Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Woman´s World

When I studied abroad for two semesters in Spain, I thought that I was getting a real taste of a “machismo” culture. I’ve come to realize that Spain has nothing on Nicaragua.

Men have control here in virtually every facet of life. The man is usually the sole breadwinner, decides when and how many children the family will have, and makes all important household decisions. Men are allowed, even encouraged, to drink publicly and the only bars in my town are men-only pool halls. Men drive buses, make laws, build cities, plan community events, and are more often elected officials. Coming from an egalitarian American culture, some days I can become furious just walking down the street, having to either ignore or confront the whistling, catcalling, and just plain rude vagos (men who just sit around with nothing to do on the streets).
In my host family’s homes, the household has surprisingly been absent of dominant male characters. The men either having died, or run-off a long time ago, I have been able to witness strong Nicaraguan women who raise their sons to be respectful, hardworking men who are not afraid to wash their own clothes or help out in the kitchen.

A typical day in the average Nicaraguan family would go something like this: The mother gets up at 5:30 am (or even as early as 3 am) to collect water in large containers, as it frequently goes out mid-morning, and she has to collect enough for the day’s washing, cooking and drinking. She washes dishes, starts the fire in the kitchen stove, sweeps and mops, takes a shower and prepares breakfast. During all of this, she also wakes up the children and gets them ready for school, which usually starts at 7 am. This means she has to iron their school uniforms and prepare a snack. The husband may get up a little later (however if they live out in the village, he may get up early as well to go out to the fields), eats a breakfast of rice and beans, cheese and tortillas prepared by his wife, and leaves for work (perhaps he is an agriculture worker, policeman, bus driver, truck driver, construction worker…) Throughout the day, the wife stays at home, usually accompanied by two or three small children who are not yet old enough for school. She takes care of them; washing the family’s clothes and the baby’s cloth diapers, constantly sweeping the floors since there is a thin line here in Nicaraguan between “inside” and “outside” and dirt, mud and trash are a constant nuisance. She begins to prepare lunch early; sorting and cleaning beans, cooking rice, cutting chicken…all of this she makes over a wood stove which constantly funnels smoke into the kitchen, her eyes, her lungs… Since the older children are gone at school, she will need to run to a nearby pulperia or tiny convenience store to buy daily necessities (matches, cheese, tortillas, bouillon cubes, toilet paper), and this can be done up to five times a day. The husband and children will come home at lunch time, and she will be expected to have the food ready and waiting for them, and also do all the clean-up (unless of course there is an older daughter around to help her). Then the whole process begins again for dinner. If she’s lucky, she’ll have a few spare moments in her day to visit a relative, play with the baby, listen to some music, or watch her favorite telenovela.

And this will be how she lives out her life. And this life starts early, as soon as they’re old enough to help run errands or cut vegetables. I’ve talked with Nicaraguan women who were married at 15 years old, their husband being twice their age. Teenage pregnancy is also common, with girls as young as 12 or 13 walking around with large pregnant bellies, their skinny frames barely supporting the extra weight. When these adolescent pregnancies occur, the father of the child usually doesn’t stick around, and the job of raising this child will be even more of a challenge. The girl will probably live with her own mother, relying on her monetary and child-raising support.

I recently saw an article about a man from the department of Rio San Juan, Nicaragua who claimed to have 30 children in four different countries; Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. What shocked me wasn’t the actual number of children (I’m sure it was exaggerated, right?) but the fact that he seemed to be bragging about it, and about the fact that he had no contact whatsoever with these children or their mothers. It’s perfectly acceptable here for men to shrug-off a pregnant girlfriend, claiming that “It’s not mine” and ride off into the sunset. It is also the man here who decides how many children he wants to have. Getting women to use family planning methods to avoid having up to 10 children is still a battle since men often refuse to use condoms, and don’t like the fact that their wife might use another method of birth control behind their back.

When hearing all of this, it becomes immediately apparent that it is a man’s world here in Nicaragua. Or is it? As I learn more about the culture and witness more interactions, I am becoming to realize the power and strength that women possess.
This realization occurred to me during the annual national Vaccination Campaign. I tagged along with my Health Center staff giving educational health talks and helping to give out anti-polio drops and anti-parasite pills to the children. What surprised me was the that little boys cowered in fear, sobbing relentlessly and clutching to their mothers at the thought of an injection or even just oral anti-polio drops, whereas the little girls were the bravest ones, putting on tough faces and squeezing their mother’s hand tight, but never making a peep. There was one case of a tough-looking boy who was 15 years old who was so scared of having a Tetanus booster shot that he retreated to the back of the classroom (we were vaccinating in the school) and refused to come close to us or even make eye contact. Despite multiple pleadings on behalf of the nurses and myself and even his classmates, he still flat-out refused to get the shot. After we waited for about a half an hour, we had to eventually give up on him and move on. Once again, he was 15 years old.

