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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Cashew Girls of Guasaule

   I crossed back into Nicaragua from Honduras yesterday at dusty, dry Guasaule, on my way back home to Leon after a work trip. 
     Crossing a Central American border by bus is often a mysterious, confusing process that involves everyone getting out of the bus in a big herd and wandering to and from various unmarked buildings. So it was kind of nice to see the familiar face of Carmen the Cashew Girl as I descended the Tica Bus stairs yesterday.

     She was wearing the brilliantly coloured eye shadow and matching shirt that the Cashew Girls clearly favour as a strategy for getting groggy, overheated bus travellers to remember them. There is something of the sex worker in the visage of the brightly painted and sexily dressed Cashew Girl, who like a worker on stroll has only minutes to get you to take note of her and decide to buy her wares rather than those of her (friendly) rivals.
     Carmen and I had first met last Sunday, when I’d been a bus passenger heading into Honduras and had emerged from the bus into the stark, dry border zone for the first time. Carmen had blinked her vividly made-up eyes at me, touched my arm and called me amiga to be sure she had my attention, and urged me to buy some cashews from her.
     Marañónes, they’re called here. They’re sold unsalted and home-roasted in cheap cellophane bags at street intersections in Managua, but the Guasaule border crossing in northern Nicaragua appears to be a particularly popular place for hawking the nuts. Carmen says hers come from the Honduras side.
     The Cashew Girls come running when the buses arrive at the border, and there’s at least four waiting at the door by the time you get off the bus. Hence the eye shadow, layered on in stand-out hues of pink, purple and blue, the colours helping to distinguish one Cashew Girl from another in the minds of overwhelmed bus passengers (who descend into a clamorous crowd of money-changers, food vendors, cellphone chip sellers, and scruffy kids begging for money). 
     I don’t know if Carmen is particularly skilled or if her pitch simply works well with people like me; at any rate, I spent $5 last Sunday and again yesterday buying cashews from her.
     I resisted at first. “Not right now,” I told her that first time, distracted by the mysterious border crossing process I was about to undertake and unprepared to consider whether I felt like any cashews right now. “Me recuerde,” she told me as I made my way past all the other Cashew Girls vying for my attention – “Remember me.” The colourful eye shadow and matching shirt helped, I admit, and later I bought some cashews for the bus ride.
     Yesterday she was there again as I got off the bus. Once again, I wasn’t at all sure that I even wanted cashews. But she upped her game, guiding me from one building to another so that I always seemed to be at the front of the line for the bewildering process of crossing the border.
     What could I do? I bought some nuts.
     I would have liked to know more about her. How much money did she make in a typical day? Where did she live? Did she have children? Were the Cashew Girls an informal co-op that shared their profits, or was everybody in it for themselves?
     But just like any working girl, time is money for people like Carmen. She can’t afford to waste time chatting. Once she’d made her sale, she touched my arm one last time, told me to take care of myself, and started making her way toward an incoming mini-bus. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The woman next door

  I’m raking leaves outside our house when she approaches me, carrying an empty garbage can that she says will make it easier to gather the leaves for garbage pickup the next day. Paul and I are renting a house for the month of March in Leon, Nicaragua, and the woman and her family live next door.
    At first, I think she has come over just to be nice, because she has lived a long time near this giant tree that constantly sheds leaves and branches and knows how to make the near-daily task of raking a little easier. But she later tells me that she always tries to engage extranjeras like me in conversation. Too many of us arrive in her country with no knowledge of Nicaragua’s troubled history, she says. She is on a one-woman campaign to change that.
    I don’t know how old she is – mid-50s, maybe? That would make her around 19 on the terrible night of May 4, 1979 when the Nicaraguan National Guard, under the direction of the corrupt and vicious president Anastasio Somoza, showed up at 2 a.m. to pull her two brothers from their beds and kill them in the street outside the family home. Right here in this very street, she tells me, pointing to the home a block away where her family was living when it happened. Right in front of her.
