"These are the real people who are being affected by poverty."
Guest post by Raechel Burdette who is traveling with a group of high school students in Nicaragua
Wow. You hear about these things; you see them on TV; but witnessing true destitution in person just doesn't compare. The past two days, our groups has been focusing on the issue of poverty. Yesterday, we did an experiment where we lived for 24 hours as if we only had $1/day, in reality it was more like $3 for the day, but it was enough to show the students (and the chaperons since we participated as well) what it's like to be really poor. We didn't use any electricity all day, we refrained from using electronics (which was difficult for the I-pod generation), we ate gallo-pinto for breakfast, rice with carrots and peas for lunch, and gallo-pinto for dinner with a slice of white bread and a crumble of cheese.
In addition to the experiment, we went to the barrio, and visited a few women who generously welcomed us into their homes. I say homes because, despite their construction from spare wooden planks and scrap metal, some of these families had been living in these structures for 30 years. One woman had a one-room house with a huge boulder inside next to the wall. She had a man build the house for her just after the revolution (which was in 1979), but never had the means to move the rock. She lived in this house with her 2 daughters, one son, and 4 grandchildren. When we were leaving, we each told her thank you; she grabbed my hand and smiled at me, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was astounding to see such a welcoming spirit in someone who has so little.
Today, continuing with our theme of poverty, we went to the city dump. The reality of what we saw is still sinking in, and I continue to process the assortment of emotions that are tumultuously brewing inside me. People lived there. And when I say they lived there, I mean they ate, slept, and worked in this field of trash. Cows, pigs, dogs, and human beings fought over discarded pieces of food. Men, women, and children traveled from trash pile to trash pile, filling clear plastic bags with anything they could find that might be of value: food, clothes, things they could sell or use to build a shelter. Little children waded through a sea of plastic bags, syringes, copper wire, styrofoam, and feces with nothing but flip flops on their feet. Flies swarmed everything and everyone. What little clothes the children were wearing were dirty, full of holes and either hanging from their tiny frames or meant for someone much younger than they were. Read more after the break.
We volunteered with a mobile school that brings in a cart (manufactured in Belgium--this thing was awesome: it has chalkboards and activity centers that pulled out from a large box about the size of a smart car) to work with the kids. They also brought two piñatas. The first one was a success, and the kids all rushed forward to scoop the candy from the dirty ground. The second piñata showed us a side of poverty that was hard to see: ruthless desperation. The students were lowering the giant pink bunny so that the smaller children could swing at it. All of a sudden, one young boy rushed in and grabbed the piñata, and was surrounded in an instant by 30 boys, all clawing and fighting to get at the candy. It was very much like a pack of starving wild dogs with a single piece of steak. All of the little girls stood solemnly by as the boys ravaged the piñata and took off with the sweets. It was the same when it was time to hand out school supplies (most of the children go to school for half the day, although some have had to stop in order to help their families collect valuable objects from the garbage and/or bring in income). The kids lined up at the top of the hill, and when it was time to go to the truck, the little girls walked single file, politely, while the boys stampeded, elbowing their way to the front. It was very symbolic of the role of women in this country. The girls were the ones caring for their brothers and sisters; the girls were the ones who were working the hardest to provide for their families; the girls are the ones who have to worry about being raped; and the girls are the ones who are always trampled and ignored.
During our nightly meeting, when the students were discussing the day's events, it suddenly dawned on me a way to put the piñata incident into perspective. In Nicaragua, the poor are discarded by society, neglected by the community, and abandoned by the government. So much so that it has become a situation of dog-eat-dog. These people are only a community insofar as it is convenient for their purpose. As soon as something of value comes along, it's everyone for themselves.
In the United States, there was an incident that reminded me of this. It was “Black Friday,” last year, at a Wal-Mart in Long Island. Shoppers were so eager to get into the store, they formed a mob that broke down the doors and trampled and killed an employee (do you remember that story?). In America, we fight each other for land, for merchandise, for selfish pride. Here, they fight to stay alive. I know that sounds cliché, but if you've seen what I've seen, you know it's also true.
The hardest part of the past few days is realizing how self-absorbed I am. I take so much for granted, and I ignore the things I do not want to see. You can imagine how hard it was for me--a germaphobe--to visit the dump. You can imagine how difficult it was--with my "spidey-sense" of smell--to spend 2 hours tromping through garbage and feces. But can you imagine how much it hurt me to look down at a little girl, no more than three, and have to force myself to reach down to pick her up while a little voice in my head was saying: "but she's dirty and she smells bad." To realize that part of me felt that way, and to overcome it enough to reach down and pick her up anyway... I know this makes me sound like a terrible person, but I'm just trying to be honest because my reaction to the situation was just as impacting as the situation itself. This was a person. A child. And part of me didn't want to touch her because she was filthy and smelly. I hated myself for that. I picked her up. I carried her over to the piñata, so she could see. I made sure she was able to swing at it (which was the only time she smiled). Her tiny fingers were caked with dirt and snot and her nails were dark with black grit. It hurt me to put her back on the ground and watch her older sister (who also only smiled when she was swinging at the piñata) lead her back into the piles of garbage.
I had brought 4 little bags of animal crackers with me. It was ludicrous, really, thinking that it would make a difference. Neither of the girls got any candy, so I gave them each a bag. They just looked at me and walked away. I felt like I was throwing a thimble of water at a forest fire. It was so frustrating, to feel absolutely helpless and angry. Angry at the United States for exploiting poor countries like this; angry at the Nicaraguan government for abusing the power they had to distribute money to those in need; angry at the wealthy Americans who drive around in hummers and buy $10 million houses and pay $2,000 for a purse; angry at the so-called charitable organizations who are supposed to be helping these people; and angry at myself for my own ignorance and apathy.
It's not all misery here, though. Tomorrow we are going to a women's cooperative in an indigenous region where they make woven bags, wallets, and scarves. On Thursday, the students will get to visit the US embassy, and they're going in pissed and ready to fire off some difficult questions. Last Saturday, we went to a gorgeous waterfall and built a fire in the brush. I think I have settled on an analogy of this place: it is a juxtaposition of natural beauty and human waste. The natural beauty comes in on a literal level because the plant life is so green and thriving here. Figuratively, the people are generous, welcoming, and...well, I'll just say it, they're pretty good looking as well. The human waste is literal, of course, in that there is no recycling here. Trash is everywhere, and everything feels as though it is slowly crumbling apart. Figuratively, the humans are being wasted. They are treated as though they are irrelevant and expendable. We met a 16-year-old boy today named Juan; he didn't know how to write his name. We met a 12-year-old girl today--though she was so stunted, she looked like she was 7--named Martha; she was so incredibly smart, she was multiplying double-digit numbers in seconds. She told us she wanted to go to college and be a biologist someday, but that she would probably never get the chance. These are the real people who are being affected by poverty.
I will admit, it is easier to just pretend that these things don't exist, but I don't think I can go back to the US, knowing what I do now, and act as though nothing has changed. I want to hold myself accountable for contributing on a more global scale. I intend to make an effort to raise money to donate to the NGOs that help people here in Matagalpa. Hopefully you will join me in fund raising for this contribution.
Raechel Burdette teaches 9th grade at an Aspire Public School in Oakland, CA. She loves teaching and mentoring students. Raechel is the lead sponsor of a trip to Matagalpa, Nicaragua for a group of 9th grade students. You can read more about her trip here. Check out Bread's new resource "Getting Ready to Come Back" for tips on how to use your overseas trip or mission trip for advocacy efforts.
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