Tag Archives: Children

My Name Is Char-les

Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua.  I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings  for the following day or just in telling each other life stories.  There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them.  (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.)  But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.                                                                           

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie.  By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie.  Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.

Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance.   He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk.  Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe.  Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence.  More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out,  was full of questions and observations about almost everything.

Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not.  Names?  Home country?  Where is that?  Where is China?  Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Do you know about whales?  Where is your hotel?  Do you have kids?

He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own:  I’m eight years old.  My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant).  I like football.  I go to the school that is right behind your hotel.  I like to read.  My mom says that I ask a lot of questions.  I have a brother but he has a different dad.  Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.

Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner.  It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return.  His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone.  The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication.  Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about  his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.

“I’m very fast.  Do you know about airplanes?  I have never been on an airplane.  What are you eating for dinner?”  The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda.  We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator.  “Is Iowa in Mexico?  You are my new friends.”

With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her.  She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life.  She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur.  Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.

I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase.  But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les.  Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead.  In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future.  The need is not his alone.  We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….

 

 

 

Book It

“No one who can read ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”                         -Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 

I finished reading two books last week, one an historical recounting of the life of Native American figure Red Cloud and the other about the worst hurricane ever to hit the U.S.   I love to read.  Reading informs my world view, piques my curiosities, temporarily abducts me from the nonsense in everyday life, makes me laugh, makes me cry.  It shapes my opinions and my character.  In fact, a love of reading was the lifeline that helped me through college, aided in obtaining my first real job, and guided my vocational choices, even to the present: in my next career, I’d like to return to performing voice-over work, reading for the benefit of others.

There’s nothing terribly unusual in that confession; indeed, most of us are creatures of the written word.  Reading is the central tenet of education, vocation, communication with other human beings and of evolution itself.  Imagine, for a moment, where civilization and the human parade might be without the ability to read.

It’s not such a far-fetched thing to imagine.  There are people who cannot read; not that they choose not to read, but that they are unable to read the written word.  They are certainly to be found in the U.S.  And I have met far too many of them in Nicaragua, frequently in the rural areas where education often may not exceed third grade due to the need for every family member to work for the family’s basic sustenance.  The need to eat comes before the ability to read.

This is the context in which “Let’s Read, Reading Is Fun!” was born and continues to grow in Nicaragua.  (I have written about the program here previously, but it continues to be one of the most directly impactful and [for me] personally satisfying endeavors that Winds of Peace Foundation supports.)  The premise is simple: get books into the hands of school-age children and thus release the inherent joys to be found in reading.

It’s easy to take reading for granted when using the skill everyday.  We read books.  We scan newspapers. We network within social media.  We send and receive e-mails.  We read menus before dining, ballots prior to voting, road signs while driving, and airline tickets before boarding.  In short, reading is perhaps the essential skill of modern living.  But in Nicaragua, books are not in great supply, so reading skills become stalled for lack of attractive and engaging materials.  I can only imagine what my own literacy might be today without help from Dr. Seuss and The Hardy Boys.  Where might you be today without the ability to read?  (Among other things, you wouldn’t be reading this essay!)

“Let’s read, Reading Is Fun” recognizes the essential need and right that is reading.  In 2017,  another 9,670 books were distributed within 313 schools.  Since its inception in 2010, nearly 54,000 children have participated in the reading program, honing a skill that forever changes who they are and what they will become.  (The full report of the “Let’s Read” campaign for 2017 and its cause and effect is posted under the Education Funds section of this website, located on the homepage.)

If you are able to read this entry, congratulations on possessing the skill to do so.  While the content written here may not shape your future or your character, what you absorb from the written word elsewhere most certainly will.  Go read a book- it will change you.  It’s a particularly good thing to know that in rural Nicaragua, those same transformations are happening.  You can make book on it….

