TODAY NICARAGUA – The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception.
During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. But it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district.
It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.
Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.
We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.
The family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found. Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.
The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework. The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.
The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children. A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd. The children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.
The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done. The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Much food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another. Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.