As Christmas is only 5 days away, El Menco remains unchanged, except for a set of lights, and slightly more traffic in the streets. Christmas is a large holiday here in Nicaragua, but one that one must afford to celebrate. I have seen no decorated trees, no presents, only the houses are more full with visiting family members. More people attend church, but unless you lived here and noticed these subtlties, you wouldn’t know Christmas was here. I sit at my computer and watch a dog scarf down a few pieces of rice left from my meal while Kai plays on the porch with 5 brothers. A cow moo’s to its companions in the street, and the roosters wander in search of hens, who in turn search for bugs to eat. El Menco is still El Menco.
Other parts of Nicaragua are in full swing. The capitol has a 40 ft tree decorated in the middle of a rotunda, complete with a fence and armed guards. The main shopping mall, which is just like US malls, is complete with a tree of the same size, spanning two stories, with Santa dropping from a hot air balloon (also complete with a fence and armed guards). I visited briefly Sunday with Kai when we dropped my boyfriend Jason off at the airport after a brief but wonderful 5 day visit. Kai was shocked to see the Christmas tree and all of the presents. I was shocked to see high prices- more than what I’d pay in the US, in a toy store. The next day, Monday, I had a meeting with the Mayor of Buenos Aires, the department that contains El Menco. My co-workers picked me up in Managua, and I make a brief stop in the Mall to dash in to buy a carefully selected toy for Kai while he waited in the car. Even a Christmas present is something I have to consider. I was very fortunate to find an educational toy store with imported European products, which was both a curse and a blessing. A blessing because it had some well made educational toys that Kai really enjoyed. A curse because not only would these toys set him apart from all of the kids in El Menco, but also because we’d have to be very careful with it, as other kids don’t treat toys well here. My other options however often display plastic automatic weapons, guns, monster trucks, etc., all made in China. Kai has gotten one or two of these before (not the guns- you all know me better than that), all which have broken within a week of getting them. I settled on a cloth doll and a separate outfit to dress her in. Kai has recently become obsessed with bodies, and loves to dress and undress dolls. When asked what his choice would be, he chose a girl doll over a boy (Amanda over Brian that is). So there you all have it, you know what Kai is getting for Christmas, and the simple dilemma over the choice. Just one example of many daily dilemmas involving the best decision for Kai in the situation.
My meeting with the Mayor, a woman by the name of Zela Diaz Mora, went very well. The Millennium Village Project was a new idea for her, but she thought it wonderful, and was very supportive. It was clear that she has a great working relationship with Juan de Dios, my co-worker and Assistant Project Coordinator for ANF. She went so far as to call me an angel for El Menco, for working here and spending so much time in the community, which then allowed me to confirm my fear of providing false hope for the people. My simple association with ANF, the organization that so quickly transformed the lives of so many, has many hoping for new houses, and wells to pull water from, ending their endless treks to the lake with 5 gallon buckets. I feel my time here dwindling, as my work intensifies. I have always offered total transparency to the people I’m working with, and I’m wondering if it’s wrong to have done so. For each time I report meetings with other organizations, such as the United Nations, it inspires more hope in their eyes that their reality may change. While in truth, the real change will happen after I am gone, and only if the ANF and others continue the project. I have no reason to believe that they won’t, but it is literally the lives of the people here that I have the ability to change, or not change. It is a weight I feel, for I don’t want to fail them. I have asked for a doctor for their health clinic, a teacher for the school in El Islote, medical supplies to be delivered to the clinic, and for new houses and wells for the people of El Cerrito and El Islote for the immediate future. These are easy needs to recognize as priorities. I am in the process of working with local organizations and understanding the needs better in El Menco to do some long-term planning for sustainable projects that will improve the quality of life here. These people often travel miles to meet with me and spend time in activities that reveal more about their reality. They give their time and energy, and I only hope that there will be enough strength behind our plans that they may see the results of their work, their dreams, and their hopes for a better future.
They say Christmas is sad here because the people can’t afford material things, but I see more people visiting with each other, passing their days telling stories. They are celebrating the religious aspect in church, and through family. I think of the craze in the United States, the expectations of toys by many children, demands made, demands met. I think how so many parents try to make up for any shortcomings as parents through the purchase of material items, as if voids can be filled with toys. And they can I believe- momentarily. They are quick cures for larger epidemics that plague our material culture. While Christmas may be sad here to some, I can say that it is relaxed. The cows are still brought home at night, the kids still play in the sandy streets, and rather than empty houses, the lights and candles burn through the night showing smiling faces enjoying companionship.
For all of you, I wish you a blessed holiday. I hope that you gather those that you love around you and celebrate the things that count- love, family, friends, health, and living true to yourself. Not only remember that there are other less fortunate people in the world, but that you are connected to them in so many ways, and that you have the ability to change things, even if but a little, for the better. Kai and I send you our love and prayers!