Muchachos and Muchachas On-line: From the Barrio to the World Wide Web

by Sophie Watson

Lorena teaching computers in Managua, Nicaragua
Photo by A. Roldan

“OY! PSTTTTTTTTTTTT, ahrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, Chela Chela, I love you, I love you, whistle whistle, grunt, grunt.”

“Hey Nica Nica, you don’t even know me,” Lorraine Swift yells back to the ever-present cat-calling men stooged out on the road at eight in the morning. Chela means super pale one—it doesn’t help matters that she’s a summer blonde.

So begin most mornings for Lorraine Swift when leaving her house and making her way on the mud road, heading to the main street to hail a taxi in Managua, Nicaragua. This morning, one of the many Lada taxis stops. A typical Nica taxi, it is stripped of most features including a door handle, rearview mirror, interior door panels. It is a skeleton with heartburn, and what parts it does have have been re-welded together, or duct-taped on like the side mirror. Before getting in, Swift tells the driver: “We want to go to Las Torres, on the carretera Norte, off the former Nuevo Diario intersection, one block down and three houses west…green house. Cuanto vale por favor?” Formal addresses are rare in this capital city of 2 million—even business cards have wordy directions. Taxi drivers follow a different methodology than in Canada: they pick up as many as six customers from different locations if the clients are headed in relatively the same direction, to be more efficient and economical—yet another example of this culture that maximizes their resources. The kids here make kites out of Saran Wrap.

Green light and the drivers resume their sound-barrier-breaking speed because there is a certain critical speed that if you can’t avoid the potholes you can at least hope to be safely airborne.

Despite the grinding sounds and limitations of the skeletal Lada, the taxista still manages to drive his car as though he’s Jacques Villeneuve zooming around the cliffs of Monaco. We pass families of four acrobatically perched on a single motorcycle; ladies riding scooters sidesaddle like old-fashioned English equestrians. The lane system is only whimsically in effect here; all drivers swerve in serpentine mode, doing quasi figure-eights to avoid the crater-sized pot holes on the congested roads.

The drivers brake just in time to avoid hitting the numerous kids who are stationed at the various intersections during red lights trying to sell the drivers anything they have, gum, newspapers, window washing. Green light and the drivers resume their sound-barrier-breaking speed because there is a certain critical speed that if you can’t avoid the potholes you can at least hope to be safely airborne. All of the vehicles spew black clouds of oil that conspire with the humidity to make a paste that grimes into the creases in your skin. All the while, cheesy music blares from car radios: Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper. This is Swift’s third time in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; this time, she is here on an eight-month contract. She knows her way around which was lucky for me when I went to stay with her while I was visiting Nicaragua, profiling Canadian development workers.

With a degree in Native Studies, Swift has been an activist since her early teens. Just entering her 30s, Swift and her CV read like an adventure novel. Her experience includes working for environmental advocacy organizations; chaining herself to trees in the Clayquot Sound; working on a documentary featuring the condition of Maquila factories in Mexico and being interviewed on the National; working in Northern Alberta on cultural cartography projects with indigenous communities to safeguard sacred land; organizing educational tours to Nicaragua, Brazil, Ethiopia; freelance desktop publishing; and hosting endless legendary dinner parties.

1999’s CV update: currently she works for  Edmonton, Alberta’s, Change for Children (CFC). Swift and six other Canadians drove a school bus from Edmonton to Managua, Nicaragua. They stopped on the way to listen to Tex Mex in Texan bars, did the necessary bribing of officials in Mexico, met Guatemalan Indians and got dressed in ceremonial textiles, all the while learning how to be Class-One drivers down some frighteningly stiff roads. Swift and her travelling companions successfully managed to bring down three computers, baseball equipment and the bus itself as donations for the Institute of Human Promotion.

Edmonton’s Change for Children is a non-governmental organization (ngo) that works towards creating a better place for the children of the world. Over the years CFC has developed a strong bond with a sister organization in Nicaragua called the Institute for Human Promotion (INPRHU). INPRHU is an ngo dedicated to improving the quality of life for the huge population of child street workers in Nicaragua. In a country of over 4.3 million 53% are under the age of 18. With a 60% unemployment rate and crushing international debt, the country’s already desperate situation was made worse by 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. Kids, often the only breadwinners in the family, take to the streets, selling Chiclets, washing windows, even selling themselves to get by. Many turn to glue-sniffing and crime. With the disastrous economics of the country and the societal ramifications of the poverty, it is imperative that the child population learn their rights and learn how to protect themselves while getting a chance to prove that the widespread perception of them as pests is resoundingly false. The INPRHU program for the promotion of the family and the community has been in existence for 8 years and offers young Nicaraguans the opportunity to participate in classes and workshops in everything from personal hygiene and cooking to music and culture.

