What follows hopefully give you an idea of what went on whilst I was volunteering for Raleigh international as a Team Leader on the International Citizen Service programme in Nicaragua at the end of 2015. Hopefully I’ve caught up with the majority of you in person and you’ve heard what went on, some of which was pretty challenging and I’ve told those stories…arguably it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Some of these stories I don’t feel are appropriate, and it wouldn’t be professional of me to publish online. But here are some stories or anecdotes I wanted to share. When you’re embroiled in the thick of a situation, it’s hard to take the small moments and realise how unique and special experiences can be. So here is part of what your money and support helped me and my team ‘Charlie 3’ achieve and experience, hope you enjoy thanks for everyone’s support.
What We Achieved in 3 months
- 8 community action days, which were afternoons of activities for all community members. improving knowledge on themes such as hand washing, sanitation, clean and healthy homes, water source protection & landslide prevention techniques, nutrition, human rights, and recycling.
- We introduced a Nicaraguan health program and trained and mentored 3 health promoters. The programme known as FECSA – Familias Escueles y Comunidades Saludables (Healthy Families, Schools and Communities) which aims to promote sustainable behaviour changes with regards to sanitation at the personal, family, school and community level. 30 families were recruited to participate in the programme and 3 health promoters taken through 3 training sessions. Health promoters were supported on 3 house visits (90 in total) when performing diagnostic visits assessing the current condition and training the family members.
- Supporting established CAPS – Comite de Agua Portable y Saneamiento (Potable Water and Sanitation committee) which is responsible for the safe distribution of clean water in the community and protecting the water source. We trained members of the committee in key areas such as expected roles and responsibilities, gender and empowerment, sanitation and clean water. (more on CAPS later)
- Coached and trained two entrepreneurs, who received building training funded by Raleigh on improved sanitation systems, and we helped to train them in a business model, coaching them to be prepared as new business owners. These two, along with help from the community built two new eco-latrines in public places (long drop latrines that don’t contaminate the earth). Raleigh then subsidised the cost of new eco-latrines with community members paying 10% towards the cost of a new eco-latrine, with the idea being that community members improved their latrine and helped support new local business. This program was brand new, hence had complications, but I have heard from the team leader that took over from me, that 12 eco-latrines have been funded in the second half of the 6-month project.
- Introduced and built multiple tippy taps, which is a basic hand wash station. These were built next to latrines, to encourage hand washing straight after going to the toiler. We built one at the local health centre, and a visitor liked the idea so much he said he was going to built one in his community 40 minutes away, great to know our impact spread to other areas.
- Built two dykes, which are dry stones walls in an area where soil erosion on a hillside has begun to try and reduce the erosion rate. Planted 70 trees as part of a reforestation project above the community school.
Our Community – Palan Central aka Monte Cristo
Population 180, it was tiny, on being given a presentation on our new home by our NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) project partner Agua Para La Vida (water for life), it really struck me, that when we walk in as a group of 13 people (our team was 15, but 2 volunteers were community members themselves) we immediately increased the village’s population by 7%! To give it another sense of scale there were 3 ‘corner’ shops in the entire village (known as pulparias), but 4 different churches (i’ll discuss religion later) with one main dirt road going through the main area of the village. Ours was the most remote community, a 1.5-hour bus ride from the nearest town Rio Blanco then a 1.5-hour walk with 5 river crossings to get to our Nicaraguan home, passing on route huge waterfall, where a hydro power station supplies our electricity. The landscape was jungle and tropical like, with locals growing cacao (chocolate beans), plantains, and oranges in their gardens, amongst rearing smaller livestock like pigs in their gardens too. The majority of people work in agriculture, and all sections of the surrounding hillside are used for cattle grassing.
Prior to our volunteers arriving, all the team leaders visited their communities to meet the host families, carry out risk assessments, and get a feel for the community over a frantic 48 hours, most of which was spent on public buses, and trying to locate mobile phone signal in the community. Before we left, one of the community leaders, an 18-year-old woman, mentioned they planned a welcome ceremony planned for us, when we returned with the volunteers in a weeks time. Me and my Latino counterpart Laura kept this a secret to our volunteers, and even though we arrived at 11pm in the night in pitch darkness, a huge turnout assembled and welcomed our group known as Charlie 3. The first house of the community welcomed us with a service by the Evangelical church, with words from the father and other church leaders, traditional pastries and drink (non-alcoholic) followed. Next we were asked to head into the main street, where a group of children were waiting with Ivania the organiser of the welcome reception (read more about Ivania). We were asked to form an arch in the street. The children, led by Ivania sang and danced. After this special performance, each child had a polystyrene cup with local flowers and chose one of us, present us with our gift and give us a hug. Eric an eight-year-old boy, who had befriended me so quickly on our pre-visit to the community came over and gave me my welcome gift and a huge big hug.
