In the morning following my arrival, Sister Giselle Gomez and two Sisters of St. Teresa of Avila took me to their convent in a marginal barrio of the city. There are numerous street children in this barrio and throughout Managua. Many have run away from violent situations. During the day they work near hotels or at the airport hoping to earn money by carrying luggage or acting as guards for parked cars. Many of the children join gangs to give them some sense of belonging. The Teresian Sisters have a school in this barrio that enrolls 1500 students from kindergarten through high school. Three sisters teach in the school and a former student serves as the lay woman principal. Many of the teachers are past students who received their training through a program the sisters once operated, but were unable to maintain financially. The students all wear uniforms of white tops and navy blue skirts or pants. Dressed in these spotless uniforms, one would never know the conditions in which they live after school.
Following this visit, I traveled to another part of Managua with Fr. Daniel, Secretary of the conference, and Manuel, a young man who spoke a bit of English. We visited Sister Supporters of the Souls in Purgatory, whose project we funded in 1999. These sisters work in a barrio providing a feeding program for undernourished children and a nutrition education program for mothers. There are only five sisters from this order in the country. They are meeting many difficulties with the program because the population is migratory and there is little chance for follow-through. The sisters tried to begin a savings and loan program to help the women initiate income generating projects for their families, but the people found it difficult to trust one another. So, the program failed. The sisters are trying to reorganize the womenís program to teach skills for income generation. As they do this, they will seek assistance from the Sistersí Fund.
On Tuesday, February 12, Sister Giselle took me to visit a collaborative project of the national conference that addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. At the time of the hurricane, one group of 5,000 people who lived along Lake Managua were displaced. They were transported in trucks to an open plain an hour from Managua. Each family was given a large square piece of plastic, and food was brought 2-3 times a week for several months.
A group of sisters, under the leadership of a sister-civil engineer, organized the people and eventually started a housing project with funding from Spain. The people made the cement blocks themselves and built one-room houses. Gradually, the sisters negotiated with the government for land, and the people built a grade school, dispensary, store, bakery, feeding room and womenís education center. They also helped the people develop a cement block industry that earns some income for the project and provides jobs for a number of men. Most of the services for the community are provided by volunteers and financed with donations.
Next door to the project is the barrio built by the people themselves using the cement blocks they made. It is an extremely poor area and a dangerous one as well. Girls are particularly vulnerable. The majority of them become pregnant without any means of supporting their children.
Father Abzalon Alvarado drove me to visit an education project of the Maryknoll Sisters located in Chinandega, near Leon, about three hours from Managua. Sister Juanita, the Maryknoll sister in charge of the project, was in the United States celebrating her 60th Jubilee. She is in her early 80s but continues to do wonderful work with the people of the area and is greatly loved by them. Sisterís assistant gave us a tour of the small facility and explained the programs held there and the situation of women of the area.
These women travel from Chinandega to Managua to work as cooks and housekeepers. They work fifteen days without a break and then are given two days off to visit their families. They earn $30 per month. Their children are left alone as most families have no permanent fathers. Because of the alcoholism among men, the girls of these families are often prey to sexual abuse. As I traveled from one area to another of Nicaragua, I found the same types of employment and family situations. It appears that little is being done to assist men to find a meaningful and responsible life. The "machismo" culture keeps men trapped in what appeared to me as a state of desperation.
The Assumption Sistersí project was our next visit. Five sisters work with 6,000 people in this desolate area about another hourís drive from Chinanega into the bush. They have established nine schools; eight are elementary schools and two also offer high school education. One school is a teacher training school. The sisters have organized the people and trained leaders to oversee education and development endeavors. The area too was greatly affected by Hurricane Mitch which destroyed major sections of the elementary and teacher training schools. The sisters are now planning to develop a soap making project using natural plants. This is just one of the projects where the sisters teach the people to use their natural environment to become self-reliant.
Our day ended at the Managua dump grounds where people live in small shacks made of cardboard and plastic. The smells and gases from the burning garbage are beyond description. The peoplesí faces and clothing are black from the smoke. There is no water or sanitation. About once a week a truck brings water for the people to buy. It is a terrible place situated on a high hill overlooking the city. Just beyond its entrance are small sheds where the people sell their scavenged materials to buyers who in turn sell the things on the streets.
The Teresian Sisters and sisters from other orders visit the people of the dump each week to bring medicines, food and comfort. They also rescue babies and children who have been abandoned and take them to shelters or to homes the sisters provide for them.
