Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mi Corazón

In Kenya, the malnourished children I saw had lighter hair with an orange tint. Sometimes they had round, white, chalky-looking spots on their scalps or rashes on their arms and legs.

Here in Nicaragua, malnourished children have light-colored, almost yellow hair. It’s striking to see a little baby with beautiful, brown skin and a shock of blonde hair. This happens when the body does not get enough nutrients to sustain the production of melanosomes in the hair follicles. Rashes on the arms and legs are also common signs of malnutrition.

In both Kenya and Nicaragua, malnourished children have skinny arms and legs and appear frail and weak. These children are alarmingly small. They don’t have the crazy-happy-kid energy of healthy, well-fed children.

These images: the lighter hair, the skin rashes, the bony arms and legs,
Replay in my mind over and over.
The bones, the rashes.
The evidence of need,
keep me up at night, infuriate me, sadden me,
Motivate me.

These kids are why I’m here.

Life Lessons from the Managua City Dump

Mariana and José (kids in the picture) live at the Managua City Dump, “La Chureca,” with their family. Their home (like others in the dump) is made out of scrap metal, tied together with pieces of barbed wire. Their family makes money by sifting through the trash, collecting whatever recyclables the garbage trucks leave daily. On a very good day, a family will collect a pound of recyclables. Each pound of recyclables is worth 4 to 6 cordobas; 18 cordobas is equivalent to about one dollar.

Entering the City Dump, one is taken aback by the smell of burning trash. The blazing heaps of litter produce a smoky haze that engulfs the seemingly endless piles of garbage. The heavy, pungent stench of burning paper and rotting food fills my lungs. With each deep breath my chest burns and I cough- my own bodily response to the caustic air is a reminder why respiratory illnesses are so common among the La Chureca community.

Over 1500 people live at the City Dump. 53% of the population at La Chureca is under the age of 18. From daybreak to dusk children and adults spend their days searching through the piles of trash, looking for objects of value: aluminum, plastic and glass. Plastic, cardboard, and rotten foods sustain the families that live and work in the mountains of burning waste. It’s nothing but heart breaking to see a little 4-year-old eat a piece of moldy bread straight out of the dumpster.

I’ve spent a lot of time in La Chureca. I go at least once a week for many hours (more if I can) to work at a clinic or help out with a feeding program sponsored by a Nicaraguan organization called “Juntos Contigo.” I always leave the dump with a renewed sense of perspective. La Chureca inspires me.

From an outsider’s view, the sites and smells at the dump are incredibly sad. The visible malnutrition in the kids and the obvious lack of health care can be described as nothing but devastating. The unnecessary health problems in La Chureca are a constant reminder of why I am here working in Nicaragua. However, after spending much time in the community playing with the kids and interacting with elders, some of whom have lived in La Chureca for over 35 years, it is obvious that La Chureca is not a sad place.

It is an amazing realization that many people from the US (with every luxury in the world) could take a hint from people living in literally, a dump. At La Chureca, people don’t worry about small, insignificant things. They spend time with their families, live very relaxed lives, laugh often and have a positive, happy outlook on life. I don’t want to generalize too much, nor do I want to put the La Chureca community in the typical “poor but happy” box, but I just want to express how much I’m learning from the individuals who I’ve interacted with at the Managua City Dump. Days consist of grueling, back-breaking work sifting through trash and people still maintain positive attitudes. Families are as close-knit as any I’ve ever known. Depression is very rare in La Chureca, despite the living and working conditions. Time not at work is spent with loved ones- laughing and chatting and simply living. Life in La Chureca- for those who live there- isn’t so bad. To me, families in La Chureca have it figured out. Whether by choice or by circumstance, people in La Chureca have their priorities straight- they live surrounded by loved ones, and don’t focus on the negatives- and it’s inspiring.

Our job is to improve access to the basic human rights in La Chureca- specifically healthcare, clean food, and education- not to judge the community for how they live… no matter how dismal the circumstances (from the outside) may seem.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Surfing Serenity

5:00 am, the four of us load the van quietly. I yawn and rub my eyes, adjusting the swimsuit strap that’s tied around my neck. Streaks of orange sun creep above the horizon, morning mist condenses on the palm trees in our font yard. It’s so quiet. No laughing, loud, lively little ones like we’re used to in literacy lessons. The hush of morning is a welcome retreat.

