Art in the City Dump- Volunteering in Managua, Nicaragua

I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua on May 28th, 2007 at about 11 am or so.  I stepped out of the airport and into the humid, enveloping heat.  A feeling of reassurance and ease came over me like returning home after being away for years. I had never been to Central America before, but my surroundings— the run-down cars passing by haphazardly, the taxis hunting down potential passengers, the lush, green trees amidst the concrete and car smoke— were all very familiar.  This was a vision I’d had for myself since before I had started my Master’s program in Latin American Studies at San Diego State.  I wanted to work face-to-face with some of the poorest children and young adults in Latin America.  My plan was to volunteer with Manna Project International for three weeks, 10 hours a day, and then back-pack downward through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, take a flight to Colombia, and arrive back in the States on August 7th.

View of Managua, Just Before Landing

Manna Project International was an organization started by two students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.  I’d heard about it originally through a friend who had sent me pictures of the work she was doing in Nicaragua while I was living in San Francisco.  At the time, I was working full-time for an IT company as an Executive Assistant, enjoying the city life, yet I knew I wanted to do more with my life and for others.

A year later or so later, I had begun the Latin American Studies Master’s Program at SDSU and was studying Political Science and Art.  While I would not be able to participate in MPI’s nine month program, I found out that they were starting three-week summer volunteer programs.  Before I knew it, I was in Managua for the first time.

At the airport, two MPI Program Directors- Andie and Chris- were waiting for me, somehow knowing right away who I was.  I dumped off my backpack in their dingy used-to-be-white van and we got going after we’d picked up another volunteer at the airport.  As we drove into Cedro Galán, the part of town in which we would be staying, Chris gave us a brief introduction to Managua.  He pointed out key areas, such as the old centro before the Nicaraguan Revolution, where a museum and bullet-hole trodden cathedral still stand.  I looked around, soaking in all of the greenery, wonderfully paved streets[1] and run-down houses, passed the park with people who’d set up tent, sheltered only by garbage bags hung on sticks to protect them from the rain.

La Catedral en El Centro

After the revolution, the center of the city was moved over to a non-eventful, aesthetically dull part of town; it has no signs of actually being the centro.   Circa 1989, squatters inevitably gravitated toward the old centro and moved into the abandoned buildings that used to be factories and such.  Because of this displacement, most of the roads in Managua are not properly named but instead land marked by kilometers.  We lived off of Kilometro 14 ½ in an area that used to be inhabited by the government officials in the reign of Somoza before the Sandinistas took over and displaced them.  In other words, we stayed in the better part of town that was gated and protected by security guards.

We pulled up to the large grey house where I’d be staying for the next three weeks and learn a great deal about Nicaragua, human compassion and love, and myself.  The house was more like a dilapidated mansion that had at least 8 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, meeting room, indoor hammock, rooftop patio, pool, and chicken coop.   I stayed in a medium-size room with four other girls, and we shared three bunks, one twin bed and a ragged old pink couch with covers that kept on slipping off.  There was a total of seven participants in the summer program, ranging in age from 19 to 23 (myself excepted; I was 25 at the time), and all originating from the United States—New York, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Illinois, Alabama and California.

Just Another Day in La Chureca, Making Paper Plate Masks

Manna Project International works alongside other groups in Managua, such as a school called El Farolito, established by two ex-patriot Christians, and Juntos Contigo[2].  The latter was based in La Chureca, the city landfill, where I would volunteer the majority of my time.  Juntos Contigo was started by a Dutch girl named Janneke.  She single-handedly started the program; she lived in Holland working two jobs—one to support herself, the other to fund Juntos Contigo.  She spent at least one month at the foundation each year working with the children in person.  I met her toward the end of my program; she struck me as humble, selfless- one from whom many could learn.

