Education Issues on the Caribbean Coast

I was fortunate enough to visit some of the local communities along with a couple of project delegates who were wrapping up a three-year education program aimed at the preschool and first and second grade students to improve their English language skills. The program is called My Best and is funded by Pueblito Canada.

For three years, the project delegates held workshops with educators and parents and provided learning resources and materials for the children. But due to a lack of funds, the program is ending permanently. The workshops centred around improving relationships between parents and teachers, dealing with special needs children in the classroom and training to improve parenting skills.

The aim of this visit was to hand out computers to the students and complete evaluations of the program. At each location we met with the director of the school, the head of the communal board and a parent representative.

There were a number of things that struck me. I was pleased at the gratitude and humility of the people in the communities. I was saddened at the lack of resources in the classroom. I was grateful for the teachers who had to teach Grades 1 – 6 in one classroom and who did it with a smile.

School in Kahhabila, Nicaragua

School in Kahkabila, Nicaragua

The communities—Kahkabila, La Fe, Marshall Point and Orinoco—are only accessible by boat. The region’s ministry of education centre is Pearl Lagoon. As devoid of resources as they are, they are still better equipped than communities such as Set Net, Pueblo Nueva and others in the far north who are more remote and rarely get a visit from the ministry of education’s representatives but not because of a lack of interest.

The problem is cost. The ministry has no budget other than what is allocated for teacher salaries. Anything outside of that, from flip chart paper to chalk to gas, is a cost borne out of the teachers, directors and delegates’ own pockets. So they do the best they can with what they have and they do it with pride and love for their communities because, what else have they got?

Rising Electricity Costs Force Coastal Residents to Protest

October 7, 2013

What started off as a meeting to discuss the high electricity rates on the Coast of Nicaragua ended in a call for manifestation.

The Communal Board of Pearl Lagoon invited ENEL big boss Martin Duarte from Managua, its citizens and those of the other Coastal communities of Raitipura, Owas, Kahkahbilah, Brown Bank, Lafay and Haulover, to come speak about solutions for the exorbitant rates being charged. Mr. Duarte had agreed to come but called today to say he was unable to attend leaving the local ENEL officer to respond to questions that were clearly outside of his purview.

The rep, Stennet Hansack, was peppered with case after case of increasing electric bills, service disconnections, displays of favoritism, service interruptions and unhelpful responses. True to form, Mr. Hansack was unable to provide any useful information or answer any questions to satisfy the crowd.

He touted the company lines of “reduce consumption”, “monitor usage by reading your meters in the morning and in the evening”, and “reclaim any bill” but “you still have to pay it”.

Mr. Hansack attempted to explain that comparisons to what the residents in Bluefields pay for electricity is pointless because Bluefields’ tariff is lower. When asked why Bluefields, a big city, has a lower tariff, he lacked the capacity to give a suitable response. He did the same with every question that was posed instead deploying the spin doctor technique of speaking but saying nothing.

One participant explained that she owned a business that depended on electricity but that with the frequency and duration of service interruptions, her business was losing money. “If I can’t run my business because I don’t have power, how am I expected to earn money to pay my light bill,” she queried.

Another voice echoed that sentiment and added that local businesses are increasing their prices to make up for damaged inventory. “This is putting a pressure on the people when they go to buy food and other necessities,” she said. “It is getting bad when people have to choose between eating and paying their light bill.”

One man told of leaving his house with all the power off for four days and when he checked his bill, it was higher.

Many told stories of ENEL employees standing as far as the street when they read the meter which is attached to the house. “I can hardly read the numbers when I’m standing right under the meter so unless he has super vision, I’m sure he can’t read it from the road,” one woman said.

As the stories continued, the residents became more and more agitated. It was finally clear that Mr. Hansack could do nothing for them and it was suggested that no one pay their bills and hold a manifestation—a protest—to shut down the local ENEL office until the Managua bosses come to the coast to hear the complaints and offer solutions for lower bills.

A few registered concerns about having their power cut off or police violence in retaliation but they were assured that the manifestation would be held according to law which includes notifying police and media at least 24 hours in advance.

The manifestation will begin at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday October 10th in front of the Perlas Lagunas Institute.

Family Feud: The Nicaraguan Edition

No, this isn’t a blog post about the popular game show currently being hosted by comedian Steve Harvey. Rather, it is about the realities of living in a community where owning land equals power.