The next day was Ash Wednesday, so I first attended Mass with 1500 students on the school plaza. From here Sister Giselle drove me to Granada to visit an orphanage for street children and a school that her sisters have for poor children. The orphanage has 33 residents, ages 5-19, living in family units of 11 each. The home is simple and very clean. Many of the small children have been rescued from the Granada dump grounds at the times of the Sistersí weekly visits. Other children are brought by relatives who no longer want to care for them. The sisters showed me pictures of a nearly dead baby they had found; now she is a healthy, lively little girl. The children live here until they graduate from high school. The Director is a licensed psychologist. She works with the children and youth to help them resolve their many issues. Along with daily school programs, the students are taught other skills so that once they leave they can earn a living.
After lunch we drove along Granada Lake, the only lake in the world that has fresh water sharks. The early explorers thought the lake was another ocean because it is so large. We followed the lake along an ungraded dirt road for over an hour into another isolated area where the sisters work. The same sister-civil engineer who helped build the project near Managua is now working here to establish environmentally safe sanitation systems and food production. She is teaching the women baking skills that will eventually produce bread that is marketable. Bimbo Bread is the biggest competitor because it sells poor quality yeast bread at fairly low prices. Finding markets for good yeast bread is the challenge, along with finding ways to transport it. At the moment the women have a bicycle with a shelf built on the front for selling bread house to house.
Sister also has an integrated poultry, pig and gas project that is able to sustain a family with energy and food. Sister bought five sows and bred them to produce about 12 piglets. The waste from the pigs flows into a large, heavy plastic bag about six feet long. As the waste is heated, it produces gas that is siphoned off and piped to a small family house nearby where the gas is used for cooking. The rest of the waste from the manure is collected, dried and used for two purposes Ė as fertilizer for gardens and to feed a special kind of worm that is then fed to the chickens. One worm per day is enough to provide the chicken with adequate protein to produce eggs.
Sisterís goal is to teach the people to collect the manure left by local herds of cows and to use it to produce natural gas and fertilizer. I was amazed by her ingenuity.
After a snack of some of the new breads from the womenís bakery, we left for Granada. Unfortunately, we got stuck in a huge rut and had to wait for help. It was a long journey back to Granada where we indulged in Nicaraguan "popular food." This consisted of a layer of cooked yucca, topped with fried pork rinds, coleslaw and a kind of pickle. We ate this delicacy under the stars of the city square and then went to see this cityís 400 year old cathedral, its cultural center, and took a walk in the park along Lake Granada. We then headed back to Managua.
On Thursday, February 14, Fr. Daniel, Manuel and I drove to Matagalpa, a mountain city. This part of Nicaragua is a coffee and dairy producing area. The road was in great condition so we traveled easily. Our first visit was to Sister Rebecca Trujillo, SND whose project we funded in 2000. Sister is from New Mexico. She initiated this project at the request of the Bishop who was concerned about the many children and youth abandoned because of mental and physical handicaps. Mental and physical handicaps are prevalent because of malnutrition, too much and poorly managed medicines for pregnant women, and lack of pre natal care. Before beginning any project she spent months visiting the families to talk with them about their childrenís handicaps.
Because it was a holiday, most of the people were at the city fair, but Sister Rebecca showed us the numerous projects she has developed with the people who are handicapped. There is a feeding program for children and a workshop where wheelchairs and play equipment for the handicapped are constructed by the handicapped. There is an education/rehabilitation center where the children and youth receive counseling from two clinical psychologists from Spain who volunteer their time. There are no medicines for persons with serious mental illness problems, so these women seek ways to help them manage their illnesses. The Center also provides physical therapies and opportunities to develop creative skills such as painting and writing. We enjoyed the fruits of a yogurt and cheese project that the women manage to earn money for the project. This project has a growing market.
Rebecca volunteered to introduce us to other sisters working in Matagalpa. We first visited a small group of Franciscan sisters who are all new to the country. They are natives of Guatemala, Salvador and Panama and are struggling to gain the trust of the people. The sisters have a feeding program for children, a womenís sewing project and a dispensary with almost no medicine. Medicine is generally scarce in Nicaragua or else it is too expensive for the poor to buy. The sisters expressed a need for a security fence to be built around the project to keep out the gangs who plunder and steal. Sister Rebecca also told us of the fearsome gang activity in this city. People are very frightened to go out in the early evenings much less late at night.
