Keep Calm & Carry On, as Nicaragua closes down

After 50 days of protests against President Ortega, the death toll in Nicaragua has reached 140 dead and over 2000 injured. The country is being steadily closed down by roadblocks on main roads and side-streets all over the country. In spite of the difficulties, some Non-Government Organisations & non-profits are trying to keep working, and community workers are going to enormous lengths to keep services running for their people.

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Barricade on the outskirts of Leon

When student protests began on April 18th the peaceful protestors were attacked by police and pro-government gangs, with a death toll of 46 young people in the first week of protests. The month of May was filled by marches and counter-marches from pro and anti-government supporters, with increasing attacks from para-military forces. The period of ‘normal’ protests ended abruptly on May 30th when government forces fired on a mass peaceful Mother’s Day march. Since then protestors have resorted to a new and defensive tactic, setting up roadblocks to impede the arrival of the police and their allies in civilian clothes.

As more and more of these roadblocks are built, it is becoming increasing difficult for daily life to continue. Some cities are experiencing shortages of foodstuffs, whilst others have run out of gasoline. Reliable information is hard to come by and rumours abound. While some cities are close to chaos  others are surprisingly calm. Speaking from the comparatively peaceful city of Leon, one NGO director (who preferred not to be named) described the city as ‘Alice in Wonderland’…. ‘We wake up in the morning to read of deaths in Masaya, and street-fighting in Jinotega – but Leon is still calm, except for the strangeness of being cut off from the world by barricades’.

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Student roadblock prevents buses taking a side-road past the main barricade

In many cases however, Nicaraguans are making huge efforts to ‘keep calm and carry on’. This weekend I attended a long-planned training session in Leon, run by Doctors James Saunders and Karen Mojica from Mayflower Medical Outreach (MMO) for three nursing students from Jinotega. Kath Owston, PGL Associate, is a board member of MMO and helped set up the training. ‘We weren’t sure the three young people would be able to arrive’, she said, ‘but they got up at 5a.m. and came down on three buses, a lift and a taxi’.  Jinotega and Leon are about 100 miles apart, and there were three roadblocks in between. At each stoppage the passengers had to get off one bus with their possessions, walk through the roadblock, and then take a lift or another bus on the other side. (the roadblocks stop vehicles at present but allow foot-traffic). The journey which normally takes four hours on the bus took them eight hours.

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Dr Saunders & Dr Mojica (centre) show students how to take photos of the ear drum

The training in hearing test technology, which precedes a pilot program to screen 4000 school children in the department of Jinotega, was a great success. However today, Monday, the 3 students were meant to return to Jinotega, but they have not been able to leave Leon as the barricades have become tighter. They will try again tomorrow. Poor Fabiola left her house in Pantasma on Thursday evening, to travel down on Friday, and won’t get back to her house till Tuesday night at best.

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Marlene practices the tympanometer on a willing victim.

In a second case last week, staff from sister-city Project Gettysburg-Leon (PGL) also had an odyssey of a journey to carry out a long-delayed technical visit to the isolated village of Talolinga. Normally the journey is a pleasant drive, on a tarmac road, until the last 5 miles which is unpaved, steep and bumpy. PGL Programme Co-ordinator Francisco Diaz drove up last week with two water engineers from another NGO, Nuevas Esperanzas  They had to take tiny back-roads to get around the roadblocks. ‘It was a labyrinth’, said Francisco, and at one point it started raining as well. ‘We had to ford a river and drive on dirt tracks for miles alongside Telica Volcano. After spending the day doing a GPS mapping of the community, so that we can plan a piping service from a new well, we faced the long drive back. Coming home to Leon we had to go a different way again and at one point had to be guided by farmers behind an ox cart! We arrived exhausted’.

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Javier & Marvin from Talolinga try to open the capped well-head with Leo, the engineer from Nuevas Esperanzas.                                                                                              (credit Francisco Diaz)

What the future will bring for Nicaragua is unclear. Will the protestors put up more barricades and close down all traffic totally, including food and fuel? Or will the discredited President, Daniel Ortega, continue to sit back and wait? So far, he seems in no hurry to break the barricades, and has not called in the army. In Leon we are looking fearfully at cities like Masaya, which have experienced huge violence, and hoping it will not come here. Tomorrow is apparently a strike-day. In a fog of untruths and false information, it is difficult to know which way the current is flowing in Nicaragua. But we are proud of the efforts that organisations are making, despite the fear and difficulties, to keep serving their communities.

 

All photos by the author unless stated. For more, follow @owstonlewis on instagram

Feel free to add your comments using the Tag below.

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Violence in Nicaragua – What does ‘solidarity’ mean now?

I was recently asked to write a short article about the word ‘solidarity’. Writing about solidarity with Nicaragua would have been easy until April this year. The narrative in brief would have been – ‘we foreigners came in the 80’s and supported the revolution, we picked coffee or planted trees, we loved the Nicaraguan people…. since then Daniel Ortega and the FSLN have generally done good work, reduced poverty, resisted the USA. We’re proud of our involvement…job done… Que viva el frente!

