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Troy Conference UMVIM Team to Nicaragua

By Janet Huston

A team of 13 persons left Schenectady at 11 p.m. on Friday, November 8, 2002, to begin a two-week VIM mission to Nicaragua. The team consisted of nine Troy Conference United Methodists from Vermont and New York, a UM from the North Central NY Conference, a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic from the Schenectady area. The goals were to learn more about Nicaraguan history and culture, share faith with Nicaraguan Christians, do some construction, and provide some health care.

The members of the team were Jerri Bushey, David Carey, Andrew Clunn, Marion Farlin, Elizabeth Griffin, Janet and Peter Huston (team leaders), Janice and Maurice Rathbun, Sarah Rounds, Cindy Schulte, Harold (Bud) Smith, and Jim Williams. The team included two pastors, two high school youth, a physician, a nurse practitioner, two registered nurses, four men with various construction skills, and one who served as a translator. Several in the group had some skill with the Spanish language.

The project was unique in that it was planned jointly by CEPAD (Consejo de Iglesias Pro-Alianza Denominacional) and AMC (Acción Médica Cristiana). CEPAD is a Christian, non-profit, non-partisan association with goals of fighting poverty, developing self-management in communities, and working for justice. AMC is a Christian medical organization with headquarters and a clinic in Managua and branches in 11 other communities. The emphasis is on improving the basic conditions of the people by improving water supplies, building latrines, educating community health workers, and preventing illness.

Dr. Belinda Forbes, a United Methodist dentist and missionary from the New England Conference, is assigned by the General Board on Global Ministries to work in the clinic and do general international relations. Her husband, Dr. Gerardo Gutiérrez, is a Nicaraguan physician who is project manager for AMC. Our leader in Nicaragua was Tracey King, a Presbyterian missioner who works with CEPAD. She has worked in Nicaragua for four years and was able to share both a spiritual basis for her work as well as an understanding of the people and culture.

We arrived in Managua Saturday afternoon and spent the next two days with orientation and sightseeing in Managua. We worshiped at a Moravian church and with a Roman Catholic community. We toured the city while learning Nicaraguan history. Monday morning we participated in AMC's weekly devotional session and then were oriented to their work. In the afternoon we had presentations by CEPAD's Director of Programs and by an expert on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua where we were going the next day.

Nicaragua has become the poorest country in our hemisphere, surpassing Haiti. The North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions are the poorest areas of Nicaragua. They are more racially diverse than the Pacific areas. The Atlantic areas are home to the Miskito and Rama Indians, descendants of slaves from the Caribbean, some English-speaking people, as well as Mestizo people moving from other parts of Nicaragua. Languages include Spanish, Miskito, Creole, and English.

Tuesday, Nov. 12, we loaded carefully weighed supplies into a small plane and flew to Puerto Cabezas on the north Atlantic coast. We observed lobster fishing boats, shopped in the markets for vegetables to take with us to our destination, had a good seafood dinner, waded in the ocean, and spent the night in two hotels with very limited facilities. (There was no hotel which would hold all 15 of us so the men were in one and the women in the other.) The next day we boarded an old U.S. school bus which is now owned by a Nicaraguan man who makes a living driving people in his bus. CEPAD contracted with him to be our driver for the next 10 days. He did an excellent job driving over dirt roads, through deep mud, and over narrow wooden bridges. It was a four-hour drive to Sahsa, a town of about 1,500 people in northeastern Nicaragua.

AMC has a training center, clinic, and guest house in Sahsa. They have put in an excellent water supply for the town. They serve people in many outlying villages where they plan to build latrines and work to improve the basic health. It is hard to describe the extent of the poverty. Many of the outlying villages have few or no latrines, no good water, very limited education (one village's school has only first and second grades). School buildings, homes, and churches are made of wood with huge gaps in the walls. Many of the roofs are made of dried palm leaves which are quite good at keeping the rain out for a while. Because many of the people were displaced from river areas during the wars, most of the homes are built on stilts. Very few people have vegetable or fruit gardens, as their culture was based primarily on fishing. Pigs, chickens, horses, and cows wander down the main street of Sahsa, but the primary food is rice and beans.