From here we drove to visit a desperately poor native congregation of three sisters. They run a dispensary stacked with only aspirin and a pre school for about ten children. One of the sisters teaches at the local seminary and earns a small salary on which to live. I was again shocked by the poverty of native and indigenous sisters. I am inspired by their faith and commitment to the poor.
That Friday I visited another displacement project where several thousand families were relocated after Hurricane Mitch. As with the other project, groups of sisters raised money to help build simple houses for the families. The Good Shepherd Sisters have a feeding center for malnourished children and offer nutrition and health courses to mothers. The food for the program comes from overseas and is often not familiar to the children. So, the sisters are challenged to find ways to make it appetizing to them.
We traveled next to the Teresian Sistersí school for middle class students. 1500 are enrolled in the combined Spanish and English school from elementary to high school levels. It is a beautiful school and it is clearly a different class of student. Everything was up to date and immaculately clean and groomed. There was grass and flowers here, a luxuriant contrast to the cement and dirt of the barrio school where I was staying. This school charges fees that not only support it but other schools for the poor managed by the sisters. The students are required to volunteer for projects with the poor during the summer thereby making them conscious of those less fortunate.
Nicaragua was a mixture of beauty and desolation. I noticed garbage scattered everywhere, partly due to the constant hot, dry winds that constantly blow it around. Managua was devastated by Mitch and has not yet found a way to revive itself. The remains of damaged buildings are still standing and the poor inhabit them, even though they are unsafe. Here and there a new building is going up, but there is no overall plan for development. The government has been ineffective and corrupt. A new government has recently been elected, but the people do not feel much confidence that things will change. This is cause for great discouragement because the people felt renewed hope after the revolution.
Unemployment is the basic issue and the preferred solution seems to be the proliferation of foreign factories. However, the workers at these factories are paid barely survival wages. Emigration to Costa Rica and the United States continues at a high rate. Family members send money back to Nicaragua. The sisters are convinced that education is the real solution and are committed to providing this at great costs to themselves. Every project I visited is worthy of funding because each one addresses basic needs of people that are going unmet.
Early Saturday morning I flew to Tegucigalpa and was met by Sister Barbara Zimmer IHM. We drove immediately to visit a project for alcoholic rehabilitation sponsored by the Holy Rosary Sisters, a Canadian-based congregation. This center is unique, one of only three in the entire country. It has accommodations and staff for 20 people. It is a simple building that the sisters rent. The director is a reforming alcoholic who uses the Alcoholics Anonymous model for rehabilitation. We discussed the program with him and some of the patients who could speak English. Patients stay from two weeks to two years, depending on the severity of their problem. People are admitted directly off the street or are referred by family members or doctors. Small fees are paid, but those without are helped anyway. Upon arrival, patients are placed in a padded room for "cold turkey" withdrawal. From here they move through the program at their own pace. The sisters are seeking funding for operating expenses.
After lunch at the convent, Sisters Barbara and took us to see various sections of the city. The general cleanliness of Tegucigalpa was a great contrast to what I had experienced in the cities of Nicaragua. The new mayor has hired hundreds of workers to keep the city clean. It was hard to believe that we were in a poor country. However, as we drove through different areas and heard "the inside story," we came to know the poverty of Honduras.
Honduras is very mountainous and naturally beautiful. However, the mountainous beauty has its disadvantages for agriculture and movement. The soil is rocky and hard to cultivate. Coffee is the primary export crop. Here, as in Nicaragua, unemployment is high. Alcoholism is a serious problem as is HIV/AIDS. At least in Honduras, the threat of HIV/AIDS is recognized whereas in Nicaragua it is barely acknowledged. Domestic violence is also a severe problem and, consequently, most families are fatherless. Abandoned children and elderly are numerous and without resources. Most of the same social problems I found in Nicaragua were reflected in Honduras. Hurricane Mitch set this country back about 30 years.
In late afternoon I had the unique privilege of meeting and shaking hands with Ricardo Maduro, the President of Honduras, who was attending a meeting in the hotel. People of Honduras are hopeful that he will end the reign of corruption and seek the good of the people. President Maduro is a business man and very personable. However, gigantic challenges face him in his four-year term.
The following day we drove to Yuscaran to visit an education and development project. Eight sisters work with youth and women of this village and its surrounding area. The use the Nino a Nino model where youth are trained to teach their peers in agriculture and leadership skills. Because of high incidence of domestic violence, women are offered counseling and taught skills for income generation.
