Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When I grow up...

Back when I was in the 2.5 month-long Peace Corps training, I was required to teach at least five classes to primary and secondary schools. The classes would be over health-related topics, but starting out simple, since we were still getting our footing here in Nicaragua. It was more of an opportunity to work up our confidence leading a classroom in another language and becoming familiar with the education system here.

One of the classes that I gave was to a group of 10-13 year-old kids about self-esteem and life goals. Although it sounds like a somewhat mundane topic and maybe even unnecessary, it is exactly these simple ideas that need to be imparted to youth here. Low self-esteem often leads to behaviors such as drug use, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS infection, dropping out of school… All the same things it can cause in the United States, however since we are in a developing country, the effects are augmented. As for life goals, most kids here don’t plan if they’re even going to go to class tomorrow, much less what they want to be when they grow up. It is important to get these children to cultivate a high self-esteem and keep their life goals in mind as they develop.

The class went well – I worked in some fun games like hot potato and musical chairs to get the message across. The kids loved it. The education system here is very formal and usually consists of the teacher writing up on the blackboard and the students dutifully copying down word-for-word. Sound like fun to you? Kids love it when Peace Corps volunteers come in and bring new ideas and games to them, although sometimes it can be difficult to get them to participate. Some kids get shocked when I ask them to draw a picture of their favorite animal, or to act out a role play. They withdraw into their shyness, not knowing what to do. It usually takes a bit of time before kids will open-up to more non-formal education methods.
When we were talking about life goals, I had each of the kids take out a piece of paper and write on it what one of their goals in life was. I said they could write whatever they wanted – it could be about their future career, their home life, their friends, their physical abilities, their education… They carefully concentrated on their work, barely looking up. When they started passing them in to me, I saw that many had decorated their papers with little drawings and used different colored markers to elaborate the words. Some had even folded up their papers into little designs. As I walked home that day from the school, I started reading through their goals. What I found really surprised me and made my day (actually, my week). I’ll give a few examples below of what they wrote, in their exact words, to show you a glimpse of the youth of Nicaragua 
-I want to be a Doctor. I also want to be a Secretary.
-I want to be a worker.
-I want to be a singer. (this one was surrounded by flowers with the girl’s name written above)
-I want to be a firefighter, no… policeman (complete with a drawing of a policeman and a gun).
-I want to be a doctor. Or if not, a teacher and carpenter, also I want to be a secretary and a baker.
-I want to be a professional (there were lots of this one).
-I want to be a professional lawyer.
-I want to get my bachelors degree and work as a cashier. (?)
-I want to get my associates in nursing.
-I want to be official.
-I want to work in Spain to give money to my mother.
-I want to be responsible.
-I want to be the boss of a military base.
-I want to have a good family and be a good mother and a good cook.
-I want to study.

I hope some of those made you smile; it made my heart smile to read those sincere and ambitious responses. It made me realize that these children have actually thought about their future, and they desire more than perhaps their parents or grandparents did (who are often illiterate or have no formal education or profession). I just hope that most of them will be able to realize those goals.

Working with youth here is often a Peace Corps volunteer's main focus. In any given culture, it is the youth that are more open to new ideas and are more likely to change negative behaviors. They also accept us foreigners just as we are, whereas in the adult population, we might face scrutiny or mistrust. I’m going to have a meeting with my town’s mayor next week to discuss youth group possibilities in the future. I’m hoping to secure some funds. I envision reactivating the youth group program that was once vibrant in this community. (A previous volunteer in this community installed a “Teen Center” in town for the youth to use). Wish me luck as I go forward with this!

Friday, July 24, 2009


Today was an exciting day. While most days here in Peace Corps Nicaragua are relatively uneventful, with plenty of time for reading, chatting with neighbors and sleeping, today was a little more action-packed. One could even say… dangerous??
I accompanied a group of three nurses and a doctor out to a nearby small village which is part of my town´s municipality. I wasn´t sure exactly why we were going – they just told me that we were going to see a few patients. I didn´t have anything planned that morning, so I decided to tag along. As we rode along in the ambulance, speeding down the Pan-American Highway, I noticed that one of the nurses had some posters which contained information about Tuberculosis (TB). ¨What are those for? ¨ I asked. ¨Oh, I´m just going to give a talk about TB to the people there…¨ she said absentmindedly.

