Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Alphabet Soup

Last week I went to a Project Design and Management workshop (aka PDM), which was conveniently held at a hotel on the beach not far from my site. We spent basically three full days discussing development, approaches to participatory community development (that is, getting the community involved as much as possible), and the steps of designing and managing a community-based project. The workshop is open to pretty much all volunteers in Nicaragua so we were a mixed bag of volunteers from all five sectors: agriculture, small business, health, environment, and English. The volunteers came from regions all over Nicaragua and everyone brought a Nicaraguan counterpart so I had the opportunity to meet some new and interesting people.

As my counterpart I brought Rafael, who manages the NGO where I teach English. They do a lot of projects in the rural areas outside of town so he came in with a lot of knowledge but he said he learned something so that’s good.

Here we are in our little work group with an environment volunteer and her counterpart who are working on building a bigger library in their town:

And here’s some of our work, PC-Nicaragua is probably the country’s biggest consumer of papelografo which are the big sheets of paper you see here. We basically wallpapered the room we were working in:

Although we did work our tails off, we also had some fun. The last night we had a bonfire on the beach and the hotel staff roped a bunch of us into doing a goofy competition. For being good sports (my partner Colin and I came in 3rd out of 4 teams), we were awarded these fancy shell necklaces:

But my favorite part was at the end each group had to present a creative review of the steps we learned. All the groups presented some fantastic and very creative summaries. My group did a fashion show, I put my Spanish to the test as the announcer while my group members strutted their stuff:

Stephanie showing El Sombrero de Visión (The Vision Hat)

Rafael in La Faja de Plan de Acción and Las Botas de Presupuesto (The Action Plan Belt & Budget Boots)

Go Team Mafael del Sillo (we named our team by combining the names of our two sites)!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Transportation, Nica Style

One of the things I’ve been trying to do with my teachers is to contextualize our lessons – that is, using familiar situations and everyday vocabulary for Nicaragua, not the U.S. The old English book they used before had all this stuff about airplanes and stewardesses and stuff that 90% of my students will never encounter. This month in the 9th grade we’re teaching about transportation and my counterpart brought in what he thought was an appropriate list of means of transportation. I thought I had done a good job by adding things like horses and trying to figure out the best way to translate “microbus.” Well, Joel came in with a list that included not only horse but mule and donkey as well as cart.

This post will require a part two because this doesn’t even cover all the forms of transportation in this country, but here’s a start:

Guy riding a cow (not common, but it happens):

Guys hanging on the back of a truck (very very common):

Launching boats in Masachapa, which is still done by rolling them out on logs:

On the bus:

Caponera, the Nica equivalent of a rickshaw:

Small child on moto, and no, she doesn’t have her license:

Horse cart:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I seriously think about this stuff ALL THE TIME!

The past couple weeks have been pretty uneventful. I tried to organize a meeting about doing a ballet class with a group of dancers at the instituto but that fell through because the teacher I was coordinating with wasn’t able to organize the kids in time. Some friends are trying to organize a general dance group in the community and want my help so I’m hoping that might work out, and if not I’ll try to organize through the instituto again. But the next month will be difficult to organize anything at all: next week I’m going to another Peace Corps training, the beginning of September I have a big English conference in Managua to present at and at the same time I have three friends coming to visit and the fiestas patrias, aka Independence Day. So despite feeling ready to get started on something new right now, I’m forced to wait in order to give myself the greatest chance of success. One of the frustrations of Peace Corps service.

Development work in general is just not easy. I find that I, and many of the volunteers here, often get bogged down in bigger questions of culture, gender, and the effectiveness and sustainability of our work. I had conversations about this with both Nicas and Americans this past weekend, so it’s been on my mind again. One of my Nica friends was expressing his frustration to me about how programs, groups, even businesses don’t last long in this community because the people lose interest & motivation really quickly. I found that was true with my adult English class, which started with 10 students and ended with only three. Although I think that it’s a common problem, he felt it was particularly acute here in our community.

So I brought up the conversation I had with a volunteer and former volunteer on Saturday, which is that development and religious mission organizations in the past (and often the present) created a Culture of Receiving in many countries. By coming in with money, materials, and resources & building, donating, and giving, these organizations broke the mantra of “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Basically, people become accustomed to not having to take responsibility but simply wait for someone to come in and give them what they need. So when I came here with just myself and no money or resources, people were pretty puzzled about how I was going to help.