A cup of coffee, 2 surfboards, sunscreen, towels, and we’re off to the beach. It’s our Wednesday morning routine. For the next 5 hours our only concern is catching a wave in the salty, warm Pacific Ocean.

Day breaks in Nicaragua and we’re in the ocean riding rolling rip tides. Reconnecting. Reviving. Ready to return to reality, refreshed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


So I'm living in Nicaragua... and I love it. I’ll be here until summer 2007.

Quick background about Nicaragua, where I'm working, where I'm living and what I'm doing here:

Located in Central America. It's the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti). It borders Costa Rica (to the south) and Honduras (to the north). The climate is tropical (humid and hot, with the exception of nights when it cools down slightly). Its western coastline is on the Pacific Ocean, while the east side of the country is on the Caribbean Sea. Nicaragua's economy has historically been based on the export of cash crops such as bananas, coffee and tobacco.

During the pool party we had at our house for the girls' soccer team.

I'm working for a non-profit organization called Manna Project International, which was founded 3 years ago by some Vanderbilt graduates. Basically, Manna Project is an international service opportunity for recent college graduates. One of its purposes is to "connect and encourage communities of young adults to collectively apply their passions and education through service to communities in need." In a nutshell, this means that I live with 9 other recent college graduates (ages 22-25) and run various programs in an impoverished area in Nicaragua called Cedro Galan. Currently, the 9 Manna members in Nicaragua are running a Literacy Program, Sports and Recreation Program, Microfinance Program, Health Program, Child Sponsorship Program, art lessons, english lessons, a feeding program, music lessons and other smaller activities. I am involved with the Health Program (I'm beginning a women's health program, and we're also wanting to set up a network that will bring US doctors to volunteer at a local clinic), I co-coach the girls' soccer team, and am helping out with Child Sponsorship at La Chureca Clinic (we give milk, oatmeal, vitamins, etc. to extremely malnourished children living in the local dump- more on that later). Check out Manna's website at www.mannaproject.org. We're in the process of re-designing it right now... so in a few weeks it will be brand new.

Jordan, one of the Manna members with the kids during music class.

The city I'm living in is called Managua. It's the capital of Nicaragua, is about 1 hour from the beach- Pacific Ocean side. It's located in the west of Nicaragua, near Lake Managua. Managua is considered to be the safest city in Central America, doesn't have any street names (super confusing) and suffered a massive earthquake in the 1970's. Most of the damage was never fixed due to a politically unstable government, so downtown Managua still consists of ruins from the earthquake in 1972.

I live in a (beautiful) house with the other Manna members. My favorite parts of the house are: (1) the roof, which looks out over our palm-tree covered street, (2) the pool and pool house in our back yard, where we host pool parties for kids in the community (3) the blue-tiled shower in my room (there’s only cold water, but a cool shower feels so incredible after a hot day’s work). My least favorite part of the house is the chicken coop in the backyard that is home to 11 chickens and 1 annoying rooster who basically wakes us all up at 5:00 am. Currently, we have 2 adorable baby chicks, Tex junior and Jimmy junior (the original Tex and Jimmy are no longer with us thanks to a possum incident).

View of our backyard- pool, deck, pool house, hammocks...

1. create a Women’s group in Cedro Gallan, (includes women’s health education classes, group discussions, exercise classes, etc.)
2. form a program at a healthcare clinic in La Chureca that will allow doctors and medical students from the US to come volunteer in Managua. Create an easy way for medical volunteers to work in and around the Cedro community.
3. Create a program that will channel donated medical supplies from the US to La Chureca clinic
4. fundraise for the new Manna/ Project HOPE clinic in Managua
5. begin a child immunization program in the Cedro community and couple it with child health classes
6. streamline the Child Sponsorship Program

I’ve already been here 3 weeks. Time in Nicaragua flies…

To see all my photos, go to www.snapfish.com
Sign in as abbie@mannaproject.org
Password: Nicaragua