A Nicaraguan education | AspenTimes.com

A Nicaraguan education

Morgan Smith
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World class surfing. Volcanoes. Extraordinary scenery and wildlife. Real estate prices far below those of neighboring Costa Rica. Beautifully preserved colonial cities like Granada. Friendly people and a safe environment.

Five million people crammed into a land mass half the size of Colorado. A median age of 19, as compared to 36 in the United States.

A few super-rich families but millions of people living on less than a dollar a day. The second-poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. Per-capita income is less than a 10th of ours.

A president ” Daniel Ortega ” who was elected last fall with only 38 percent of the vote and who has been touring Iran, Libya and Venezuela while his country suffers energy blackouts and continuing poverty.

This is Nicaragua.

The United States has been ” losing” Latin America, through a combination of years of neglect, the failure to pass a decent immigration bill and the anti-Americanism of the increasingly powerful, and oil-wealthy, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In addition, we’re rejecting our few allies, like Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, thus sending a message that we are not to be trusted.

In the case of smaller countries like Nicaragua, I’m optimistic, however. The hope lies with individual Americans and the extraordinary amount of humanitarian work they are doing. For example, every time I’ve flown to Nicaragua about a third of the passengers are Americans headed there for humanitarian reasons ” medical clinics, irrigation projects, orphanages, schools, libraries, etc.

In the case of my wife, Julie, and me, we’re involved in a project to build a two-classroom elementary school in Miraflor, a rural area near the town of Esteli, which is about three hours north of Managua by car.

We’re members of a Colorado nonprofit, Namlo International, that was started by Magda King, a mountaineer who was the first Spanish woman to climb an 8,000-meter peak, and her husband, Dr. Hugh King, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Their initial target was Nepal (Namlo is the Nepalese word for a head strap used when carrying heavy loads). Hugh and Magda wanted to repay the Nepalese people for the support they had given Magda in her climbing days, so they built two schools, established scholarships for students and helped Nepalese women start small businesses.

When the Maoist problems made Nepal too dangerous several years ago, the Kings shifted their efforts to Nicaragua, where they have built two schools in Barrio Nuevo, another rural area.

Our plan now is to build a third school in Miraflor. Currently there is a dilapidated, one-classroom building. With two new classrooms, the school will be able to accommodate kids up to the eighth grade. Construction will start in early October. We’re hoping for lots of volunteer labor from the local community, and we should be finished by late November.

The plight of children in Nicaragua is a disgrace. When I was there in December, I drove from Esteli to Jinotega. In the area around Matagalpa, kids aged roughly six to perhaps 13 stood along the road, waving at the cars. Their job was to shovel dirt on the potholes and hope that the passing drivers would give them tips.

On the edge of Managua, hundreds of families live in makeshift cardboard shacks in the middle of an enormous garbage dump. They have absolutely no sanitary facilities or clean water. Everyone, little kids included, works at sorting garbage ” tin, paper, plastic, bottles ” and then reselling it. The stench and flies are unbearable. It’s unimaginable that people live there.

Within Managua itself, street kids dance at night with huge mannequins and beg for tips.

On the edge of the beautiful colonial city of Granada, hundreds of homeless kids congregate. Many come in the evenings to a school and kitchen set up by a Danish businessman, their only source of food, medicine and rudimentary education.

In Miraflor, where we plan to build the school, the local families are subsistence farmers. They have little education and, for the most part, don’t read or write.

What then will happen to the children who do learn to read? Will they simply drop back into their old culture, where there is no evidence of the written word ” no street signs, no books, no electricity for reading in the evenings, no adults who can share the joy of reading with them? How can we change this?

In addition to the school building itself, there are enormous other needs. For example, Nicaraguan schools have almost no budget for even the most basic supplies, like pencils and paper or the “white board” that we bought for the Miraflor school in April.

The teachers’ salaries are the equivalent of $130-$160 per month. In the case of Miraflor, the teacher, Leonidas Velasquez, commutes from Esteli, which means riding a bus halfway and then either catching a ride in some farmer’s pickup truck or walking 40 minutes. There’s no training for teachers, so we hope to offer him a chance to participate in the Global Education Fund, a teacher-training program run by Judy Richardson, who is from Santa Fe.

Farm income is also a concern. Yes, they can grow beautiful-looking vegetables in the rainy season. But that’s when everyone else is also growing vegetables and prices are therefore depressed. Is there a way to develop irrigation in the dry season? We’re working with International Development Enterprises in Golden, Colorado, to analyze the water issues.

This is a tiny project, but when you consider all the projects started by Americans in Nicaragua, it can make a difference. If nothing else, it shows that Americans do care about Latin America, no matter what our government’s policies might suggest.