I came to find out, as we got to the community and started hiking up the mountains to where the houses were located, that we were doing a home visit to a family that had had a positive TB case. The patient, an older man was currently in the hospital, but had had contact with people in the house before he was admitted. ¨Oh great, ¨ I thought to myself, ¨Infectious disease, here I come.¨ We carried no gloves, masks, hand-sanitizer… just a few plastic jars to take saliva samples and the wordy Nicaraguan Ministry of Health official guidelines on Tuberculosis.

After walking in the 95F humid weather for a good half hour, we reached the house. Despite the desired shade that the living room provided, we entered a bit cautiously. I could almost hear the others holding in their breath, or was it my imagination? We looked critically around the house, as if searching for the TB germs that would suddenly go floating by, like the large flies we were constantly swatting away. We were met by an older couple- the TB patient´s parents. They were the only ones who lived in the house, but of course there were neighbors and small children constantly filtering in and out as well. We began our interview, asking when the patient´s symptoms started, where he lived, who slept in the room with him, who had had contact with him after he started becoming sick… Writing down all the details in chronological order was a difficult and long process. The information did not come easily. The older couple got confused, kept changing the dates, left out important details. The TB patient, who lived in another town by himself, had come to his parent´s house when his symptoms started. He lost his appetite, was tired, had a fever, night sweats, and a strong cough accompanied by a clear liquid. They had cared for him for four days in the house, everyone sleeping the same room.

Tuberculosis is a infectious disease that spreads through saliva (through talking, coughing, sneezing...) The chance of being infected is increased in poor countries like Nicaragua, where sanitation is substandard and many people live under one roof and sleep in the same room.

As the interview progressed, I found myself taking part in it as well- asking questions, and giving general information to the older couple on what TB was, how it was spread and how it was treated. I was pretty surprised that the doctors and the nurses let me do this – in fact, they seemed relieved that I stepped in and explained some of it, since it had been a while since some of them had brushed up their TB trivia. Not that I do either. Most of my limited knowledge about TB comes from the book I recently read, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Paul Farmer (a great read about public health in Haiti, Russia and Peru), or from reading the pamphlets and small booklets about TB that I´ve seen here while in Nicaragua. Needless to say, I´m no expert, but this older couple really listened to my advice, as simple as it may have been. Maybe it´s because I´m from the United States and look different from them. Maybe they thought I was a doctor… In any case, I´m glad I was there, because through some of my probing questions, we found out that there were actually young neighbor children the man had had contact with that could also possibly be infected. This information was not immediately given, and I had to dig for it. We ended up taking saliva samples from those children as well as the older couple.

After we had talked to everyone that had contact with the TB patient, we started to return to the ambulance to head back to town. At this point, the second exciting event of the day occurred. This community we visited was right along the Pan-American Highway which runs from North America to South America, cutting Nicaragua in half. My municipality is located in the north of the country, right on the border with Honduras. If you have been watching the news lately, you may have seen that in Honduras in late June, a military coup overtook and kicked-out (literally, out of the country) the President, Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya is a leftist leader and ally to the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez and Cuba´s Fidel Castro. Zelaya has been unable to re-enter his country since the coup, his plane not being allowed to land on Honduran soil. I saw on the news yesterday and was alerted by Peace Corps Nicaragua safety and security staff that Zelaya was planning a land-invasion of his own country via Nicaragua. Specifically, he was planning on undertaking a forced entry of Honduras at the border crossing which is about an hour north of my community by car.