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

Looking for A Cupcake

looking-for-a-cupcake

My granddaughter’s first birthday was on Saturday.  Much like her older brother’s first birthday, upon which I reflected a few years ago, family and friends gathered to ogle and give gifts for the little angel (for that’s exactly what she is) in a symbolic shower of love.  This first year has been a joyful if sleepless time for her parents, and an absolute wonder for her grandparents, who can’t help but recall the memories of their own little girl decades ago.  That memory is aided considerably by the fact that this baby looks so much like her mother, who also happens to be an identical twin.  So the recollections are tripled for grandma and grandpa.

I found myself noting all the individual requirements of this little celestial.  She exhibits definite preferences that must be satisfied; she points to where she wants to go and slides across a floor with ease to explore her latest interest.  She is relentless in her curiosity. She demands to be fed with regularity and particularity.  Her regular sleep patterns must be maintained for domestic peace; she wakes up early for her daily work.   She does not do well if she is too cold.  When she holds a toy, she will struggle against her brother’s compulsion to take it away;  she most often does not have the power to prevail.  She is quick to smile.  As she is being fed, she is very cognizant of the foods which others are consuming and which are forbidden to her; I suspect that she yearns for the day when she might share in those same, enticing meals.  She is adored by her family and, now, anyone else who has the chance to get close to her.  She touches people.  She is inquisitive about them, but not quite brave enough to move outside the comfort zone of her mother’s presence.

In these ways, she is almost exactly like her older brother at the same age.  She is probably just like nearly all other 1 year-olds.  Actually, she’s just like all the rest of us, who require our basic needs to be met and then hope that we might absorb at least a little bit more, so that we can become who we are meant to be.  Just like other North Americans, or Europeans, or Koreans or Russians.   Just like Nicaraguans.

I loved watching her reach for a cupcake.  Like everyone, she deserves it….

Slaves to Custom

Having just finished attending the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, I have to be careful in using language that in any way could diminish the atrocities of modern-day enslavement.  To my embarrassment and astonishment, I have learned that there are approximately 168 million children currently victimized as virtual slaves worldwide.

These are not cases of children working for their parents or relatives for sustenance.  These are kids who are most often abducted, sold and involuntarily subjected to dangerous and demanding work in sex brothels, mines, fields and factories.  They are forced into child prostitution or the labor black market to produce many of the clothes, foods and electronic devices that we in the West use every day.  By comparison, the zika virus is incidental.  The real epidemic facing us as human beings is found in the involuntary servitude of children, some as young as five years old.

The scope and horror of child slavery is so broad as to be nearly invisible to those of us in the West; we have become very good at numbing ourselves from such overwhelming issues, rendering them to statistical status.  But the idea of enslaved young children numbering more than half of the entire U.S. population is a reality to warrant shame for every one of us, and more than enough to summon the resources and resolve of humanity to end this modern holocaust.  And yet, it continues.

The focus of this year’s Peace Prize Forum has prompted me to wonder about how untenable circumstances arise in the first place, and what combination of apathy, ignorance and disinterest is capable of rendering otherwise empathetic human beings into uncaring bystanders.  The transformation is both baffling and fascinating.

I think it must be like the example of the frog and the heated pot of water. Legend has it that if you were to place a frog into a pot of boiling liquid (no frog has been harmed in the writing of this piece), it would immediately jump out to escape the heat.  However, if you were to place the frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually increase the heat, the frog would adapt to the changing temperature so well that it would remain in the water, even to the point where it would succumb to the boiling temperature.

We human beings seem to be very good at accepting our environments and the discomforts that we observe around us.  We have innate senses of right and wrong, but can be maddeningly silent in the face of the most atrocious violations of human rights.  What may begin as an act of desperation can transition to a custom.  What is accepted as a custom may be adopted as a cultural norm.  And cultural norms can evolve to a sovereign practice, an “emperor’s new clothes” ritual, wherein observers recognize the wrong but remain too silent in the face of it.