This continued with each of the children going over to, who was at that point a complete stranger, and welcoming us as volunteers and as new temporary community members. I thought at the time about getting my camera out, but some moments you just need to take in with your eyes and savour without the barrier of having a lens in front of your eyes. After the welcome, the host families were super excited to find out who their new ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ were going to be, unfortunately for me, we had left our pairing lists at the first house, with the microphone thrust into my hands, I did my best by giving a thank you speech in my best Spanish, emphasising how special the evening was, and how excited we were to live and work with the community. I spoke slowly and deliberately, not for effect, more to buy enough time for Laura to get back with the list and save my skin. We introduced the pairings (1 Brit 1 Latino) to their new families and ended the amazing welcoming, after a long day travelling.
We all lived on one central road (dirt track), and each family was a little different in size, for example in my house for the first few weeks we had our Nicaraguan mum, sister, and brother with his wife and two little ones, but then the young family went to stay with another member of the family. All families were super welcoming and accommodating, some gave up their living room and constructed a room out of tarps and plastic sheeting to facilitate having two volunteers, others went so far as to build a minor extension, which proved difficult to risk assess when the room didn’t even exist on a preparation visit me and my co-team leader Laura completed.
The children, in particular took to us super quickly, and after a week or so, it became quite usual as you walked through the village to hear them calling your name, or versions of it, as they struggled with English pronunciation. As I had experienced on previous visits to Latin America, people generally struggle with Stuart, the combination of two constants to start your name they find particularly difficult. However put a vowel in front and they get it. So inevitably I had calls of Esteban and an occasional random Estuber (don’t know if its a name?!) and Estuart. I miss those moments, it was kind of like the theme song to Cheers (google theme song my young volunteers who may be reading) except it was “where everybody kind of knows a version of your name.”
People were obviously curious about us, and what we were doing in their community, most had ideas of us building and gifting something new and grand, we had a request of building a school for a nearby community, and it proved quite difficult to get across the idea that we weren’t here for a grand infrastructure project, rather we would be running workshops and training session to empower the villagers to improve their community for themselves, after all, 3 months is a tiny amount of time, and after we left we hoped they would continue to develop.
Which brings us on to the rumours as to why a group of cheles (foreigners) were in Palan Central. Here’s some background, the Nicaraguan government is looking at creating an inter-ocean canal, the same concept as the Panama canal. Connecting the Caribbean ocean to the Pacific ocean, allowing giant container ships to pass through the Americas. There are huge environmental impacts with this project, destroying large portions of jungle, and displacing rural communities. The government gave the go ahead to the Chinese financed project with no referendum or public voice on the matter. As part of the agreement, similar to the Panama and American situation, the canal will be owned 100% by the foreign investment and then handed over to national government a 100 years after completion. Panama had control given to their canal in 2013. Back to our work and the community, as part of our work we visited the majority of the houses, to conduct interviews to gauge each household on their health and sanitation habits, the main jobs of household members, in essence, a fingerprint exercises to be able to try and quantify the work of the project. However when some of our group called at one particular house, they kept being told the household owner wasn’t in, come back tomorrow. Each time they went they got the same answer because a rumour had flourished that we were linked to the Nicaraguan government and had been sent to get support of the Nicaraguan canal. Another rumour was that we were from the United States, here to buy portions of their land?! As a side note the US supported the S0moza dictatorship in the 60s ad 70s until the Nicaraguan revolution took over control of the country in 1979. All these rumours came to a head at a meeting, when I explained we had nothing to do with the Nicaraguan government, we were nothing to do with the Nicaraguan canal, and that we were here from a British charity, and had nothing to do with the United States either, nor where we looking for buy to let opportunities in Nicaragua either. All quite entertaining really!
On our pre visit, after waking up needing to pee, I vividly remember this incident. Walking through a few inches of mud, doing my best not to slip over, on my way to the long drop latrine which is an experience in itself. Playing on my mind heavily was the fact we still hadn’t managed to find a point with good mobile signal coverage and had a load of other tasks that needed doing, such as locating a suitable helicopter landing spot for an casualty evacuation. On the return trip from the latrine I noticed that I had unknowingly walked under a washing line, but more distressing was that it was made out of barbed wire, don’t need any pegs then do you!. Just as well I’m a short ass, as if I was a little taller, in my sleepy state I probably would have garotted myself. A little more alert, I went back into the house having to stride over a humongous pregnant pig which laid in-front of the door and just paused and thought… where am I? What decisions have I made to get me to this point?! I’ve done some fairly adventurous stuff over the last few years, but this was starting to push the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I knew that potentially for some of my team this would be their first experience of the developing world.