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But now, writing in May 2018 nothing is as clear. For the last two years, whilst I have lived in Nicaragua,  this has been a calm and peaceful country. Now no longer. Protests against economic reforms to pensions on April 18, by pensioners and students, became violent. The police turned inexplicably to live ammunition, and protesters were attacked by ‘mobs’ known as the Sandinista Youth. Across the country between April 18 and 22nd at least 45 demonstrators were killed, including students, workers, journalists and onlookers. At least one policeman was also killed. In Leon the office of the student union  and an opposition radio station were burnt down. The violence ended, for now at least, when Ortega revoked the economic reforms, and both sides called for a National Dialogue, to be moderated by the Catholic Church.

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One student died in Leon on April 19th when the student union was set on fire

Since then there has been a tense calm. By the time you read this blog that may well have changed. The National Dialogue has not begun and we are seeing marches and counter-marches on the streets every day. It seems like a tinder-box that may again explode. Some people are saying the protestors have been trained, that there is covert support from the USA, that there is more to this than meets the eye. Sitting in my very hot house, in an average street, I don’t know the truth of this. I do know that most of my neighbours don’t like Ortega. But I also know that there is no credible opposition, there is no figure who could take over from Ortega, and if he goes, the gains of the revolution for the poor will be lost. So, protestors – be careful what you wish for.

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Marches and countermarches in the daytime are peaceful, both say No to Violence. But at night-time one faction or the other are burning busses and attacking the other side.

Solidarity groups, the expat community living in Nicaragua, and of course Nicaraguans themselves are now divided, angry, or disillusioned. Information is unclear, but it seems that the Ortega regime has made a major error that they may not survive. Shooting on unarmed protestors, coupled with years of low-lying criticisms (‘undemocratic, corruption, cronyism, rumored sexual abuse, creating a family dynasty, nepotism’) means Ortega’s regime may now be fatally holed, in spite of years of good progress in reducing poverty in Nicaragua.

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Prior to April it was a VERY rare sight in Nicaragua to see any criticism of the government

So what does the word ‘solidarity’ mean now, in the midst of this fast-changing situation? I came to Nicaragua in the 1980’s as part of the solidarity movement. Like thousands of others I was motivated by anti-USA, anti-Imperialism, and support for a small proud country trying to make its own, fairer, way in the world.  (see  Brigadista: An Analysis of British & US volunteers during the contra war in Nicaragua ) We were  impressed by the ideals of the revolution and the progress made by the campaign against illiteracy. We  picked coffee in support of the revolution and helped organize other support and campaigns. After a few decades ‘off’ I came to live in Nicaragua in January 2016. Until this month it has been politically a sleepy country.

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The FSLN are very well organised and effective at getting their supporters to the marches

Solidarity to me means:

  • ‘Accompaniment’- living with the poor and being a friend from another country.
  • Material support – working with NGOs to improve education or health or other services.
  • Being a voice – Using photography, blogs, speaker tours, delegations etc to raise a voice when locally that voice is unable to be heard. For example raising the voice of deaf children in Nicaragua who have virtually no access to education.
  • Advocacy in the centres of power. From campaigning against Thatcher & Reagan in the 1980’s, to today advocating against the NICA Act which is now more likely to be passed in the US senate.

Nicaragua has made vast progress since the early 1980’s. The country then had poor roads, long electricity cuts, terrible transport, limited food, inadequate schools and so on. Until last month we boasted of all the progress Nicaragua has made, under the leadership of the FSLN. By 2017 the country had excellent economic growth, a reduction in poverty, good roads, reliable electricity, improving access to public services and a burgeoning tourist industry.

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Students are painting lamp-posts in the national colours, painting over the red & black of FSLN

But, clearly the country has failed on democracy. For years we, the solidarity movement, were satisfied with economic growth and the reduction of poverty. Why did it matter if elections were  a bit dodgy’ if poverty had been halved from 48% to 24%? We did not ask enough questions, we did not join demands for better electoral systems, we lost interest in the complex machinations where Ortega undermined the other political parties. It is now clear that the weakness of the opposition is a hindrance to the country, not a success. Governments need checks and balances, but the FSLN has not had them. And thus after many years of silence the population are now in the streets, and the country is on the brink of a worsening explosion.

The solidarity movement can be proud of supporting a poor country which has stood up to the might of the USA. But we failed to get the balance right as a ‘critical friend’. We have been a good friend to Nicaragua, but we failed to be sufficiently critical of the undemocratic Ortega regime.

