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

 

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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.

The Development Worker’s rucksack

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In the early 90’s my wife and I lived and worked in rural El Salvador. We supported development projects in seven remote villages. Since these were unserved by roads we had to walk between them. We climbed the steep slopes, through pine-covered forests, and in our rucksacks we would carry:

  • Exercise books and pens for the village schools
  • Medicines and bandages for the village health posts
  • A toothbrush and a book

In my new role in Nicaragua my organisation also support rural development projects, so again I have to walk to rural villages. From our office in Leon we drive out to the rural communities of Matagalpa and the Segovias, with a rucksack ready for a few days work. But nowadays in my rucksack I carry:

  • IMG_20160308_170530A laptop
  • A memory stick
  • Two mobile phones
  • Two sim cards, for the two competing mobile networks
  • A constant desire to stop in a town with wifi
  • A battery charger
  • A cable to charge the laptop
  • Cables to charge the phones
  • Cables to charge things while you drive
  • A cable to download photos from the phones
  • A dongle
  • A kindle
  • A cable to charge the kindle
  • Adaptors! An adaptor to connect this to that, and a different one to connect that to this.
  • Skype to talk to the office, if you stop in a town with wifi
  • And passwords. A whole sleuth of passwords…. For the comp, for the phones, for skype, facebook, email, WhatsApp

No room in my rucksack now for text books or medical supplies for the villages. In the 1990s when we arrived in a village, they probably thought we were crazy people….but at least they could see we brought something useful. Nowadays when I arrive, they probably think I come from the moon! And I don’t bring anything obviously useful for the village at all.

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Back in the office there are two things that dominate my life. One is the heat in Leon, my struggle to stay cool, the other is new technology, my struggle to stay sane. I work with a generation of young people who have grown up with laptops, mobiles and the wired world, but I am of a generation where each step has to be learned.

I used to work for VSO where the second floor of the office was the I.T. department. Behind a big bank of cables and flashing lights you could find a friendly guy who would set things up for you and explain Ctl-Alt-F7. Arriving in my new work I asked for the I.T. officer – none; the I.T. team –none; the help-desk – an outsourced email address of someone in Estonia.

IMG_9911A computer used to be something at your desk you’d use at work to do emails, and if proficient use Word or Excel.  My new laptop in the Leon office is an intricate self-running universe of icons, colours, programmes, music, apps, screens within screens, with some work attached. When I’m on work (Office) I can manage it, but if I swipe something by mistake I find myself in a world of colour and temptation, not quite sure how I got there and not easy to find my way back. To search the net I like the clear empty page of the google homepage, but here in Central America the laptops come loaded with MSN, a cacophony of new stories jumping from the screen about celebrities, naked selfies and the onwards advance of Donald Trump. Yuk!

What to do?  When we first arrived in El Salvador, our rucksacks of exercise books and medicines felt heavy to carry.  As we got fitter they seemed lighter.  What do I have to do in Nicaragua for my new hi-tech rucksack to seem lighter?

 

The Heat in Leon

There are two things that have dominated my life in my first few months in Nicaragua. One is the new technology I have inherited, my struggle to stay sane in the world of fragile laptops and weak wifi. The other is the heat in Leon. The all-encompassing, cloying, debilitating heat that surrounds us.

Cathedral

Leon cathedral, empty streets in the heat of the day

I arrived in January, and it was hot. Hot so you soon learned not to walk in the sun, hot so I wilted by mid-afternoon. Hot but just about manageable. But since then the heat has been building. In March and April the heat has been unbearable, as we build up to the rainy season. In April, the hottest month, the temperature crept from 36 degrees, to 37, 38 and several times up to 40 centigrade. In that temperature you just melt.

In Leon there are only two cooler hours of the day – from 5 am to 7am. If you want to go for a walk you have to get up at dawn. In the day, if you have to walk, you jump from shadow to shadow. If I walk to the shops with my wife, we walk in single file, hugging the edge of the buildings, searching for a sliver of shade. We walk, avoiding the sleeping dogs, the rubbish and the sudden potholes, and even the shade is hot.

