Leaders From the Field:Building a School in a Nicaraguan Dump
By Brett McNaught, Vice President of International Programs
My international work with buildOn has taken me to some truly unique parts of the globe–Misomali, in Malawi, Africa, where one school blossomed into a 10 classroom campus, and a community of former slaves in Lathaiya, Nepal are but two examples. But La Cruz, a small village in Nicaragua, may trump them all with its singular circumstances.
I was introduced to La Cruz while working in Nicaragua with an NGO partner, Fabretto, who helps impoverished youth with education, nutrition, and health programs. I could hardly believe the particulars of the project. “The entire community,” they told me, “sits beside the massive Esteli Dump.”
[pullquote]”The entire community,” they told me, “sits beside the massive Esteli Dump.”[/pullquote]
Like all too many who live in poverty in South and Central America, a dump provides La Cruz with the nearest thing it has to an economy. No one owns land, and as such there’s little agricultural motivation, and no farms or crops. To earn a living, every day the people of La Cruz sift through the mounds of city trash all around them, collecting items that can be recycled or re-sold–pieces of glass, scrap metal, plastic.
Founded in 1951, La Cruz remains small: 37 small “houses” provide shelter for roughly 150 people. When I first visited, it struck me as substantially poorer even than the other under-developed Nicaraguan villages in which we’ve built schools. They have no electricity and no sanitation system. And much of the refuse they can’t sell they take home with them and attempt to put to use in their household.
[pullquote]Our school in La Cruz was easily the most challenging project we’ve completed in Nicaragua.[/pullquote]
The entire town consists of several rows of ramshackle structures pieced together from discarded items and debris–there wasn’t a single brick in sight among the scraps of roofing sheets, wood splinters, and torn plastic tarps. It looked more like a refugee camp than a village, per se, and yet a conversation I had with a town elder who’d lived in La Cruz for 20 years revealed that these were not temporary homes. If you’d looked across the dump to the horizon two decades ago it’s hard for me to think that much progress could have been made.
Our school in La Cruz was easily the most challenging project we’ve completed in Nicaragua, partly due to the way that life is oriented around the dump in the village. Since all men, women and children were accustomed to organizing and collecting refuse every day, the idea of investing even one day a week of volunteer labor in a long-term project was met with confusion.
The community is, in addition, very fractured due to a family feud. Nicaragua is rife with blood battles, the sources of which are very vague. In La Cruz I was told that a few generations back one family’s cow or donkey had been stolen, and when the crime went unsolved violent lines were drawn. To this day, while all townspeople work in the same dump side by side, a strip of land divides La Cruz’s residential area, and the families rarely venture over into opposing territory. A poorly built school stood on one side of town when I first visited, but it only educated very young children who belonged to one of La Cruz’s two fractured sides. It was obvious that much work would need to be completed in order to get the school built and both familial sides of La Cruz to send their children there.
[pullquote]It was an incredible thing to watch men and women who have toiled amid mountains of trash every day for nearly their entire lives break from that routine and build something for themselves.[/pullquote]
I’m proud to say that, working with Fabretto, we were able to show the people of La Cruz the value of walking away from the dump and their feud to build something permanent for the community. Fabretto helped us to communicate the importance of volunteering on the construction, and have also implemented health and income generation plans that can improve the quality of life in La Cruz. Food workshops and meal plans are in place to alleviate widespread malnutrition, and the villagers are learning the importance of hand washing and oral hygiene. The school was completed in Spring of 2011, and due to the lack of electricity in La Cruz is powered by solar panels.
It was an incredible thing to watch men and women who have toiled amid mountains of trash every day for nearly their entire lives break from that routine and build something for themselves. And while the opening of the school on June 6th was, to be certain, one of many steps for La Cruz, it was ultimately this community pride that overcame the numerous obstacles standing in the way of education.