    Brothers Porfirio Rene and Oswaldo Jose Alonso Palma were among four young men killed by the National Guard that night. Within two months, Somoza would be gone – first to Miami, where he fled in July 1979, and later assassinated in Panama. The Sandinista revolution was already well underway by the time the four young men were killed, but victory came too late to save them.
    War and death was a Nicaraguan reality for much of the 1900s - first under three generations of Somozas, then during the Sandinista revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later through nine bloody years of U.S.- and Soviet Union-funded civil war in the 1980s. The good people of Leon – a community of rebellious university students and cultured, intellectual thinkers – were strong supporters of the Sandinista revolution, and would watch many of their children die in the streets before the fighting finally ended in 1989.
    The leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, has been part of Nicaragua’s political scene ever since. He led the reconstruction of the country after the last of the Somozas was finally banished, then was elected president for five years in 1985. Then came 17 long years of political banishment before he was re-elected president in 2007.  
    There are those in Nicaragua nowadays who have been deeply disappointed by Ortega’s inability to deliver on so many of the promises made during those revolutionary years. But my neighbour isn’t one of them. She refers to the president and his wife as “Daniel and Rosario,” and it’s clear she feels a very personal connection to them. She says that those who criticize Ortega are either too young to remember how things used to be, or too impatient in their expectations for rapid change.
    In 1979 when her brothers were killed, this little two-block neighbourhood where we live was called Duque. But after that awful night, the city renamed it Colonia 4 de Mayo – the Fourth of May. A small plaque has been placed outside the woman’s childhood home at the end of the block, commemorating the murders of her brothers along with those of Roger Benito Morales Toruño and Noel Ernesto García Zepeda that same night.
    Remember them, she tells me. She scoops up the last of the leaves and returns to her house, called in for dinner by her young grandson. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reflections on the end of another adventure: There's no life like it

The loads are heavier in countries like Nicaragua, but the backs are stronger

A troubling aspect of life: You don’t know what you don’t know. As a person driven to know everything, I don’t like that.
I didn't  consciously grasp when we started this Cuso International work in Central America three years ago that I was longing to know more about what I didn't know. But I was. What stands out most as I wrap up my second Cuso posting is how exciting it feels to be learning again.
The role of a Cuso volunteer is essentially to take your professional show on the road and share your skills with people in less-advantaged countries, helping them improve their systems or their training or their processes in ways that ultimately address poverty and inequality.
But never mind the task. The bigger challenge is dropping in cold to another world in the employ of an organization that is happy to see you, but uncertain what to do with you. They will have no real idea or interest in your illustrious career back in Canada, so you’ll be proving your work cred from the ground up.
It sounds kind of scary, I know. I am 58, and once upon a time was a biggish fish in a smallish pond.  But when I first start a Cuso position, I am nothing more than an unproven and unknown older woman who may or may not have had a career as a journalist in some other country and in some other language. It is up to me to demonstrate that I have value.
But professional discomfort and profound humbling aside, this time with Cuso ranks among the most invigorating, challenging, memorable and life-altering years of my work life (I think my three-year stint as the executive director of B.C. grassroots sex-work organization Peers Victoria still wins out).
Some of the new learning is just straight-up communications culture. People like more colour and fewer words in their documents here. They’re lousy about answering emails, so you really have to try for face-to-face time. They like technology, but anyone over the age of 25 is going to need some time to figure out the wired world.
But a lot of our differences are also value-driven. In Canada, work demands often outweigh family relations. In Central America, family always comes first.
Canada’s approach gets you much better economic development, But Central America’s approach keeps people much more bonded and rooted to family – not just the nuclear family, but a hundred aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, almost all of whom probably live nearby and drop by for a visit often. Who’s to say our way is better?
80-year-old Managua man who repairs and sells old shoes he
finds in the garbage. He gets by on 3 sales a week.
As I've said many times in my blog posts, I see my own country much more clearly from afar. On a lot of fronts, it’s an amazing place.
Our social programs are the stuff of dreams to Central Americans, most of whom will work until the day they drop dead and who are completely on their own when dealing with their disabled children, aging parents, health-care problems, and periods of unemployment. They would be agog at all our workplace regulations and benefits.