If we can be tepid in the face of child slavery, we should not wonder at our seeming acceptance of so many other injustices that confront us daily.  The idea that a Nicaraguan producer might have to exist on less than $2 per day will have little resonance in our combined conscience, until we personally are faced with the decisions that a $2 income produces.  The alarm bells of wealth disparity that continue to sound within our global economy will generate little response, until finally, the top 1% controls it all.  We are unlikely to address the plague of gun violence in our society, until one of our own family members is among the next 50 to be destroyed.  We will accept the outrageous insults of politicians and their cronies, until the attacks become focused upon our ethnicity or lifestyle.  We seem to be slaves to the easy acceptance of the warming waters around us, only jumping at the boiling point.

I’m sure there are elements of the human psyche which psychologists could use to explain these tendencies about us.  Maybe we should read about them to better understand the risks and threats to our collective existence.  Our slavery to apathy is filled with consequence, whether we see it or not.  Dante Alighieri, poet extraordinaire of the Middle Ages, even warned us about it in his own time, observing that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who,in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”  Knowing the consequences might be an important thing, before we fall victim to our own nature….

 

Mother’s Day Reflection, Redux

I’ve been thinking about my Mom this weekend.  She’s been gone for six years now, and I think about her often, but especially this weekend, as we in the U.S. celebrate all things motherhood.  I felt as though I wanted to say something in regard to that, and then realized I had already done so a couple of years ago in this very space.  So I offer it here again, because I know how much my mother meant to me, and I to her:

It’s nearly impossible to overlook Mother’s Day today.  In the U.S., stories on the news, on the Internet and incessant commercials on television have been constant reminders that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our mothers and we’d better pay off a portion of that debt today!  Such reminders are frequently followed by suggestions of gifts to bestow on our moms, ranging from flowers to diamonds.  (Personally, I’m not sure what my own mother would have thought about receiving a diamond bracelet from me on Mother’s Day, although I suspect that she would not have accepted it.)

Mother’s Day is a world phenomenon, with versions of it having been observed for centuries.  Its United States version was created by presidential proclamation in 1914 and we’ve been buying greeting cards ever since.  In a sense, it’s too bad that we need a day to show gratitude to our moms.  In another sense, we’re grateful for the official day to remind us to do so.  If my Mom was still alive, she’d be hearing from me, as she always did.

Of course, motherhood is one of the undeniable, universal ties that binds us together, men and women alike.  Not all women become moms, and no dads (that I know of) have become moms, but we all have a mom and thus a shared experience.  As different as our cultures may be around the world, the connection with our moms is one of the great equalizers of humankind, transcending borders and customs alike.

I watched a news program last night, the final story of which had to do with Mother’s Day.   It featured an entire classroom of six year-olds engaged in the task of creating handmade Mother’s Day cards.  As adorable as the children were to watch, their sentiments were even more precious to hear.  Each recited thanks for a special gift from their mothers that made these  moms so wonderful.  “Thank you for getting me breakfast every day.”  “Thank you for letting me watch movies.”  “Thank you for cooking dinner.”  “Thank you for making lunch for me.”  “Thank you for loving me.”  And one little boy reflected on the fact that when thinking of his mom he thought of chocolate cake.

As I listened to this litany of gratitude from the hearts of little kids, it occurred to me that not all little boys and girls around the world would necessarily be thanking their moms for such blessings.  While Nicaragua will not celebrate Mother’s Day until the end of this month, the gratitudes expressed on that day are likely to be quite different from those heard on the news segment: breakfast, lunch, dinner and chocolate cakes are less frequent amenities in Nicaragua than they are in the U.S.   But while the specific thanks might be dissimilar between the countries, one thing is not.  The hopes and aspirations of the mothers are very much the same.

Nica moms love their kids,  have hopes for a better standard of living, aspire to see their children be able to read and become educated, pray that their young evolve into decent people, and envision lives for them that are free from the exhaustion and indignity of poverty.  I can imagine hundreds of mothers in Nigeria today whose visions for their children reach far deeper than breakfast, lunch and dinner.   As well as in Ukraine.  And Syria.  Motherhood in such places is not the same as in the United States.

