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.