She stuck her head into the van as soon as the door opened. She had dimples and a gap-toothed grin announcing 7-year-old status, recognizable in any culture. She engaged him in conversation and he laughed heartily. What did she say?, some of us asked. She said, Give me some money. You have the face of a rich man.’ Any North American can seem rich to a child hustling tourists on the streets of Managua. This urchin claimed her territory in the parking lot of the cathedral. Her charming cheekiness was hard to resist.
But we soon learned that handing out small change to salve our consciences was not a good long-term solution to third world woes, no matter how worthy the petitioner. This was part of the painful reality a group of 15 Seattle University faculty and staff members grappled with during a recent educational immersion experience in Nicaragua. Working with our in-country partner, the Center for Global Education, we met with leaders in business, education, women's issues, health care and ministry.
The first of many powerful encounters occurred at Nueva VidaNew Lifea resettlement community. Populated by people made homeless by Hurricane Mitch, recent earthquakes and flooding, Nueva Vida is a vale of tears and a rutted road of hope. Our tour began at Jubilee House, a small, intentional community of expatriates from the states committed to empowering refugees to improve their circumstances. We sat on rickety metal chairs in the afternoon heatblessed by a breeze through eucalyptus and banyan trees. In the shade of that grove, we listened to the heartwarming story of a group of homeless women who were starting a sewing cooperative. They pointed proudly to the field nearby where the walls of a factory stand, raised one concrete block at a time with their own hands. Still roofless, the factory is waiting for back-ordered sewing machines. In the meantime, the women learn basic accounting, frame a business plan and gain experience in working through conflicts. They will learn to sew after the machines arrive.
One day a week, the dozen or so women in the co-op take time off from labor and study to keep their families going by selling meat in the market or peddling small plastic bags of water at street corners. Many Nicaraguans do not have running water in their homes. The untreated sewage that pours into Lake Managua makes it among the most polluted lakes in the world. There is a big market for little blue plastic bags of agua. The women's children also work the streets, bringing back to Nueva Vida whatever money they have managed to glean from motorists, tourists and passersby.
On Sunday morning we worshiped and visited with the Nicarao Christian Base Community. Our enjoyment of music provided by students at the community's marimba school transcended deficiencies in Spanish we had felt earlier. Impressive for the quality of the youngsters' musicianship, the school also symbolizes the deep pride of the Nicaraguan people in their culture. The marimba is the only instrument native to the country. As the students learn the songs that tell the tales of Nicaragua, its hopes become more deeply rooted in their souls.
A two-and-a-half day visit to the Jesuit University of Central America and its microlending arm, Nitlaplan, was central to the trip. Officials presented the mission of the universityto foster the human development of Nicaragua through teaching, research and social outreach of high quality, all inspired by Christian values. American academics are accustomed to a twofold focus on teaching and research as hallmarks of the university. Here, remarkably, we found an institution that added social outreach as a third and equal activity. Every course, every research project and every social outreach endeavor must be tied directly to improving the country.
Officials at the U.C.A. admitted that their social outreach efforts still need some fine-tuning. Social outreach is currently strong in institutes funded and supported by the universitylike the microlending Nitlapan and Juan XXIII (a social self-help program for people in surrounding villages). More needs to be done to foster contextual learning situations, to have course work integrated with experiential learning and outcomes that point to transformational possibilities. The requirement that all freshmen take a course in theological reflection and all senior students a course in Christian ethics before they graduate is a beginning toward this end. The U.C.A. is serious about training leaders who will put the needs of the country before their own, no matter what their professional discipline or sphere of influence.
Those leaders will have their work cut out for them. After Hurricane Mitch and other natural disasters, many well-intentioned first world countries sent money for rebuilding to the government in Managua. The rubble has been cleared from the core of the city, but the rebuilding is far behind schedule. Where did the money go? The common explanation is that it lined the pockets of corrupt government officials who bought up land, drove expensive cars and lived the good life. The rust-covered, corrugated one-room homes with dirt floors that flank main streets of the capital are silent, eloquent testimony to greed and corruption. Some governmental officials make as much as $20,000 to $30,000 (U.S. currency) per month. Schoolteachers make $80 to $100 a month. The people of Nicaragua, their hopes dashed by the failure of la revolución, beaten down and battered by one natural disaster after another, have little energy left to protest. Just staying alive is hard enough. We wondered, where is the protest from the first world about how its money was spent?
One of the most compelling images we bring back from this visit is of thousands of pastel-colored plastic bags littering the roadside as far as the eye can see. With some seed money and simple technology, a resourceful entrepreneur could keep people busy for years cleaning up and recycling all that plastic. I wondered why no one had organized such an enterprise and why the government cannot keep the streets clean. In the middle of these ruminations, I saw the plank in my own eye. When had I last been part of a community cleanup operation at home? Don't I feel equally powerless to change my own government?