I thought this was pretty strange, but after talking to fellow Peace Corps volunteers who had also been working in the Vaccination Campaign, I found that our experiences were actually very similar. They too had seen more wimpy boys than girls, and often had amusing stories to tell as well. Wait a minute, weren’t the Nicaraguan men supposed to be the tough ones??

I started thinking about this phenomenon and realized that little boys are brought up by amazing, caring, nurturing Nicaraguan mothers, not having much contact with their fathers until they are older and big enough to help out in the field/shop, etc. These little boys were so dependent on their powerful mothers, who took-on the lion’s share of raising them, that they didn’t know how to be “men” yet. Howerver, I can even see this in older men (especially those who still live with their parents, which is common). One of my 33 year-old Nicaraguan male friends was complaining the other afternoon about being hungry; apparently he hadn’t eaten all day. “Why not?” I asked him, “Go eat something!” “My mom is out of town…” he replied rather sheepishly. Apparently this grown man was incapable of fixing himself his own meal in his mother’s absence.

What would happen if all the women in Nicaragua suddenly disappeared for a few days? I really think the country would fall apart. Despite all of the country’s machismo tendencies, it is really the Nicaraguan housewife who holds it all together. She cleans, washes, cooks, feeds, keeps in touch with relatives, comforts sick children - and she does it without stopping. Mother’s Day in Nicaragua is May 30th, and the whole country refers to May as “The Month of Mothers.” They go a little crazy down here for their Mothers, and now I understand why, and I’m glad they do. Behind every macho, tough-guy, Nicaraguan man’s man, there is a sweet, hard-working mother, someone who will gladly drop everything to wash a few of his clothes or heat up a plate of beans and rice whenever he decides to drop-in and visit. So, who wins the battle of the sexes in Nicaragua? Well, I think the women just like to let them men think they do.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Peace Corps as seen from the U.S. and the host country

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the words “Peace Corps?” If you’re like most Americans, you picture a dreadlock-wearing, Birkenstock-clad, shower-hating, peace-love-and-harmony hippie walking the streets of some tiny African village helping them build latrines. This is not unlike the view many of my friends and family members had when I announced to them that I was really joining the Peace Corps and would be serving in Nicaragua. “You mean, you’re joining the hippie corps?” one individual (who shall remain nameless) from my family asked me in a surprised tone when they heard the news. While I have always enjoyed being environmentally conscious, am a vegetarian, and have volunteered at various organizations over the years, the word “hippie” is definitely not a synonym for my own name. It may have surprised people that I joined, and I have to say that I was surprised when I finally met the other volunteers in my group since many of them didn’t fit the mental mold that I had created for the typical Peace Corps volunteer. The answer is; there isn’t a typical volunteer.

There are about 180 PC volunteers in Nicaragua, and every one of them has a different story of how they came to apply to Peace Corps. They range in age from 22 to 61 and come from a variety of backgrounds: farmers, married couples, single 20-somethings right out of college, teachers, biologists, aspiring med students, business majors… I have yet to see a dirty hippie (except for the European and American backpacker tourists you glimpse on the buses and in hostels every once in a while. They give us “gringos” a bad name. I have been asked before why we westerners don’t like to shower…) The Peace Corps requires quite a commitment; both of time and of effort. We have to community-organize from the grass-roots, and those roots can be difficult to find and hard to hold on to in a developing country like Nicaragua. While there are some volunteers who manage to waste away their days and slack-off more than they should, the majority that I have met are dedicated and professional, and are doing some amazing projects in their communities of service.
The Nicaraguan (or arguably any country that hosts Peace Corps volunteers) view of Peace Corps is quite different from the average American view.

Every Nicaraguan I have met who is familiar with the Peace Corps, from my Health Center Director, other counterparts, NGO directors, host families, bus drivers, and even waiters have practically hugged me and started regaling me with a story of a previous volunteer they met or worked with and how they collaborated together, how the volunteer showed them some pictures of their family in the U.S., how they chatted away an afternoon talking about Nicaraguan recipes, or how the volunteer still remembers to call every once in a while to say a quick “hola.” I even met a Nicaraguan SeƱora who had hosted a Peace Corps volunteer in her home in the 1970s. She remembered his name and his home city, his family’s names, and even what he studied in college after all these years had passed. The Peace Corps has had a remarkable impact on these people. The Nicaraguans I have met all view Peace Corps volunteers as very professional, motivated, inspiring, creative, and friendly people who are all undertaking a very challenging task in order to help out the people of Nicaragua. Often, our ideas and projects, being seen as ¨foreign¨ and somehow ¨better¨ are taken more seriously, and we are thought to have a world knowledge beyond most of the people that we work with. We are looked at as professionals, not as lazy hippies looking to take two years off to play around in the jungle.