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Decayed buildings & internal divisions have characterised the opposition for many years

All pictures by the author. For more photos of Nicaragua follow @owstonlewis on instagram

Feel free to add to my analysis on the Comments Tag below (please be politie). Pueden añadir comentarios abajo usando el Tag ‘Comments’

How your travel can benefit Nicaraguan social organisations

After two years living and travelling in Nicaragua I have seen that just by staying at certain hotels you support the education of needy children. And by eating in some restaurants you can provide jobs for adults with special needs. A number of tourist ventures in Nicaragua are now ‘social-enterprises’ which dedicate their profits to charities, or programmes that benefit the local community. But many of these ventures are not well publicized, and some towns seem to be missing out. I wonder if we could make a ‘portal’ or site where Nicaraguan social enterprises can easily be found?

You kayaking trip can benefit children’s education on Ometepe island

I work for a ‘‘Sister City’ programme  that regularly brings delegations of visitors to Nicaragua. There are many organisations who bring groups of visitors to this wonderful country, from  ‘Global Glimpse’ to brigades of deaf teachers, or Church Mission groups. Not forgetting  normal groups of tourists enjoying what the country has to offer. If each of these groups stayed in hotels which are Social Enterprises then we could bring large amounts of new income towards school and social programmes. I try to take my groups to one of these Five Favourite Places, but I also try to spend our hotel and restaurant budget in Social-enterprises.

A Social Enterprise is a company, like a hotel or a café or shop, which channels its profits to a non-profit or Non-Government Organisation (NGO). Across Nicaragua Social Enterprises are now raising large amounts of funding for poor communities and local charities. Let me give some examples…

I stayed at Hacienda Merida on Ometepe which was a great place to relax and  watch the sunset views. But the best thing was knowing that the profits go towards building a primary school for the local community. The hostal income allows them to build a new classroom each year. (the classrooms are built partly out of recycled bottles which is also beneficial). The owner, Alvaro Molina, began years ago with a dream. Now this self-supporting project has allowed the building of four well-equipped classrooms and dozens of children receiving a bilngual education. All paid for by the profits from happy travellers.

The lovely primary school supported by Hacienda Merida

Esteli is the town in Nicaragua that is best served by Social Enterprise hotels. Casa Vinculos is a lovely hotel that directly supports Fundacion Vinculos, which promotes Early Childhood Education. When I take delegations to Esteli we take over all nine rooms in Casa Vinculos and enjoy their good food and crafts shop whilst knowing that our funds benefit local children. Esteli also has the more upmarket Hotel Los Arcos, which supports a health centre, plus SONATI, and Hostal Luna which cater for the backpacker market and support environmental work and a mobile library.

Granada has Hotel Con Corazon  which supports education programmes. Hotel Con Coraon is interesting because its publicity positively emphasizes the social benefits supported and its name reflects this. Unfortunately since it is always booked up well in advance I have never stayed there, and so far I have not heard of a second similar hotel in the town. Since Granada is the heartland of tourism in Nicaragua, with over 100 hotels, I believe there is plenty of scope for more hotels that could be added to Hotel Con Corazon and take up more of this market segment.

NGOs and non-profits aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure. Nicaraguan schools and homes have a major shortage of books

By contrast, in terms of social-profit hotels, Leon and Managua are disappointing. In Leon the SONATI hostal does good work with the backpacker crowd, raising awareness on environmental work. But in terms of a hotel, for better off clients, I don’t know of a single hotel in Leon or Las Peñitas or Poneloya that dedicates all its profits to social programmes.  Of course there are some hotels that will give a donation now and then to a charity. But I am talking about hotels that exist to raise funds for the social good. If you exist, then let the world know. I bring groups to Leon 4 times a year and would love to place visitors in a hotel on the model of Casa Vinculos or Casa con Corazon.

In Managua there are hundreds of hotels. Like Leon, if one exists like the examples above, then you don’t advertise widely enough. Hotel Europeo does support a foundation but it is not clear from the website what % of the profits goes to the charitable work. I would also love to know if a hotel with social benefit exists in San Juan del Sur or other towns.

Cafes and restaurants can also be Social Enterprises, such as the wonderful Cafe de Las Sonrisas in Granada, which employs deaf staff

The tourism sector can support more Social Enterprises – not only hotels but also restaurants, language schools and other services. Esteli has Café Luz which raises funds for the mobile library.  Granada has the wonderful Café de la Sonrisa  where deaf young people work. Also of course there are shops and crafts. In Granada there is a Hammock workshop next door to Café de la Sonrisa which provides  employment opportunities for differently-able young people. In Leon or Managua, is there anything similar?

To learn Spanish you can visit the Mariposa Language School. To climb  a volcano from Leon then go with  Quetzaltrekkers which raises funds through providing tours and guides. Quetaltrekkers provide funding for a range of Leon NGOs such as  Las Tias and NECAT, to pay the salaries of teachers and social workers in deprived areas of town.

If you want to climb a volcano, go with Quetsaltrekkers, who devote their profits to support NGOs such in Leon

So these tourist-orientated ventures are providing a great service. But they could be better known and there could be more of them. How could tourist-orientated social enterprises in Nicaragua be better publicized? I would love to find a one-stop shop where you could easily find information for every town in the country. How could this be set up?