On Monday we flew to San Pedro Sula located in north-central Honduras and were met by Sister Leeta, SSND who became our driver and companion for the week. We drove immediately to Sulaco, a mountain village about three hours east of San Pedro Sula. Part of the journey we enjoyed good roads, but the second half of the journey was a dirt road through areas where the landslides and floods of Hurricane Mitch had destroyed miles of roadways and fields and created gaping gorges.
We finally reached the remote village of Sulaca where we stayed at an education center for the night. Before dark we visited the nutrition center funded by the Sistersí Fund in 1999. Children are brought here from families living in the surrounding mountains where mothers do not have the resources to provide adequate food for them. About 20 children live at the center until they become healthy and then are returned to their homes. Often, the children do not want to leave the center, and a number return to the center when they become ill again.
The nutrition center was built by the women of the town who made the cement blocks and roof. It is spacious and clean and the nine workers are kind to the children. We saw some children who had just arrived. They were listless and looked weak. Others who had been here for several weeks look healthy with shiny hair and bright eyes.
Two Honduran sisters work with the people of this remote area. They have organized the women to take responsibility for their village and have taught them the skills to do so. Besides building the nutrition center, the women have built a clinic, a sewing education and carpentry center, (both funded by the Sistersí Fund,) and a library. They are currently building a hospital. Unfortunately, we didnít have the opportunity to meet the sisters because they were in the south helping Sister Barbara Zimmer with a doctorsí brigade.
After spending the morning visiting the projects in Sulaco we began our journey to El Progresso, arriving there in late afternoon. We visited a home for street children recently built with funds from local people and from overseas. Sister Terry, a Honduran sister, started this home about 15 years ago in a small house. Over the years she expanded it to a house for girls, another for boys and a third for small children. The beautiful, bright and airy facility houses about 33 children. The home is on the outskirts of town so the children miss their neighborhood friends and access to local vendors. They attend public schools in town. Some of the girls are high school age. The older boys still live in a house in another section of town.
From this visit we drove to our accommodations for the night. The two men stayed at the Sistersí retreat center and I stayed with Sister Leeta. We left the next morning about 6:30 for Ocotapeque where we visited CASA MARIA, a project that includes a nutrition center, clinic and home for the elderly. Only three sisters manage these services. All three are Hondurans who belong to a Spanish congregation. One of their greatest challenges, besides finances and isolation, is lack of water. It is not easy to care for the sick, children and elderly without it. While we were there water was only available for short periods during the day. Buckets and plastic barrels are used to collect water for drinking, washing and sanitation.
After we toured the three projects and reviewed the previous grant, one of the sisters took us to meet the Oblates of the Sacred Heart, a group based in France. These three sisters work primarily with womenís groups in literacy, leadership training and teaching skills for income generation.
We left early Thursday morning to return to San Pedro Sula where we visited a home for HIV/AIDS children, a home for children with severe physical deformities and met with two regional leaders of the National Conference of Religious.
The home for HIV/AIDS children is about ten years old and is one of two in the country. The sisters care for 20 children and currently have a baby two months old. Most of the children have been abandoned by their mothers at birth. When this happens, the hospital contacts the sisters. Although most die young, one child is 13 years old and has lived there most of his life. The children attend school while they can but they gradually become listless. Some go to the hospital, but most die at the home. The Director is a Honduran sister and has family members infected with HIV/AIDS. She has remarkable energy for the work.
The home for people with severe physical handicaps was another amazing place. It was founded originally by a lay man, but five of the women who worked there have now chosen to form a new order of sisters and have taken over the work. They are called Sisters of the Good Samaritan and they care for the people 24 hours a day. About 50 people live at the home and receive physical therapy daily. Some are tiny babies and others are quite old. Many are totally unable to move or bend their limbs. They rarely have visitors because their families have abandoned them. We were all impressed by the cleanliness of the home, not a simple accomplishment considering the situation. The sisters need funds for food, clothing, staff salaries and operating expenses. They also need a vehicle to transport the people for frequent hospital visits.
Our last visit was to a barrio in San Pedro Sula to see a kindergarten. Here the mothers are trained as Montessori kindergarten teachers. This is an educational opportunity for the women as well as their children. They are very proud of their accomplishments. Most of the children were sporting backpacks and, even though they were empty, they symbolize that these children are being educated.
In the afternoon we flew back to Tegucigalpa and returned home the following day.