All who went on this trip have favorite memories of poignant moments that moved them to a new insight or determination. I have two to share. My eighth grade teacher, Margarita Navarro, C.S.J., was a missionary in Nicaragua for 18 years. I was able to visit her, see her work among the people of the barrio Batahola Norte and catch up on some 40 years of her life that included work in Panama and Mexico as well. She admitted that adventure is what drew her to mission. It was clear to me that this sense of adventure was shaped and transformed by daily, practical acts of supporting, encouraging, teaching basic skills, faith-sharing and empowering God's poor. Sister Margie died on Sept. 2, 2001, but her legacy remains powerful.
The Center at Batahola is an oasis in the city of Managua. Physically, it is beautiful. Colorful paintings adorn the walls. A gigantic mural behind the altar inspires all viewers to remember revolutionary heroes like Carlos Fonseca, Sandino and Che Guevara. These soldiers, along with the mothers and children of Nicaragua, surround the Divine Child. Off to the side, the same mural depicts youths from the neighborhood killed during the revolutionary war that ended in 1979. On the grounds of the center, in the midst of lush tropical foliage, placards provide Spanish translations of quotes from Chief Seattleanother visionary who inspired his people in the midst of adversity.
A stunning, well-attended liturgy is celebrated in Batahola Center on Sunday evenings. Besides members of the local community, it draws visiting and resident expatriates looking for worship that feeds the soul. Music students of Angel Torrellas, O.P., play guitars, recorders and the marimba as the youthful choir sings simple hymns of hope. Father Angel preaches a powerful homily that examines the mystery of evil and reminds us that God is not responsible for everything bad that happens to us. We must take action on our own behalf. Sister Margie and some lay leaders distribute Communion. I feel connected and grounded through the mystery of community in a way I have not done for a long time.
Three days later I visited Batahola in daily, full operationcomputer classes, typing classes, sewing, cooking and beautician courses all in progress. There is a two-story library, complete with a wooden balcony built by a talented carpenter who visited once from Australia. Murals provide a visual feast in the inner courtyard, reminding viewers of the history of the people and their struggle. Margie showed me musical instruments provided by the Japanese government to Nicaragua's Ministry of Culture and Education and given to the center for the instruction of the children. I am awed by the diversity of services provided, her leadership and persistence and the effort it has taken to become fluent in the language, culture and customs of Nicaragua.
My second memory is of our last official meeting at the U.C.A., on Friday night before we left Nicaragua. We spoke with Fernando Cardenál, S.J., one of the few real heroes left from the revolution. Father Cardenál served as national director of the literacy campaign, and was then appointed minister of education under the Sandinista government. Under his leadership, over 100,000 literacy workers went into hillside villages. They lived with families and taught whole households how to read. At that time, 51 percent of Nicaraguans surveyed admitted they were illiterate. Father Cardenál's organization reduced that number to 12.9 percent in the space of a five-month campaignan astounding feat under any circumstances. A thin, tall, white-haired, ascetic-looking Jesuit, he was courteous in answering all our questions. He shared stories of the courage of the literacy workersmostly young womensome of whom were murdered or raped by contra sympathizers as a way to thwart the success of the mission. Despite such terrorizing tactics, the workers prevailed. People who cannot read can lose their vote and their voice in elections, making it harder to overthrow tyrants and support change in government. This is the vision that drove the literacy work forward.
Father Cardenál had a poignant response when asked, What is your hope for this country now? Quiet for a brief moment, he said, If you had asked me that question a number of years ago I would have said the revolution.’ It was my hope for this country. Now I have no hope. But we must each choose one thing and do it as best we can. Father Cardenál's one thing has been education. He directs more than 20 schools named Fe y AlegríaFaith and Joyto serve the poorest of the poor. The day we met with him he had been working to resolve a strike by teachers who had not been paid by the government in over two weeks. He shook his head at the disparity between the salaries of governmental officials and the paltry paycheck any Nicaraguan teacher takes home.
By this time in our trip, we all carried some discomfort, knowing the part our government had played to defeat the Sandinistas. Out of a mixture of solidarity, remorse and responsibility, we asked what we could do to help. Father Cardenál echoed the social-change philosophy of Paulo Freire: have a direct experience with the country. Educate yourselves about Nicaragua, he said, then someday, you will know what to do. We asked for his blessing before we lefta holy and moving moment with a humble and inspiring man.
Who knows where the next generation of leaders will come from in Nicaragua? The country longs for ethical, visionary ones. Perhaps a former student of the U.C.A. or a child from the hills taught to read by Father Cardenál's literacy workers will rise up, or one of the street children from Nueva Vida, or perhaps some who shared the legacy of beauty, education and determination learned within the Center at Batahola.