I’ve never felt comfortable with charity advertisements that display starving children with vacant looks in their eyes. I have yet see a child with that expression. After going to the mountains of Nicaragua and finding out how little the farmers there earn I thought maybe I didn’t notice those vacant-faced children because of the beautiful surroundings or because kids were excited to see a gringo, but in La Chureca I was left without an excuse. Here is a place with almost every possible problem of extreme poverty. Where were the sad children I’ve been seeing on billboards and TV spots my whole life? I’m sure it’s true, that I don’t see the whole picture, but I have yet to see it myself, even once.
It’s the happiness that moves me the most. It’s the deeper realization that these people are exactly like me. It’s playing soccer with them in an alley, saying “Pass it to me!” to a kid named Jeffrey, when my name is Jefferson. It’s panting to catch my breath after trying to get the ball past Alejandro. It’s laughing with them and giving high fives. It’s going by the school and having a little boy I didn’t know come and hug my legs because he wanted me to pick him up and talk to him. It’s seeing these things in contrast with the difficulties they live in that motivate me.
But showing happy children, apparently, doesn’t tug on the heart strings of consumers enough to get the donations needed. While the ad runs over our flatscreen TVs and we watch from our plush leather couches we see see these children depicted as destitute, depraved, down and out, sad and dying, and I don’t think we connect. To the degree that these tear-jerking ads take away from that human connection they take away from what could be done to help. They place these people in a world that can’t be understood by us outsiders, we who have never gone hungry a day of our lives unless it was on purpose. I’m not saying the sad children don’t exist, but that nonprofits use that image too much.
That’s also why I’m not going to claim that the work I’m doing is anything amazing. If you were to go on a trip of your own you’d find that seeing poverty isn’t some holy experience that transcends normal daily routine. I say that only because most people who return from a trip, when asked about it, get a faraway look in their eyes, shake their heads slowly, and say something like “It was amazing . . . .” Really, it’s a lot of riding on uncomfortable buses, walking down dusty paths, and talking with normal people. It’s a lot of normal things, a lot of regular work. It’s rewarding, yes. But it’s ordinary. I travel to other countries to learn about poverty, meet new people, and see if I can do something to help. If I go to great lengths to brand these trips as something great, I’m such an awesome person, or wow, look at me!, which I think many writers do, I might get more readers or more donations, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth. If I do take artistic license and exaggerate what poverty is like I’m robbing you of a genuine experience and setting unrealistic expectations for the service you give yourself.
Walking into La Chureca
Walking into La Chureca was the most intimate exposure to poverty I’ve ever had. Today I’ll take you with me on a tour through the dump, showing you the only images my camera captured – images of happy people just like you and I living in an incredibly difficult place.
We took a taxi to the entrance of La Chureca, Managua’s city dump, and met up with some volunteers from Manna Project International to look around and meet some of the 1,000 or more people who live there and sort through the trash for a living. As we rode we started asking questions to one of the volunteers who probably didn’t realize beforehand how incessantly we were about to quiz her. The little taxi bounced over the dirt road, the sun was up and bright, the air cool and dusty, and we chatted about the things around us.
The homes are made from materials scavenged in the dump: wooden frames, if there is a frame at all; walls formed from sheets of plastic, old banners, advertisements, chicken-wire, sheet-metal, or wooden boards; and roofs formed from metal or plastic. They are clumped together in seemingly random neighborhoods, separated and accessed by dirt paths crossed often by trails of opaque white water, non-useful trash laying everywhere. Dogs, all stunted from quick successions of generations that ate very little, can be found curled up under shade at almost every turn.
Being pulled in two directions
Within this bleak and destitute setting are beautiful and happy children, smiling, laughing, and playing together. Britney and I had the unique opportunity of meeting the families – we didn’t just drive around the dump, snap some pictures, and check La Chureca off of our list. We wanted to understand these people, hear their stories, and see what it was like to be them, as much as possible, anyway. It was at once humbling to see how little they live on, confusing to see some who wouldn’t participate in programs that were there to help them and their kids, and frustrating to find gaping holes in government aid programs aimed at relocating them and giving them a new type of work.
