Lessons Learned in Nicaragua

IMG_1463web

The children attended school for only half a day. After the teaching time was over, they walked home along dusty, rutted roads or went to the program at NicaPhoto, which provided a safe place for them to do homework, take art or dance classes and other activities. Even martial arts classes were offered for older students, all of whom were girls. For some, their only food for the day was the mid-day meal at NicaPhoto. Most of the students knew nothing about growing vegetables until they worked in the community garden and shared their new knowledge with their families.

One afternoon, we took a walking tour around Sonrisa de Dios and saw where many of the children and adults we had met, lived. I had never seen such dire poverty. Most homes were just one room, covered with thick plastic with dirt floors. Many had no latrine. Running water was available only recently and we were proudly shown the water meter that led to each person’s home. Previously, they had to walk a good distance and fill buckets with water every morning and then carry them home.

One woman, mother of three children whose husband had left her and gone to Panama, had no job and no money. We listened to the sad tale of her circumstances and felt genuine affection for her, and appreciation for her help at the worksite. Our inclination was to write a check to help her get a real house, and not live in the black plastic shack. It was gently explained to us that such a step would not be good and might easily backfire, causing her to be resented and have others feel jealousy towards her. Life can be so much more complicated than it appears, especially when outsiders, like us, use our own life experiences to judge what we could do to help.

We learned so many things from our week in Sonrisa de Dios. Every one of us realized how much we have, no matter what our personal circumstances. We are truly fortunate, compared with the people we encountered, who are easily as smart, kind, hard working and interested in bettering themselves as any American.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Late to the Work Site in Sonrisa de Dios

Image

 

            Thursday morning, curled up on my side, I huddled under the thin blanket, wishing I’d turned off the air-conditioning after my last trip to the toilet. Drained from explosions of gastric distress, the chill that sneaked up my back made me feel as if I was trapped inside a cold, dark cave. I’d been so careful with what I’d eaten. I couldn’t figure out what could have caused my misery.

            I knew I was too woozy to join the others at the work site. Weak and drained, I went back to sleep, knowing that the rest of the group was already laboring, using pick axes to rout out the hard-packed dirt where classroom floors would be. Then they would move the heavy chunks and rocks in wheelbarrows to another location. Some of the group worked on leveling the floors for the two large classrooms, shoveling and mixing cement. Others painted the walls of the new classrooms, inside and out,.

            After sleeping for three more hours, I managed to drag myself up and get dressed. The hotel manager hailed a moto for me. I climbed in one of these red, three-wheeled taxis, with open sides and non-existent springs that tore around the streets of Naragote. The trip cost just forty cents, no matter how far you went. The trip up the last hill, through holes, ruts and bumps, shook my weakened body. Wind-swept dirt, as fine as powder, slammed into my eyes. My skin hurt when I arrived at the worksite. A blast of heat almost knocked me over when I stepped out of the moto, into the scorching sun. I gingerly walked through the gate to enter the school grounds. A ten-foot-high wire fence, with coils of barbed wire along the top, surrounded the school and grounds. The fence had been installed before any work began on the school. Theft and vandalism were serious problems in such a poor town.

            I sat on a pile of bricks, in the shade, sipping water from my water-bottle, imagining I was supervising the others, so I wouldn’t appear lazy. Some offered sympathy for my experience and then hurried back to the chores of shoveling sand or gravel into buckets, carrying the filled containers and then, at the appropriate time, pouring them into the small cement mixer. Others carefully pushed wheelbarrows full of wet, sloshing cement, making sure none splashed out on the ground. There was no way I could do any of that work. I could barely stand up.

            I found that three other co-workers, who had eaten at the same, supposedly excellent restaurant in the town of Granada, had similar experiences. One woman had ventured out to the site, but had to take a moto back to the hotel. We had all eaten the same fish dish.

            A substantial, delicious lunch was served at noon every day at the site. That day, I was only able to eat a little rice. We sat together at student desks, in a semi-circle in one of the completed classrooms. Wendy, who cooked for the students at the NicaPhoto program (and was the wife of the martial-arts instructor), prepared the most appetizing meals for us. She marinated chicken breasts with a paste of garlic, cilantro and sour orange which created the most delicious chicken any of us had ever tasted. I dreamed when I would once again be able to taste Wendy’s amazing chicken. I knew that the next day I’d be back shoveling, raking, and lifting, as I had been before that fish dinner.

