Tomas Heikkala, Plenty Bulletin Spring 1994, Vol. 10 No. 1
After three months of fundraising, I left for León, Nicaragua with 11 other Americans on a project to repair the roof and front gate for the office building of the Secretaria de la Mujer/CST, a Nicaraguan women’s labor union organization. Included in the itinerary were visits to medical facilities, schools, businesses, and other projects of the women’s group which allowed us to get a comprehensive picture of the conditions and the struggles that the people face every day.
Maryann Jasper of Tecnica, our group leader, had raised $2000 to do the building repairs and organized the trip. A local carpenter, Luis, was hired to oversee the project. Concrete block, rough cut lumber, concrete, sand, and gravel were purchased locally. We borrowed tools from the Sister Cities Project office and scaffolding from Escuela Taller, a local construction school. The building was very old, and the repairs had to comply with historical building codes. We were amazed to learn that the first Anastasio Somosa was assassinated in it by a poet in 1956. The building has two-story adobe walls and a wood-framed gable roof with red clay tiles. Repairs were needed for some of the rafters and stringers, and all the clay tiles had to be removed, waterproofed, and then reinstalled. Most of the front gate and wall had to be demolished and rebuilt. It seemed like a monumental task at the outset, so after work began a crew of men were hired from the CST carpenters hall next door. Our Norte Americano crew consisted of three women and seven men. Four were in their sixties. Our schedule called for two full days, and seven half days of work for us so we needed help to finish it. The local folks were somewhat amazed to see us “cheles” doing manual labor. But our chemistry was good, and the work progressed very well.
Poverty has become so pervasive in Nicaragua that the women of the CST work virtually without pay. We were fortunate to be able to live in the homes of the CST women in a district called Fundeci, experiencing their life first hand. Four of us lived in a little room on the ground floor of a 6 unit apartment building with our hostess Berta Maria, her four children, and compañero, Julian. Berta Maria embodied the strength, generosity, and good humor which were characteristic of most of the people we met. Three others of us lived with Asusena and her extended family of seven in their apartment, and our four near-seniors lived with a family in a home nearby. We had breakfast and dinner daily with our hosts and had time to hang out with some of the many children who were constantly curious about us. Half the population of Nicaragua is children. Staying at our hosts’ home made my stay very special. It is difficult to describe the love and appreciation that grew in me there. We were told that one day Berta Maria went to visit her 90-year old father who had been a member of Sandino’s army. He said, “I hear you have some ‘yanquis’ at your house?” She said, “Yes, but they are the good ones. They’re helping us out.” “In that case” he said, “take good care of them.”
We all worked Tuesday and Wednesday tearing down the old front wall and gate, building the scaffold, and disassembling the roof. We started the tile treatment by filling a 55-gallon drum half full of water and mixing in half a 100-pound sack of cement. The rounded clay tiles were each dipped in the cement soup. They were then set out to dry in the 90 degree heat of the dry season.
For the rest of our stay in León we worked only in the mornings. Our afternoons were spent visiting an amazing array of places. We also spent close to two days in Managua. A constant theme ran through our visits: deprivation, struggle, and hope.
We went to the Ben Linder House in Managua where we were briefed on the current state of the economy by Trevor Evans, a professor of economics. In short: near 70% unemployment, 70% living below the poverty line, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is about to require further huge cuts in social spending .
We then went with Teresa Torres, head of CST metal workers union, to visit several projects. First was their Women’s Legal Aid Clinic, then to Centro Medico, another women’s clinic, and on to a low cost housing project for women who have lost their jobs. They have built 14 houses with the initial $9,000 and the new owners have paid back half the money, so 7 more are now under construction.
Back in León we had a crew of 8 local men working full time with us on our project. By the end of the final week the roof was finished, and the gate/wall was mostly completed. Luis and crew will finish it. We spent our afternoons visiting more places. First was a small community outside of León called Chacara Seca. This is a agricultural community that has been hit hard by the loss of the cotton industry and the assistance that their government used to provide small farmers. In the face of these losses they have set up an elaborate network and pulled together with the help of a couple of Maryknoll sisters. Though life is very difficult they have attracted the Finnish A.I.D. to help build a sorely needed school, and the Sister Cities to help with replacing cotton with a reforestation project requiring a hand dug well 76 yards deep, and a chicken project.
Next was Heodra, the big hospital downtown, where we met with Dr. Ricardo Caudra. He is a specialist and the Secretaria General of FETSALUD, the Nicaraguan health workers union. His grim story was that the poor can’t afford health care. Life expectancy is now 55 years. Infant mortality is 80 to 90/1000. Malnutrition is 80%. Vaccinations have been eliminated. Childhood preventable diseases are on the rise. Staff is short-handed, and wages were frozen in 1990. He earns only $100 a month. Their needs include: used clothing, powdered milk, and medicines for arthritis, rheumatism, high blood pressure, the heart, and aspirin. His story was the saddest one we heard. He was obviously a very intelligent and compassionate person who directly felt the pain of the people. Yet he was quietly humble in his expression of matters that screamed for attention. His wish was that there would be no more wars and that Nature would leave them alone for a while. He said, “Hope maintains you. We struggle in hunger that things will improve again.”
We visited a cooperative that had been founded in 1984 with 41 Salvadoran refugees and 40 Nicaraguans. When in they lost their funding, in 1988, the Salvadorans and Nicaraguans went home, and it closed down. It was started up again with a micro loan of $500 from a US Sister City group. With the loan paid off, 5 full time and 5 part-time women are now producing fine loom-woven goods for markets in Australia, France, the US and at home. I was amazed by their skill and business savvy. It turns out that with micro loan funds 70% of those who receive them are women, and their repayment rate has been 90%. This is exceptional in Nicaragua.