For a young person, it is a challenge to have to live here because you never know when you will fall into the abyss—and if you don’t walk firmly you’re f****d.

Through CFC and CIDA, Swift was hired as an intern to work with INPRHU. Three days a week, Lorraine teaches four computer classes a day; the morning classes are geared towards basic computer skills acquisition and the afternoon classes focus on design, desktop publishing and journalism. The other two days of her work week are spent prepping course plans, desktop publishing brochures, and working on developing a website for INRPHU so that they can have a presence on the web to strengthen links with other like-minded organizations throughout the world. Swift’s technical knowledge is as valuable in Managua as that of the friend who owns a truck on moving day—she is always getting the call.

Swift and I arrive at our destination and jump out of the Lada. There are kids on this street selling baggies of water alongside veterans with missing limbs selling lottery tickets. Bullet holes have pockmarked the side wall of the local tienda. Swift says hola to many people and asks one kid, named Byron—who is holding a squeegee, eyeing the traffic light, hoping for red—”Como estan sus negocios (How’s business)?” Byron smiles and answers in Spanish: “Okay, but it looks like it might rain.”

The INPRHU project house called Las Torres that we enter has a mural that was painted by INPRHU kids on the outside wall depicting some of the house’s activities—folkloric dancers and guitars.

“Hola muchachos, y muchachas,” Swift greets all the kids inside and introduces me.

“Hola Lorena,” they cheerfully respond; here Lorraine has become Spanishified to Lorena.

Kids are lined up and ready for class, an odd thing in a culture where lateness is the norm. The ten students aged fifteen to eighteen-years-old organize themselves and huddle around the three computers when Swift begins her lesson. Two kids to a computer, they take turns during the two hour class. The room is painted blue and has a makeshift feel with chairs piled up in the corner; it triples as a music area, dance room, workshop spot. Her class is very popular, and the kids concentrate well despite the dancing and music in the background. Nica kids know that computers are all the rage.

Lorena and fellow development worker Susan Spronk with students talking about computers and the endless possibilities of the internet for activism, education and friendship.
Photo: A. Roldan

While they wait their turns, I start chatting with them one-on-one. As usual I’m surprised by their unusual English names: I meet Milton, Howard, Jennifer, Byron, Darwin, Darling, Wilder.

“Hey, Howard what kind of music do you like?” I ask, starting off on easy ground in case they’re shy.

He grasps my taperecorder and proudly starts yapping in fast Spanish: “Like a good Latin man, I like salsa, meringue, but I also enjoy Guns & Roses, Metallica.”

“Tell me about yourself,” I prompt.

“Well, I’ve been living La Vida Loca—as Ricky Martin says—for 18 years now, yet in such a short span I have learned to value myself for what I am and to value people for their goodness. I have learned to cope with life in a third world country and what that means in terms of bad economic policies, high unemployment rate etc. For a young person, it is a challenge to have to live here because you never know when you will fall into the abyss—and if you don’t walk firmly you’re f****d. But here in the project I’ve learned music, pottery; I finished grade 11 and took a technical trade to support myself,” Howard proudly says into the tape recorder.

This is not the first time during my trip when I’ve been taken aback by how open and eager the kids I meet are to give me a rant on tape. But, after all, Nicaragua is the home of the Sandinista revolution, possibly one of the twentieth century’s most idealistic uprisings; people still believe in the importance of speaking up.

Wilder Gonzalez
Photo by A. Roldan

Wilder Gonzalez is wearing a mesh shirt and has rockabilly curly hair, a small mustache, a gigantic smile, and one fingernail painted red with a dime-store diamond on his pinky. Together with Yadira who has a plastic W around her neck, light brown hair parted in the middle, and big round cheerful cheekbones, they do workshops on sex education.

Wilder tells me, “I’m 18 years old. I’ve been with INPRHU for 3 years. First I enrolled in some classes for silk screening and I got really interested because I like to draw—and painting t-shirts was something new for me, a new art.

“The creative workshops that INRPHU workers hold are very important because though it may not seem to yield results immediately I’ve seen kids in these artistic workshops who do make a lot of progress in their craft. INPRHU provides the youth a place where they can come and learn—instead of being idle and looking for trouble. I’ve known some guys that were glue sniffers or drug addicts and they have overcome their addictions. A computing class these days is very important, for now and one’s future.”