Unlike most offices in Nicaragua, my office has no air-conditioning. We can’t afford it. In the mornings we manage, with a plethora of fans strategically positioned by each desk. By mid-afternoon our productivity plummets. I sit, with rivulets of sweat dripping down my back. My shirt clings to my skin. Not a great look as I try to exude authority.

The office has a shower. Sometimes I shower in the middle of the day, and just stand there afterwards, no towel, for two or three minutes till I am dry. Arriving home after work, the first thing I do is throw off my wringing clothes and shower, if there is water, in the lukewarm flow of Leon’s water system. At least here no-one needs a heated shower. You can shower four or five times a day – but a few minutes afterwards you are just…hot!

We bought a fan for our little apartment – it just pushes the hot air around. At the moment, living here is like living under a hair dryer. Roll on the rain, I say. I hope then it will get a little cooler. But in fact they say it just becomes wet and hot instead. Wet, hot, humid, like a Turkish bath. Will a change be as good as a rest? But Nicaragua needs the rain, after the last two very dry years. Last week we had a few storms, with the inevitable power cuts they bring. The mood is changing in the streets. Are people now carrying parasols or are they carrying umbrellas?

The photos below show how I am coping with the climate…

January

February

February

March

March

April

April

El Significado Que Nos Dejo Monseñor Romero

Blog por José Fidel Campos Sorto

“Yo conoci por primera vez a Mons. Romero en 1975. Yo tenía 16 años, él llegó en visita pastoral a mi pueblo Sesori en donde mi papá era el sacristán. Me dio la impresión de un Obispo piadoso; luego constaté su actitud solidaria en visitas que mi padre le hizo a Santiago de María. En 1979, en San Salvador volví a constatar esa cualidad incrementada de su persona hacia los necesitados.

Romero mural1La conversión de Mons. Romero fue un proceso gradual que para él significó ser abierto a conocer la realidad, y su sensibilidad al sufrimiento de la gente. En 1977 fue nombrado Arzobispo y tomó posesión ante la algarabía de los ricos y la desilusión de los pobres. Pero los cuerpos de seguridad del gobierno generalizaron la represión al grado que solamente poco después le asesinaron a su mejor amigo, el padre Rutilio Grande. De ahí en adelante, se fue produciendo un giro en monseñor Romero; pues ya no se trataba solo del padre Rutilio; sino de catequistas, sacerdotes, obreros, campesinos que aparecían descuartizados por los cuerpos represivos.

Los Escuadrones de la Muerte, amparados en el Ejército del gobierno, sacaban de sus casas a las víctimas en presencia de sus familiares u otros testigos que luego daban testimonio al Socorro Jurídico, institución creada por el Arzobispo para velar por los derechos humanos.

Para los diferentes sectores populares, víctimas de la despiadada represión, monseñor Romero llego a ser la única Voz de los que no la tenían. Cada misa dominical era escuchada con devoción, porque además de ser una catequesis de formación cristiana, él denunciaba los hechos represivos de ambos bandos, y especialmente de la Fuerza Armada. Para nuestro pueblo, monseñor fue un dignificador de la persona humana. Para las mayorías populares, monseñor fue el único referente calificado que daba esperanzas al pueblo desde la palabra de Dios.

Romero in villageVimos monseñor com la persona que privilegió el diálogo como salida a la crisis del país. Para nuestro pueblo, Mons. Romero fue un modelo de hombre verdaderamente libre para decir la verdad oportunamente, sin odio y con respeto. Cuanto necesitamos eso en nuestros días!. Monseñor Romero trascendió nuestras leyes jurídicas cuando afirmó que éstas deben estar al servicio de las personas y no al revés. De ahí que, ante la brutal represión desatada por las Fuerzas Armadas en contra del pueblo, Monseñor Romero les dijo:

“Yo quisiera hacer un llamamiento muy especial a los hombres del ejército…. Hermanos, son de nuestro mismo pueblo, matan a sus mismos hermanos campesinos. Ante una orden de matar que dé un hombre, debe prevalecer la ley de Dios que dice: no matar. Ningún soldado está obligado a obedecer una orden contra la Ley de Dios. Ya es tiempo de que recuperen su conciencia y obedezcan antes a su conciencia que a la orden del pecado. La Iglesia, defensora de la Ley de Dios y de la dignidad humana, no puede quedarse callada ante tanta abominación”.

romeroshotEstas fueron las palabras de monseñor Romero que tocaron las fibras de la fuerza Armada y de sus Escuadrones de la Muerte, quienes le asesinaron al siguiente día lunes, 24 de marzo de 1980.

