of English, and building on this, by the end of three weeks they could exchange civilities, buy/sell things in shops, exchange basic descriptions about themselves and their families with pretty good grammar (and many other bits and bobs besides). We did a lot of interactive games, role-plays and singing Christmas Carols to try and get over the fear of talking out loud and on the last day we celebrated by doing the Hokey Cokey, which was quite hysterical. They all individually presented me with presents too, one of which was a bag with
‘God guides me’ on the front, which seriously improved my image, providing me with a halo that protected my devilry on my subsequent travels.

Asociación Quincho Barrilete

I also worked as a volunteer for Quincho Barrilete. They run several projects aiming to improve the quality of life and opportunities of children and adolescents living on the streets of Managua. This was very interesting for me as I work in a parallel organisation in Britain, although with adults. I found it difficult, mainly because I spent most of my time there trying unsuccessfully to work out what was going on and not feeling in the least useful; and to get past this I would have needed much longer. Despite this the staff treated me like an indispensable member of the project, and the ‘chavalos’ overwhelmed me with affection I have never known before from kids.

I worked at the day centre. The children were provided with meals, would have to shower, attend lessons in the mornings and learn skills that would provide them with small business initiatives, go out to play sports and watch TV. My main contribution was teaching some of the kids to make papier-maché boxes in which they could carry articles for sale on the streets. However, my favourite part of Quincho was going out into the streets, the Oriental Market and abandoned central parks with the outreach worker. It gave me most insight as I met people in the environment in which they lived and I got such a feel for Managua I became quite attached to it.

From the workers they received a quality of guidance and care that led more than one child to say “they treat us as if they were our parents”. The workers seemed united in a heartfelt dedication to the kids, and in return they responded with a love and respect that seemed amazing to me, considering that these were children that have been so let down by the adult world. They were far more trusting than I would have imagined. The amount of physical contact in the relationships was so noticeably different to here in the UK. As with many things, I would have loved to understand more and go beyond initial impressions.

Puerto Morazán

At 10 am on the 28th of October the heavy, prolongued rain from Hurricane Mitch had caused the water to rise from the estuary and river adjacent to Morazán. People grabbed what they could and took boats to the two hills that are the highest points in the town. They were trapped there for five days, watching their homes gradually become submerged under water. During this time I was told: “everybody was crying because we felt it was the end of the world”, because they feared the water would cause parts of hills to collapse and because no outside help/supplies had arrived. On the fifth day the water level had fallen enough for people to return to their homes and the first emergency supplies came.

I visited Puerto Morazán in February, at the start of the school year. The journey there, a 2 hour bus ride from the nearest town, intensified its aura of mystery and my feeling that I was travelling deeper into a remote and forgotten corner of the world. The road became dust and stone. The landscape, over which Volcán San Cristobal kept eternal vigil, became more interesting, untouched, more innocent. I remember volcanoes of perfect cones, perfectly rounded, symmetrical hills rising out of a flat horizon. All illuminous green and dotted with the strange forms of exotic trees. Plants bearing enormous and tiny leaves side by side, lent an air of nature watered and nourished to its limit. Then, as I bore closer to my destination, this sweet paradise became interspersed with great parched fields, with miniature cracks. The rising dust formed a cloud around the sun and turned the world a shade of grey. It was hard to imagine there had been a hurricane 3 months previously. The land was so dry and dusty (Dec. – April is the dry season) and ordinariness of daily activities and seemingly cheerful spirits of the people gave me an impression of life going along uninterrupted for years. I arrived just in time to see all the sobbing and throwing of temper tantrums by 4 year olds as their parents abandoned them at school for the first time. It was mainly through Marta Nubia Alvarez, an active member in community groups, that I got a sense of the stress the community was under. The prawn industry, on which Morazán relies, was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. 95% of people in Morazán were unemployed at the time I was there.

I stayed in Marta Nubia’s household, and was made very welcome. It was interesting for me to participate in the day to day rhythms of a life so distant from my own. A rude awakening at the unearthly hour of 5 am, with cocks crowing, radio ‘Tigre’ and merengue booming out of every household, and already the housework in full swing, the floor already mopped around my bed and breakfast served. Then to work at the school. Roxana, one of the teachers, would persuade me to sing English childrens’ songs to the kids. The only one I could remember was ‘Old MacDonald’. It was only when the kids were looking at me with more amazement than usual that it twigged that they did not understand why I was making pig noises. Then home for lunch and the first T.V. ‘novella’ of the day. It had been my ambition whilst in Nicaragua to get immersed in this popular pastime. I realised then that those incredible dying-of-love songs I had heard everywhere were novella theme tunes. At last something had fallen into place.

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