The first week would give us a chance to attend all of the classes that Manna Project was involved in so that we could decide what we wanted to focus on for the remainder of our time there.  The programs ranged from female and male exercise classes (aerobics for girls and baseball for boys), different levels of English—from beginner to advanced, literacy, math, helping out at La Chureca, music, drama, and so on.  I really enjoyed meeting the community members; we were warmly welcomed by the families in the Cedro community.  They wanted to know our names, our backgrounds, careers, what interested us in Nicaragua, and if we were married or had children of our own.  For those of us who were older (such as myself), many were surprised that I wasn’t married yet.  I had a boyfriend, I told them, and they couldn’t imagine why I would go on a trip without him.  “El tiene que trabajar,” I said.  He had to work.  They still seemed puzzled that a female would go on a trip alone without her significant other; moreover, that my boyfriend would let me do so.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus the majority of my time at the dump, or La Chureca.  My friend, who had originally sparked an interest within me to visit Managua, had also dedicated her efforts to this community.  The photographs depicting the absolute destitution in this area convinced me that this was where I needed to be.  I had volunteered with upper middle-class children previously in Buenos Aires and felt myself superfluous in the classroom.  The teacher already had a handle on the class and had to go out of her way to find things for me to do.  This time around, I wanted to feel as if I were playing an integral function in the children’s lives (however short my time was there).

The Path Outside Juntos Contigo

Manna’s community van drove us into the dump, where we went from paved roads to mud to a mixture of earth, gravel and garbage.  Driving into La Chureca, the world seems to narrow.  Buildings, roads, and the sun all gradually and perpetually diminish.  Smoke from burning garbage fills the air; women with scarves on their heads and men with their shirts off work tirelessly on the peripherals, hunched over, moving scraps of metal from one pile to another.  Seconds later, their houses become apparent—constructed of scraps of metal, sticks, old wooden planks, cardboard and barbed wire.  One house is made entirely of Coca-Cola advertisements—an ironic juxtaposition.  Another has a large FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) poster of “Presidente Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra” nailed to its outside, pride for the ex-Sandinista leader mixed with an exclamation for the necessity of hope and deliverance from the conditions in which this community lives.

On the average, children begin working in the landfill as early as the age of four.  Adults and children alike commence their workday at sunrise and end at sunset, digging through piles of trash brought from all over Managua for recyclables.  These recyclables— such as glass, plastic, and aluminum—are gathered and stuffed into huge white tweed garbage bags, and thereby sold to a middleman for a fraction of what the middleman will yield for the items.  In one day, an entire family will make the equivalent of one or two dollars for approximately twelve hours of work.

Under the given circumstances, it is not surprising that health and education do not take precedence in these people’s lives.  Personal hygiene is almost impossible when the water used to bathe comes from a lake ridden with garbage and feces.  Adults and children alike are severely malnutritioned, marked by the lack of pigment in their brittle hair.  Most get by on the food they find in the garbage they dig through.  STDs run rampant, as prostitution and unprotected sex are common practice.  Shoe glue is the drug of choice on this hill.  It is cheap, easily accessible, and helps not only to pass the hours more rapidly, but also to suppress the appetite.  When I spoke to people working in La Chureca, they responded very amiably to me, extending out their worn, dirt-encrusted hands for me to shake, to which I extended mine back.  Their speech was prominently decelerated and slurred; their eyes dull and hazed.

Sniffing glue has irreparable long-term effects, mainly on the brain.  The literacy rate in all of Nicaragua is even lower than their employment rate[5].  Yet with the effects of sniffing glue, in combination with the lack of educational resources and lack of importance placed on education (because of the imperative to work), the majority of La Chureca inhabitants are illiterate.

*  *  *

 The first day I went to La Chureca, we were first shown the tiny medical clinic. It was composed of a small room with a concrete floor, weight scale and file cabinet; to the side was the doctor’s office, in which he sat at his desk smoking a cigarette.  A small group of mothers, some nursing their babies, sat in plastic chairs outside with their children running around in the rainy mud.  One by one, the children would enter into the office to be weighed and measured.  The clinician would take down notes on a clipboard and thereby give the mother a bag of oatmeal and a bottle of vitamins.  The children were given milk and two cookies.  Because of their severe malnutrition or disproportionate weight/height/age ratio, these children were selected to be a part of the Manna Child Sponsorship Program.  Anyone could elect to sponsor a child for eighteen dollars a month, which would provide the child with enough milk, vitamins and oatmeal, as well as doctor check-ups, for the month.

Alongside the clinic is the simplistic Juntos Contigo structure, surrounded by a wire fence.  To the left is the computer lab, located in a make-shift trailer, where the older children can learn to use a computer, type, and play educational games.  A metal roof covers the central area, in which three two-sided wooden benches and tables are set up in front of a whiteboard.  To the right is another trailer-esque construction in which donated resources—such crayons, paper, play-dough, glue, scissors, board games, stickers and so on are stored.