In a recent incident, a woman we’ll call Marie, had been living on a certain prime piece of real estate in a small coastal community in Nicaragua for more than 15-years when a group of her family members decided that they wanted the property for a relative who, after living in the United States for 20 years, had chosen to return home. The group of approximately eight relatives arrived at Marie’s house on a Saturday morning with a lawyer in tow.

Like the game show where you invite family member to help you, Marie, being made aware by a cousin who disagreed with the family’s plan, had asked her siblings and mother to come to the house in support. Unlike the game show where the family comes well-dressed and armed with their sparkling personalities and thinking caps, Marie’s family attended but each member, except the mother, came armed with machete, stout tree branches, an axe and a gun, just in case there was a need to escalate things from talking to action.

Akin to the game show, both sides get the opportunity to answer questions and earn points in the hopes of being the big winner at the end of the day. After hearing from both sides that the property had been left to the Marie’s mother, and being shown the land title, the lawyer measured out the land and allocated a piece, behind the existing structure, for the returning expatriate. The lawyer was shocked to hear that they were family after having been told that the woman was a stranger who “just put up a house on their property.” He explained that Marie had as much right to the land as they did, and because she had been there already, they couldn’t move her.

Unlike the losers on the game show who still smile and applaud, the cousins were not happy with the results and continued to argue. The lawyer told them that he would be glad to take their money and go to court but that they would lose. These losers went away grumbling.

In Nicaragua this type of situation is happening more frequently as expatriates are returning home to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs. It doesn’t seem to matter what the relationship is either, if someone else owns the land under your house. Sadly, if you don’t have the land title that clearly states that the property belongs to you, (my father’s mother’s uncle’s daughter said…doesn’t get you far in these matters) you could find yourself unceremoniously ousted. And, you had better hope that someone in your family takes pity on you and gives you a new place to call home.

In an earlier attempt to remove Marie from her house, one of the cousins had set fire to the house after throwing out all her belongings while she was at church one Sunday. Marie’s only brother dared them to try it again.

Coastal Language 101

I promised I would do a blog post about some of the words and language commonly used in and around Pearl Lagoon. Here it is. The language here on the coast is a combination of English, Spanish and Miskito which is collectively referred to as Creole.

If they use the Spanish words for a thing then they always use the Spanish word and may not even know how to say the word in English.

Forgive the spelling. I’m doing it phonetically the way the words sound to me!

Quale or   quail Almost   dry; usually used in reference to laundry
Suppostamente   (Spanish) Supposedly
Tranquillo   (Spanish) Tranquil, calm, relaxed, easy
Tortiya   (Spanish) Jamaican-style fried dumpling but in a triangular shape
Bad feeling Upset stomach; feel to vomit
Catch a cold Used to explain just about all illnesses
Bunka/rump Butt, ass, behind, tush, etc.
Shittings Diarrhea
Poro   (Spanish) Penis
Para ya   (Spanish) A long time ago; or from time-to-time
Sickening Disgusting
Salva Vida   (Spanish) Life Jacket/vest
Novella   (Spanish) Spanish soap opera
Poonk Fart
That’s why I’m still not sure how this is used!
In my mind To myself
Beyho   (Spanish) Old man
Heaty Hot
Chinnella   (Spanish) Slippers or sandals
Fishining Fishing
Dorry Boat smaller than a panga and needs oars
Panga Boat that uses an engine
Clamp Stapler
Tio   (Spanish) Uncle
How? How are you?
Hard man A common greeting between men
Right here Used in response to How?
Plasticard Laminate

 

Chamba means help

DSC01965 (480x640) DSC01966 (490x640)

A local Chambaman called Dellan, carries two 25 lb. sacks of rice and flour and a gallon of oil on his head. Note: He is drunk!

I’ll do a blog post about some of the words that are used here but this post is about paid help but not paid help in the traditional sense. The word “Chamba” means help but more like a paid handout. If you need something carried from the dock or a shop to your home, this would be considered Chamba. If you want your yard chopped (no one uses a lawnmower here instead they cut the grass with a machete) or a hole dug or just about anything, this would be considered Chamba.