Este hecho significó para nosotros como pueblo, una inmensa pérdida de nuestro defensor y guía espiritual. De ahí en adelante monseñor Romero ha sido considerado y venerado como un Santo. Luego de su asesinato, nos sobrevino un estado de indefensión generalizado que nos obligó a muchos a salir del país, otros nos incorporamos a la guerra, y otros a sobrevivir en medio de la misma guerra.

A 36 años de aquel magnicidio, constato que el mensaje del profeta  Oscar Romero trascendió a su espacio y a su tiempo. Hoy es un salvadoreño universal, que con su mensaje siempre nuevo sigue iluminándonos los problemas sociales que nos aquejan en El Salvador – y yo digo que en todo el mundo. Por ejemplo cuando él mismo lo dijo: “Yo denuncio, sobre todo, la absolutización de la riqueza. Este es el gran mal de El Salvador: la riqueza, la propiedad privada como un absoluto intocable y ¡hay del que toque ese alambre de alta tensión, se quema!”(1979).

Cafod posterLas palabras de Romero tienen mucha relevancia hoy. Por ejemplo, sobre el tema de migración, tan presente hoy en nuestro tiempo, Romero dijo: “Es triste tener que dejar la patria porque en la patria no hay un orden justo donde puedan encontrar trabajo”(1978).

El mensaje de Monseñor Romero me interpela, tiene aplicación actual, por eso creo que el pueblo no lo ha olvidado, y sigue estudiando sus homilías para renovar fuerzas y seguir luchando por la justicia social de nuestros pueblos.

 

Para finalizar, me uno al llamado que monseñor hizo en su momento (1977): “No teman los conservadores, sobre todo aquellos que no quisieran que se hablara de la cuestión social, de los temas espinosos, que hoy necesita el mundo. No teman que los que hablamos de estas cosas nos hayamos hecho comunistas o subversivos. No somos más que cristianos, sacándole al Evangelio las consecuencias que hoy, en esta hora, necesita la humanidad, nuestro pueblo”.

Romero-mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Por José Fidel Campos Sorto

Este link es una canción de Mejía Godoy sobre Monseñor Romero:

Coffee & Contras, 30 years on

In 1984, at an intense and violent time of the Sandinista revolution, I picked coffee with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. So now I am back working in Nicaragua, one of my first trips was to go back to the farm, to try and find out what had changed.

 

The early 1980’s were a time of optimism in Nicaragua with the early enthusiasm of the Sandinista revolution. One symbol of this was our brigade of students and workers from Managua who picked coffee to help bring in essential foreign currency. Seventy of us slept on two long bunks in a wooden barn, and we queued up three times a day to eat a diet of beans and rice served on ‘plate’ of a banana leaf.

Coffee & contras article w photos (2)

1984 coffee brigade in Matagalpa, Nicaraguans & European volunteers

 

 

I have had the old black and white photos since then. A column of pickers, every sixth one armed, winds up the slopes. Women pick coffee under the rain. European volunteers fumble with rifles when asked to do sentry duty. Last weekend I went back to Matagalpa to see if I could find the village. And to see how Nicaragua has changed in the last 30 years.

Coffee brigade on slopes 1984

1984, volunteer brigadistas set off towards coffee fields 

 

 

 

Driving up the winding road towards La Dalia, green coffee bushes on each side, brought back memories. In 1984 we drove in a convoy of trucks – red bandanas, khaki rucksacks, students singing revolutionary songs. A few weeks later a similar truckload of students was ambushed by the U.S. backed contra rebels and 14 young students killed. The road today is empty and peaceful, though with many more houses than I remembered. Arriving in roughly the area I remembered I began to ask around, if anyone remembered the co-operative where we worked.

