Sunday, April 18, 2010

Visit with Empowerment International in Nicaragua

This 5th day in Nicaragua my tour guide, Jessica, had arranged a full day. It began in the city of Granada with a visit to the Empowerment International NGO, and bike tour out to the countryside to visit a farming community the NGO was working with. After lunch we went to the city of Masaya to tour through the local and tourist markets and then capped the evening off with a sunset visit to the Masaya volcano. It is so much I may split this day into two posts.

After breakfast at the home of the family I was bunked with, we took a taxi to the edge of town to the office of Empowerment International. A couple of the staff members took a few minutes to explain to me their purpose was to help encourage kids to stay in school. Half of Nicaraguan kids who start 1st grade drop out before 5th grade. The goal of this organization was to break the cycle of poverty by helping to keep children in school. The offices provided a center to give students access to after school activities and tutoring. The organization also works to change the community attitude towards education. Staff members of the organization make regular visits to parents in the communities to help them understand the benefits of education in the hopes that will help keep the kids in school.

The challenge here is that many kids drop out of school early to work and support the family. A typical example that was described to me was a family living on less than $2 a day. Most of the family members, young kids included, spend most of the day weaving reed baskets and/or selling the merchandise. If a kid is in school, he is not contributing day to day activities that put food on the table. The kid begins to feel obligated to do more to help the immediate need of survival, and eventually drops out of school to spend time on the family business. Education becomes a low priority compared to week-to-week survival. But without the education, the kids get stuck in a cycle of poverty. The Empowerment International staff members work with the families in the community to help them understand that the education can have much more long term payback for the family if it helps the kid get a higher paying job in the future.

After the introduction, we mounted bicycles, and then guided by two young people who had benefited from the program, we and began the 45 minute ride out to a farming community that this NGO worked with. We rode through a neighborhood on the edge of town that Empowerment International first worked with in Grenada. After some success, this farming community a few miles outside the city asked for their help and this became the second community that the NGO supports.

We followed dirt roads through several fields of wheat, beans, peanuts, and other crops. After what seemed like an hour (but I am sure was less), we reached the village. The village was a collection of farms along a country road, and included a small church and a school building. (edit: I later read the name of the village was Santa Ana)

The first house we stopped at had a family (perhaps extended family) with several small kids. There were lots of large hogs the size of small horses and chickens spread around the courtyard, with the hogs lying down wherever there was some shade. One of the kids brought out a photo album with pictures of his kindergarten graduation. He was quite proud of it. A mother pulled out pictures of her other kids graduating from elementary schools. When she was done, she was very careful to put the treasured pictures back into a plastic sleeve for protection. It was the type of plastic sleeve that American consumers would quickly throw out with trash, but here it was treated with care not to be torn as a valued possession protecting the pictures.

We rode down the street to another house where we sat out on the patio visiting with the family, while Jessica translated the conversation for me. This family was lead by a single mother and had I think 5 kids living there. Two of the kids were adopted after being abandoned by their mother, a former neighbor who left town without them. The head of this household took pity and took them in. I peeked through the door and saw the house had only one room and a dirt floor. The older daughter was still beaming having just gone through her communion celebration a few days before. This had involved her and her mother getting dressed up and having their hair made up, which is a rarity and very big deal in this community.

As we talked with others while passing through the community, one of the common themes I heard from some of the locals was frustration with some of the assistance programs (unrelated to this NGO) that were supposed to help the poor farmers. There were government assistance programs that provided livestock such as cows or pigs to poor farmers. The farmers were expected to pay back the government in installments over time with money made off the livestock (for example, by selling the cow milk or breeding hogs and selling the meat to the local markets). There was frustration because the recipients never know when the payments were due or how much was owed until the bill collector showed up at their door at arbitrary times and demanded payment. If the cows did not produce milk the farmer couldn’t make money to pay off the debt and so there was the argument if the government gave them a bad cow maybe they shouldn’t have to pay, or if it was the farmers fault for not being able to feed the cow sufficiently. Whoever’s fault, it seems these programs that were intended to help the poor were actually driving some of them further into debt.

After a bike ride back to town, we went to the main square in Granada and grabbed a lunch of local food from one of the small kiosks in the corner. After lunch we caught a pre-arranged taxi to Masaya for a tour of the city markets and the nearby volcano. I will save that for another post.

- The Empowerment International Organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization; all donations are tax-deductible in the U.S. To read more, check out their website:

- Map of the places I mention in Nicaragua
- More Blog Posts from this Nicaragua Trip
- Tour guide who arranged my Nicaragua Travels: ¡Un Buen Viaje!

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1 comment:

  1. Great write up on your visit! Love the photos as well! Thanks for writing about us.


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