There is a group of people here that are referred to as Chamba men/women. This section of the population are people who do odd jobs on a daily basis for pay.  What makes this group interesting is that the majority of them are either alcoholics or drug-users. They will do whatever type of work to feed their addictions but don’t think this means you can take advantage of them.  They haggle with you over the price of the work and often time I’m surprised at how expensive their labor can be.

What I also find surprising is what they can do while drunk or high.  They display great feats of strength, coordination and amazingly work ethics. They take great pride in their work and carefully build their reputations as chamba men/women so that when work is available, they will be sought out. And this works really well here in Pearl Lagoon.  I know there are two or three Chambamen that my husband Jose uses consistently because he likes that they work quickly and neatly. He doesn’t mind haggling with them over the price and unlike some, believes that if a man works, he should be paid like a man, regardless of what he intends to do with his money.

The chambawomen are not as visible here but they do exist. You don’t see them on the wharf or hanging out in front of Miss Isabel’s shop as you would see the men but you can find them just by asking for them. They are often used to wash clothes, general house cleaning, and sometimes even cooking.

The sad part of this is that while they will work, and hard oftentimes, the money they earn usually does not go into helping to support their families. Rather, the money is spent on their addiction.

As a newcomer here, I ask “Why use Chamba men/women if you know what they will do the money?”  “Why not hire someone who doesn’t use drugs or alcohol and who could use the money for their family?”  Jose explains that most men are too proud to do the work that Chambamen do for the amount of money it would net them.

So it seems the Chamba people have a corner on this part of the labor market. And they also occupy a significant corner in the community…just opposite the wharf in front of Miss Isabel’s shop where they can buy their drink of choice.

The Wages of War is Death

I have been living in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua for two months now. I have been paying attention to most things around me mostly because they are starkly different from the life I had lived in Toronto, Canada. The modern conveniences I had grown up taking for granted are now mostly gone and it is almost as if I have stepped backwards in time on some levels. One of the things that jumped out at me recently was the absence of men my age. Actually there is such a dearth of men between the ages of 40 and 50 that you can count them on two hands. My curiosity got the best of me and I started to ask questions. Here’s what I was told.

The civil war that happened in Nicaragua between 1979 and 1985 was a battle between Sandinista Nicaraguans and Contra Nicaraguans. The American government under President Regan supported the Contras and provided them with arms and other supplies in an attempt to oust then President Daniel Ortega. The Contras would go on to lose the war and the 100,000 Nicaraguan men who were young at that time paid the price with their lives. Many died defending their beliefs and their families. Today on the east coast of Nicaragua you can see the lasting effects of war in what you don’t see—middle-aged men.

And now there seems to be a new type of war brewing on the Atlantic coast. The coastal peoples are seperating from the rest of Nicaragua. They are now being represented by England and have their own King, flag, anthem and country called the Community Nation of Moskitia. The relationship between the Miskito people and the government in Managua has never been easy especially because of high unemployment rates and what amounts to “stealing” of their natural resources by the capital. What does this mean for Nicaragua? Will Daniel Ortega go to war to hold on to this very valuable region of his country or will this handover be seamless and bloodless? It is what the people of the coast want but does anyone really care what the people want?

My husband Jose was a boy during the Sandinista/Contra war. He saw atrocities and along with his family survived attacks in Pearl Lagoon. If this war happens, he’ll be prime fighting age. I keep telling him his life story will make an interesting movie. I just may have to write it.

The Facebook Nation

It was my friend Klodyne who convinced me to join Facebook.  I had protested that I didn’t have time to figure it out and even that I just wasn’t really that sociable. She argued that it was also a good tool to build my business through making connections. It was that point that sold me and I hesitantly opened my personal Facebook account.

Fast forward a few years and I now have two accounts—a personal one and a business one—and a group page for all my cruise friends. I’m still not sure I’m using it to its full capacity and I haven’t earned a dime or made any significant business contact through Facebook but I’m now connected to friends and family around the world. This connection only became important to me when I left North America for Central America.

I’m living in a Spanish speaking country and I don’t speak Spanish. Most of the television programs are in Spanish and I was only able to turn on the closed captioning in English on one channel so I feel as if the world is speeding past me and I am missing all kinds of important events and news. And that’s where the Facebook Nation has become useful and significant to me. I read the status updates to get all caught up on the world’s news. I found out that Nelson Mandela died and was grief-stricken (funny that I never met him but feel as if he was my grandfather) but then additional updates corrected that he hadn’t actually died but was in critical condition in hospital. Whew!