My dream is to be able to always stay in social enterprise hotels when I bring groups here.  To spend most of our budget with services like Quetaltrekkers and mainly eat in cafes or restaurants like Café de las Sonrisas. Do you think that will be possible? And how could it be set up?

 

Photos by Steve Lewis. Follow Steve on instagram at @owstonlewis

Help Stop The Passing of the NICA Act

American intervention is threatening progress in Nicaragua, and American friends & readers can help by contacting your senator. Please ask your them to vote against the NICA Act. Here is a link to find your Senator.

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Continued loans from global lenders are needed to build new school buildings in Nicaragua

 

Most expats living in Nicaragua enjoy the climate, food and culture and are friends with Nicaraguan neighbours and colleagues. We see that the country is slowly but steadily reducing poverty, and we enjoy the peace and stability the country enjoys. The country has problems, of course, like anywhere, but only Nicaraguans themselves can sort those problems out. Although the country is still the poorest in Latin America, the economy is growing at a rate of 4.5% p.a. and the rate of crime is only a fraction of that in neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador. These are important achievements.

But this stability and growth is threatened by interference from the USA. In October the US Congress approved the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act, known as the NICA Act. If approved by the Senate the NICA Act could see the US block all major international lending institutions from lending to Nicaragua. Institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Development Bank will be blocked from giving loans that fund improvements in roads, ports, electricity and other infrastructure.

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World Bank loans are used to improve infrastructure, such as these storm drains

 

You can put an end to this interference in Nicaraguan affairs by writing to your senator. Ask him or her to vote against the passing of the NICA Act. If the act is passed it will reverse the progress Nicaragua has made in the last few years and will end the improvements we have seen in roads and infrastructure. Schools and health facilities would become even more run-down – so the effect of choking off loans will make life harder for the poorest.

Just yesterday the World Bank, meeting in Granada, Nicaragua, approved a loan of over $400 million for Nicaragua. Over the last three years loans averaged around $100 million a year, but over the next three years that will increase to about $150 million p.a. The World Bank said that this is because previous loans have been carried out efficiently and on-time, by the government and the private sector working together, and with good accounting.

The NICA Act has met with near unanimous condemnation in Nicaragua from the government, the National Assembly, the Private Sector, almost all political parties, and most religious leaders. The Organisation of American States (OAS) electoral mission that was in Nicaragua for the elections last November described the Act as ‘Counter-productive’.

Mural in Managua. Nicaragua has unhappy memories of USA intervention in the 1980’s

If you are from the USA please email, ring or write to your senator now.  Phone number is (1 202) 224 3121, and using skype or a similar package this will hardly cost you a dime.

If you have never lobbied your representative before you can get good advice from RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy agency. I used to work for RESULTS in the UK, and our representatives were always happy to receive polite emails or phone-calls from constituents. Here is a link to find your Senator.

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Long-term investments from lenders will improve rural transport & reduce poverty

 

And this link gives you excellent advice from RESULTS. about advocacy (in general) in the USA.

For those readers who are not from the USA you can still help by signing the petition on the link at Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and Change.Org

So –  Use your vote, use your voice, tell your senator you live here and have an opinion. Please let us know how you got on, using the Comments Box below.

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Mural shows that Nicaragua doesn’t want interference in their affairs from the USA (or others)

 

Community Tourism in Nicaragua – Get Off the Beaten Track & Do Good!

 

As the sun came up I lay in bed listening to the howler monkeys in the forest…after a delicious ‘tipica’ breakfast with our host family we had a great walk through the coffee fields up to the rain-forest in the hill-tops. We saw sloths, oriole birds, wonderful butterflies and Nicaragua’s national bird, the guardabaranco. Community tourism in San Ramon allows farmers to diversify their farm-income and encourages all the community to preserve the environment. It’s a win-win for tourists and the local community together’.

Stay in local houses amidst the lovely nature of La Reyna, San Ramon

Although Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in Latin America, tourism is booming, with around 5% annual growth in recent years, supported by Nicaragua’s excellent record of peace and safety, and a growing economy. According to the World Tourism Council 2017 report tourism contributed $720 million in direct revenue to the country, amounting to around 5.3% of GDP in 2016. Tourism makes up nearly 4% of total employment, or 100,000 people. So things are looking good.

But there are flies in the tourism ointment. Land on the pacific coast is now selling for inflated prices and being snapped up by foreign buyers. Tourism is concentrated in two or three small areas of the country. Granada and San Juan del Sur are over-touristed, and are losing some of their Nicaraguan culture.  Much of the tourism industry is owned by large companies, and eventually by non-Nicaraguan private sector.

There is a way for tourists here to get off the beaten track, and see the real Nicaragua, by visiting rural villages and cooperatives that run community tourism initiatives. Community Tourism and Eco-tourism are ways to experience rural life, stay with local people and help preserve the environment. According to Martha Honey, author of Who Owns Paradise?, ‘ecotourism is travel to fragile and often protected environments, that strive to be low-impact and small-scale. It helps educate the traveller, provides funds for local conservations, directly benefits the economic development of local communities and fosters respect for different cultures’.