Juntos Contigo is an all-day program in which children aged 2 to about 13 are welcome.  Because the attendance fluctuates so much, it is difficult to structure any sort of regimented lesson plan.  Some days four children will attend, on others over 25 could show up.  Only three people—Managuans from different neighborhoods— are regularly staffed at Juntos Contigo, so volunteers are greatly appreciated, especially on the busier days.  Math, literacy, art and computer skills are taught here.  The end of the morning concludes with a snack and either juice or milk.  The most important part of Juntos Contigo, however, is the attention and affection given to these children.

Project: Favorite Animals

I went into volunteering at La Chureca with the idea of doing art projects with the children.  It turned out that I would only succeed in pulling off a few projects, such as: making masks, making sculptures out of Play-do, ironing little pegs into various shapes, and drawing each child’s favorite animal.  However, volunteering at La Chureca was much more of a diverse task than that.  I had to take care of the children as if they were my own: chase them down when they ran out of the gate toward the community, wipe away their mocos, break up fights and try to make them treat each other civilly.

Working in La Chureca was not easy for me.  While I was on site, the energy, affection and pure beauty of the children there kept my spirits up.  I felt that I was meant to be there with them at that moment.  But when I returned to the volunteer house, all I wanted to do was crawl into a ball and cry.  The tragedy of these people’s situation lingered in my head like an eerie song.  A few times I felt that I would not make it through the program—that I would return home.  Maybe it was lack of privacy or the cramped living situation, maybe it was the immense destitution, and maybe it was missing my mom or my boyfriend.  On June 7th, 2007, in regard to my volunteering situation, I wrote:

I need to forsake any notions of selfishness or “my” world because this is about something altogether greater, grander and more important that I could ever even front to be—it’s about the world and its history; its past, present and future; its inequality, poverty, hope, sadness and prejudiced reality.  It’s about the plight of those who grow up 4 years old in a damn landfill sniffing shoe glue out of baby food jars and picking through trash to gather recyclables, alongside emaciated horses, garbage trucks as their rides, flies landing all over their faces like dead hyenas in Africa, next to pigs wallowing in feces-filled mud.  It’s about shack “houses” and skeletal dogs with their necks cut dying alone in a corner in a pool of their own blood; it’s about injustice, corruption and ignorance…  This trip is not about me; this life is not about me— it’s about everyone and everything: a cause, helping, and selflessness, love, giving and learning.

While volunteering my time working at the library organizing books, cleaning, teaching different levels of English to the Managuans was definitely satisfying, La Chureca impacted me in a way that I could never have expected; it humbled me, saddened me, and made me even more determined to do as much as I possibly can to help others and raise awareness of immense poverty that most people in the first world do not see.  Possibly they choose not to see it, or are completely ignorant of its prevalence.

Overall, my volunteer experience in Managua over the summer of ’07 was one that will continue to impact me.  It was a challenge to live with so many younger people with so many distinct points of view and backgrounds.  At times I loved what I was experiencing, at times I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  However, I came away having made a few friendships with the people in Cedro Galán and having learned a great deal about Nicaragua’s past—including William Walker, the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas, and the seemingly endless U.S. interference with Nicaraguan government.  I was no doubt an outsider at all times, but I felt that I experienced the destitution as if I were part of it; it no doubt lingers within me—a sweet, macabre remembrance that will not let me be, just as I will not let it be.  I hope that my experiences in Nicaragua and here at SDSU in the Latin American Studies Master’s Program will allow me to implement some sort of change or alleviation for Latin America’s poor.  In the meantime, I have sponsored one of the children—Maria Esther Romero Gutierrez—from La Chureca and feel that somehow, someway, my support might allow her an opportunity in life otherwise left impossible.


[1] Many of my expectations of Nicaragua came from my time spent in Bolivia in late 2004.  Since Bolivia is the third poorest country in Latin America, and Nicaragua is the second, I expected a similarity between the two countries that I quickly realized was a bad assumption.  Only about 8 percent of the roads in Bolivia were paved at the time I was there, so I was thereby rather impressed with the infrastructure in Managua.

[2] See www.juntoscontigo.com.  Unfortunately, it’s written only in German.

[4] See “The Waste Land.” T.S. Eliot, 1922.

[5] Literacy rate: approximately 36%; employment rate: approximately 50%.

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