If the dreams that are dreamed by Nica moms are the same longings as U.S. moms, the likelihoods for those dreams are not.  For U.S. moms, dreams still hold the very real possibilities of becoming true, and kids can and do grow into their mothers’ yearnings.  For far too many Nica moms (and Nigerian, Ukrainian and Syrian moms), their dreams are the gift to their kids, because there are limited chances of such hopes ever becoming reality.  It’s the most and the best that they can do.  

If the sentiments of Mother’s Day are shared across cultures, the context of life and the future are not.  As we celebrate the love and sacrifices of those who brought us into the world, we artificially limit our regard for motherhood if we do not acknowledge the love and sacrifices of all moms….

Somebody Ought to Do Something

Like many, I’ve been reading and watching the news about the plight of the refugees streaming into Europe.  It is heart-wrenching to watch the overloaded boats, the bodies of those who did not survive washed ashore, the streams of humanity marching into central European countries looking for any chance to survive.  I sense that even the news reporters are finding this subject difficult to cover, in part due to their own emotions at this enormous catastrophe which is unfolding before us each day.

The scope of this tragedy is such that I have found myself remembering other times, other stories of similar human disasters.  Of course, the Holocaust is the first to come to mind.  The enormity of it still defies comprehension, even after all the years and books and movies and even personal visits to historic and dreadful sites.  We recall with discomfort the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan and others.  I have learned all too clearly the evils perpetrated on the people of Nicaragua by my own government during the decade of the 80’s.  Too soon the atrocities have faded from our memories;  outrage has cooled to the extent that globally we allow something like the Syrian debacle unfold today.

I suppose that it is the human condition that we will always have unfinished work before us.  At the close of World War II, the mantra of “never again” filled the world with hope that maybe this time we had sufficiently absorbed the lessons of hatred, demonization of an entire people, war.  But that hope was short-lived at best and the passage of time allowed a dulling of our sensitivities sufficient to permit subsequent abominations.

The sea of refugees seeking survival from war and indiscriminate death is an overwhelming reality threatening to drown Europe in waves of displaced humanity and despair.  Gradually, some countries have stepped forward with offers of asylum and assistance.  The Vatican itself has said that it would accept two families into their midst in a symbolic act of mercy and a call for all nations to serve.  But as some countries continue to build miles of fences and to reject opportunities for providing humanitarian help, the future for hundreds of thousands remains uncertain.

Their plight rekindles thoughts of those other occasions when humanity seemed to be on the brink of simply not caring enough.  In each of those eras, the post-crisis analysis almost always included unanswered questions about why the rest of the world waited to act, allowing so many to perish in the process.  Of course, in the aftermath of such cataclysms such questions are safe to ask since the drama has come to an end.  Retrospective analysis is more comfortable than current actions.  The questions are much more difficult to grapple with when the events are happening now, in real time.  Such is our discomfort with the refugees’ dilemma in Europe.

As is true for any world conflict which begs for intervention by someone, somewhere, governments speak for us in the absence of opportunities for us to speak for ourselves.  As limiting as that arrangement may be, each of us retains a voice, a stance, a position that begs to be heard.  Those voices are ours.  The actions belong to each of us.  Somebody ought to do something before the current humanitarian quandary becomes another history lesson of grief and embarrassment….

When We Learn

I caught a segment on the news today that captured my attention. The piece had to do with the issue of memory loss and whether there are practices we can use to slow down the seemingly inevitable loss of memory that afflicts so many of us.  The discussion included several lifestyle factors which can affect memory strength: exercise, sound nutrition, sufficient sleep, stress control and mental stimulation such as encountered in learning something new.  This last category is the one which struck me with special impact.

I’m not sure how many retirement-age people seek out new fields of learning in their later years, but I suspect that it’s a significant number.  It may not be learning in the sense of a new language or taking up a musical instrument- as suggested in the story- but some retirees are inclined to delve into topics that they never had the time to explore when working vocationally.  The availability of extra time is simply too valuable to leave unfilled.

