Main administration building of ILLS
Day 5 in Ocotal
June 1, 2012
There is a Bhuddist saying that goes something like this: "When the student is ready, the master appears."
I am not sure I know what "ready" looks like, but I have a sense that a master has certainly appeared, or rather a series of masters. In Spanish the word "Maestra" has none of the contemporary connotations associated with "mistress" in English, and since most of the "masters" are women at the Instituto de Liderazgo de Las Segovias (ILLS), I apologize for this shortcoming in English!
At the institute I am volunteering for a team of dedicated and strong women, and as usual, I am aware how women catalyze social change in so many countries. While I continue to learn about the goals of this young institution, my first exposure is to observe a workshop designed to help community leaders participate in local government so they can leverage relatively new (2003) legislation about citizen participation in local development and infrastuture projects. This a textbook casestudy in democracy in action.
I, sadly, have never participated as a citizen in any government, having always been a foreigner in someone else's country since the age of 18. A "resident alien" in the USA for almost 25 years until last July, I will be participating in the upcoming elections as a citizen for the first time (albeit via Email). And it is strange that I am getting my first real lesson in citizenship in the poorest country in Central America where the issues faced by these community leaders feel both both immediate and on a human scale, for example: a bridge that will connect two halves of a community that straddles a river in both the dry and rainy season, or; providing drainage channels on the sides of roads so that they are not washed away by storms, or; the provision of latrines. The sorts of things that I have never had to think about in my life can seem overwhelming and out of reach to a population that has none of these basic facilities. And I learn.
On another morning, I join a search for pictures of a group of children with various physical disabilities who had received medical attention from visiting Spanish surgeons in 2010. These doctors wanted to learn of the progress of the children as they plan their return. Since no obvious organization seemed to take this task under its wing, it fell to the masters of the institute to do some sleuthing to track them down. Fortunately, an organization that provides for mentally and disabled children - Los Pipitos - had many of the photographs we needed. For the others, we would need to track the addresses from the local hospital and go out and take photos. No simple task.
There is only one hospital in the region for more than 200,000 people. 200 beds, many of which are frequently shared by two or three patients. Thanks to immaculate patient records, all hand-written (no computer is used in record keeping), we track down every address we need for the 6 or so remaining children. And I think back to a training solution I co-designed for a major US provider of patient-management computer systems and software for hospitals, and I struggle to rationalize the contrast in my mind between these two experiences. And I try to learn.
With the address of one specific child in hand (i.e. 3rd house on the street SW from the dining room of the orphanage in the next suburb - hardly GPS-friendly!), we tracked our way to the house, where no one had heard of the child. Knocking on the doors of some nine houses in the neighborhood, we still found no trail to our missing child. Could he have come from one of the remote villages and stayed over in someone's house prior to and after the operation? By chance, one man had heard of the child and led us to the house. The roads, though intentional, were more or less a series of interconnected ruts between houses, clearly impassable in anything less than a four-wheeler, on foot or by an intrepid cyclist (not that we saw many!) Wrong child, but he had indeed had an operation in 2009, from doctors for a similar condition - close enough to transmit back to the doctors to assure them their work was valuable. There is a short video of the happy child at this link.
En route, we talked to our guide about the condition of the road. His shrugs and resignation to the permanent condition spoke to the challenge of building active citizenship, even in a country that has known democracy for some years. Engagemet of the citizens themselves in the process, the very thing the 2003 law has as its primary focus. I had read the law, read impressive printed guides that simplified the legal text into real examples of application, looked at full-color wall planners with key annual target dates and attended a leadership training designed to oil the wheels of participation. And yet, the very citizen who stands to benefit most shrugs and lacks something they call "gestión" here in Nicaragua - a diligence to actively pursue something. And I learn some more.
I had been impressed by the building and the apparent organization at Los Pipitos - a true haven in the city of Ocotal - so I looked up their site when I got home. Clearly well organized, they are the destination for an organization that provides cultural tourism and volunteering opportunities - all inclusive packages targeting for students (a minimum stay of 8 weeks work well for college vacations) and others that include language training, meals, accommodation and volunteer opportunities for relatively wealthy travelers (at $3245 for 8 weeks plus flights, it's not a cheap vacation!) I did this once, in Ghana, for just two weeks. One of the most challenging times of my life. On that trip I learned what I was not cut out to do!
Though clearly a different experience, I struggle again to understand a system:
I layer into this struggle in my mind and heart the experience of my flight from Atlana to Nicaragua where at least three religious groups or 50% of the flight ("Jesus Teams" as proclaimed by one group on their bright yellow T-shirts) were taking advantage of the long weekend to "make a difference" (as proclaimed by another team's bright orange T-short). I have no idea what they paid, but I know I was offered $750 to delay my departure by one day. I was tempted.
And I listen, and I try to learn and I wonder.
I sold house, car and most of my furniture to move to the small town of Ocotal in Las Segovias on the Honduras/ Nicaragua border.