 But at the same time, it’s pretty cool to see a work culture in Central America that lets people put their personal relations first. Down here when I run into people I know on the street, I've learned to take the time to talk to them without even a twinge of thinking that it’s almost 8:30 a.m. and I should hurry into work. Work waits in Central America – and when you really think about it, that’s not so bad.
Are developed countries like Canada the gold standard? That’s probably been the question that has weighed on my mind most in these three years. I do have skills worth sharing with the non-profits I've been placed with, but I've also gotten so much value out of what they have taught me. More and more I see the richness of a “poor” country, and question my own Canadian work culture. There is a price to pay for efficiency. 
And while I like that I'm from a country able to give time and money to countries in need, I have a new appreciation for the many other ways there are to live a life - and much admiration for people whose resilience and resourcefulness is awe-inspiring. (Like the young Nicaraguan guy near Casares who fixed our broken-down car with a screw driver and a piece of discarded fishing line he found at the side of the road.)
Thanks to everyone who has supported my spouse Paul and I in our Cuso International fundraising, which is closing in on our goal of $7,500. It really has been a life-changing experience. And if you've ever wondered what it might be like to test your own adaptability by working in another culture, two words for you: Do it. 

I've just finished my second assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Live and learn, as they like to say

  I'm sure some people can share a house with people they don't know well. After four months of doing just that here in Managua, I'm now very certain that I'm not one of them.
    I thought I'd already learned most of the important lessons about life in a foreign land from our Cuso International placement in Honduras during 2012-2014. But it turns out there was one really big one still to come.
    I don't mean to suggest that the profound unpleasantness of this period of house-sharing is the fault of the two other Cuso volunteers who Paul and I share the house with. At this point, I'm quite sure they're as dismayed as I am at how it is that perfectly nice people can end up with a negative group energy that sends us all scrambling for our little hidey-holes when it all gets to be too much (which happens with increasing frequency as the Feb. 27 ends of our posts draw near).
     As the mother and stepmother of five children and the host-mom for all of their many friends during the teen years, I am well familiar with the difficult task of existing in a household full of people. Paul and I survived that period and figured that for a Cuso placement of four short months, sharing a house would be OK.
    But I guess the parent-child relationship is a different situation. You might not like that there are a lot of people in your kitchen chopping vegetables or hogging the stove, but at least they're your people. It's a whole other ball game when you don't have that family connection.
     One of the problems has been our landlady. Paul and I originally spent the first six weeks living in a room in the house where she lives, not understanding that she actually lived there and didn't just manage the place. That was a head-trippy experience of an entirely different kind, as the spacious "common area" was nothing of the kind, seeing as we couldn't sit out there or go into the kitchen without running into the landlady and being harangued about something we or another tenant was doing wrong.
     So then we moved into a house down the road that was managed by the same woman (Error! Error!), where two of our fellow Cuso volunteers were living. We liked the two of them and we all got along, and so the idea of sharing a three-bedroom house that would be totally under our group control seemed like a great plan.
     And for a couple of weeks, it was. We even made the ridiculously tiny fridge work, each of us claiming our little shelves and learning how to stack things strategically on top of each other rather than stand them in their own place. We took care to live collectively, washing our personal dishes immediately and not leaving our stuff scattered around the house.
     But hey, that landlady. She kept on coming by, usually with a poor sod in tow whose job it is to sweep the terrace, whack at cobwebs, and carry our household garbage to the curb. There is no schedule as to when they will show up, and they just walk right in without so much as a knock  - 6 a.m. while I'm doing my morning yoga, 8 p.m. when everyone's solidly into their evening routine, Sunday morning at 8 a.m. while you're sitting in your sleep clothes having a morning coffee. The other day she sat in our living room talking loudly on her cellphone for the better part of an hour while Poor Sod did his cleaning and we cowered in our rooms.
    Meanwhile, the honeymoon period of our placements came to an end and we all moved into the next stage, in which you are beset with self-doubt, angry at your workplace, feeling deeply displaced, and unsure whether you're making any difference at all. Paul and I were familiar with the feelings from our time in Honduras and knew that eventually you pass through that, but our housemates were experiencing it for the first time.