Aside | Posted on by | 1 Comment

First of Three Vignettes about time in Sonrisa de Dios, Nicaragua

Image

 

Last week, I was part of a group of sixteen people from Westport Rotary and Builders Beyond Borders, consisting of four students who were twenty-years-old and the remainder of us, all over forty. We traveled to Nicaragua to build two additional classrooms for an elementary school in Sonrisa de Dios, a poor barrio, part of the city of Naragote. Two classrooms had previously been built by groups from Builders Beyond Borders and were full of happy children and their teachers.

            Our contact organization was NicaPhoto, an American non-profit, with an office located in Norwalk, Connecticut. It provides a wonderful program for eighty students, with a waiting list of another fifty. The woman who started this remarkable project is a member of Rotary. She saw a need and filled it by working with the government, authorities and the creative, hard working people in Sonrisa de Dios.

            Most of the students, in the existing other rooms of the school wore a school uniform. For years, this requirement was dictated by the government, although recently, with the last election, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega had decreed that students didn’t have to wear uniforms anymore. However, everyone knew that if you didn’t wear a uniform, it meant you couldn’t afford it. No one, no matter how poor, even if the family didn’t have a latrine, or lived in a house covered with black plastic and didn’t have enough to eat, wanted anyone to know that she couldn’t afford the white blouse and blue skirt of the official school uniform throughout the country.

            Two women, who spoke to us, had been part of the Sandinista movement and hailed Ortega. They appreciated his work as head of the Sandinistas during the 1970s, and now as their president. Others secretly complained that not enough reforms had come to the people.

            Signs praising Daniel Ortega and his party appeared throughout the country. Opposing him could be risky and during a rally praising the Sandinistas, everyone was expected to show up. We walked around the huge crowd, sitting in white folding chairs or standing outside and noticed that few people smiled. No one cheered or applauded the speaker who shouted into the microphone and waived his arms. We were told that if someone wasn’t present, his job might be at risk. People would note who was in attendance and who wasn’t.

            The final day we were at the school, while on the work site, a pickup truck arrived. Two men, wearing T-shirts that extolled the Sandinistas, with a facsimile of Daniel Ortega’s signature on it, entered one of the classrooms. They presented the teacher with shoes to be given to the children, as well as some plain, black backpacks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Paul’s Release

breathecut

Tuesday May 13, 2014

I write this, a few days before Friday, May 16th, the scheduled date of Paul’s release. I’m surprised at the intensity of my reaction, which, to any logical mind, is exaggerated, overblown, especially considering the reason he’s been in prison. Why should I even care? Almost nine years have passed, you’d think I would have…perhaps forgotten all about him, but I haven’t.

In fact, I remember almost every critical moment of the two years from 2005-2007, although now I only consciously relive those times when I’m writing or editing my memoir. Nowadays, it’s as if I’m writing about someone else, or about something that happened a lifetime ago.

Today, May 13th, just three days before the release date, I may throw up, even though lunch was more than three hours ago. A strong metallic taste invades my mouth. I know this physical reaction is entirely caused by emotion.

My heart isn’t racing, but each beat feels louder and harder than normal and goes from the center of my chest down to my diaphragm, a jackhammer of augmented anxiety.

I remind myself to take deep breaths…like the little reminders I have taped all over the house. They say, breathe – and prompt me not to hold my breath, but breathe evenly and deeply. This conscious action lessens my level of anxiety and helps me create a calm atmosphere. I actually notice the spring breeze that sneaks though the screened-in porch.

I thought this day would never arrive. I couldn’t imagine my life without him incarcerated. Over the last year, I assumed, with his serious medical problems, he would probably die before his release date. He fooled the federal prison authorities, doctors and those remaining in contact with him and is going to walk out of the massive Butner, North Carolina facility, his sentence served.