I’m also able to keep up with the happenings of my adult children, who don’t contact their mother enough. I can see that my friend Nicole and her sister Nichelle have become marathon masters! I can pray in support of my friend Tania as her son battles cancer. I can applaud Angelina Jolie for her decision to remove both breasts in a preventive assault against breast cancer and I can peek into the activities of my family members in Toronto, Jamaica, New York and England.

I’ve also heard all the complaints about Facebook but I don’t really understand them because as I said, I’m not really that much of a user. Sure I can post photos and update my status but I don’t play Candy Land so can’t really understand that obsession!

Now that I’ve got an online business, I plan to get to know Facebook much better. I’ve been asked by some of the young people here in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua to teach a Social Media course featuring Facebook so I’ve got some incentive.

Klodyne it looks as if you were right about this Facebook phenomena. And if I haven’t already said it, “Thanks for connecting me to the Facebook Nation!

Light Gone?

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua is an interesting community.

When I was here last year, very few had running water, only wells, and the street light stopped just shy of downtown, where we live. Uptown is where the majority of businesses are located.

This year, there is running water and you can see taps projecting out of the ground on many properties. Few have as yet put running water or flushing toilets into their homes but it is coming…soon. Sidebar…the water still tastes like dirt to this Canadian woman!

Road construction and repairs are also underway here. I’m told that the road used to be green grass which made Pearl Lagoon a pretty place. Now, the roads are rocks and gravel and like the Peanuts character Pig Pen, there is always a cloud of dust and dirt in the air. They’ve dug up a good portion of the roads in uptown so they are barely passable, even on foot.

The long-time residents are skeptical that the roads will be repaired since they have seen this level of activity before and no results. They are also aware that the rainy season is coming which will see these dug up roads turn to mud. I’m hopeful especially so that I can wear my sandals without fear of breaking my leg or twisting my ankle on the craggy roads and so that I don’t have to wipe down my laptop each time a car passes by our house.

There is no mail delivery in Pearl Lagoon or its neighborhood communities. No one has a mailing address as the houses do not have numbers and the streets don’t have names. The three main ones are called for where they lay so front, middle and back street. Sounds simple but try having a package delivered. You can’t. You would have to get an address in Bluefields and then go pick it up from there. Getting to Bluefields means taking a panga (boat). It costs NIO$160 or US$7 and is 1-hour each way from wharf to wharf, if everything is on time which happens occasionally. For a little higher price, you can also take a bus to Kukra (1/2 hour on terribly rocky roads) then a taxi to the wharf and then take a 30-minute panga from there. This isn’t bad a terrible system if you have something important or a lot of merchandise coming in but this becomes expensive and time-consuming if it is only junk mail.

There are now street lights on most of the three main streets as well, though there is still a problem with the loss of power from time-to-time throughout the day.  The question, “Light gone?” is a common refrain heard at least once daily. Luckily it doesn’t affect many functions like cooking as it would in North America because they cook either with propane or on coals, but it does affect television-watching and high velocity super deluxe air circulators. I just call them fans.

There are two things you really shouldn’t mess with here and those are fans and novellas. It is hot here, especially since we are experiencing an extended dry-weather season. And I mean really hot! Imagine, if you wil,l getting out of a cold shower and within about 15 seconds of being out of that shower being awash anew in sweat as you attempt to get dressed.  If you aren’t standing in front of or underneath a fan as you dress, it becomes an exercise in futility especially if you are a woman and are trying to put on a bra.   It is not just this Canadian this happens to. I’ve watched the members of my new family suffer this experience as well and they are native Nicaraguans!

Oh and novellas. They are Spanish soap operas and while I wouldn’t watch soap operas when I was in Canada, I don’t miss a novella if I don’t have to. Of course, I don’t understand a word they are saying but I was able through body language to get the drift, that is, until I figured out how to turn on the closed captioning in English. Now, I’m right in the thick of the conversation with the most committed novella watchers. I have arrived!

But for me, the power outage is more than a nuisance. My livelihood now relies on having reliable electricity. I got smart and make sure that I keep my computer and cell phone fully charged but when the power goes, so does my internet connection. That means no email, no Google search, no Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and it means I lose the ability to run my online business at http://www.ccarolbrown.com.