      We all react to stress in our own way. For a while, the group of us drew together as a unified force against the weirdness of the landlady and the many pressures of working in a new culture in workplaces that often seem baffled at what they should with this foreigner who has been plunked into their midst.
     But as the stresses mounted, the unity weakened and our relationships grew strained. We were having to cope with our personal stresses plus manage the way that others in the house coped with theirs, what with all of us living on top of each other. We were living too close and under too much strain to be able to maintain those polite facades that are so vital to collective harmony.
This sums up how I don't feel right now
     Then the landlady moved a young Costa Rican fellow into a shed out behind the house that we had no idea was even a room to rent. His room is so tiny that he spends almost all his time in the common space. His bathroom is mere feet away from our bedroom window, so that I have no choice but to know all the intimate details of his morning routine. No one should have to know that kind of thing.
     So now there are five of us - still sharing that same tiny fridge and small kitchen, and now feeling increasingly resentful for having to line up for stove time, bug somebody about whether they're hording drinking glasses in their room, jostle for our share of the common space. The Costa Rican isn't to blame for how things have turned out, but his addition to the household was definitely the straw that finished off the camel.
     Now, there are lots of times when we don't even pretend to like each other. I actually dread having to be at the house, and am counting down the days until it's all over with a sullen intensity that I don't like seeing in myself. I would like to be able to withdraw to some private space where I could play my accordion and work out my moods through music. But there is no private space.
     I wish I could say that I have been able to rise above it all and be the straight-shooting, collaborative problem-solver I like to think I am. But in fact I've been drawn into the petty dramas and us-versus-them intrigues as much as anyone. I have heard snide, provocative comments coming out of my mouth, brought on by an overwhelming urge I haven't felt since I was a bitchy 14-year-old to punish someone for getting on my nerves. Somebody could do a social experiment on what's happening to us.
     Am I whining? Yeah, I'm whining. But I'm also noting this life lesson in big red capital letters in my book of Lessons Learned: Never Share A House With Anyone But Family. 
    But hey, we're going to laugh about this someday. Maybe. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Canada and Nicaragua: Different worlds, but not for sex workers

     I’m still shaking my head after two and a half enlightening hours yesterday talking with the local sex workers’ organization here in Managua, RedTraSex (Red de Trabajadores Sexuales). I’m not sure whether to be delighted or shattered by how completely identical the issues are for sex workers in Nicaragua as they are back home in Canada.
     Had it not been for us talking in Spanish, I could have easily been back in Victoria talking to my pals at Peers Victoria. I fear my new friends at RedTraSex were a little discouraged to hear that everything they identified as problems were also problems for sex workers in Canada – stigma, judgment and misunderstanding at the top of that list.
The swag from my RedTraSex visit, including a
key chain designed to fit a condom. Can't wait to 
wear my "I always use a condom" t-shirt.
     Up until we met, the group believed that a country as developed as Canada would have surmounted some of the basic prejudices, misconceptions and petty harassments that make the life of a Nicaraguan sex worker more difficult. But no.
     Case in point: The RedTraSex pamphlets, one of which is about their campaign to reduce stigma facing sex workers when they seek health care, and another whose title translates to “Sex work and trafficking are not the same thing.” The book documenting the work of RedTraSex - a network of sex workers in 14 Latin American countries - is titled “Ni Puta ni Prostituta: Somos Trabajadores Sexuales.” (“Neither Whore Nor Prostitute: We Are Sex Workers.”)
     You could produce those same three publications in an English-language version and they would be totally relevant to Canadian sex workers.
     Discrimination against sex workers at hospitals and clinics is a huge problem in Canada, to the point that many sex workers refuse to disclose what they do for a living and thus don’t get the attention they need for their specific line of work. Here in Nicaragua, almost half of the sex workers that RedTraSex surveyed about health-care access reported that they don’t disclose their line of work to medical professionals for fear of being judged. More than a third of those who did disclose reported feeling an instant and negative change in the doctor’s attitude toward them, and repeated attempts to convince them to quit work.