Friday May 16, 2014

When Friday arrives, I find I think of little but his release. An accumulation of feelings: positive, negative, fearful, angry, resentful tumble through my thoughts over the day. I wonder, as the hours pass, where he is, what’s happening and how he’s feeling. This intense concern about him seems strange, even to me, as I try to figure out why I even care. There were months at a time during his incarceration when I never thought about him, even once. Perhaps it’s the memories of the good times, and yes, there were some, before he descended into his obsessions and illegal activity. I can’t figure out the reasons. It doesn’t really matter, for this day will pass and I’m not part of his life anyway. Except that I am, in my mind.

His cousin Chris, so supportive and kind to him over all this time, picks him up and drives him to her house for the remainder of the day. She tells me they have dinner and she emails a photo of the two of them, taken by her daughter, in front of a purple sunset. Paul appears remarkably well and her happy expression shows how genuinely she cares for him. A sensation of warmth passes through my chest and I feel glad for him.

The next day, he’ll fly to Arizona, where he’ll live with his sister. I tell my mind to empty the conglomeration of thoughts and feelings about him that have taken over my brain the last few days. I would like to think that his wellbeing has nothing to do with me, but the reality is that I’m still waiting for my release.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

This Terrible Subject

DSC_0018web

Enough! I’m done writing about this terrible subject. This is the last post, I promise! I’m not solving the problem of eliminating child abuse, putting pornographers in prison, shutting down the millions of sites. The only good my posts create is that this horrendous subject isn’t forgotten by those who read about it. Otherwise the subject is resurrected in the news only when there’s a big arrest or particularly horrible case.

This last case (for me) is about Raven Kaliana, an American girl who lived in one of the western states. Nicholas Kristof wrote about her in a moving New York Times Op-Ed piece March 23rd.

When she was just four years old, her parents knowingly dropped her off at a professional studio in the Pacific Northwest, to be photographed by a child pornographer. This went on for years and was never discovered by the authorities.

I wonder how many more reports of child abuse can there possibly be. Judging by new articles, there are plenty more. The child pornography industry is doing just fine, in spite of gruesome information that appears, over and over.

The child that Kristof wrote about is now an adult. She changed her name, ended contact with her parents and now fights back by creating original puppet shows, with her writing, films and programs — http://outspiral.org.uk/index.html. I wish I could be as effective in educating the world about this evil industry.

Usually, I imagine that little girls forced into sex acts for profit in the child pornography industry were kidnapped or sold, because in their culture they weren’t valued, as girls. This horror story shows that it’s not just eastern European families affected by extreme poverty who sell their daughters into a life of sexual slavery. It happens here too.

In the case of this American girl, her parents needed the money she earned as a pre-schooler to pay bills. It’s impossible for me to comprehend mothers and fathers even considering throwing away their little girl’s childhood, for the electric bill, the mortgage.

Kristof quotes Kaliana’s parents saying that they thought she’d just “get over it”. I think that twenty years or even a life sentence in prison is reasonable punishment for them. After all, my ex-husband received ten years for receipt of child pornography. Raven Kaliana’s parents made it possible for pornographers to create horrific photographs of their little girl. The parents are as guilty as the perpetrators.

Kristof noted that there are 21 million sites available to individuals who share child pornography files. Most men, arrested for receipt of child pornography believe that they’re not guilty of truly bad things, because they only looked at pictures, and consider it a victimless crime. That’s completely wrong. The photos and films are of real girls and sometimes little boys, who are brutalized and robbed of their childhoods.

But until there’s no demand for such photographs, the many agents who search out the makers and sellers of child pornography don’t have a chance of stopping these crimes, where the victims are small, without a voice of their own.

No girl should have to recreate her life in order to try to live normally the way Kaliana is doing now.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Over Stimulation vs. Solitude

prison cell

Last month, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed entitled My Night in Solitary written by the new head of the Colorado department of corrections, Rick Raemisch. He spent one night in Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) solitary confinement in order to experience firsthand what it felt like. With no positive stimulation, it was, to someone used to freedom, a torturous experience.

Raemisch should be respected for wanting to feel what the inmates that he controls do. He’s serious about making changes. After all, transforming the prison system would be for his benefit as well as those who are in solitary for weeks or months at a time. The previous warden was shot to death a year ago by a former prisoner who had spent years alone and was released directly from solitary.  This past Sunday, March 16th there was a follow-up article in the New York Times that focused on the admiration he’s received and the benefit that prison changes should bring to Colorado.