As we walked towards the ambulance, suddenly a caravan of police cars and large pick-up trucks filled with people – some of them with television cameras, others with guns – flew by, headed north on the Pan-American towards the border. They were about 20 vehicles in total. This was obviously the Zelaya caravan – apparently he had announced that that morning around that hour that we happened to be walking along the highway, he would be heading to the border. A few minutes later, large trucks filled with Nicaraguan soldiers also sped by, heading in the same direction. Were they sent by the Nicaraguan President, heading up to be support staff of the Zelaya group? Or to calm the riot that was sure to ensue? ¨Those men are going into a war¨ commented one of the nurses about the caravan. ¨That Zelaya is crazy to do this.¨ Reports from the Honduras side inform that hundreds of Zelaya supporters have moved to the border area to meet the ex-president and protect his re-entry from the military. The government “de facto”, gave the military and the police force the order to apprehend Zelaya if he crosses into Honduran territory.

A shiver ran down my back. I wondered what would happen in the coming hours at that border. I knew the place they would try to cross – I had recently bee there helping with the Human Influenza border checks. The crossing was a relatively small area with a dilapidated customs building and a pathetic duty-free store (blenders, irons, towels…yeah, that´s about it). Many Honduran and Nicaraguan citizens cross each day to work on the other side, to visit family and friends, and do their shopping. Was this the place where we would possibly see a military stand-off? Would people be hurt?

I´ll have to check the news tomorrow online (probably when I´m posting this blog) since the local available news here on the radio and TV is highly biased and un-reliable. Only time will tell whether Zelaya will return to power or if the coup will keep holding him off. Apparently, one of the motives for the coup was Zelaya´s recent desire to pass a law which removed term limits on his presidency. On a similar note, the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last week declared this was his desire as well. Hmm.

So, since my morning included both a communicable disease and a military coup, today is a little more eventful than most that I´ve had here. I mean, the most exciting thing that happened to me in the past week was the fact that the local cyber cafĂ© got a new fan installed (so I won´t boil to death when I´m getting my internet fix), oh- and the fact that the little store on my street started selling Diet Coke. Yes, I live on the dangerous side here in Peace Corps.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Development work

