Jun 18, 2012

Chocolate dreams and city living

By past volunteer David Drezner
In Granada Nicaragua, there is an isolated atmosphere of artificial leisure on Calle Calzada, an island of First world civilisation in a sea of small houses full of poorer people, replete with mariachi bands,  American and European cuisine,  European music, native hawkers, and continuously flowing booze. Surprisingly, the chocolate here is delightful and the ice cream is delicious.  Even the cheap commercial brands of ice cream have a rich flavour which enchants.  The city centre features ceramic tiled colonial adobe buildings, homes dating from the 19th century.  At night, all the homes in the centre of the city have open doors, all the better to bring the cool air into the house, while the inhabitants sit outside on wicker rocking chairs having quiet family and neighbourly chats.
Poverty is an accepted part of Nicaraguan life, and it is reflected in Granada.  It isn’t unusual to see an expensive pickup truck parked next to a shanty house, or a horse and cart carry a refrigerator. A sea of tin roofed shanty houses surrounds the main city and is slowly being given the facilities of a city, one by one. The people of this new community steal electricity with the permission of the authorities, and they are just now getting paved streets.  In the rainy season the dirt streets become a muddy mess.  They live a hard life of poverty, driven to the city by a lack of work in the country. They raise their families in their small shack-houses, and manage to feed them for the most part
After an initial surge of Sandinista excitement for education, the country has settled into an established indifference to the idea. Many of the schools in the city are built by foreign NGO's, and many teachers and volunteers help the schools here. The help is needed. The level of funding for the schools are extremely low, even by Central American standards. Teachers in the Primary system here are paid about 70 dollars a week, and they're glad to get that much sometimes.
As a medium term volunteer for La Esperanza Granada, I am here to see how education is carried out in such an environment, and how I can give what help I can in the limited time I have. People  of all ages come from all over the Western world to give what help they can. I am one of them.  I am a  teacher’s assistant volunteer, it is my job to help teach the children. For the summer season, no regular teachers were available, so volunteers taught the primary school summer school children.

Most of us had no experience or training in managing a Primary school, so it was a catch as catch can experience for all of us. We had no supervision from professionals in this, though Nicaraguan students  did a good job making sure we didn`t mis-manage things too badly.  We carried out some simple classes in basic skills with the children.  Some of volunteers managed to make well run and educationally efficient classes. I admire all of them for this talent.  Most of us tried hard, and did as well as we could. For the most part, the students responded by trying their best.  I’m told that the Education department of the city of Granada was pleasantly surprised by the results.  The kids actually liked to go to school to learn reading, writing, and math.
Recently, the normal school season has started, and my role has been reduced to helping the teacher in the normal class curriculum.  It is interesting to see how schools can operate with only a whiteboard, copy books, some schoolbooks that never leave the school, very few materials, and a will to teach and learn.  Some classes run to 50 students, and discipline in the lower grades is a serious problem. Still, there are students that want to learn, and they try their best. We volunteers help them do this to the best of our abilities. If you have good Spanish, it isn’t hard to tutor First to Fourth grade students in Spanish.  The students make it easy with their ready smiles and willingness to listen and learn.  Teaching an entire class is another matter, requiring talent in classroom management.  Teachers in the Primary grades seem to spend half their time getting their children to sit quietly and listen.  I’m happy to just be a helper in this situation, though other volunteers with more ambition wish for a larger role.  This is not our school system, and we are not there to take over.
In my time here, I’ve discovered the joy of working with children that genuinely want to learn, despite their occasional attendance. During  summer school, attendance was fully voluntary.  When they came to school, they came with a willing heart and an easy smile.  Though they may be lacking in attention span, when they do learn something, you can see the happy glint of understanding in their eyes, and it is profoundly rewarding. I am not a 'natural' teacher, though I try my best, and in trying my best, I get an admittedly corny warm glow inside when one of my students grasps something as simple as the phonetic spelling of a word, or perhaps the uses of the number ´0´.
 I’m not sure I’m helping any more than any given other person, but the fact that I care, and I want them to learn must be some form of positive motivation. It is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life, and is just as rewarding for all the other volunteers that I work with.   

Jun 5, 2012

A new level of education

Pauline Jackson - Operations Director La Esperanza Granada 

Where have you lived before you moved to Nicaragua? 
I was born in the UK, then I lived in Canada and after that in Australia. My parents moved there so I moved with them.  I moved from England to Australia because of the climate. I still own a house in Australia which someone is renting from me.

Are you married, do you have children?
No, I’m not married and I don’t have children.

When did you make the decision to move to Nicaragua and why?
Three months before I came here I was in Nicaragua for business. Then the founder, Bill Harper, died. I knew him before. After he died they asked me if I wanted to work for La Esperanza. Since the 25th of May  I’ve been  here for seven years.

What do you like about Nicaragua?
I like the fact that we are doing something useful here. I think it is very important to do something for the children. The organization is running well. 

What do you like about your work and what do you not like?
I like different things. If you ask me what I really love to do, that would be working in the schools to help the children. But if I would work in the classroom, I can’t do my job at the office. There always has to be someone who works fulltime. That’s why I need volunteers who come here to work in the schools.

What makes La Esperanza a successful organization?
I think La Esperanza is so successful because we focus on education. That main focus is very important. When you are doing a lot of different things, it is often difficult to continue focusing on your long term goals.
In the beginning it was a really small organization with only a few volunteers. So I can say that we grew a lot in 10 years.

What is the worst and what is the best experience that happened during the time you are working for La Esperanza?
The volunteers are the best and also the worst. Most volunteers are wonderful and do a really great job, but some are not so wonderful. I had fights with volunteers about their rent, some lose their keys and lie about it. It happens all the time. For example, there was once a volunteer that made a copy of the key and gave it to her boyfriend, who was not working for La Esperanza. She left and her boyfriend still lived in one of the volunteer houses, without paying rent. Sometimes it is really frustrating.  Besides these kind of situations, the volunteers are doing a really great job and that means a lot for me!
It is always a good experience to open a new school. It is great to see what that means for the high school students. 

An important consideration in our work is that our work depends on the rules that the government sets. We have to be very non confrontational.

What are your goals for the future?
The goal for myself is to stay healthy enough to keep continue my work. I am 63 years old now, so I will see for how long I can do this job.

For the future of La Esperanza I would like to have more volunteers, more ayudantes and built more classrooms. Besides that, I would like to start a program for teenage mothers and their children. There are a lot of teenage mothers in Nicaragua and there are not really any facilities for them. Once they have a baby, they have no expectations, no plans for the future and their consideration of themselves is very low.

The idea for the program is the following:
The teenage mothers have to come with their children to the kindergarten. The children will learn basic things there as counting and drawing. The mothers will participate with their children. Eventually, we will try to get the teenage mothers back to school.

I really believe in the concept. I am sure that if the program becomes a success, two out of ten mothers will go back to school. In the schools they give education about sex and contraception, but that doesn’t break the cycle of young girls getting pregnant. It is a good thing to learn, but it is not enough. If the mother goes to work or back to school, she is going to make sure that her child is not going to do the same things she did. In that way her kid will have the chance to a better future.

In short the mission is:
a new level of education 

The first kindergarten has to be in the outskirt San Ignacio. I am planning to write about the program so we can get a ground for that. If  the donors give money for not something specific, we can use that money to support the program.

Do you want to stay in Nicaragua for the rest of your life?
No, I definitely want to go back to Australia one day. If I can’t do my work here anymore, I will go back. But I will see what happens!