 

Community and locally owned tourism contributes more to a country than large scale package tours or high-end hotel chains. Globally the tourism sector that contributes least to local economies is the cruise-liner sector. It is estimated that if you buy a cruise-holiday, 90% of your total spending stays in the country of origin. Whereas back-packers, and low-impact travellers in Central America spend 80% of their total spend in the region.

When you are travelling in Nicaragua try to get away from the Southern ‘tourist-triangle’ (Granada –Ometepe-San Juan del Sur) and visit some of the small towns and rural nature areas. Travel on your own or, if you are in the USA or UK, sign up with a small group trip run by one of the  Sister-cities such as Gettysburg-Leon  or one of the Nicaragua solidarity groups. Here are five great ecotourism recommendations that we have enjoyed in the last 18 months:

1/ Stay with a rural family, Miraflor nature reserve, outside Esteli.

Beautiful countryside, nice hiking, and lovely waterfalls. Google UCA Miraflor Tourism to arrange to stay with a local family, and to go horse-riding or bird watching. Prices are very reasonable, at around $20 per day with meals included. By travelling on public transport you help to keep your environmental footprint low. Tourists who show their love for nature encourage local communities to preserve the forests.

2 / Volunteer in exchange for reduced lodging rates.

In Rancho Esperanza, on Jiquilillo beach in Chinandega, you can stay for a couple of months or longer and really contribute to the life of the local community. (It’s beautiful too). Volunteers work in a Kids Club with children. If you can’t stay that long you are still encouraged to support the local community by taking ‘tours’ such as line fishing, kayaking, or learn to climb a coconut tree.

3/ Somoto Canyon

The author, floating gently through Somoto Canyon

Somoto canyon is a must-do in Nicaragua, an adrenalin rush that will provide you with some of your best memories. Somoto is in Northern Nicaragua, so helps to get tourists to explore much-less visited part of the country. You can stay the night near the canyon, and make sure you use local guides with a good reputation. We have always taken groups with Henry Soriano, of Somoto Canyon Tours,  who are highly recommended for a friendly service with a good commitment to safety.

4/ Support Cooperatives

Around the country look out for the system of ‘co-manejo’ where local communities have joint control of natural resources with MARENA the ministry for the environment. In Las Peñitas, a beautiful fishing community outside Leon a cooperative of 12 local people  offer tours of Isla Juan Venado and the mangrove swamps. Between July and December they protect the eggs of endangered turtles, and at any time of the year you can stay the night in rustic cabinas on a very isolated beach.

In Las Peñitas and Jiquilillo community groups protest the endangered baby turtles

5/ Fair trade coffee villages

There is a wide range of options on offer, well-marketted throughout the North. Ask in any hotel around Esteli, Matagalpa, Jinotega and the Segovias.

In San Ramon a series of small villages and struggling cooperatives eke out a living from coffee production. After tough times under the right-wing government in the 1990s the co-ops have been supported to improve their incomes by CECOCAFEN  an umbrella body. The co-ops have now improved their shade-grown coffee, are moving to organic status, and have started homestays and visitor programmes. Support the fair-trade coffee villages and stay in a beautiful mountain community, enjoy fresh-roast home-grown coffee, and also visit gold-mines, viewpoints, cloud-forest, all the time surrounded by monkeys, sloths and butterflies.

For more information on all these areas the Moon Guide book is an excellent source of information. In this blog post they also recommend five rural cooperatives that get consistently high reviews  http://moon.com/2015/06/enjoy-sustainable-tourism-in-nicaragua/. Check them out and soon you’ll have your own list of favourites to share.

 

Please follow my Instagram page for more photos of beautiful Nicaragua – owstonlewis

Which are your favourite recommendations for low-impact tourism in Nicaragua or other countries you want to share? Please use the comments box below to share your recommendations.

Photo Gallery – Doors of Leon

Leon is an old colonial town, slightly crumbling around the edges but that’s one of  the reasons we like it. One of the delights is walking around the side-streets. On every block there are beautiful doorways to be seen:

Watching the world go by…

Pastel colours.

 Window shadows

 The biggest door in town

 Rocking chair

 Crumbling facade

 Dawn, and working

 Red hues

 Preparing for Easter

 Ready for action

 Jazz practice

 Rainy season

 Cycling to work

 Time for a chat

 My favourite…? Almost like an oil painting

Which is your favourite? And what can you learn about Leon from looking at these photos? Please write your views on the ‘Comments’ box below.

If you like these pictures please follow owstonlewis on instagram

 

Deaf in North and South

For the second of my blogs about deaf children in Nicaragua, I interviewed two North American deaf activists who came here recently to visit deaf programmes. Even thirty years after the Sandinista revolution, there is a still some solidarity with Nicaragua from the USA and Europe. Brigades visit the country to see the reality here. Kath and I helped organise a brigade of interpreters for the deaf, who visited the Special School in Estelí for a week. It was a great chance to see the lives of deaf people in Nicaragua through the eyes of people in the deaf world in the USA.