Our team was divided into the construction crew and the health care team. The construction team worked with a local carpenter to build a Casa Materna, a residence in which women with high risk pregnancies can stay for a few days before and after delivery. The highest cause of death among Nicaraguan women is maternal mortality so this facility should make a significant difference. One woman died in childbirth while we were there. It was her 15th pregnancy. Although there were two midwives in their village, the husband did not call them for the birth. By the time he realized there was a problem and was able to get his wife to the clinic, it was too late. The Casa Materna was going to be dedicated the day after we left Sahsa - it was good to see it so near completion. The construction team also worked on rebuilding the foundation of AMC's training center so that it will eventually be larger.

Our health care people joined with staff of AMC to make two teams. Each team went to six different villages - one each day Thursday through the next Wednesday except for Sunday. In the villages people came from outlying areas to have their babies and toddlers weighed, to receive immunizations, and to receive some basic medical care. Approximately 85% of the children weighed were in the "at risk" or "danger" categories of weight. Babies are breast fed, but once they are weaned, nutrition is inadequate. We were impressed with how unresponsive many of the village children were; other children we had met in Nicaragua were friendly and eager to play with us. .Some of these villages had not had this type of brigade for two years! Although we had had generous financial donations which were used to buy medicines at AMC's pharmacy, we were not able to treat everyone we saw. We also ran out of vaccines so were unable to immunize all of the children who needed care. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Health cannot afford to supply all that is needed.

Sunday in Nicaragua is a day of rest. Sahsa has a Moravian Church and a Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was having a special celebration, and the children next door to where we were staying wanted us to go there with them. The Sunday morning service included a wedding, a baptism, first Communion, and mass all in one service! Singing was lively - we didn't know all the words in Spanish, but we enjoyed clapping, humming, and listening. In the evening there was a funeral for the woman who had died in childbirth. Sunday afternoon after a heavy rain (it was the end of the rainy season), we walked up the hill to see the new water facility. We are very impressed with the work that AMC is doing to improve the health of the people in this extremely poor area.

Thursday, Nov. 21, we were up at 4 a.m. for a final meeting with our hosts and friends in Sahsa. They thanked us for being in solidarity with them and for helping with their projects. We expressed appreciation for their hospitality and admiration for their work. We shared prayers of thanks and hope after having had a very unique experience in a remote, very needy area. At 5 a.m. we boarded our bus for the four-hour trip back to Puerto Cabezas, where we got the CosteZa Airline plane back to Managua. CEPAD's Nehemiah headquarters in Managua, with good showers, comfortable beds and rocking chairs, looked great to us!

Friday we were treated to a "tourist" day. We went to a beautiful new resort on a volcanic crater lake. We enjoyed swimming in the warm turquoise water, seeing the tropical flowers and the "hammock forest," and having a delicious lunch. Belinda Forbes joined us again for this morning. It was good to be able to share with her some of our impressions and experiences at the organization which she and her husband lead. Friday afternoon we went to the market in Managua where we bought typical Nicaraguan arts and crafts - hammocks, wooden crafts, music, pottery, baskets, woven mats, fabric purses, and paintings.

Friday evening, Tracey led us in a thoughtful reflection to help us process some of what we had experienced. We discussed the difficulty we expected to have in sharing with people at home when they ask, "How was your trip?" It is still difficult to choose the most important parts to share. The poverty is enormous. The hope and faith are, too. Some of the ways we can continue to be in solidarity, and make at least some difference, are to be aware of our government's policies and try to influence them, to buy fair trade coffee, to work with the Jubilee organization toward forgiving the debt of poor countries, and to continue to make friends on a one-to-one or team-to team basis by working with people in Nicaragua on projects they choose.

Dr. Parajon, founder of CEPAD, spoke to a Troy Conference VIM team in 1999. He said that it was good that we had helped to build houses after Hurricane Mitch but that the most important part of our visit was providing HOPE to the people of Nicaragua by being there with them. We hope that there will be many more teams from Troy Conference to Nicaragua as the need is great. We appreciate all the people who helped to make this a rewarding venture - all those who contributed money and supplies, our travel agent, Dick Palmer, and Bud Jameson for volunteering to drive the Skye Farm van to and from the Newark Airport, Tracey King at CEPAD, Belinda Forbes at AMC, the rest of our new friends in Nicaragua, and a great team of volunteers!

(Posted Feb. 12, 2003)