A ProNica Witness Tour, by Herb Haigh
Pam and I are still in transit on our way back to Saint Petersburg from Managua, but I couldn’t wait to share news of our trip. First and foremost let me say how pleased I am with ProNica’s team in Managua. It is obvious that our new co-program directors, Ramon and Ada, have blended very well with the rest of staff there: Panchita, Jose-Antonio and Milton. In addition we have a growing list of contracted help, such as our cook, Julissa, drivers Mario and Manuel, and some new interpreters, namely Cindy and Eva, who are lively and engaging young guides who will be instrumental in helping us conduct and perhaps expand our delegation program.
We had a few “after-dinner” conversations with Ramon and Ada as he translated and she smiled with her whole face. Together they will bring a very fresh image to ProNica. With Ada being Nicaraguan and Ramon a seven-year resident, they took us beyond the partners and projects and talked to us about what it was like to grow up and be a member of a family in Managua, to go to church and school, etc example, the weekend in December we go to Nicaragua each year includes the Catholic holiday that celebrates the Immaculate Conception. For the first time we were able to participate and be invited into the neighborhood houses to sing and receive gifts, a tradition that is uniquely Nicaraguan. We would only be comfortable doing so with guides who were very familiar with the local protocol. I must add that we seemed to be extremely welcomed by very curious neighbors. More than once we heard the word, “Yankees” followed by a flood of camera flashes.
Of course the 10th Annual Beauty School graduation at Acahualinca brought the usual tears of joy—and then some. After having completed 10 months of training, the excitement among the graduates was palpable, and it’s always a glittery event. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since Pam first met women living on the Managua municipal dump being trafficked for scavenged recyclables, and as if in a whirlwind, resuscitated the dilapidated and years closed beauty school of Acahualinca in hopes of providing a viable escape for sex workers. I’ve long since lost track of how many hundreds of Worship Shearing donations made at SEYM and other Friends’ gatherings have sustained one graduating class after the next. Who would have thought that Pam and I would be in Acahualinca ten years later feeling the same anticipation as with the very first graduation?
Our visits to the projects were not always so joyful though; most notably our cherished Women’s Clinic in Acahualinca is in serious trouble. Marie Elena Bonilla, founder and director since the early 1990s, has moved on, and the remaining founders, Raquel, Jeanette, and Norma look defeated. The clinic provides dignified and holistic care to the most marginalized populations—unlike the public health system. Ramon tells, however, that with improvements to public health, funding for nonprofit healthcare centers has dropped off, and there is less money available to operate Acahualinca. Even so, the founders continue the work without compensation. Acahualinca has the opportunity to change with the times, and Ramon has some great ideas about how to work with them. For example, he is hoping to support Acahualinca alongside the other twenty two existing non-profit clinics around the country to organize an association that would provide them with a stronger, more unified voice. He is also working with the Acahualinca team on a new model—perhaps to build on the success of the beauty school and use it as a catalyst for other schools. I.e. massage therapy, a bakery, welding shop etc. There is space for more community resources, and there will always be a need for their confidential psychological and legal services.
During our visit to Casa Materna, where women from remote rural villages are invited to stay during the latter parts of high-risk pregnancies, we stayed overnight for the first time, which gave us time to experience the residents’ daily routines in addition to the usual inspiring updates about the program. For those of you who know Kitty Madden, she looks great and sounds upbeat. ProNica is so blessed to have her as a partner. And who knew the facility is right next door to a beautiful garden—a wonderful place for a morning stroll in the final weeks of pregnancy. By staying overnight we also had the time to visit the natural medicine shop and the youth art program, wonderful places and faces we had never seen before. The best part was that we were able to have dinner rather than lunch at Matagalpa’s totally awesome Pizza restaurant, our usual stop—but usually for lunch.
And then there are the wonderful children at Los Quinchos! Everything there has shown visible improvement. There are fewer kids, and the place is much more organized, active, and alive. The farm has become a real program for providing food as well as vocational skills. At least one cow had the good sense to follow my wife Pam around, mooing at her beauty; it was a riot. There were a few sad faces, even tears in the eyes of some of the kids who had just arrived, and your heart just breaks for them. As always, there were kids who wanted us to take them home, and this year there was one giant pig who was really begging Pam to take him too, but I guess it was not her year to “bring home the bacon.”
Alas, there wasn’t enough time to visit ProNica projects in Estelí, San Ramon, Achuapa or Rio Blanco. Ramon and Ada report that they are doing well, and we hope to visit them all eventually.
More than ever before, we were able to experience of the beauty of the Nicaraguan countryside. We spent a luxurious day resting by a crater-lake near Masaya. It was a great break from miles in the Microbus and getting updates from the partners, a chance to reflect and talk amongst ourselves—a great addition.
As for the delegation program, if our trip this year is any example, wow! Each of our program directors has done a very good job of fulfilling just what needed at the time. Lillian started the program and provided the unique vantage point of a North American having lived in Nicaragua during the Revolution. Laura made it safer, added a unique generational perspective to delegation themes. And now to use just one word, Ada and Ramon will make it more “competitive.” This is important because as conditions improve, more and more groups are looking for a Nicaraguan experience. Pam and I noticed far more Americans present than we have ever witnessed before. I think the future of ProNica’s educational immersion program is very bright, and it just keeps getting better.
At Quaker House, I am happy to report many positive upgrades. As Ramon has pointed out, however, our guest house has sparser accommodations than some others in the price range. There is at least one other hospitality facility that is more comfortable and only $1.00 a day more expensive. I don’t think we want to compare ourselves to anyone, but we do want to be sure we are doing our best. I am hoping that someday we can fix the ceiling and get the place painted; it would be a significant improvement. It is also time for some replacement furniture as some of it is quite old, and almost none of it is coordinated. I also asked Ramon to evaluate whether the multiple posters extolling the legitimate but military heroes of Sandino and Che Guevara represent a Quaker perspective. I don’t have a big problem with them, but I do think they are contrary to our message of peace.
It should be pointed out that even though they were not yet fully oriented in their roles with ProNica, Ada and Ramon were able to manage both our group and the people making a documentary about the beauty school simultaneously—a reflection of their great ability to organize. Because the extraordinary young filmmakers were so well accommodated, we were able to make the most of the time with them when our witness trip overlapped their work. They said they got all the footage they needed, and we can’t wait to see what they produce.
Each time I get back on the plane to return to the States, I marvel at how much my spirit has been revived—for ProNica, for Quakers, and for the world at large. We couldn’t have been more pleased to be joined by Orlando Friends, Ed and Kay Lesnick, and Hilary Beynon, a Friend from Wales. I hold out the hope that many more of us in SEYM and beyond might have this experience—and by doing so make stronger our ability to offer ourselves in the spirit as instruments of peace.
For more information about ProNica Friends Witness Tours, visit: http://pronica.org/tours/. And while you’re there, check out the rest of our brand new website, with special thanks to ProNica Board members, Kathy Hersh and William Rogan for their remarkable efforts to bring it about.