Learning Nicaraguan Sign Language with local instructor Heydi

The brigade came from Oregon Western University, and was supported by the deaf education charity Manos Unidas. I interviewed Professor Patrick Graham, the coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing programme, and Erin Maue, a student in the interpreting programme who aims to work as a teacher of the deaf. Both are deaf and use American Sign Language as their preferred method of communication.

 

 

I asked about their impressions of the deaf community in Nicaragua from this brief visit. ‘It’s very different to anything I’m used to’, said Erin. ‘There is a huge lack of resources here, the students deserve a lot better. Most of the children are really language-deprived – it’s a shock to see 15 year olds so far behind’.

An activity in the Special School run by the brigade from Oregon

The Special School, where the brigade worked for a week, (painting murals and making educational materials), is a school for children with all types of disabilities – deaf, blind, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum, and other behavioural problems. Patrick remarked ‘I get the idea of inclusion, but so much time is lost to teaching. We saw that some of the deaf children can read or can recognise colours, but there are so many interruptions. And there are so few materials. Deaf children depend a lot on visuals, on touch, movement, even smell. Chairs and desks are less important than resources are, to play with, and learn from. I don’t get the impression the teachers take the kids out to explore the world around them. There could be much better training of the teachers’.

We talked about priorities. This is partly because Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America. But it’s also a perennial discussion topic for the deaf community in any country. Signing, or hearing aids? Deaf culture or integration? These are polemical questions in the North and also discussed here in the South. ‘The top priority for me would be teach deaf people here to sign’, said Patrick. The health service in Nicaragua is free, but doesn’t provide hearing aids. ‘Even if you have aids, the batteries can run out, or the aids can break – but you always have your hands’.

Erin painting with one of the school students

‘Children should have both opportunities’ agreed Erin, ‘to be taught to sign, but also to have hearing aids’. But for deaf schools there are many more costs and demands. There will be problems of sound-proofing and more equipment. Patrick said ‘I’d love to come back and be able to build a school with sound-proofing, with aids and signs, and an outside area where the children could learn…and where the deaf community can see role models… successful deaf people …. It’s all connected.’

The other crying-need is an early identification programme for the deaf. Hearing babies are learning language from the day they are born. The first four years of life are the most crucial for learning a language. But in Nicaragua most children don’t start school until age 5 or 6. Depending where you live, there is either no system for identifying deaf children, or the system is extremely weak and haphazard. Yet if you can identify a child with hearing loss when they are young, it’s possible to provide language (either through signing or with hearing aids, or both). ‘Early intervention is the bread and butter of deaf education … the early years are much more important than age five to 18’. But sadly it barely exists here.

Patrick & Kath building rapport with Shoskey through sign language

‘We saw one young child in the school who was identified at age three and is now being helped’, said Patrick. ‘That’s fantastic, early ID is working for him. He is learning to sign, he wants to come to school because that’s the only place where he can communicate… He could be a leader of the deaf-community in the future. But only if his mum brings him to school and encourages him’.

I finished by asking what impressions they would take back to their lives in the USA. Erin said she would use her phone less, try to be more patient with people, and walk more. ‘I realised that if the school is a mile away, then you can just walk there…. It’s not the end of the world.’

Patrick emphasised the disparity in wealth and resources: ‘Maybe in the North we have too many materials…. we could be more inventive? The teachers here do so much with so little. There are no educational toys in the school – if the teacher buys one she has to buy it out of her own salary. In Oregon University we just built a new state-of-the-art building and apparently it has 11,000 feet of cables. Here they can’t even afford to photocopy worksheets. All they can do is write on the board, and the children copy it down, whether they understand it or not. When the board is full the teacher rubs it out so she can continue.

The Oregon brigade met American ambassador Laura Dogu (back row in blue top) who is supportive of deaf education in Nicaragua

‘But it’s not only about resources’, said Patrick, ‘it’s about identity. At the moment in Nicaragua adults are ashamed to have a disabled child. Many hide them away. We need more role models like some of the deaf adults we met here, to go knocking on doors and bring the deaf children to school. The state shouldn’t look at deaf people as disabled, but as a cultural minority with their own language. Deaf children need to learn their identity first as being deaf, and then as being Nicaraguan. Proud deaf people here are the ones who can take the community forward’.

 

Education for Deaf Children in Nicaragua

Last month I met Laura Dogu, the American Ambassador for Nicaragua. In the past I would have wanted to ask her about 50 years of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, but instead we discussed Nicaraguan Sign Language! My wife is a volunteer here, trying to support the deaf community in Estelí and Jinotega, while taking a career break from her work in the UK as an Implant Teacher of the Deaf at St Thomas’ Hospital. We spend a lot of time visiting the ‘Special School’ (i.e. school for the disabled) and accompanying some small NGO’s that work with deaf children.

Young leaders of the deaf community in Esteli speak with the American ambassador at the beginning of the school year.

