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?”
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.
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
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!
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
To the ubiquitous question asked at wedding receptions, cocktail parties, Church, and literally everywhere we’re forcecd to talk to someone we don’t already know, we all answer in pretty much the same way. “What do you do?” may as well be said, “What do you do to earn money?”
If I forget about that for a second, and answer more literally, I do a lot of things.
I build fences.
I hang out with my wife.
I take care of my dogs.
I spend a ridiculous amount of time laying down trying to avoid doing anything productive.
I eat food. I then poop it out.
I talk to strangers about what I do and give far more literal answers than they were looking for.
I have a better qeustion.
What do you do with new information?
I’d love to know.
Myself? I ask more questions, but it’s never that simple.
The problem is I am rarely satisfied with incomplete answers: nuance creeps its way into every opinion I have, if by the end of my process it can still be called an opinion.
And that’s why . . .
I have little for you but questions, at this point. I process new information by writing, but by writing privately first.
Letting it ferment
One of the books sitting on my “Favorites Of All Time” shelf is Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck. In it, he takes a three month trip around the United States in order to understand America again. It’s fantastic.
He, like me, brings too many things he knows he won’t use.
“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters. I took paper, carbon, typewriter, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaires, a compact encyclopedia, and dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls “mule it over” for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”
This trip to Nicaragua has brought the curiosity I’m used to, but a much greater reluctance to come to conclusions. I have a separate notebook for each trip, each filled with thoughts and questions and profiles of the people I meet. This trip’s book is the same, but it holds few conclusions. If there is one conclusion I’m happy making it is that poverty is complex and solutions are incredibly difficult to come by.
I’ve had the pleasure of being forced to make decisions about programs to begin, and in that decision-making process I’ve had to refine my philosophy toward philanthropy. I’m excited to relay those thoughts, and the results of those thoughts, but can’t do so yet.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be “muling it over,” and making sure I don’t let too much time pass so this trip falls into the shadowland of memory, so I can continue to ask questions about the things I saw and learned.
To do that, I have to write. To think clearly, I have to write privately, for myself. Once I’ve dealt with the issues enough privately, I’ll be able to publish them publicly, receive feedback, and further adjust my views in response to what you all have to say.
That is my process: writing to myself first, and then to you, and then back to myself again.
Some people are Prayers, others are Talkers, others are Runners, or Gymers, or Cryers, or Gossipers.
I am a Writer, dear reader, but not yet to you. We have so much to talk about, and I hope we’ll be able to do that soon.
I kind of missed the point at the end of this article, which is perfect because it illustrates what my process is. It’s not always true that I don’t come to conlusions. Without temporarily accepting an idea, it’s hard to test it.
Writing helps me express temporary conclusions, then balance those conclusions with opposing thoughts, and eventually, perhaps, come to some clarity.
Phase 1: write to myself
Phase 2: wait some time, then write to myself some more. Edit, refine.
Phase 3: write to others
Phase 4: receive feedback, further explore ideas I missed.
I’m a Writer because I wouldn’t process information nearly as well without the four steps of this process. That’s why blogging is important to me. #3 creates a challenge to think things through clearly in #2, and the existence of #4 helps me learn from others perspectives and find more to write about.
The trick is in the waiting. If I post early, I’ll often wake up the next morning and think, “Well that wasn’t very true, was it?” If I wait too long, I lose the energy of the idea, and it all fizzles incomplete.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
Smaller class sizes.
Access to a psychologist, a library, and a computer lab.
Incentives to be the best in their class (half-tuition paid for).
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!
This is Ana, and she will be going into the 1st grade 🙂
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!