With most poverty I’ve observed, I recognize it, I hear how little they make and see how little they have, but I still feel like they are normal, they’re doing OK, and they live a good life. I see how their life is rewarding in spite of challenges. Nonprofits help them have more opportunity, better healthcare, loans, education, water, all of those amazing things, but they’re still just regular people you can sit down and chat with.
Those who live in La Chureca give me that same feeling, but embittered with a strong resistance to their way of living. It’s difficult for an outsider to understand, but many of them choose to be there in the dump. They have the same characteristics found in every other type of society: pride for their lifestyle, fear of change, and stubbornness in their ways of doing things. They also live in a highly contaminated area and their children contract stomach viruses from eating bad food and walking without shoes. Drug, alcohol, and domestic abuse rates are very high. Living their life is dangerous to them and their kids.
I can see myself in them, understand their decision, and take pride with them in their possessions because I know how hard it was for them to obtain them. The sense of horror at the way they live comes from concern for their well being – an acknowledgement that I, if I were in their place, would have a much shorter lifespan, much more sickness, much less confidence, much more likelihood of being addicted to drugs, and much less education. I would work hard from when I was young, chastised by my dad if I didn’t. As a boy, I would be likely to have over a dozen sexual partners in a month. If I were a girl, I would be likely to become pregnant with my first child at 13, the father would be resistant to providing for it or taking responsibility, I would be encouraged not to use birth control because it’s expensive, I may become a prostitute for truck drivers so I could feed my family, I would be at high risk for HIV, I would have a much higher chance of being a victim of domestic abuse, both as a child and an adult.
So it was that when going through La Chureca, and when thinking about it now, I was pulled by two sides: the basic human connection on one, deep pain on the other. The first is the side that related with the people, played soccer the kids, picked up a boy who hugged my legs, and turned the camera around to take pictures of myself with four smiling kids who were excited to see their image in the LCD screen. The second was the side that saw the high number of risks and problems they encounter every day.
These sides make it difficult to approach the problem of philanthropy–you want to give them opportunity, but can’t and don’t want to force change they don’t want–but they also increase the desire to act to help them. When I found an unmet need, a way I could help the other nonprofits be more successful in each of their initiatives, I was very excited. I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about it.
The Spanish development plan
You would probably be shocked to find out these people have new homes about a half mile away, with a recycling plant offering a job to one person of each household, yet many of them won’t move in. This is a perfect example of one of the problems with big government aid: they try to solve things right now, dump millions of dollars into the project, and don’t consider all the possible effects. If we were to give that money to small projects that are doing things that work on a small budget we’d see slow, steady change. Here’s how it happened:
In 2007 the queen of Spain visited Nicaragua and toured through La Chureca for a part of her trip. She saw the deep and destitute poverty, was moved by a desire to help, and pledged her support. Since then, Spain has invested $45 million in three projects: building new housing for residents of La Chureca in two sites, one inside the dump and one right outside; covering all the open trash with dirt; and building a recycling plant. The project would close the dump and convert it to an efficient recycling plant, giving residents a good job and a good home.
If you or I were in La Chureca, born there and victim there to the many difficulties of that lifestyle, we would probably latch on to that program as soon as we could, right? Here’s an opportunity for a real home, a real job, and a healthy future for me and my family!
In January 2011 came the first “move-in” date. The government set the date, told the communities, and then crossed their fingers. It came and passed without event and officials decided to push the date forward to March, then to July, then to November 15th, and then to November 20th. At the time of reading this the date will have been pushed forward one or two more times.
To the volunteers who have been working in the area for years this has come as no surprise. There are three main problems with the Spanish project.
- First of all, residents of La Chureca currently have water and electricity provided for them by the city, but they’ll have to pay for it themselves when they move. Besides the burden of increased expenses, they’re going to have a hard time paying a bill – almost all of them are illiterate and have never paid a “bill” in their lives, living on cash with their own internal economic system. They understand money, but getting them to pay bills will take training to read and understand them first, which is not part of the Spanish plan.