“What do you and Yadira talk about in your workshops?” I ask.

Yadira explains: “We talk about abortion, unwanted pregnancies, how to prevent these problems and their complications, machismo and how to overcome it, self-esteem and gender issues, stds—we teach about the situation we are facing.

“We are seeking equality between genders, women are not looking to be better, but we want to be the same with equal rights. The majority of men think that we want to be better, but we only want to be respected.”

It’s Yadira’s turn now and she heads to the computer to design a poster about sex education and to write an email to a Canadian friend she met who was on a CFC youth tour in Nicaragua last summer. Wilder tells me that he’s got a plan. He shows me a slim machine that looks like a calculator and tells me that he traded his Nintendo game for this translation machine. He says he likes the idea of journalism: “I want to investigate the world.”

When people think of development work they often think of food assistance, but there are avenues of aid that are also important, human promotion for instance. INPRHU strongly believes in the acquisition of self-esteem through skill development in a community context because many of the kids’ home lives are horrible. You can see it in the troubled looking girl who shows up late, lurking in the background, looking longingly at the giggling girls who are doing a design software tutorial, hunt and peck typing. It’s quite something to know that a kid who lives in a dirt-floored, scrap-metal shack can have access to the world outside the barrio and be able to email a friend in Canada. One of the major differences between these kids and more privileged ones is that they are fully aware of the value of an opportunity. The beauty of these kids is that when they have been provided with an opportunity, they share what they have learned with the younger kids—in addition to this tangible information sharing, it feeds the kids a sense of pride.

 Swift and her students have decided to desktop publish a newsletter about INRPHU and their current projects. Called From the Street, the newsletter is entirely the students’ gig, Swift will offer technical support. The students decide that the feature article of the newsletter should be about the situation of the people that live in the lake area who are still suffering as a result of the Hurricane damage and more recently they keep getting flooded; their small land slipping away with every rain storm. The new journalists decide it’s field trip time.

keen student journalists
Photo: A. Roldan

The students, INPRHU workers, Swift and I head off to the barrio that is located on the banks of Lake Managua which is also unfortunately called the toilet bowl of Managua. Before the hurricane, people had far more land which gave them a healthier distance from the water. Many of the students live in barrios that we pass along the way. We walk as a group, prepping the questions, splitting the group into two teams. Each team has one tape recorder, a camera, and paper and pencils. Wilder is riding his bike and singing into one of the tape recorders.

At the lakefront, prosperity is relative—scrap-metal mansions sit next to teeny cardboard ones; pigs snort, mangy angry skinny dogs are everywhere, babies holler. Nobody receives tetanus shots here and it’s so jagged we have to be careful what we brush up against. It’s very smelly. There’s a feeling of embarrassment in our group as we walk by the shacks and families, intruding with our journalism passport.

We stroll along the river that hits the lake perpendicularly and we can see untreated sewage making its way to the open water. Along the water’s edge there are two or three latrines in immediate view, situated between piles of garbage. The lake view is both beautiful and ugly, exotic birds sit atop trees that are three quarters submerged, there is a pink smoggy sky and the smell of shit.

Our group stops to interview a family that has a shack on the sloping waterfront. The father, Alfredo, tells us how his land keeps slipping away, how his family suffers from a range of stomach problems, fevers, dengue and how they’ve had no help from anyone. Before Mitch, they had planted harvests and lived off their little gardens. The INPRHU kids tell him that they are from Las Torres, a barrio nearby, and that they are printing a newsletter with an article about the people here and their conditions and they will include a call for donations of things that these people need, such as food, clothes, medicine. Julio asks the man if Julio can take a picture and the man is pleased to oblige: he strikes a pose with his stick planted firmly in a barrel. Alfredo leads us to Juan who can give us a boatride on the lake.

Flooded Lake Managua
Photo: A. Roldan

We pay Juan, a man in his early forties with a faded blue dress shirt, slacks, and brill-creamed shiny black hair, to take us for a ride in a canoe. The craft looks 100 years old and leaky; with random wood nailed together, it looks like the scrap-metal houses that make up the landscape. It’s quite a production for my team of five to get in the boat since all of us are scared of touching the water. Once in, Juan takes us to the open water, pointing to various trees along the way as signposts of where the land once was.

From the squeegee on the street to journalism—these kids are so enthusiastic about the field trip you can see that they are taking the chance to be journalists very seriously. I see a familiar look of glee on Wilder and the others’ faces and recognize my own feeling at times during my trip when I feel like a kid in a grownup body, stepping outside of myself and thinking, “wow, I’m a journalist at work, a beginner, but a journalist nonetheless.”