It’s impossible for me to imagine being in a place where there’s no outside communication attempting to invade my thoughts and grab my attention. I don’t know about you, but I’m overloaded with mental stimulation; email, texts, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, plus mail, bills, and work I deal with every day. Frequently, when I’m reading important information, another message forces its way into my consciousness and captures what I thought was good concentration. My mind whirrs in a vortex with words crashing into each other so I may miss the point in both messages.

When it’s my choice, I like to be alone. Often it’s a reward I give myself for finishing some work project that’s been difficult. However, being isolated, because someone else has the power to decide I should be separated from everything important to me, would be a completely different state of affairs.

I consider this opposite situation from information-overload and instead think about prison and solitary confinement, a place of deep aloneness. For a few years, beginning in 2005, when I received letters from my ex-husband telling me he’d been placed in solitary confinement for his own protection, I didn’t consider what that could feel like for him. I never wondered if he was upset or unhappy or just accepted it as one of the illogical parts of prison life. At that time, I focused all my energy on my own stability.

In his case, it meant he had caused the authorities to fear for his safety because he had either communicated to others the reason he was in prison, or a guard had shared private information about him to another inmate. There were plenty of prisoners who could be violent and dangerous to someone locked up for possession of child pornography. It just took one prisoner saying to another that anyone who had kiddy porn didn’t deserve to live, to cause the authorities to yank that man out of the general population.

I recall that my ex-husband was in solitary for weeks at a time, or maybe it was months. He wasn’t there for punishment, so was able to have books and paper and that was when he wrote long letters to everyone who would respond to him and sketched.  He didn’t complain about feeling abandoned or isolated and appeared to create a rich life through his art and letters. If he had lonely feelings, I missed them in my own upset about the events in my life that his crime had created.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Calculating Financial Damage from Men who View Child Pornography

IMG_9059web

I’ve thought a great deal about a January 23rd piece in the New York Times, “Justices Seem Stumped On Calculating Damages Over Child Pornography.” The article is about the Supreme Court Justices and their work determining what the financial liability should be for a man who has viewed a pornographic image of a child — or hundreds or thousands of images. It’s also how the penalty should be divided up when many men have seen the pictures.

The justices are clearly confused, uncertain as to what is right. This is understandable. If 70,000 people have viewed a photo of a girl being abused, being raped, how much money should one of those viewers be responsible to pay? What portion of $3.4 million, the amount one viewer was assessed, does one man owe? Or does he owe the entire amount because each person is obligated to pay the total?

This is a complicated and difficult issue with no obvious way of dividing up liability. I feel for the Justices because their final answer will be based not only on how much income they estimate she will lose because of lasting psychological damage, but also will put a dollar amount on the massive amount of her emotional pain and suffering.

The victim’s uncle who attacked her was only required to pay $6325.00 and spend twelve years in prison. How much does the thousandth viewer of the pictures owe — or the ten-thousandth viewer? Are they equally responsible or is the first viewer liable for more money than later viewers?

I haven’t seen a photo of Amy, the name given to the eight year old child assaulted in the pictures. I’ve wondered, for a long time, how terrible she must feel today from knowing so many men have seen the brutal abuse that she experienced two decades ago.

In 2005, when my then husband was arrested for receipt of child pornography, I saw one photo on a CD that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents missed in my home. It’s of a girl, about six years old, with full, wavy dark hair and large, expressive sad eyes and is etched in my memory forever. I don’t know when it was taken so can’t imagine how old the girl is today. Perhaps she’s dead. Maybe she was killed trying to escape. Maybe she was murdered by one of her abusers. All are real possibilities and there’s no way of knowing. The horrific life of such a girl is beyond imagination.

I wonder what will happen for Amy, the woman identified in this article. I wonder if my ex-husband is reading about this Supreme Court case and what he thinks of it. I wonder if he experiences a shred of guilt about the past when he looked at photos of girls being raped and brutalized. Or has he pushed it out of his mind in his concern about cancer threatening his own life?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments