Australian Visions of a Nicaraguan Landscape

Photography and Philanthropy in Nicaragua

 

I couldn’t help but overhear them, and I didn’t try very hard not to either. The first thing they said repulsed me, I wasn’t entirely sure why. The second confirmed my feeling: these people don’t understand Nicaragua.

I don’t much, either, for that matter. The first time I flew to Nicaragua, airplane thoughts became goals in my journal, scribbled questions I might be able to ask people I would meet. I wanted, above all, to leave with an understanding of what it was like to be a Nicaraguan.

“What’s your passion? What do you love to do?”
“What’s your greatest difficulty? Your greatest hope?”
“How much do you make a day?”
“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”

At the bottom of the list, I summarized the questions: “If I were born a Nicaraguan, what would I think like, aspire to, fear, and regret?”

 

Nicaraguan kids

 

As it turns out, those answers don’t come easily from a conversation with a stranger on the street. My ambition was admirable, but understanding a people requires much more than ten days of curious questioning. I wanted to see behind the mask of everyone I met, to see others for who they were.

We do not travel as empty vessels. We do not see the world as it is. We see the world through our own history, our own country’s standards, our own myths. We see the world as outsiders. The goal of good travel is not merely to compare what we see with what we’re used to, but to see the world through the eyes of the people we meet.  Good travel is not easy.

I found myself eavesdropping shamelessly on the Australians next to me and scribbling the agitated thoughts their conversation guided.

“Don’t take any pictures that are too terribly sad,” one counseled the other. They talked of the great suffering of these people, and how sad it was. I recoiled at the tone of it. Feeling certain they saw more suffering than existed, Western eyes grading a developing country by Western standards, giving the people a test they don’t care to take.

Later, “It’s so beautiful here.” “I know,” another responded, “I’m reluctant to put pictures on Facebook because it looks like I’m in a tropical paradise.”

The contradiction of these two thoughts was apparent to me, and I seethed at their attitude towards this place. On one hand, they saw a great suffering but didn’t want to express it by photography or words so they wouldn’t depress others who saw and read. On the other hand, they saw great beauty but didn’t want to express it so others wouldn’t think they were having an easy time in paradise.

Why not just express the truth?

Ah, but the truth isn’t easy to come by. To find the truth we have to become a Nicaraguan, learn their history, lament for their losses, revel in their revolution, awake in terror in the night for fear of assassins, glorify the jungle rebel who fights against all odds. We must smile at the beauty around us.

We must not carry our own country with us, but walk naked through the streets and allow those we meet to clothe us.

That’s what I aim to do.

 

Survey in Naranjo

 

Here are some upcoming articles I’ll be doing about Nicaragua.  If you have any questions you’re curious about, send them to me.

  • Anger towards America
  • Contras and Sandinistas
  • History Timeline
  • The Jaguar Smile, a book review
  • With the Contras, a book review
  • Blood of Brothers, a book review
  • Transition from La Chureca to Villa Guadalupe, what it was like for the people
  • Economics – wages of bus drivers, taxis, what tourism does to a city
  • Writing from Villa Guadalupe’s students

Please subscribe, share, and let me know you’re reading!

– Jeff

The Scholarship Program Funded by You!

The ability to change the direction of your life–the opportunity to choose a different path–is what it means to be free.  It means being able to leave a job you don’t like to pursue one you do.  Freedom means we can dream of a better world and make it so. 

To be free we only need a few things.

We need to know we’ll survive.

We need education.

We need credit.

We need accountability.

Here’s how your donations helped bring more freedom to a large group of children in Nicaragua, and how you can help deepen that impact for years to come.

 

A playground in the relocated community of Villa Guadalupe

20k in my pocket

The first time I went to Nicaragua, you sent me down with $250.  The second time you sent me with $775.  We did some cool things, and we learned a lot about the people. 

This time, you sent me with a whopping $1,440, donated from 27 people, ranging from PayPal transfers to upturned coin jars.  I was astonished and humbled.

Finding somewhere to donate those funds was a challenge, bigger than ever before.

I could give $275 to three people and not have a lot of questions to consider.  I could give $775 to a few people directly and the rest through a nonprofit and feel great about it.  Over the past few years, I’ve studied many nonprofits and fell in love with the idea that a donation can become so much more than that donation, if it’s used well.  $100 can make a small or a big difference, for good or for bad, depending on how its given.

$1,440 would pay rent for a family in the US for one month, and maybe put some groceries in the refrigerator, but in Nicaragua it equates nearly 9-months of income for the average person (according to the World Bank).  Put in terms of the US economy, where the average individual income is $26,695, it would be as if I were walking down the streets of Austin with $20,000, looking for someone to give it to.

(disclaimer: my economics isn’t perfect here.  I’m comparing the amount of time it takes to earn a certain amount of money, not how much goods that money will buy.  Put in terms of PPP, $1 in US is $10.36 in Nicaragua, so $1,440 would be $14,918.   My point is that I went down with 9 months of income). 

 

Carpenters in the Mercado Oriental, one of the biggest markets in Central America, making doors.

 

Roots of the program

Three years ago, on that second trip to Nicaragua, I met Rosa.  She was working in La Chureca as a nurse and a social worker, and she requested my help to send a couple of children to private school outside of the landfill.

She said it provided a much better opportunity for the children–smaller classes, more discipline, periodic drug paraphernalia checks, English lessons, a computer lab, and exposure to life outside La Chureca.  We looked into it, and in conjunction with the jewelry cooperative, in which we would sell jewelry made from recycled materials by women of La Chureca, we determined we could make a commitment to support two or three children long term.  I wrote about their stories, and some of you sponsored the children.  Four have been going to private school ever since.

 

Rosa, buying paint for the classroom in the Mercado Oriental.

New opportunities

Rosa never rests.  On this trip to Nicaragua, she had a new vision for the children in the community.

La Chureca has changed.  The people have been moved t Villa Guadalupe, a large neighborhood of concrete housing built specifically for them and other groups of the extremely poor.  They were given a home, streets, police safety, playgrounds, and an occasional health clinic.  Some of the most bitter parts of the cycle of poverty have been removed, but they still face many challenges, including education.

 

One road among many in the Villa Guadalupe community

In a highly competitive country where childhood education isn’t mandatory, only 9% of children complete secondary school (the equivalent of Middle School and High School in the USA, grades 7-11).  Many children drop out to help support their family, and often school is seen as a drain on the family’s resources.  Uneducated, they’re less able to respond to their environment, and often follow the same occupational path as their parents.  They have children early, have to find a way to support them immediately, and become stuck economically.

Private school alone doesn’t beat the 9% statistic.  It helps in a massive way, but there are more obstacles than the classroom, and Rosa knew that.

Rosa doesn’t rest

Rosa wanted to rent a room outside of school where the kids could study and receive help with their homework.  She wanted them to have a computer, internet, a printer, some books to read.  She wanted to have a place where she could check on them daily.

I said I’d think about it.  With higher fixed monthly costs, it was going to be more difficult to find sponsors who were able to support the kids; this was a large ongoing commitment; I wasn’t involved enough to give it the oversight it would need; and I wanted to find a way for the families to pay to be a part of the program.

I met each of the kids in person, and talked with some of the parents.  After talking with a mother and father of the youngest girl on scholarship right now, I wrote in my journal:

“These are strong people that want the best for their daughter.  That is the best agent for change, and a place to study is superfluous.  We can give opportunity by providing scholarships, but it is up to these families and individuals to make the most of it.  If having this room provides a 10% increase in opportunity, but having private school provides a 75% increase, it makes more sense to use donations give more kids the opportunity for private school.”

I took a few days away from Managua to think things over, to consider why it didn’t feel right.  I studied, wrote, talked with mentors, and let it settle in, not willing to make a large ongoing commitment without believing in it 100%.  I knew the funding would be available, from the generosity I’ve seen from you all in the past.  The question was in missed opportunities, engagement from parents and children, and effectiveness.

I didn’t want to just help the first people we ran into, and ignore the rest.  I didn’t want to give something away for nothing in return, because I knew that when people pay for something they not only value it more but it’s also more effective.  I didn’t want to start something we wouldn’t finish.  On the other hand, in saying “yes” I would be responding to a strong “voiced need,” both from Rosa and from the students and parents I had talked to, and that’s the way I like to do things.

I had stalled for as long as I could – the trip was almost at an end.  I had a whopping $1,440 available to me and didn’t think I’d be able to find a place for it, but I was OK with that.

I said no.

Rosa had been thinking, too, and together we made some tweaks to the idea that brought everything into place.

We increased the program to 10 students to offset the increase in fixed monthly costs, and still make the scholarships accessible, and Rosa came up with a great way for the students to “pay.”

So now I present to you our work, Rosa’s vision, and one of the nonprofit organizations I hope you’ll choose to support continually.

Unidados en Esperanza (United in Hope)

United in Hope is an educational program that reaches out into an entire community, providing opportunity for those who want it the most.

We will provide Private-School scholarships to ten children in Villa Guadalupe.  There, they will receive more personal attention, more discipline and structure, exposure to life outside their community, and overall a better and more safe education than they would in the community’s public school.  They’ll learn English, they’ll have access to computer labs, they’ll be surrounded by children who value school as much as they do.  They’ll also be known in the community as a recipient of this scholarship.

To be a part of the program, a child can apply with Rosa.  To stay in it, they must keep their grades above 80%.  Best of all, and the reason we’re able to reach much farther than 10 children, each child will spend an hour every school-day tutoring other kids from the community.  If anyone needs help with their math homework, they’ll find Hector waiting there, willing to help.  If anyone needs help with a writing project, Cristina is there.  With them all, Rosa is there to help whoever she can and oversee the program.  Each student will be able to give their unique talents to help other kids in the neighborhood.

 

Ana Yanci tutors another child from the community
Ana Yanci tutors another child from the community

We rent a small room in Villa Guadalupe, part of one of the concrete houses built in the relocation program.  While I was there, we spent a few days equipping it with what they would need: paint, book shelves, a computer, a printer, a portable wifi signal, a door to close it off, and a lot of supplies.  Later, Rosa and the kids painted it and made it look great.  The building is rented to us by FunjoFudes, who, among many other things, provides pharmaceuticals to adults and children in the community.  It has a good courtyard in front where kids can sit, and a big playground next-door.  We also provide a decent compensation for Rosa ($100-$150/month), who will be traveling to the community each morning to work with the kids.

 

Three students and some of their parents, the core to the informal scholarship program over the past few years.
Three students and some of their parents–the core to the informal scholarship program over the past few years–posing before working on our little study room.

“United in Hope” was the name chosen by Rosa and the students, and I think it’s perfect.  All of us–students, parents, other kids in the community, Rosa, and us donors–are acting together to help bring children in the community the future they hope for, whatever that future may be.

Scholarship costs are $70 per student per month.  We would love you to join with us by providing a full or a half-scholarship for one of these children on an ongoing basis until they have completed their secondary education.

If you’d like to sponsor a student, write to me here (click).  Within the next couple of weeks, I’ll post the applications of the students and help match you with your student.

Look for an update within a few days for a specific breakdown of what your $1,440 paid for, and thank you so much for joining me in this experience.

 

Ana and Gretel starting the paint on those gray brick walls!
Ana and Gretel starting the paint on those gray brick walls
Rosa, her taxi-driver friend, and me, driving around to pick up supplies
The courtyard in front of the study room, where kids can pick up the wifi signal, study, and receive tutoring help.
Picking up Wifi!
Loading up the bookshelf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donate to a Nicaraguan Through Us — Round 3!

Hello, strangers!

 

It has been a long time, and time creates distance.  Some of you may be trying to place me in your memory, to remember why this blog sounds familiar.  Allow me to help.

 

IMG_2229

 

I’m a guy who travels and writes when he can, exploring the world and asking questions to those who give.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, and some of you came with me.  Together, we did some pretty cool things.  We got a wonderful man a new bed along with some baseball swag from his favorite team, we placed four (now five) kids through private school for the last three years, we bought and sold jewelry made by the women of La Chureca to help them create a new source of income, we bought a bike for a girl with Polio so her dad could take her to her therapy sessions, and we did a lot more as well.

 

We did what we could with a little of what we have, and we were all lifted because of it.  Those who received our gifts got something special – care and love from strangers thousands of miles away, in ways that helped them in their daily lives.  And we, in return, learned of their stories, received some of their strength, gained inspiration from their courage.  We connected, and we were all made more happy because of it.

 

Mariselda

 

And now it’s time to do it again!

 

Britney and I leave for Nicaragua in a couple of days, and we’d again like you to come with us.  With $250 on the first trip we did some great things, with $775 on the second we did even more.  My goal for this trip, like last time, isn’t to raise a certain amount of money, but to involve as many people as possible.  On our last trip we were joined by 33 people.  This time, let’s shoot for 40.  Donate $5, 10, $25, $100, it doesn’t matter how much.  Remember that 100% of your donation goes straight to a Nicaraguan.

 

Here’s how it works.

  • Donate:
  • Let me know that you donated so I can keep a tally and let you know where your donation went!  Click here to send me an email.
  • Share it on Facebook, email, or whatever you want.  Let’s see how many people we can get involved with this!  Something like “I donated $25, you guys should check it out and donate too!” with a link to this article so they can read what it’s about.
  • Subscribe to this blog, if you haven’t already, to receive the followup articles about the people you helped.

Thank you for everything!

 

Jefferson, The Weekend Philanthropist

 

“My mission is to experience the world of charitable giving through study and direct involvement in order to find an under-served people and arrive at a clear, informed, and bold focus that will define the organizations I help create. Oh, and to have an amazing time while doing it.”  

All Four Kids Are Going to School!

Happy news!  All four of the children now have a sponsor and will be attending private school!  Thanks so much to all those who offered to sponsor – we have the great problem of having too many sponsors and too few children ready to receive the scholarships!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

If you’d still like to help the community out, Manna Project International is doing some amazing work with them.  Also, I may have a few things up my sleeve for later this year . . . so stick around.

More on La Chureca:

Managua Nicaragua La Chureca Scavengers

Two Kids from La Chureca Looking For Sponsors

For the past year, my mom and I have sponsored two children from La Chureca, paying so they could go to a private school outside of the landfill.

The kids worked hard, but private school is difficult and there has been a lot of change going on around them, including the community being moved to concrete homes together with people from other extremely poor areas of Managua.

This year, our scholarship director in Nicaragua, a nurse who has been serving the people of La Chureca for over a decade and who volunteers her time to help administer these scholarships, has two more children who she thinks are up for the challenge of private school – all they need is the funding.

Benefits of private school over public school:

  1. Smaller class sizes.
  2. Higher discipline.
  3. Access to a psychologist, a library, and a computer lab.
  4. Incentives to be the best in their class (half-tuition paid for).
  5. ENGLISH!  This is huge.

Here’s how it works as a sponsor:

  • Just $25 each month for tuition
  • $80 at the beginning of the year for supplies, books, and a yearly fee from the school.
  • You’ll receive letters from your student and progress reports on how they’re doing.

There is a little bit of a time crush – If these two kids are going to attend private school this year, we actually need to get the money to them this weekend . . . . sometimes communicating back and forth via email is a little difficult, so I just received the student’s pictures today.

Without further ado . . . here are the potential students!

Ana will be going into first grade :)

 

This is Ana, and she will be going into the 1st grade 🙂

 

Nicaragua Scholarships

And this is Cristofer, who will be going into 3rd grade!

Let me know if you’re interested in sponsoring one of these promising children and I’ll get you some more info!

As you may know, a good education is one of the number one ways to help end the cycle of poverty.  In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Also, a little fact – your donations helped kick-start this whole program in 2012.  Thanks again for your help!

Reddit Posts, Trolls, and Why the Internet Sucks.

Confession time.

A few months ago, I wrote an article that I was really excited about, spammed it all over the web, and crossed my fingers.  What happened over the next few days affected me more than I’d like to admit, but here we are at the confession booth.  I guess it’s time to drop my ego and do some self-expression so I can move on.

What went down

After writing my article, I posted this picture to Reddit and imgur of a girl I had met in La Chureca, who I had written about in my blog post:

Smiling girl in La Chureca

I love this picture.  This moment, caught on camera, expresses something I felt throughout this trip – a close connection with the people I met.  Here is a happy little girl smiling shyly after I said she was very pretty.  She lived in the largest landfill in Central America, “La Chureca,” with over 1,000 other people.  They collect and sell trash every day, making an average of $2 a day.  Their homes are made out of materials they find, they bathe in a toxic lake, many of the girls enter prostitution, and drug abuse is high, among many, many other problems.

Yet here is this little, smiling girl; shy, but happy to have heard me say she’s very pretty.  Little things like this inspired me to do more to help–and to do so more urgently–if I could find a way.

One way was to tell her story.  So I wrote the article, posted some pictures, and linked to Reddit and Imgur with a short, but attention-grabbing title that would quickly express the story that made this picture meaningful to me.

Front Page!

Others thought it was meaningful as well and my photo received a lot of upvotes, enough to move it up to the front page of one of the biggest forums on Reddit: a forum that has about 7 million subscribers.

Not everyone logs onto Reddit every day, and pics is a forum every Reddit user is automatically subscribed to, but we’re still talking about a massive audience of people.  My picture was viewed more than 670,000 times, received more than 10,000 upvotes, and on the day I posted it 833 unique people searched for my blog and looked around (for a total of 1,225  page views).  I was feeling pretty great about it!

But . . . 6,397 people down-voted it.  No big deal, but it was still shocking to me since I thought it was such a harmless and cute picture.  And then there were the comments.

Sometimes, negative things drown out the positive.

“White adventure.”

“Yeah have you ever read a more pretentious title than “The Weekend Philanthropist”? Trash dump? This is just oozing sheltered hipsterism.”

“Slum tourist.”

“The weekend philanthropist?  I can smell the thinly veiled narcissistic smug from here. These are people, not animals in a zoo. If you feel you need to help, do so and shut the fuck up. Don’t run around snapping 1000 pics for Facebook in a weak attempt to seem like a good person.”

There were a lot of others, some of them more laced with cynicism than others.  Some people were offended that I called her home a trash dump, thinking I was just using that phrase euphemistically and not realizing that she literally lives in trash.  Some people were just trying to be funny.  Others attacked me pretty hard, pointing out specific phrases I used in my article and showing how pretentious or naive they were.  At first, these negative comments were getting the most up-votes, and therefore were seen by more people.  As usual, for me, I responded in a cool-headed way at the time, but the negative comments stayed around, bouncing around in my head and annoying me for a while.  I couldn’t get them to go away and they began to affect me.

Others defended me, of course.  If you read the comments on the Reddit post now, you’ll see many more positive comments than negative.

“I’m gonna go ahead and apologize to you for those people who lack the moral and ethical backbone to apologize to you for the stupid things they’ve said. “I’m sorry”. There. They feel better now.  You’re doing good work, stranger. Don’t let fools on the internet bother you.”

“It’s nice to see people covering aspects of my country. It’s a wonderful photo! And to people getting all uppity these people literally live on a dump site that was exacerbated by the earthquake in the 70s. But they’re usually the most humble, caring people you can find.”