Most people I meet here in my site can’t believe that I’m 22 years old and live so far away from my family, or that I went to college so far away from them in the first place (I did go to college in-state, but since Alaska is so large, it took about a half a day by plane to get there). Nicaraguans can’t understand why we as Peace Corps volunteers would all want to leave our comfortable, washing machine-and-dryer lives to come down to a developing country and get dirty making a brick oven, talk about diarrhea, get bitten by scorpions (yes, that happened to me last week), live on a couple hundred dollars a month and go without hot showers just in order to help them. Although they might think us Peace Corps volunteers are a bit on the crazy side, they see no “hippie” or “slacker” in us. To some people that I meet, especially youth, I may be the only American they have ever met, and I may be the only educated female role model that some of these young girls that I work with have ever had.

It can be difficult at times ¨fitting in,¨ things like my height and blonde hair certainly don´t help. Some people may feel threatened by an American presence or intimidated, so right now at the beginning of my service, I´m working at trying to integrate and make as many friends as possible. It´s hard to balance my ¨American personality¨ with the ¨Peace Corps image¨ that we have to project as well. You definitely have to watch what you say and do here since you´re constantly under a microscope.

The contrast between how many Americans view the Peace Corps and how the host countries do is often diametrically opposed. However, I think that this view is changing. There are the many returned volunteers who have gone on to complete higher education, obtain successful jobs in the government and private sector, and establish their own foundations, NGOs and activist projects. These volunteers are highly respected and seen as adaptable and talented individuals. Another bright spot: the Obama Administration promised to double the size of the Peace Corps in an effort to improve our international relations and to instill the spirit of service in more Americans. I can’t think of a better foreign policy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mango Land

“Nope. Worm-infested” pronounces my nine year-old host brother, Kairo. I sigh, defeated and drop the yellowed mango to the ground. I have not yet mastered the art of picking out mangos. “Here, just wait. I’ll find a good one!” he exclaims, and before I can say anything to stop him, Kairo has scurried up the mango tree in our backyard and is balancing his 70-pound frame (which he sustains with a balanced diet of tortillas, cheese, potato chips and sugared-down juice) on a slim branch, reaching out for a mango that he has deemed worthy of my consumption. The mangos that he can’t rustle down with a long stick that he has saved over the years for this very purpose must be grabbed by hand, and he is the only one in the family eager enough to take on this task. I have given him the nickname of “The Mango Hunter.”

My daily intake of Vitamin A has increased probably five-fold in the past few weeks, due my host family’s enormous mango tree. The fruit is just coming into season, marking the beginning of the six month-long rainy season here. Every morning we wake up to a patio littered with ripe mangos which have fallen during the night.
Kairo was my informal mango professor as we watched the mangos ripen, giving me all the Nicaraguan tips. He explained that the bright yellow color of some mangos that fall indicated that they are not ripe, but have been infested by worms and are inedible. Kairo also explained to me how you can tell if a mango is ripe: just look for part of the mango to be a rosy-yellowish-burgundy tint. The ones in that receive the most direct sunlight ripen faster. I can tell he enjoyed sharing this information with me, realizing that he knew more about it than I did. Hunting mangos is one of his favorite hobbies and this is his favorite time of the year. He east about nine mangos a day and can often be bribed with mangos, ex. “Kairo, go take a shower. If you don’t, you can’t have any mangos today!” his mother will threaten. Although he guards these precious fruits close, he is also limitlessly generous, and if he even hears a hint come out of my mouth about desiring a mango, he’s up in the tree fetching down three for me.
Right now, the markets are full of ripe fruits: watermelon, pineapple, coconut, grapes, melon and countless others that do not have English translations because they simply don’t exist in the north. Fruits that I used to eat daily, like apples, are a luxury down here, but I have found worthy replacements.
Although mangos may be more expensive in the states, I’m going to post a few mango recipes my host family has shared with me, so if you’re feeling exotic, give them a try.
Mango “Fresco” (Pulp-laden juice which you can make from just about any fruit or vegetable: melon, watermelon, pineapple, beet and lemon, carrot, orange…)
1. Slice up 3-4 ripe mangos and add one and a half cups of water and bring to rolling boil on stove for a few minutes, lower heat and let simmer for five-ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Put entire contents into blender, adding a couple more cups of water, and blend until smooth.
3. Add more water or sugar to taste. Serve chilled.
Mango Jam
Equal quantities of mashed fruit and sugar.
Juice from one lemon
1.Combine fruit, lemon juice and sugar and boil. Immediately lower heat and simmer slowly for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2.Boil glass jelly containers and lids for five minutes.
3.Pour liquid into glass containers while hot and secure lids immediately.

You can also dehydrate mango slices, make a mango cobbler, or put it on ice cream… Also the Nicaraguans like to eat mango slices (and pretty much any fruit) with salt and sometimes with chili powder. Green mangos can also be sliced and eaten alone or with salt.
I hope you’ll try one of these ways of eating mango, if you close your eyes, maybe you can imagine being here in Nicaragua, eating it beneath the tree it came from. Just don’t overdo it as Kairo did the other day…you’ll be in the bathroom for a while suffering the consequences.