And what gifts such opportunity provides!  In addition to mental and memory sharpening, learning can  launch the acquisition of new skills, discovery of new outlets of expression, permit an unfolding of a new worldview, and further enrich lives that may have previously been thought to be static.  Even new careers are launched from the base of educational re-birth.  As long as the energy and desire to learn are present, transformation can happen, and at any age.

The recognition is a happy one for someone like me, on the upper fringes of middle age (whatever that is).  But following a week in Nicaragua during which our emphasis again was education development, such awareness exposes an uncomfortable inequity, another one of those troubling realities which has seemingly few avenues for redress and yet massive consequences to us all.  For in Nicaragua, like many other developing nations, access to education is limited, at best, and at every age.

 At the time when Nica children are most eager and receptive to the lessons of life from the neighborhood academy, they are all too often denied entry.  Too many are needed by their families to work in order that living necessities can be met, or they are unable to access a school with books and teachers, or they cannot afford the niggling costs of a uniform and materials.  As a result, rural Nicaraguan children have very small chances of remaining in school past the third grade, and the statistics are not improving. Another generation of so many uneducated children is an enormous burden that the country simply cannot absorb successfully, no matter how strong the optimism or how deep the denial.

Hearing from the StudentsLast week, WPF visited  the  Fe y Alegria vocational school in Somotillo, located in the far west corner of the country.  Like so much of the country, it’s a remote, rural sector, featuring high heat and ever-higher winds, few opportunities outside of “street” jobs, and a place where kids have few chances to learn much about their lives and what they could be.  In fact, most of them come from destitute families or no families at all; the street is not only where they work, but where they live.

The Somotillo Technical School is an oasis in this context, where children ranging from pre-school to high school can be exposed to the possibilities in life, away from the streets.  Young people are introduced to trades like welding, furniture-making, sewing, baking, electricity and computers.  (In one class, I inspected this computer made by the students from old parts.  Could you do that?  On my best day I could not.)  Handmade ComputerAs importantly, they are taught life skills, things like respect and healthy relationships, personal hygiene, lifestyle choices.  But most importantly, the kids are given the chance to absorb what they crave: learning and self-actualization.  Melby, perhaps as old as twelve, said it for himself: “I have done baking from my lessons in

Melby Speaks

the class and it has allowed me to sell and generate a little money for my everyday needs.”  With no one else available to do so, this free school- the only free technical school in the entire region- is helping Melby to learn the basics of self-sufficiency.

Our world requires all the collective knowledge, innovation and insight that we can possibly muster and the under-education of our future generations might be one of the most self-defeating postures ever assumed by humankind.  Issues of poverty and justice, climate change and energy, war and peace, demand intellect and vision beyond what we have at our disposal presently.  The answers to the great dilemmas of humanity may well lie in the untapped mental fertility of those for whom education is a great unknown, a process only to be dreamed of, or perhaps even feared, but never to be personalized.  The notion is frightening enough to conjure a particular vision of Hell, where humans there discover that they had all the answers to life itself within their collective grasp, but failed to see them due to their own shortsightedness.

Truth and irony abound in this education tale.  The truth is that the capacity for learning- indeed, the love of learning- never goes away during our lifetimes.  It may become dormant for lack of use or opportunity, but it is as central to our beings as the heartbeat itself.  The irony is that while most in this country have endless access to even the narrowest fields of learning, we tend to take such privilege for granted and are  willing to forego such capacities in favor of less dynamic pursuits.  And meanwhile, many of the young children of Nicaragua are desperately seeking even the smallest chance to advance their understanding of the world around them. It creates an immense imbalance, one that would seem worthy and capable of address, if we were collectively motivated to do so.

Leave it to a week in Nicaragua to teach me a new perspective.  I am grateful for the gift of life-long learning, a gift intended for all….

Intensity to Learn