 

At first people were quite suspicious, and didn’t want to talk. It was also a challenge to find anyone over 40 – most of the Nicaraguan population is young. But when I pulled out the old photos they became interested. Older people came over and studied grainy pictures of children, recognising some of the adults of today.

 

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2016, community leaders study photos of the Coop 30 years earlier

 

 

Little remains from the photos of old. The wooden barn we slept in has long ago been knocked down. But I found the old kitchen we ate in. The waterfall, where one brigadista drowned, remains of course. And I half-recognised the sweep of the hills where we walked and slipped in the mud of the coffee fields. The foreman from those days came up and reminisced. He was the one who shouted at us every day, ‘stay in your own row’, and ‘Only pick red!’

 

The foreman was unsure I had really been on the brigade in 1984, until we both remembered the worst incident of that time, when one drunken campesino blew his brains out playing Russian roulette. Apart from that unhappy memory they were pleased to see me. “You’ve not changed a bit” said the foreman, “except now you are fat!” What a cheek!

 

So what has changed? Sadly the co-op. itself no longer exists. Coffee is still grown, but now by private producers. It’s every family for itself. The Sandinista cooperative did not survive the economic turmoil of the end of the contra war and the hyper-inflation that followed. The river now runs drier in summer and floods with torrential rain in winter. The biggest trees on the hills have been cut down. My memory of little wooden shacks with few amenities, has now been replaced by little brick shacks with few amenities.

 

The biggest difference is that there were 25 families there in 1984 – now there are 200. But, the road is very good and transport around the area is much better. The farm is no longer ‘remote’ and isolated from the world. There is a technical college in the area. I thought the local school was (comparatively) good and well equipped.

 

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2016

In the end, there is one overwhelming difference between today and the 1980s. I came here various times in the 1980’s and yes there was optimism, a spirit, an enthusiasm to build a new future. But it was a war-torn country. That was the fundamental description. The shops were empty, transport was appalling, electricity unreliable, teenagers were drafted into the army, and the steady succession of funerals sapped the energy of a population who were undernourished and tired of war. Today the country is at peace. Things are not perfect of course, but roads are good, shops are full, tourists hang out, people are cynical about the government like anywhere else, most kids go to school. People go to work if they have any, sit in the sun in the evenings, and life goes on. The country is at peace. That is a huge difference.

Arrival…

In 1984 I picked coffee for three months with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. We lived the Sandinista revolution while the American-backed ‘contra-revolution’ swirled around the surrounding hills. Central America was aflame in the 1980’s, with the successful revolution in Nicaragua, and violent civil war in neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala.

Three decades later I have a new job, and am based in Nicaragua again. It will be fascinating to find out what has changed and what remains of that Sandinista spirit.

I was offered the post three months ago, and spent the UK winter in a flurry of leaving one job while preparing for another, packing up a house, and trying to arrange a hundred things. I arrived in the capital exhausted after a 20 hour journey, lugging my luggage into the darkness of a Managua suburb. I slept fitfully, jetlagged, head spinning – why had I come, would I be able to cope, what was this journey about?

And then the first morning…. Sunshine! After the English winter that alone makes you feel better. My first breakfast, sitting on a balcony watching as Managua shook itself awake. Rice and beans, with cream and tortillas. No pretensions. Chatting with the waitress, friendly, joking, remembering my Spanish.IMG_4321 - Copy

On the road opposite, a good housewife sweeps the dust off her yard, as she has probably done 1000 times before. Another neighbour throws water on the mud outside his house, trying to keep the dust down for half an hour. The sun is up and it’s already hot. In the distance the sound of salsa music echoes around the suburb. And on a telephone wire in front of me, two green parrots sit on the wire, chirping and cooing as I finish my gritty black coffee.

Memories and feelings come flooding back. This is why I came…. I love Central America. The sunshine, the sounds, the smells, the people, the friendliness, the struggle, the commitment. Maybe in a few weeks I will look back on this as foolish. But for now, this first morning, sitting on a balcony in the sun, I remember why I’ve come….