The Ambassador was in Estelí to inaugurate the new school year for ETAVS,  an Arts and Media project for the deaf.  The founder, Famnuel Ubeda, welcomed us all to his mother’s house, where two small dark rooms are used to run Sign Language classes at weekends. They teach both deaf people and hearing students (teachers, parents, medics) to sign. The house is in a poor barrio of Estelí, with mud floors and a pit latrine.

Audiology testing service in Jinotega. Few children in Nicaragua have their hearing tested, and even fewer can be provided with hearing aids.

Sign Language is the mode of communication for the deaf here because Nicaragua cannot afford to provide hearing aids to children. And the quality of education, even for hearing children, is sadly poor. In the UK all deaf children can be provided with hearing aids or cochlear implants on the NHS. In Nicaragua the basic health care system is free, but it is basic provision, and does not include hearing aids for the deaf. The hospitals in Estelí and Jinotega can provide a basic audiological assessment, with technical support from a U.S.-based NGO, Mayflower Medical Outreach. But without a hearing aid, a child with only a moderate hearing loss will not be able to access the sounds of speech to learn an oral language.

The first four years of life are crucial, when a child’s brain is geared for language learning. At that age a child can soak up learning like a sponge, and could learn either an oral language or a sign language. But in Nicaragua there is no mechanism to identify babies with hearing difficulties. (In the UK there is a Newborn Hearing Screening programme. Parents can be told at only ten days that their baby has a hearing loss; and the NHS will fit hearing aids on babies at only 2 months).

Children do far better in school if they have learnt language while young.

Outreach services rarely reach isolated areas, such as this village in Miraflor, outside Esteli.

Academic provision for the deaf is very weak in state schools across Nicaragua. Most deaf children are included in mainstream classes with no extra support or help. We met ‘Prof Julio’, a teacher in a primary school in rural Miraflor, who told us that he teaches a deaf child in third grade. “She doesn’t speak and I have no idea if she understands the curriculum. She copies down what I write on the board, but I have no way of assessing if she knows what it is about”.

 

Unfortunately, the truth is that she probably doesn’t understand, she just copies the words letter by letter, having no knowledge of Spanish language. However, she causes no problems and enjoys the social interaction of being in school. So, Prof Julio says he is not too worried about her.  We are – because the girl will go through school and come out having learned very little and have almost no communication skills at all.

Nicaraguan Sign Language dictionary

Nicaragua has put its’ focus for the deaf entirely into developing sign language.  The good news is that Nicaragua’s deaf community is remarkably developed, considering the level of poverty in the country. This is largely due to the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) following the 1979 Sandinista revolution. With NSL, deaf people in towns are now far less isolated and have a recognised language, if they manage to access it. However, in rural areas, deaf children are still very isolated, with very few opportunities to develop a language. For example, we know Gerald, who came to live with a cousin in Estelí at the age of fifteen. He had spent all of his life until then in the countryside with his direct family, hidden away. He had never been to school and had spent every day in the fields doing manual work. He is now attending the class for deaf students in the special school in Estelí, where he is growing in confidence and beginning to use NSL with his deaf peers. This story is a common one.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America, and there is a crying need for more resources for deaf education (and indeed for most education). Some NGOs, such as Manos Unidas fund small programmes and also recently brought down a delegation from Oregon Western University*. Mayflower, mentioned above, have a very good Hostel for Deaf Children in Jinotega. Granada has a café that provides work experience for deaf youngsters coming out of education. But all of these, at present, reach only small numbers of young people.

Rural school in Jinotega. Few of these children will ever have had their hearing tested

Nicaragua urgently needs support to establish or strengthen its Early Identification Programme, to take advantage of those magical early years when children can learn so quickly. If hearing-impaired children can be identified young, then they can be helped. Even if the identified children have little chance of getting a hearing aid, they and their parents could then be taught to sign.  If you have any ideas for how an Early Identification Programme could be supported, please write on the comments below.

 

 

 

 

*Next month on this blog we will interview some members of the brigade from Oregon Western University, and ask how deaf people from the USA see the issue of deaf education and deaf identify in Nicaragua.

Gallery: Las Peñitas, a beautiful Nicaraguan beach & fishing village

Sunset at Las Peñitas beach

Sunset at Las Peñitas beach

Dusk over the estuary

Dusk over the estuary

Still morning

Still morning

Gutting the catch

Gutting the catch

Dawn on the beach

Dawn on the beach

Grandpa, mending the nets

Grandpa, mending the nets

Shower door, Barca de Oro hotel

Shower door, Barca de Oro hotel

Sopa de Ponche on Sundays

Sopa de Ponche on Sundays (crab soup)

Las Rocas at Las Peñitas

Las rocas at Las Peñitas

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot

A heron stalks breakfast

A heron stalks breakfast

Community tourism

Community tourism

A good catch

A good catch

A hint of black and white

A splash of colour

And a splash of colour

 

 

Luck and Development in the Shadow of the Volcano

What part does luck play in the success or otherwise of community programmes? Those of us who work in development would probably not admit to much. But sometimes the bad luck that affects the rural poor would make you cry.