Conditions were pretty basic, but the majority of the group took to them quite quickly, one or two not so much, but after a few weeks people just got on with it. The reason I think we adjusted so quickly was the reception we received on our first evening bringing our team, Charlie 3 into the community. We did have electricity which I wasn’t expecting (albeit intermittent and also perfectly timed not to be available when we had loads to do on the laptop). Most houses had basic lighting circuits, and one or two sockets for charging phones. A handful of houses had a CRT old style TV and perhaps DVD player, 3 houses had a fridge freezer (those that were also shops/ pulperias).
There were communal water posts every 15 metres or so along the main track through the village, where water was collected and brought back to homes. The community water system had a small water source originating on a hill a few kilometres away, where the water was channelled and piped into the village under gravity. The route even went up and over one hill, where there was a storage tank, where the community irregularly chlorinated the water, before further pipework brought it into the community. Within the village there were also two communal showers and clothes washing areas. A group of community members volunteer to be part of a committee that takes care of the water in the village, known as CAPS, who were one of our main work streams whilst we were there.
The homes were simple wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs, in the kitchen, the strove was a structure made from ash and mud with moulded troughs to make a fire and place a to sit a pan on top. When we first arrived, me and Lau were amazed by how much smoke our family must breath in, there was no ventilation and would regularly be too much for me needing to leave from coughing and crying due to the smoke. We did make a modification to the outside of the house to allow more smoke to escape, which made it marginally better.
One evening after work I walked into the kitchen, and found my Nica mum cooking something but had no idea what, it was a crazy sight of a minor inferno on the stove with a cook pot in the middle. What it actually was, was an oven, a fire underneath a pot, with pastries baking inside, with a corrugated sheet of iron around about 1m square with another fire on top of that. Quite clever really, a few days later we used this and had our very own pizza night, using ground corn usually used to make torillas as a base, and introduced the Italian cuisine into this rural Nicaraguan community.
One of the unexpected results we experienced as a group was the positive impact we had on gender stereotypes. The roles of males and females in our community were very traditional, the women were housewives, with their roles as you might expect consist of cooking, washing, cleaning, and with no piped water, collecting water and bringing it home (although compared to some other communities the distances were very short, less than 20m in most cases). Whilst the men and teenage boys worked in agriculture usually cultivating maize (corn), beans and cacao (the bean that chocolate comes from). The teenage girls, in particular my Nicaraguan sister Yaritza (read more about how Yaritza went on to become a community volunteer and a health promoter) thought it was hilarious that the boys from Charlie 3 were doing laundry, joked that we couldn’t do it, and at first I do recall getting the odd bemused look from women in the village when doing laundry at one of the two washboards. To be fair I probably was doing a subpar job compared to what the ladies of the village could do, but our team came up with the phrase, ‘Monte Cristo clean’, basically not bad for where we were.
One of our work streams was working with a group of community volunteers known as the CAPS – Comite de Agua Portable y Saneamiento( Potable Water and Sanitation) committee. This group of volunteers ensured the community had access to water from the source in the surrounding hills. When a repair is needed, this is the group that carry out the work. They also collect the monthly rates per household. Although the committee was officially a group of 10 people, there were generally 4 active members, and I thought it was quite stereotypical the secretary was female, all other roles had male appointments, except for 2 health promoters who were female but usually never showed up. These committees in Nicaragua by law have to be at least a 50% split between male and female, to promote female empowerment, however it’s not enforced and generally it’s whoever volunteers gets on.
It was during a CAPS gender workshop, that after activities looking at traditional male and female roles, I got to appreciate how we were challenging stereotypes, and also how my assumption of a female as secretary was a tad narrow minded. The activities used images of tasks such as collecting water, typically a woman’s task, working in the fields, typically a man’s task, and other scenarios such as playing football to get a discussion going about if specific jobs or tasks are only for one gender. Within minutes Don Porfirio the President was explaining that it was great to see the boys of Charlie 3 washing their own clothes, and guessed that we can even cook, to which we explained the day before me and Ben cooked lunch together, generally men in the community didn’t cook. Porfirio went on to say that perhaps people think he doesn’t want women on the committee, he said that women are generally better organised, and wants more women in the group, but they aren’t interested in getting involved, that told me! The CAPS group all recognised that tasks or jobs could be done by both genders, and I had wrongly read the situation with the female secretary. Interestingly we also talked about girls playing football, and they agreed that it was possible, but they didn’t know how to. We found out that football was only introduced the previous year, when someone came and taught a few boys how to play. Football didn’t exist before 2014 in our community, how interesting is that! The following day Don Porfirio took part on a community activity, actively trying to recruit more women on the committee, and explaining the idea that both genders can do anything, much to our delight.
