Seated comfortably in the cushy, corner chair, I allow my thoughts to drift back over these past eight days in Nicaragua, a most beautiful land of an open and gracious people. What struck me every day during our bus rides through the mountains of Jinotega was the utter glory of this uniquely, unspoiled land. Mountains, valleys, lakes, fields, woods, small villages, sporadic clusters of hut-homes, winding roads, and free-roaming dogs, chickens, and livestock merely shift places on the unfolding canvas of this exquisite county. I tried to take photographs, and I do have some, but most often I turned off the camera, allowing the lens of my eyes to absorb all that passed before me.
While the countryside created the setting of the story, the work of our trip, taking medical care to the rural communities without easy access to health care, supplied the characters, the dialogue, the conflicts, and the themes.
The people of Nicaragua, striking with warm skins, dark eyes and thick, lustrous hair, are a proud people. They lined up each clinic day dressed in their Sunday finest, patiently waiting for a turn to speak with a doctor about their headaches, joint paints, gastritis, fungus, difficulties breathing, sleeping, eating, etc. etc. They rattled off multiple names--three and four primary names and two or three last names. Castro. Hernandez, Viagra, Rodríguez, Lopez, Gutierrez were names I wrote over and over again the day I helped register men, women, children and infants for our clinic. Life is hard for the people of this coffee-growing region.
(For the first time, I was able to give a prayer shawl I knit to someone who needed it. This beautiful woman lost her sister, just last week. Together as two women, we hugged, prayed, concurrently in Spanish and English, and cried.)
Basically, the people live outdoors, with cooking pits, beautiful arbors and small courtyards arranged for practical use and seating. Clothes hang in neat lines strung near to the homes (very small by our overgrown standards), cobbled together from an assortment of metal, concrete, sundry pieces of wood, doors, windows, and almost always with a satellite dish affixed to the roof.
(These flats are for drying coffee beans.)
There is more foot traffic on the rural roads than motorized traffic, which was almost entirely busses and the occasional motorcycle. Men ride horses over the fields for work or for travel and in the village, they ride bicycles, often carrying one or more passengers, balanced on handle bars, seat bar, or back fender. Women walk, frequently carrying infants or small children.
And then there were the children...the children, the ones who most captured and captivated my heart. My responsibility at the clinic was to operate the “arts and crafts” table, a place where patients could park their children while they waited to be seen and were seen by the medical professionals. All ages sat or stood, huddled around the table. The woman who gathered the supplies packed lots of coloring books, some scratch-off forms that yielded bright colors under a stylus, and stickers. I brought rainbow looms, bands, and a compartmentalized container to organize an inviting array of colors.
It became very clear, very quickly that the children were quite accomplished at coloring. When I mentioned this to the director of the orphanage, she told me that the children spend a lot of time coloring at school and it is source of pride for them and for their families. “Would they make pictures with blank paper and crayons,” I asked her. “It's not likely,” she replied, explaining that following rules it is also how they learn, by rote memorization. As an educator that shallow pedagogy deeply saddens me. It is no wonder that only 6% of the country’s high school graduating class passed the college entrance exam (which by the way was a national scandal this year), with most of those students attending private schools.
The school day is broken into shifts, with the younger students going in the morning, beginning early and ending by noon and the upper levels attending in the afternoon, and finishing around 5:00. School days are frequently cut short or canceled at the discretion of the teachers. It is easy to learn to color well between the lines, but it takes higher forms of concentrated brainwork to put ideas together, to abstract concepts, to imagine, and to create.
It pleased me to teach the children, both young and older, to “rainbow loom.” I soon managed to paste together some simple Spanish words and phrases and with demonstrations, hand-over-hand if needed, guided instruction, gestures, nods, smiles, and lots of "Si", "muy bien", and "que bonita", I managed to teach a simple craft. It was their job to add the art—to pick the colors, make the patterns, determine the design, the length, and the recipient. When all the looms were in use, we worked on fingers or used the styluses we had on had. No looming wannabe was turned away or left empty-armed. Soon our team's youth joined in and there was laughter, noise, and friendship freely flying around the table.
A small project, a simple activity, but perhaps it ignited a tiny spark of realization that their hands and minds could create something of use and beauty. I am already planning and thinking of ideas for next year….and there will be, for me, a next year in Nicaragua. Esta bien. Muy bien.