Through the past 3 decades Nicaraguans have endured much violence through political challenges and changes. Violent opposition to governmental manipulation and corruption spread to all classes by 1978 and resulted in a short-lived civil war that brought the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas to power in 1979. Nicaraguan aid to leftist rebels in El Salvador caused the US to sponsor anti-Sandinista contra guerrillas through much of the 1980s. Free elections in 1990, 1996, and again in 2001 saw the Sandinistas defeated. The country has slowly rebuilt its economy during the 1990s, but was hard hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Established in 1984 but born in 1980 as concept of four doctors who had started a small organization called the Hosanna Christian University Group, the AMC is an ecumenical Christian organization of health professionals, social scientists and others with a service ministry in undeserved communities of Nicaragua. According to the statutes, its mission is "to implement community health and development actions in poor communities of Nicaragua, with an emphasis on women, children and adolescents."
AMC's Executive Director, Dr. Francisco Gutierrez and a missionary with UMCOR serving in Managua, Dr. Belinda Forbes, introduced AMC to me. Dr. Forbes, whose role in AMC involves the delivery quality dental care to patients in AMC's Managua clinic and to serve, as the public relations person for international affairs, was also my host and guide throughout my trip.
Since its establishment AMC has been working with the poor communities of Nicaragua. With its main office located in Managua, AMC provides most of it services to communities situated in the Pacific and Atlantic Coast. For administrative and political purposes, the country has been divided into 3 geographic areas: the Pacific Coast; the Central Region, and the Atlantic Coast. The population distribution of these areas corresponds to 56%, 31% and 12%, respectively. During my staying in Nicaragua, I have visited the AMC's projects in the Pacific Coast, also called by the locals as the Spanish side.
On the Pacific Coast, there are several communities working with AMC. The ones I have had a chance to get familiar with are those in the cities of Matagalpa, Posotelga and Managua. In the first city, I traveled to the village of El Tuma, one of the seven communities that AMC serves. At Posotelga, the area most damaged with the passage of Hurricane Mitch and where AMC is present in 10 communities, I also had the opportunity to interview people who suffered the results of the catastrophe. In Managua, I talked to people who live in the three neighborhoods that AMC works with.
The development and health initiatives carry out in those communities are provided through three key programs, which are: the Community Health Program; the Pastoral Care Program; and the Self-Sustainability Program. The later correspond to projects developed in order to improve the odds of success of privately or community based initiatives. In the AMC definition, it is " a program that develops initiatives that contribute to organizational sustainability and economic independency."
In my opinion the Self-Sustainable Program is one of the most vital areas of focus in an NGO. It is the process of creating and sustaining mini-businesses in the communities. It is one of the most challenging areas for AMC and yet it is a very valuable area. AMC defines it as a program that develops initiatives that contribute to organizational sustainability and economic independence. And I translate that as having a glimpse of self-empowerment.
One major obstacle to business development that has called my attention was the large challenge represented by the start up capital. In Nicaragua, bank interest loans can go as high as 35% a month. Such a rate makes it quite impossible for someone to start up any kind of project. And for those who are able to overcome the obstruction, it only underscores the importance of the self-sustainable program while a devise that enables people to start their projects from a right foundation.
The community businesses so far include:
It is true that FACES OF TOMORROW documents the lives of children around the world, but in Nicaragua I was so inspired but so many of the women. They had overcome great life obstacles and through their strength and faith they became these strong pioneers that daily make a difference in their communities.
While I was in Matagapa I met one extraordinary group of six women. They were known as the farmers of Los Suazos . Together they purchased a piece of land, a rarity in this area. The purpose of this was to plant produce and vegetables that would improve the nutritional status of their children. They travel to the farm every day to clean and maintain the vegetables. One very important note that I must add is that to get to this farm area we had quite a strenuous hike up and down the steep hillside and through trees and branches. I was ready to collapse after the hike in the hot weather, and yet when I looked at the women, they were smiling and relaxed!! They were quite an inspiration to me! They call their garden, Huerto --which means Family Garden.
In addition to the farm that these women tend to they are also Health Leaders for the community. This involves keeping the charts and records of all the people in the community as well as regulating child development by recording all the changes in each child.
I also met another group of inspiring women that built a medical plant garden in Hilipo. The medical plant garden in Hilipo is a treasure to many in the community. It is a healing sanctuary to the sick as well as a learning tool for the young. There are a total of 12 women that work in the garden and one young boy who is 17 years old. They have been working for four years on this garden. They work in the farm every other day. The women also prepare packets of herbs for the local community pharmacy and other organizations that need the herbs. The children's health in the community has improved tremendously, however if there is a severe illness then they go to the Health Center.
Muyer y Communidada (Women in Community) in San Francisco Libre
A missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries assigned to Nicaragua, Nan McCurdy, has introduced me to Mujer y Comunidad. Nan and her husband Miguel Mairena, also a missionary, have their actions focused in the region of San Francisco Libre, which is located in the center of the country. To become familiar their work, I traveled to the region.
In San Francisco Libre I had the gratifying experience of meeting with the staff members of the project. It’s personnel were comprised of ten women and two men who worked as guard and driver. In our meeting, I had the chance of getting better acquainted with three women: Minerva, Maria Felix and Maura. I spent hours with them listening to their stories and observing their devotion to work.
Over the next few hours I was able to hear these women’s stories and learn of the passion for their work. I was spellbound with their words and honored to be in the presence of such courage and strength. Their devotion and drive for their job was unstoppable. Where I personally observed obstacles in their way, they did not seem to see them. There was this amazing bond and kinship between them. It was playful yet serious at the same time. I can’t even imagine what the beating of their hearts must sound like. Full of hope all the time, while knowing that “time” can be on their side as well against it. I had no idea what to expect from my visit and had no thought of the impact that these women would leave on me. Simply stated, I left the place thinking about their strength, courage, drive, hope, determination and love. What more is there?
A great part of the workload of Mujer y Comunidad project on domestic violence has to do with advice and watching. For this purpose, the project counts with a team of women “helpers” spread out over 32 communities outside San Francisco Libre. Their job is to keep an eye on women in the specific community and see if there are any signs of domestic violence occurring. If they believe that there is, then it is their job to talk to them and if possible bring them to San Francisco Libre to get help. This is the hardest job and step to do. Anyone who has worked with domestic violence matters knows that admitting the crime is the challenge.
Once the “helpers” succeed in convincing women that a violent and abusive relationship is taking place, their next step is to provide advice on several matters. Usually, women are advised on reporting their case to the police; on how to bring the case to a judge; on documenting their case with a doctors’ visit, which might require a trip to Managua; on the appropriateness of having the men leaving the house—in dangerous situations, they are requested to abandoned the houses instead. Occasions also exist when women are advised on keeping away from corrupt judges or the police.
Involvement into domestic violence and making women aware of their rights is a risky proposition. Not infrequently, many men in the community it serves hate the staff of Mujer and Communidad. In some occasions, the hate is so intense to the extent of escalating to threats to the staff's home and children. Fortunately, this attitude seems to be changing lately. According to Minerva, there has been a change of attitude as men, understanding that times have changed, have become more conscious of their mischievous behavior. In any ways, the purpose of Mujer y Comminidad's work is not to divide a family but to build one.
With or without the obstacles, nothing will keep these women from doing their work. It's their mission. Regardless of the difficulties, they will continue ride in pairs in one of the five old motorcycles they own or, as in many occasions, they simply walk for miles until reaching the places they need to go. These amazing women and their fearless courage will be always a source of inspiration in my work.
My final thoughts