Monday, January 12, 2015

Beyond The Classroom

"En Nicaragua, Jesus carga un fusil."
"In Nicaragua, Jesus carries a rifle."
Photo taken in Nicaragua by Alice Bag.

I soon realized that nothing in my relatively comfortable upbringing had prepared me for the reality of living in a country at war. The pops of automatic rifle fire in the distance were almost as common as the clucking of the hens and roosters that woke me at sunrise. Nevertheless, I quickly fell into the rhythm of the household with the warm support and encouragement of my new family. The three regular meals each day were invariably beans, tortillas and a thick, muddy coffee. You could count on eating the same thing pretty much every day, but on special days, we'd have a dish called Gallo Pinto, which was just red beans and rice; sometimes a bit of queso fresco would find its way onto the table.

After a few days, I decided to rescue the family from our culinary monotony by going to the market to buy some groceries I could contribute to the household. After all, I'd been in town for three days and hadn't spent any money at all, which was an unfamiliar feeling. When I got to the store, I noticed that many of the shelves were empty. There were some bottles of hot sauce, dry beans, dry rice, a small selection of ugly looking vegetables, a few household items and not much else. Everything was inexpensive. I asked the woman behind the counter about the scarce selection. She informed me that when something was in stock, it was priced cheaply enough that anyone could buy it and so it would sell out quickly. The very idea of setting the price of groceries based on the law of supply and demand was counterrevolutionary to her. I understood her ideology but I still didn't fully understand the empty shelves.

"The US has declared an embargo against us, but they will not break us. We'll eat beans forever if we have to." There was disapproval in the woman's voice. "You are a guest in this country. You do not buy the groceries." It suddenly struck me that what I was doing was rude. Who did I think I was, coming to their country, thinking I could buy better food because I had more money? I immediately felt foolish and decided against the groceries, hoping to buy some toilet paper instead. I had brought a roll of toilet paper with me because I knew that it was scarce, but what I didn't know was that it was not only scarce, it was nonexistent. I'd put the single roll in the bathroom and it was quickly gone, to be replaced by little squares of cut up newspaper. I hoped to score a four pack of toilet paper but here again I was thwarted.

"Papel hygienico?" I asked.

She looked amused. "No hay." "There isn't any. You need to go back to your family and live like a Nicaraguan," she said, still smiling in a tolerant way. I walked out of the market, my sole purchase a baggie filled with a frozen fruit punch concoction known to the locals as posicle (I thought it sounded like Popsicle.) I bit off the corner of the baggie, sucked on the sweet frozen treat and tried to cheer myself up after being exposed in all my ethnocentric ignorance.

I got right to work after that. I made arrangements to visit and deliver supplies to some of the local teachers. School buildings were used for morning, afternoon and evening classes: waste not, want not. The literacy program was open to everyone. Men, women, boys and girls would gather around a few large, mismatched tables. Some people stood for the entire class while others walked in carrying chairs they'd brought from their respective homes. There were men in dirty work uniforms, campesinos with calloused hands who had worked the farms all day and still found time and energy to attend classes, women with toddlers on their laps. They all wanted one thing - to learn to read. Unlike the school books I'd grown up with, here there was no Tom and Jane to read about. These texts were meaningful with stories of Augusto Sandino, Carlos Fonseca and The FSLN. The simple stories were first read for meaning, then broken down into simple sentences; the sentences were then broken down into syllables and finally into individual letter sounds. It was the exact opposite of how it's done here in the US. When I learned to read, I was taken from abstract letters and sounds to concrete meaning; why not start with meaning and then break it down?

Going from concrete to abstract was a strategy that made sense to me, especially for second language learners but it also occurred to me that the historical texts we were using to teach people were a form of political indoctrination. They all espoused the revolutionary ideals of the ruling socialist party but the literacy classes inevitably included some open discussion of the material. Did everyone agree with the point of view of the author? If not, why not? Of course, given the circumstances of a social revolution, it would have been hard to disagree with the material or the socialist economic philosophies being taught. I thought about the ways we Americans were indoctrinated by the mass media in our own country and I wondered how much of my own core beliefs and values had been hard wired by my education.

It wasn't too long before I realized that what this town needed even more than literacy coaches were strong legs, arms and backs to do the heavy lifting and building for neighborhoods that lacked running water, plumbing and electricity. Since I had no construction skills, I was given the simple task of transporting bricks from the brickpile to a construction site on top of a hill. After my weak arms gave out and I dumped a wheelbarrow of bricks down the side of the hill, the frustrated foreman shuffled me from assignment to assignment until he figured out that I was pretty much unfit for manual labor.

"What can you do?" he finally asked.

Thinking back to my muralist days at Garfield High, I responded that I could paint. They then assigned me the task of painting seeds with the likeness of Augusto Sandino which they made into necklaces and pins to sell.

Some of my handiwork. I didn't do the bad one in the middle. Photo by Alice Bag.
The fact that I was bilingual in English and Spanish was also valuable, since they needed to translate documents. I was happy to have found a skill I could use, not realizing that the documents in need of translation were repair manuals for truck engines, sewing machines and power generators. Of course, I didn't know the Spanish words for such technical terms as "flywheel" or "spark plug," so that was a bit of a challenge. I did a fair job of translating the charlas between the community members and the foreign students who had a limited Spanish vocabulary. These weekly meetings helped keep the school at the service of the community. I'd listen and simultaneously translate Spanish to English and then back again. It's harder than it sounds and gave me a real appreciation for the role of translators.

I spent a month in Esteli, helping out in some of the classrooms, interviewing people who had learned to read through the literacy campaign and then had gone out to remote villages to teach others, forming youth brigades which fought against ignorance and battled illiteracy as an extension of a social revolution. It was then I realized that teaching someone to read was itself a revolutionary act. I observed and learned as much as I could but mostly I learned about myself and about my government, which had imposed an embargo against the tiny country and was helping to train and fund the contra-revolucionarios - Contras, as they were known in the States, or Freedom Fighters as Ronald Reagan had attempted to name them but even in the US the name Freedom Fighters wouldn't stick.

Aside from constant volunteer work, I spent my spare time hitching rides through the Nicaraguan countryside, seeing some of the outlying towns and visiting with the people who lived there but this was no tourist vacation. Once, while walking down a dusty street and talking to a villager, I found myself face down in the dirt when bursts of automatic rifle fire went off just a block away. Being so close to the border with Honduras where the Contras were staging their counter-revolutionary attacks meant that I had to be constantly aware of my surroundings and prepared to duck and cover at the first sign of a gun battle. Every place I went - from the largest city to the tiniest hamlet - had its own personality but they all shared a common vision: to rebuild their war-torn country from the inside out.

As poor as these people were and despite the difficulty of their circumstances, I found in their spirit a warmth and generosity that I'd rarely experienced before. I learned by watching their daily example that what was important in life was not wealth nor material possessions, but purpose and resourcefulness. Being in Nicaragua at that time also allowed me to witness firsthand some of the effects of war in a way that was not sanitized for my consumption.

Children of Esteli. Photo by Alice Bag.
After more than a month of living, teaching and working in Nicaragua, I boarded a flight for the return trip to the States and my job as a schoolteacher with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication. The most lasting impression I have of Nicaragua is of the indomitable spirit of its people. Their hunger for knowledge and self determination would teach me to never be complacent about what I have and what I have to lose.