- The second problem is income. The average income of someone who sorts through trash in La Chureca is $8-10 a week, or $34.60 to 43.30 a month. That means that if a family of six is sorting through trash–the father, four kids, and the mother–they’re bringing in $207 to 260 a month. Under the new plan the dump will be shut down, but the head of the household will receive a job at the recycling plant with a wage of $100-130 a month (minimum wage in Nicaragua).
- The third problem is that residents won’t be able to bring their animals to their new homes with them. That makes sense since it probably wouldn’t be healthy to have a bunch of animals in those concrete homes, but it’s another quick, forced change of lifestyle.
There are other smaller problems with this quick-change approach. What will the people do with their homes? They’ve built them up over a period of years by scavenging valuable materials from the dump. These are people that value everything, so I don’t see them giving it up. I think they’ll bring their old homes with them, along with other things, and soon their new homes will be as filled with trash as their old ones. There is a neighborhood outside La Chureca where others from other impoverished areas have already been moved. Doesn’t that create a situation that favors the worst in the society? There is a lot of drug abuse, theft, prostitution, and violence right now, but people basically know who the bad ones are. Put them in new housing next to strangers in the same economic situation and anonymity favors the worst of them. It will be a rough transition.
In short, moving into the new homes means more expenses, lower income, and a changed lifestyle. I’m not sure whether these problems stem from idealistic philanthropy (thinking the people would run to these new homes if given the opportunity) or poor planning (not considering the negative effects of quick change pushed by outsiders), but the Spanish don’t seem to be willing to consider them even now when it’s brought up by the volunteers who are concerned for the people they’ve been assisting for years. It seems that the already strained nonprofits will have to take on more responsibility to help residents of La Chureca adjust to their new lifestyle.
A rare opportunity
The day was done, and we headed back to the clinic one more time before calling in a little taxi and leaving La Chureca for the day. Esmeralda, the head nurse, came up and said if I had any questions she’d love to help me out. I told her I’d love to take her to lunch or dinner when she was done with work and she took me up on it.
I was glad to have the chance to interview someone from the clinic about La Chureca–I still had a hundred questions and wanted to see this issue from multiple perspectives–but didn’t yet appreciate how important and rare of an opportunity this was. I’ve done a few interviews for this blog and have gained a general sense of when someone is saying something important. In some interviews I left with one quote in mind, often telling Britney, “Yeah, it went great, and I got the most golden quote of all time.” This informal interview with Esmeralda quickly gained that feeling of importance. I had the chance of talking with someone who had been working hard in La Chureca for a decade as a nurse and social worker, possibly making her the person with the most experience in La Chureca. This interview would give me more correct and clear information than weeks of study on my computer.
We got some chicken, a couple of beers, and had a straightforward, comfortable conversation about issues in La Chureca. She first started working in La Chureca 10 years ago, when it was closer to a living hell than the mild version seen now. She said the first time she walked into the dump she saw an image that would come to her mind every time she thought about La Chureca: an eight-year-old boy was fighting against a vulture for a piece of bread, the boy holding onto one end and the vulture to the other. I knew, by the end of our chat, that this was a selfless person with real expectations of what could be done for people in La Chureca, and if I could do something to help her accomplish what she wanted the result would be great. I wonder what would happen if Spanish developers had consulted people like her instead of trying to solve all the issues as an outsider coming in to save the day?
Two days later we decided on three donation projects to do in La Chureca, helping two promising students, one sick mom, and a group of women looking for a new source of income. Stay tuned
Update: Happily, I was wrong about the move-in to the new housing. While some people were concerned about these problems (lower income, etc) and afraid of changing lifestyles, volunteers report that most of them were very excited to move into their new homes on December 15th. The army came and helped them relocate, later destroying their old homes to prevent more people from moving in. The next few months will be both exciting and challenging for everyone.
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