Although I have only been in Nicaragua about 5 months, I feel like I have already learned so much about international development work. Before I came here, I always thought that the money that Westerners donate to those “save-the-children” funds, traveling brigades of doctors, church mission groups, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs - referred to as ¨non-profits¨ sometimes in the US) always went directly to where the need was, and it was used just as they would hope. With these donated funds a village would have new latrines built, a child would be sent to school, a woman would have a tumor removed…and their life would be great. The Westerner could then feel a little better about themselves, feeling as if they had really done something.
When I first arrived at Peace Corps and we began our development training, we were told that as Peace Corps volunteers, we were different. Rather than coming in from the outside and handing out money and resources sporadically, we were working from the bottom up. We began to learn about the importance of community integration, learned about community analysis tools to decipher what the community actually wanted, needed, and could make happen. We learned that our Peace Corps service is not about us. It is not about accomplishing something that looks nice on a piece of paper or on a resume, rather it is about giving Nicaraguans a hand-up, not a hand-out.
As I’ve been in my site for the past three months, I’ve seen several development projects from foreign countries pass through, and I can’t help but see them through my new “Peace Corps lens.” Is what they’re doing sustainable? Is it what the community really needs? Does this really help the citizens advance and develop or does it just further reinforce the fact that when foreigners come to visit, they arrive with full pockets to disperse their riches among the population? I am often approached in my site and throughout Nicaragua being asked for money, or when I am involved in projects, people think that I magically have the power to produce funds to make it happen. I feel like most Nicaraguans have a little speech memorized in which they go on and on about how they come from a poor country, they have little education, they need our help…After explaining to them that Peace Corps give technical rather than monetary assistance to its countries of service, they look at me with a rather confused and non-believing stare. What? An American without money? I don’t have much patience now for their practiced “sob story.” That may work on someone who doesn’t live here, but I know better now. These people may be poor, but that does not mean they are helpless. I have met some of the smartest people I know here in Nicaragua- they are a loving, hard-working people who do not deserve our pity or our hand-out. They deserve our cooperation and respect.
I have seen many medical brigades, student groups, church missions, and NGOs come through Nicaragua. They are usually here between 1-4 weeks, building latrines, seeing patients, giving out soccer balls, building basketball courts… They come, they see, they build/see a few patients/teach a few kids how to play volleyball, and they leave. Although I don’t want to sound like a complete killjoy since these groups ultimately do good work and many Nicaraguans benefit, but ultimately they are not sustainable and do not train or involve Nicaraguan nationals as much as would be desired. If Nicaraguans were educated in how to raise money and carry out these projects, perhaps these foreign brigades wouldn’t be necessary.
I don’t want to make Peace Corps and my role here seem superior to what others here are doing- it all has the same goal in mind: development of Nicaragua as technically capable and healthy country.
Now that I’ve been here some time – being the only Westerner in my town surrounded by Nicaraguans, it is quite easy for me to also look at these traveling development groups from the perspective of a Nicaraguan. I can just imagine them thinking, “Have you gringos gone crazy?? Go home to your nice carpeted, air-conditioned house… get some pizza delivered! Why would you ever want to waste your time down here helping us poor Nicaraguans when you have a way better life back there?” I vaguely remember why those gringos do it though- a feeling of satisfaction from the work done, perhaps a feeling of guilt for all that they have in life, a true passion for helping the less-fortunate…. After all, it was some of those very feelings that prompted me to join the Peace Corps. How is it that I have changed?
Well, I’ve realized that not all development work is equal. Conducting a full community needs analysis is really necessary if your project is going to have the desired impact. Sometimes, just giving someone a hand-out actually hurts them in the long-run. They learn that money and resources will just come to them if they wait long enough and look poor enough, rather than striving to become educated, involved, or employed, effecting positive change in their community.
I’ll give you an example from my life here. All the girls on my volleyball team (there are 12 of us) do not own tennis shoes or anything resembling them. Most of them practice in sandals, flip flops, or slip-on plastic shoes. I desperately wish that we all had good shoes since this would make practicing less painful for them and also help us play better as a team. Extra-curricular activities are non-existent in Nicaragua, so for many girls this team is the highlight of their day and their only reason to leave their house. I could probably write a letter to Nike or some other sports supplier to request that they send us some shoes or funds, but on the other hand, that could have negative repercussions. I would be looked at from that moment on as the American who got free shoes for her volleyball team (and this wouldn’t be a good thing). I would go from being Penny the Peace Corps Volunteer to Penny the Walking ATM. Nicaraguans wouldn’t understand that Nike feels it should give these shoes out of the goodness of its heart (not to mention tax breaks). They just see a rich Western corporation giving hand-outs again; and they are not shy to open up their hands. In my town I would be hassled, gossiped about, and solicited until I gave out more shoes to every child in Nicaragua. A better way to go about this I’ve realized would be to have the girls raise their own money for the shoes: selling food, putting on a dance… Or show them how to write their own letter to Nike requesting money. When they have ownership of the project, it is more meaningful for them, increasing their self-esteem and self-respect.
So, while I do value the hard labor that these traveling groups and NGOs do in Nicaragua, I’ve also realized to look with a more critical eye at their projects. Are they seeking sustainability? How do they decide on a project? Who does the actual work? Is their host country involvement? Is the host country paying part of the cost? If I donate to any NGO or charity in the future, it will also be with this in mind.
On that note, if any of you reading my blog enjoy donating to a development organization, I suggest that you check out the Peace Corps volunteer projects that you can donate to through the Peace Corps website. It´s called the Peace Corps Partnership program. (see website at - ) Peace Corps volunteers from all over the world can solicit funds through the website for their local projects; HIV/AIDS programs, deforestation education programs, adolescent clinics, seed banks… As I mentioned before, Peace Corps gives us no monetary support, so we have the option of using this tool, Peace Corps Partnership, to help raise money. These projects are being undertaken by volunteers who have integrated into their communities, live among the populous and have chosen the project with the help and support of host country nationals. I strongly encourage you to check out this website, since in my view (biased as it may be) I think that these grassroots Peace Corps volunteer projects are some of the best places your money can go to.