How good is a virtual assistant, blogger and online trainer who has no virtual presence? See my problem?

Ah, Pearl Lagoon!

Barefoot Softball

Barefoot Softball (640x480)

This past weekend I had the honour of taking in a Ladies Softball Tournament in Haulover, Nicaragua.  There were teams from the nearby communities including Brown Bank, Little Island, Kakabila, Kukra Hill, Raitipura, Pueblo Nuevo, Sandy Bay, Set Net, Haulover, Pearl Lagoon, Orinoco, and Marshall Point.

Many of the teams were a ragtag group of women ranging in age from teenaged girls to 40-something-year-old women.  Some had full uniforms with the team and sponsor names and colours proudly displayed on their hats and shirts while others you could barely tell who team members were for their lack of uniforms. Other than a great deal of team pride, the other thing most of the women had in common, when they took their positions on the field, was that they weren’t wearing shoes—and in fact most played in sock feet.

I asked my husband Jose, a native Nicaraguan, about the lack of shoes and he explained that most of the women were not used to playing with shoes on. He even explained that there are two types of shoes, one with metal spikes and one with rubber spikes. The spikes provide traction in the dirt and remarkable, so do toes. There was a point during one of the games where a woman actually kicked off her shoes after making a couple of errors and I must say, she played better defensively once she was only clad in her socks.

The players didn’t seem to care that the field was mainly dirt with small patches of grass, they played as if they were on a perfectly manicured playing field, sliding into bases, diving for and running after errant balls. And they played well.

There was some confusion during the game though. Sometimes it was hard to tell who belonged to which team, what the score was, which player was batting, what the count was, what inning it was or how many innings were going to be played, and even how the tournament was organized.. So much so that the end of the tournament saw everyone scratching their heads as to why Haulover won the championship, for the 17th year in a row, when Little Island was the only undefeated team. There was talk about A and B Groups and everyone needing to play everyone else and blah, blah, blah but at the end of the day I was disappointed with the results. Little Island should have taken home the championship trophy.

I also had the honour of watching the US Women’s College Softball tournament on television and couldn’t help but compare and contrast what I was seeing between the two events.  The US women were, as would be expected, very organized, professional and uniform. There was no guessing as everything was displayed on the television screen and the announcers filled in any delays in information.

Much like a North American ballpark, the event was being enjoyed by families of all sizes and composition and there was food and beverage to be bought. But, unlike a North American ballpark, there was no score board and no announcer calling the play-by-play, but, there was a lot of music. And, I think, only in Nicaragua could a game be halted because of horses, or dogs on the field.

The thing that was most remarkable to me was how much heart the women played with—during both tournaments. There was no giving up. They played the best they knew how to—right to the final out.

 

Gay-bashing in Nicaragua

I was shocked and disgusted by a 16-year-olds comment against gay men a few days ago.

I won’t repeat the comment but the gist of it was the graphic nature of the violence he would perpetrate against any gay man who would cross his path. The other young boy in the room laughed and agreed with him. I stared in horror with my mouth agape.

I understand that we are in a small coastal Caribbean community in Nicaragua but I couldn’t believe that a young man could be so closed-minded and would result to violence against someone based on their sexual orientation. And it isn’t that there aren’t any gay men in the community. There are. They are few and far between though and they try to stay hidden as much as possible for their own safety.

The adults in the room tried to explain to me the boys’ reaction. Not that they thought it was wrong but just wanted me to understand that it isn’t something they are used to seeing. To make matters worse, they threw in comments about God and the Bible in their defense.

I countered with the race and slavery argument but to them “that’s different.” I don’t think so.

I don’t know at what point I started to cry or what it was that made me cry but I cried and through my tears I expressed my disappointment at what I was hearing. I have a gay son and the thought of anyone harming him or wanting to harm him because of his orientation made me defensive like any mother would be and sad at the same time.

The young man felt badly that I was crying and said that if he had known my son was gay, he wouldn’t have said what he did. I felt badly that he thought that way and didn’t feel better that he would have kept his thoughts to himself had he known.

With the entire world just a click of the mouse away and with many countries now giving marriage rights to homosexuals I’m still horrified that there are still a lot of small minded, homophobic people out there. I can only hope that this changes in my lifetime and that as a society we will learn to live and let live.