Religion played a huge part in our community, most of what we did fell around what was going on in the churches. Our big community sessions were on a Sunday after service to try and make sure it was well attended. Multiple training sessions were rescheduled one one religious event or another. When we arrived in Palan Central there were two churches, the Evangelical and the Catholic churches. By the time we left there were technically four, as I mentioned earlier population of around 180 people, and only three corner shops. Mid way through our stay a spat broke out in the Evangelical church between two sets of families, we heard lots of rumours, but the end result was a new church was set up in someone’s living room, with everyone else in the community attending, bar one family who had the original church all to themselves, when a new father was sent, as the original was involved in the rumours.
The Latinos have a phrase for a situation like this, “Pueblo Pequeno Infierno Grande” basically small town – big fire, and how true that was. I asked my Nicaraguan mum about the situation, who was Catholic, I asked her how it works in the Catholic church, she quite smuggly said your not allowed to just set up a new church, Catholics attempt to resolve their problems. Unfortunately for us, we had to move two of our volunteers from their original house, and this was the family that was the lone family left in the Evangelical church, and unbeknownst to us we so happened to move them into the exact household they were feuding with. We had to move two of our volunteers due to the fact they were getting cut off by high river levels and unable to attend sessions, and that was the plain truth of the matter, but the family thought we were taking sides and had been told to move them by other members of the community…. Simply not true. The days that followed did my head in, instead of supporting the team and the project, I was pandering to people’s egos and trying to recover the situation, when we had done nothing wrong, did not like it what so ever.
The new evangelical church eventually set up in an abandoned house, and a full days service to celebrate that, sounds quite nice right? Seeing and hearing authentic services? Evangelical services were a fairly regular event, and they involved a PA system turned up as high as it could go, and the participants bashing out the same songs, with a bit of speech from the father in between. “Asi asi asi… asi se alaba a Dios”.
From these experiences, I have a slight insight and appreciation as to how extremists of whatever faith or persuasion are possibly moulded and formed. There was never a lot going on in the community and the churches were very important places/institute. After hours and hours, weeks on weeks of the same songs and messages I can see how people get sucked into it and get involved and get turned almost into zombies. Obviously these faiths were not pushing extremist ideas but I could imagine how people are sucked into it, and potentially not question the message being pushed. This is of course my opinion, I’m not religious most faiths, I believe give a basis of just being a nice human being, which is a great idea, but have seen in particular when exploring South America how much wealth the Catholic church has accrued. In many occasions put this wealth on show by draping the interiors of their churches in their riches. As a tourist visiting such places, it’s obviously beautiful and a spectacle, but would it not be better to use that money towards helping its followers in the community?
The churches in our community were pretty modest, but there was quite a divide between the faiths, in particular between these split evangelical community. This did impact our work, one example; as part of our project two eco-latrines (long drop toilets that don’t contaminate the soil) would be built, and our original plan was to for our entrepreneurs to build one in each of the churches, two communal areas, with people that would take ownership and look after the facility. However when the Evangelical church split, we couldn’t do that, and put the second eco-latrine in the school, a less attractive option as the school gates were only open during school time which was Monday to Friday till just after lunch time, and quite often we found school was cancelled and the kids didn’t go to school, so in terms of the community having access to the new facilities it was not my preferred location, but a decision had to be made.
In the last few weeks we did learn about another side of the religious involvement in the community, apparently alcohol abuse used to be a very large problem, and in fact you couldn’t buy alcohol in our community I saw one of our neighbours on a weekend have a few beers but that was it, none of the pulperias sold alcohol. Apparently some of the males in the community used to drink heavily, brawl and sometimes attack their wives, but after a period of time with the churches being in the community this stopped. So although from my experiences, and various chatter in which I saw religion part of the issue, it was really interesting to hear this aspect. It seems the churches were a key aspect in this step in the communities development, it certainly made me question my opinion.
Without a doubt this was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced, so many factors involved that required constant problem solving and a ‘fire fighting’ approach. When the moments were low, they were intensely low and on the other end of scale the highs and proud moments were incredible and quite often followed one another within minutes. But ultimately it was an incredible experience, it’s not every day a group of people welcomes a group of strangers into their homes, and you get to share each other’s culture, language, and lives. I certainly learnt a massive amount, good bad and indifferent about; myself, international development, leading groups and have a collection of some amazing experiences, thanks once again for your donations and support.
Here’s a full gallery of shots;