What I told myself

Despite myself and the things I said to keep myself positive about it, and despite all the positive attention and comments my post received, the negativity affected me.  I started editing my blog posts more closely, thinking about how anyone might interpret it in the wrong way, and taking a longer time between writing and posting.  That can be good, but it can also paralyze you if you let it go too far.  It took a couple of months to finish the travel memoir that I was going to finish in a couple of weeks, and even then I continued to hear the echos of some of those negative comments.

I created a story, a story that is very probably true, that the online world favors satire and pessimism.  Being positive comes off as naive.  Now I knew that philanthropy not only doesn’t have shock value, but it can actually be more controversial than many of the other topics.  In America we admire the entrepreneur.  I can start whatever kind of business I want and be applauded for my ingenuity, even (and especially) if my business is based on a clever sales gimmick.  The second I start to work for free, though . . . the accusations roll in on how I could do it better.

I was a small, untrained voice on a corner of the internet that thought too highly of the affect anything I write will have.

Yeah, it was negative.

It paralyzed me from writing in the confident and easygoing way I had before, over-analyzing everything I wrote so it couldn’t be attacked.  I thought no one wanted to hear about what I had to say anyway, that they’re too busy watching videos and easily-consumed media (kitty kats, yay!) to sit and read a long-text article.

Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this ...
Explain to me how anything, anywhere, is supposed to compete with this …

But that’s not true.  Not completely true, anyway.

The Party is Life

This analogy comes from How to Stay Sane, which is a friggin’ fantastic book by Phillipa Perry about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects us.

If I walk into a party with my head held high, with the optimistic attitude that everyone is pleased to see me or would like to meet me (and I them), I will catch someone’s eye even if, hitherto, everyone in the room was a stranger to me.  I will ask them about themselves and they may ask me about myself; we will probably find some common ground and I might learn something from them as a bonus.  But more than that, I give myself the chance of forming what feels like a connection.  It might last just a few minutes, or it may be the beginning of a long friendship, but in that connection I feel deeply nourished.

If, on the other hand, I walk into a party with my eyes on the ground, neither interested in meeting anyone nor thinking that anyone would be interested in meeting me, I will not catch anyone’s eye and I will not enjoy the party.  I will be thinking about ways to leave it.  I will not be fully present at the party.  Instead I will be present only with my prejudices; I will be projecting a fantasy, or an experience of the past, onto the present, and relating to that, instead of to what is going on around me.

The party is life.

At first I read this and thought, “Meh, I always walk into parties knowing I’m going to meet some cool people.  I have my head high, I know I’m interesting and I know others are as well.”  But then I realized that my online view wasn’t the same.  Over the last few months I’ve been “walking into the party” with my head down, feeling like I don’t have a voice, like others will be critical of it, that it’s easier to not say anything than it is to say something that might be used against me.

I’m done doing that.  Yes, I’ve told myself to not let others affect me for my whole life; it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now.  What others say does affect me, whether for good or bad.  But I’m recognizing that the story I’ve told myself about writing on the internet is just a story, that it has lead me to stop expressing myself, and that I don’t like that.  By recognizing it as a story instead of a fact I have the ability to change it.

To focus on the negative is to ignore all the positive things have happened as a direct result of writing – all the people I’ve met, all the conversations I’ve had and the ones I’ve started, the money I’ve raised, the trips I’ve taken, and so much more.  I met Leo, Travis and Sophie, Jon Thompson, Liana, became more involve with Tab’s nonprofit and Chuck’s yearly donation event, and had great conversations about philanthropy with so many others.  I raised over $1,000 that went to many people in Nicaragua, started selling jewelry in partnership with a women’s cooperative and have purchased $1,100 of it from them so far, and so many other things.   A great business, Blush Box, just purchased 100 pieces of the jewelry to add a little philanthropy to their summer box!  (More details to come on that!)

And that’s just this blog.  On my philosophical blog many other things have happened.

So, the internet doesn’t suck as badly as I’ve been telling myself it does for the last few months.  The party is life, and I’ll walk into it with my head held high. 

Here’s to a great second-half of 2013.