Last week I visited a rural development programme which assists nine communities on the slopes of Telica volcano, in Western Nicaragua. Local NGO Nuevas Esperanzas has been doing great work here for the last ten years, improving access to water, gradually working to diversify crops and diet in the zone and, if possible, to look for income generation activities.

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Agua Fria housing with the volcano in the background

These villages are very isolated’, Carlos told us, as we bumped along in a pick-up filled with fertiliser and other agricultural inputs. This became apparent as we climbed steadily up the slopes of Telica, an occasionally active volcano. As we came within a few hundred metres from the summit I asked myself why farmers would want to live up here. Sadly though, all over the world we find the poorest people have to live on the most marginal lands. In some cases putting themselves in danger, on the edges of rivers, near hazards, and on flood plains. The same in Central America, the poorest peasants make their homes on steep slopes while the better-off farmers have captured the good land in the valley bottom.

Agronomists from Nuevas Esperanzas spent the day advising farming families on new methods and new crops, to add variety to the standard crops of maize and beans. Small farmers groups are experimenting with pineapple and dragon fruit. We visited three ‘model farms’, and came away with some of the new fruit. But there are no magic bullets in development, and all new crops are approached with caution by campesinos with limited access to land.

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The new fruits can be used locally for juice – the vitamins are good for children’s diets and development. But small farmer tastes are conservative in Nicaragua, and some families have said they ‘don’t like it’. If the dragon fruit won’t be drunk by local families, can it be sold? Not easily, not when the nearest market is 40km away and your only transport is a horse. There are solutions to all these problems, but they will take some ingenuity, and crucially, the local people have to be convinced that the benefits of fruit make it worthwhile to set aside some of their precious land and labour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw some excellent water systems, where communities and engineers have brought fresh water from many kilometres away. And many houses and churches now have rainwater harvesting tanks. Maria Eugenia told me she has had hers for four years now and it lasts the family for three months into the dry season. That is 3 months in which her children don’t have to make an hour long round trip on a horse to bring back four small water containers from the spring.

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And so on to the great new hope: Tourism. Tourism is a growing industry and many visitors come on day-trips from the town of Leon. But they bring everything with them from the town, the guide, their lunch, and drinks. The tourist trade at present brings little benefit to local people. After consultation with the community, Nuevas Esperanzas embarked on their largest project, to build a hostel and café. If visitors ate in the region, and slept overnight so they could see the dawn, then significant benefit would come to the local people, bringing employment for guides, cooks, local produce etc.

The site of the hostel was chosen carefully. The volcano does occasionally throw out rocks (incandescent ballistic projectiles as they are technically known) – but never this far from the crater.  ‘Speaking to local people, they told us that never in memory (50+ years) had rocks landed in this area’.  Telica has had small eruptions on and off over the years but never affected this site.

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The project was a success, funded by the European Union, and the building was finished in November. The EU sent an auditor on a Monday, who saw the work was good, and signed off the project as finished.  What could possibly go wrong?

So yes, you guessed it. The following day, at 9 in the morning, bang! Telica active, ash spewing out, land shaking, and then a crash, as rocks as big as buckets were shot out by the volcano – towards the hostel and the community. Incredibly over fifteen rocks hit the hostel directly, landing on the roof, smashing holes in it, smashing the cement of the water tank. Bad luck for the community of Agua Fria? Or good luck because no-one was sleeping there yet, no one was killed.

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Looking up at the roof of the hostel/cafe

The event was not only unheard of for Telica, it appears to be one of the most extreme events of its kind (phreatic eruption with large projectiles) reported anywhere.  Rocks weighing at least 4 tonnes travelled (airborne) more than 400 metres from the crater and smaller rocks reaching over 1.5 km. For more details on a similar event see YouTube 

The volcanic activity lasted 15 minutes, but that was long enough to kill the project dead. The building sits there today, a shell that can’t now be used because the government has declared it is too dangerous. The community members ran for their lives that day, and later returned to their homes where they remain today. If you are poor in Nicaragua you have little choice as to where you can live.

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So there ends the tale…Or does it? The tourists keep coming – they are wise enough to assess risk, work out the probabilities. They do the same before bungee jumping or white-water rafting. So the Leon travel companies keep making money. Some of the community are now saying that they were unlucky once, they couldn’t possibly be unlucky again. “Patch up the roof of the hostel and let’s get going” says one. It might have to be illegal for a year or so at the beginning, because of the safety regulations. “But most new businesses in Nicaragua are illegal at the beginning”. Things sort themselves out later if the business is a success.

What option to take, to leave it closed or try again? Maybe some local underemployed young people might be prepared to cut some corners and take the risk. Maybe the new business can bring a sustainable income stream into the community. But a legally-registered NGO would have to think twice, or more, before taking that risk. What would you do?

 

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