A Record of a Visit to San Juan de Limay by Charles Peterson and Barbara Larcom in 2003

On January 22, I completed a 3-week visit to Nicaragua, invited by my friend Barbara Larcom, the coordinator of a solidarity and “sister cities” project between Baltimore and the town of San Juan de Limay. To briefly share my experience, perhaps some “snapshots in words” will give a taste of the journey.

La Primavera (Springtime) neighborhood in Managua: We walked with some local women towards the lake, where the neighborhood is poorer. Rubbish strewn across a large vacant lot, “informal” electricity tapped from the city’s grid, houses of cardboard, plastic and tin. Meeting with some of the women and children of Ana and Michael’s project, hearing about their endeavors in gourd carving, cooking with soy beans, chicken-raising, etc. The children affectionate, the moms both nervous and proud to speak of their new initiatives. Perhaps poor, but the “the poorest of the poor”, I would say.

That evening, to the Carlos Mejia Godoy concert, and a contrasting slice of Nicaraguan society. Good musicians, professional, really. Personally I’d have done with more music and less un-understandable jokes and banter.

To San Juan de Limay, a town at the end of an unimproved road in the north of the country near the Honduran Border: Baltimore’s sister city in an effort of friendship and support. Staying with a host family in a typical house: wood framing with stone-filled outer walls; inner walls of curtain, or thin plywood; dirt floor; large rooms with meagre fluorescent lighting. Cooking over a wood fire in a clay stove. Latrine at the back of the property. My hosts living with their grandchildren, as the children’s mother has gone to Costa Rica to look for work – a typical situation.

Meeting with a community of peasant farmers. While expressing that “we’re poor”, they seem people of positive character, not unconscious of their lives and capacity. The adults spoke coherently of their situation; the children typically captivating . . . a sense of community about the place. It’s notable that even in the materially very poor neighborhoods, in spite of unkempt hair and tatty clothes, the children are so beautiful, clear-eyed, and affectionate with one another. Feels such a positive sign.

Visit to the clinic. The young and articulate administrator explained the situation in this ageing facility that serves and area of some 14,000 inhabitants, with 3 doctors. Expense budget is some US$275 per month, including maintenance of the building and vehicles; therefore ongoing shortage and limitations. In-patient facility in this rural hospital is limited to cots for 3 patients (whose families must provide their food). The green oxygen tank in the corner is “only a decoration, as there’s nothing in it”! In the dental office, the chair seemingly a U.S. Civil War model (nothing functional), and the sink draining into a bucket. The woman dentist stoically, even cheerfully, carrying on with “insufficient instruments”, a sterilizer operating manually as “the timer is broken”, and “needing to lay the patient on the floor to enable an extraction”, as the chair no longer adjusts. The need obvious, the government launched construction of a new hospital – which now stands, uncompleted, at the edge of town. No one knows its fate. . .

Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast: a different people, culture, climate; the world of the Caribbean. A wonderful racial variety where people of African descent seem to outnumber those of Spanish stock. English (with Caribbean accents) heard alongside Nicaraguan Spanish. Populace feels easy-going, friendly in a small-town, casual way.

Meeting at the office of a human rights agency: concerns over the proposed “dry canal” and oil pipeline addressed by 4 people active in various aspects of those issues. I find it telling how willing, and articulate, people are in accounting their solidarity work. I can only trust that this openness and sincerity with one another, and with us as visitors, builds a collective force that enables realizable positive change.

Rama Key, home of the indigenous Rama people. The scene a “tropical island” image: waving palm trees, canoes on the shore, children playing at the water’s edge. But the island is in many ways a poor Nicaraguan village, perhaps even more impoverished for its isolation. Some years ago the Sandinista government provided electricity with a generator, but now the system is useless, the generator having burnt out. The people fish, though the supply has apparently diminished; cockles and mussels are harvested from the bay, a vital nutritive food. The community has farmland, but it’s a 3-day boat journey away, up the river.

Roosters began their “dawn chorus” well before dawn, at 3 a.m. Yet shortly thereafter sounds close by indicated that people were up and engaged in morning activities. People began to silently pass in the darkness, going down to the boats – guess they learn to see in the dark. Our journey back to Bluefields required 3 men to paddle, making the strokes with casual rhythm. Later the sail was raised, a bit of a breeze helping us along. Then a motor launch approached, and the boatman agreed to tow us. This to our good fortune, bringing us much more quickly to the harbor – and thus to the airport and the 5-passenger Cessna taking us back to Managua.

Coffee: As the highway climbed into the hills outside Matagalpa, we noticed people with empty baskets walking in the opposite direction. Surely coffee pickers returning home at the end of their workday. Then appeared a whole crowd of workers assembled by the roadside, next to a growing pile of large coffee bags. We stopped for a look, and the amicable manager of the operation explained what was happening, and regarding coffee production in general. The harvest of each worker was measured. Each picker is paid about US$0.40 for a measure of 20 pounds, and generally picks 3 or 4 measures daily; a really fast worker may pick 10 measures or more. Though child labor isn’t legal, children do work alongside their parents to augment the collection. The farm employs some 250 pickers, who work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., 7 days a week at the height of the harvest. But even in this rather feudal situation, we leaned that the farm is hard-pressed to come out ahead. A lot is to do with the coffee market, influenced by international pressures. )

“Sí a la Vida” (Yes to Life): a project dedicated to boys ages 6 and upward addicted to a greater or lesser degree to glue sniffing. The boys are found in the streets, markets and terminals of Managua. When willing to come to the project’s Casa Nuevo Amanecer (house of a New Dawn), some boys rebel and “look for the door”; and others stay, for varying lengths of time, encouraged, socialized, offered manual arts and other integrative activities. The dedication of the staff is evident; a work of welfare in its truest sense.

Batahola Norte Catholic church: my heart opened at the lovely energy of this church and cultural center, all the walls adorned with colourful murals and other paintings. A light in the gloom of the city, esthetically speaking. The altar mural especially touching: a black baby Jesus, campesino women as angels, Sandino, Romero, Fonseca in the gathering of peasant people. “We don’t need icons or images of saints, here the people themselves are empowered.”

Charles Petersen, January 2003