More recently development organizations are realizing this and trying to work for more sustainable change, but that often entails working against a culture that may have been created by the same organization in the past. And it’s difficult to find funding for long-term, sustainable projects that may not show results in the next five or even ten years. Donors (and the public) like to see the new hospital, the kids eating school lunch, and farmers planting and harvesting more crops. It’s the need for instant gratification and the do-it-yourself mentality so many of us westerners have. It’s a lot harder to go in and teach others how to do something that they may do imperfectly by U.S. standards, or never at all. And when you throw in the fact that the changes we wish to make (higher education standards, new agricultural methods, environmental awareness, gender equality) are based on our culture and not necessarily on the culture in which we are working and the ethical implications of that, my mind starts to spin so fast I have to sit down.

This all might sounds really abstract and weird to those of you who aren’t accustomed to pondering development in your spare time. So here’s my current, on-the-ground dilemma: I have had it hasta aqui (up to here) with machismo and a culture that directs large numbers of women down the path of dependence on men who many times don’t treat them very well. So right now I really want to start working more with my female students, through dance or a more explicit girls empowerment club, because I feel that it would be beneficial for them to learn skills such as leadership, family planning, self-esteem, etc. so that they can be successful in life – a success that is defined by my cultural standards, not necessarily those of rural Nicaragua.

So the question is, is this a change that is even desired by people here? Do women see something wrong with their way of life? Do men? And what is my right as a foreigner to come in and say, “Do it MY way! It’s better!”? Well, short answer, is that I do know a lot of women who aren’t happy with their lives, and most men don’t realize that it’s a problem. As for the rest of it, it’s a gray area. So, as far as I can decide, I hope to form a girls club that is formed around the wants and needs of the girls themselves instead of dictating it all based on what I think they need to learn. And it might fall apart, it may never even get started. I have encountered a totally new kind of stress in my work here, it’s not having too much to do (though I do have that too) but having ideas and goals and not being able to reach them. My biggest struggle has been taking an idea from my head and making it happen on the ground, but I’m still plugging away and hoping that in the coming months before I leave that it will be something I grow more and more confident with.

That was a lot. To close on a not so serious note, here’s a picture from back in June of some of my students who performed a socio-drama at an anti-domestic violence event. The group includes my most fabulous gay students (you can probably guess who they are) who were mostly dressed as women for the skit. I love these kids!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Just before the IST we passed a big political holiday here in Nicaragua: The 19th of July, which this year was the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. I know that before I came to Nicaragua I had little or no clue about the history of the country other than a big war in the 80s and since I was born in the 80s I knew almost nothing about that either. So, based on my Peace Corps history packet, here’s some Nica History:

Basically, Nicaragua was ruled for many years by the Somoza family, who were generally backed by the U.S. government. I’ve heard varying reports of the prosperity of the country during that time but a lot of the people I’ve talked to tell me that Nicaragua was generally in good shape and that migrant workers in the region actually came here looking for jobs (today they mostly go to Costa Rica and Panama). In December 1972, a major earthquake virtually destroyed Managua and international aid money poured into the country. It was because of the misuse of those funds, which were largely distributed to rebuild and strengthen businesses owned by the Somozas instead of helping the people, that the revolution happened. Guerilla wars occurred between 1972 and 1979, and the Carter administration in the U.S. began to criticize Somoza’s human rights record in 1977, eventually suspending economic aid. On July 17th, 1979 Anastasio Somoza went into exile in Miami.

So the Sandinistas came to power and the current president, Daniel Ortega, was in charge of the country for pretty much all of the 80s. The Carter administration attempted to make things work with the new Nicaraguan government but when Reagan took over, he decided he didn’t like the new leftist government in his hemisphere so, with the help of Congress, he funded the Contras out of Honduras to re-start the civil war in Nicaragua with a little additional help from the CIA. That lasted until 1984 when Congress decided they didn’t want to fund the Contras anymore which then led to the fun-filled Iran-Contra Affair in which Reagan raised funds for the Contras by illegally selling weapons to Iran and I think we all know how that ended up.

In 1989, the first democratic elections were held and the Sandinista party lost. In fact, it wasn’t until Ortega was reelected President in 2006 that they returned to power. So on the 19th of July there was a big party in Managua, all buses were going that direction with Sandinista flags waving (the infamous red and black) and lots of fireworks & such things going off around town here. It happened to fall on a Sunday so we had Monday off as a national holiday so I ate sopa de mondongo (oh yes, that’s cow stomach soup!) and relaxed on my patio.

Here are some pieces of war history at the scenic look out over Managua:

For my non-Spanish speaking readers, the sign says: “The remains of the horse monument to General Anastasio Somoza that was in front of the National Stadium. It was constructed in 1954 and torn down July 1979.”