Santos’ family portrait.
Photo: A. Roldan

At the end of the day, the sun starts on its rapid descent and the kids go home in groups (it’s safer that way). Swift and I go to our friend Santos’ house; he will chaperone us to a place where we can get a taxi. When I ask Swift about what first inspired her about social work in Nicaragua, she explains: “Well I just got so fired up about seeing what success INRPHU is able to have with such minimal resources. The cool thing about INPRHU is that the kids go on to teach and help other kids, so in the end kid-to-kid they teach each other—like what Wilder and Yadira, Santos, Raoul and all the muchachos are now doing. The big secret of development work is that you end up learning as much if not more than the kids you teach. I hope to put what I have learned here to work in the indigenous communities in Canada where the demographics are much the same as here.”

It certainly has not been an easy ride for Swift. Electrical infrastructure is so shaky in Managua, brownouts occur sometimes four times a day. Part of the situation is due to the inherently weak electrical infrastructure, and part of it is caused by the infinite amount of splicing of cables—electrical piracy is as common as the pillaging of manhole covers for makeshift stoves. Viruses and power surges are also a constant threat to the health of the computers. Vigilance against electricity, though, is the least of Swift’s worries. Mosquitoes were annoying in the river valley area where she lived in Alberta. Here in Managua, though, a mosquito bite can be deadly. She has gotten dengue twice, a disease that attacks your platelets; in bad cases your internal organs can hemorrhage. It is scarier than malaria because there is no pill to take to prevent it. Swift takes precautions, tries to avoid stagnant water where the day mosquitoes abound, wears a lot of Deet, sleeps in a cocoon of mesh and believes in living life to the fullest.

Desde la Calle (From the Street), the eight-page newsletter, was finished, published and circulated in Managua and in Edmonton in March 2000. With a colour cover, its table of contents featured articles all written by the kids. Pictures of the field trip and the interviews took up the first two pages. Other items included a description of the 4th annual INPRHU talent show, Wilder’s editorial on information on the danger of drugs, anti-violence poems, a manifesto of kids’ rights, and a blurb on the new computer program.

“My name is Julio Cesar Rocha Lopez, I am fifteen. I’ve been with INPRHU for 4 years, I’m in 8th grade and now I am Lorena’s student teacher.” When Swift’s internship at INPRHU is over, Julio will take over the computer lessons. He tells me that he believes he will be ready. This kind of succession helps to ensure the sustainability of the project, a key element of development work. When I ask him how he feels about Swift’s work, he tells me: “Well, it is something that is super-excellent, what she is doing for the Nicaraguan kids. Lorena came all the way from Canada to help us with our understanding of computers and also she cares for our country. I wish to excell in the computing field, I want to learn more and more for I see the future in this field with better and faster machines and programs. You know, when I take the class I have fun.” Swift confirms that computers are one of the only growing industries in this country.

This growing friendship between Canucks and Nicas is, according to Wilder, “good for all—we get to know you and you get to know us and you get to see our country not only in a social sense, but also in a physical way, it is a pretty place.”

Swift is developing a website for INRPHU to further facilitate the communication between people and organizations—it is a great example of how the internet can be a vehicle for social justice grass roots movements. She went back to Canada in the spring of 2000 for a couple of months and then returned to Nicaragua where she is currently working for the Humboldt Centre, an environmental advocacy centre that works with indigenous people, on a two-year CUSO contract.

Email received July 30, 2000.

My work is going well and I will be heading up north to the Jungle in early September. The UN Biosphere reserve Bosawas is the largest tropical forest north of the Amazon. The indigenous people there are really struggling to gain the legal rights of their land and to survive. Things are by all accounts quite primitive, only radio communication in some communities and no electricity anywhere. I will be working with the women’s association helping them to create micro-projects such as jewelry making, pottery, rice processing etc. that will help them generate income for themselves. Wouldn’t it be great if we made funky tropical seed necklaces that got picked up by the Bridgehead Catalogue? I am also in charge of editing and designing the community newsletter which helps the people stay informed about what is being done in and around their communities. Back in Managua I will be working with a lawyer formalizing the documents necessary for the ‘land claim’ as well as writing endless fundraising proposals to many foreign NGOs and governments.

(2012 update: Lorraine still works for Change for Children forging partnerships and working on wonderful projects with Latin Americans and now Ugandans as well.)

For more information on Change for Children and INRPHU and the Humboldt Centre, please contact Lorraine Swift at

Locals from Santo’s barrio.
Photo by A. Roldan

This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

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