     The presumption that all sex workers are working against their will and thus trafficked became a big political issue in 2014 in Nicaragua, and led to the passing of a new anti-trafficking law. Having heard nothing about the new law until the first media reports came out, RedTraSex had to launch a major advocacy campaign to push back against the government’s attempts to treat consensual sex work and trafficking as the same thing.
     How completely unsettling that that very same year, it also became a big issue in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as the anti-trafficking movement launched an aggressive campaign to convince the world that sex work and trafficking are one and the same.
     As for the stigmatized and offensive language we use when we talk about sex workers, well, that’s one of the most obvious signs that sex workers continue to occupy a sub-human position in the minds of the general public, because while we no longer tolerate any number of derogatory terms for all kinds of other populations, describing someone as a corporate whore or prostituting their principles remains an acceptable way of condemning someone as the lowest of the low.
     One of the major struggles for Nicaraguan sex workers is government apprehension of their children, the presumption being that if you’re a sex worker, you must be a bad mother. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed that same problem playing out for women seeking Peers support. 
     Lordy, how is it that the plight of sex workers is the same all over the world?
     On the upside, I had one of the most engaging conversations with some of the most passionate, powerful women I've met since starting to work in Central America three years ago. Unpaid and largely unsupported other than through a little money from Worldfund that covers the rent for their office space and some promotional material, they are kicking serious butt with their ferocious advocacy on behalf of sex workers.
     Other similarities: The women complained of constantly being put under the microscope of researchers, visitors, do-gooders and others who ask deeply personal questions about how much they make, what their spouses and children think of them being sex workers, whether they were abused as children. They complained that any organization that comes with offers of financial support or scholarships also attaches a non-negotiable rider: That if the woman hopes to receive this support, she must “exit” sex work. They complained of the double morality that allows so many of their customers – preachers, police, politicians – to campaign against the rights of sex workers while buying sexual services in their off-hours.
     And they complained about the presumption that all of them have tragic life stories that explain why they work in the industry. The reality is that just like the Canadian sex workers I've met, they came to the work for many reasons, including the fact that a single mother who is a sex worker is able to work fewer hours for higher earnings than many other Nicaraguans.
     “If you ask any of us for the stories of why we came to be sex workers, it’s different for every one of us,” says Maria Elena Davila, the national co-ordinator for RedTraSex. “But we chose this work.”
     RedTraSex has sex worker volunteers in seven regions of Nicaragua, doing what they can with limited resources to reach out to the 15,000 adult women working in the industry (RedTraSex currently doesn’t work with male or trans sex workers). The volunteers work in an informal style reminiscent of the 12-step movement to step up with personal support for other sex workers at any time of the day or night that someone calls with a problem. Condom distribution is a priority. Maria Elena says what the women most appreciate is that the support comes from other sex workers, who can be counted on not to judge them.  
     As is the case in Canada, sex work in Nicaragua exists somewhere between legal and illegal, a shadowy space that leaves workers without basic human rights and vulnerable to police harassment. Maria Elena noted that when some Managua workers recently reported an underage girl on the stroll – who turned out to have been put out there by her parents – police responded by coming to the area and arresting everybody working there.
     “Whenever that happens, you end up at the police station for five or six hours, not making any money,” she says.
     She recounted the extremely difficult moment when she was preparing for a press conference on behalf of RedTraSex and realized that seeing as she was poised to go public as a sex worker, she’d first have to disclose that fact to her mom and her children. Here or in Canada, telling your family the truth is one of the most painful memories in any sex worker’s life, a stark reminder of just how stigmatized and judged this line of work is.
     I’m both honoured and aghast to have heard in the stories of the strong women of RedTraSex virtually a word-for-word retelling of the stories I've heard in Canada. I’m struggling to process the new knowledge that two countries that are worlds apart in so many other ways both treat their sex workers with the same contempt and disrespect, denying them the most basic of rights as workers and as citizens. If ever I needed one more argument to confirm my opinion that this issue is one of the most important human-rights battles of this era, yesterday's conversation was it.