youth tour

Youth Tour Participants Experience  Third World  Firsthand

Sophie Watson

In late August 1999, ten kids gather together at the Change For Children headquarters upstairs in St. Michael’s school in north Edmonton. Late summer light streams in through the bay windows. Tattered couches and lounging chairs give a living-room feel to the cozy room. Sitting in a circle, munching on fruit and Empanadas, they are here to talk about their summer experience and to have a ten-best pictures session. There has to be a limit on the number of photos they choose otherwise the debriefing would go for hours; so many stories to tell for these kids who had the most powerful summer trip of their lives. Instead of camping trips to Jasper or Waterton, or a family roadtrip like many of their peers, from August 2 -27, 1999, these Albertans went on a Youth Solidarity Tour to Nicaragua.

“This picture of Nelson climbing the flagpole is one of my favourites,” Jania Teare says. The young Calgarian with long wheat-coloured hair describes spending time with the townspeople of Jiñocuao, Nicaragua. After Nelson had descended the pole with the FSLN flag in hand, Pedro, the leader of the Sandinistan Youth Party, then presented it to Jania—this is a pretty wild ride for young Canadians who might never otherwise experience political ardency or learn about Latin American history other than through a textbook. Amongst the poignant and teary recollections, there are plenty of laughing memories too. A story these youth will likely tell their own kids one day is the one about making a run for the Honduran border: “We’d been eating beans and rice for six days, morning noon and night. It was pouring rain, we were right near the Honduran border and we knew there was a Subway shop on the other side…”

Recalling pivotal moments and sweet encounters, the enthusiasm of the youth tour participants is infectious. As each youth takes turns talking about what the trip meant for them they hold a rock, and then pass it on to the next person in the room. The group is varied in age and background. Ranging from 17 to 20 years old, these eight girls and three boys come from the inner-city, the suburban middle-class and upper-class privilege. Looking a bit like returning camp counselors, natural and tanned, with their Guatemalan wristbands and Che Guevara pendants, the kids are articulate and visibly charged by their experience. For three weeks they engaged in activities like helping make bricks in a small village that is trying to rebuild itself after Hurricane Mitch; they visited social work projects, a garbage dump, and Salsa danced in community centres deep in the bush.

Edmonton’s Change for Children is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works towards creating a better place for the children of the world. CFC has been co-ordinating these youth tours for three years. Jania Teare described her feelings about CFC: “I’m so lucky to have hooked up with Change for Children, their philosophy is not ‘Here we are to Save the Day’, but rather they work in conjunction with organizations in Latin America, offering them their support.” CFC’s idea is to get young people interested in social justice. The tours, with their appeal of adventure, get participants thinking about the world while engaging them in a thoroughly worthwhile cross-cultural exchange. Kid-to-kid they learn about global issues—Social Studies in its most tangible incarnation. “It made so many things you read about in the news, not just in Nicaragua, all over the world, so much more real,” Jania admits.

In Canada, a culture where there is little discussion among the young about politics, this kind of experience triggers an urgency to learn and to be aware of global issues. These tours introduce the participants to the world of development and to what Canadians are doing in the context of international co-operation. “I feel like before I was just out of it. Last year at University I was into studying and partying. This year I’m doing things that I’m excited about, volunteering, getting involved. It’s definitely going to shape the path I’m going to take,” says one of the participants.

There is a selection process that requires participants to fill out an application form outlining their background, interest in human rights and volunteer experience. Then follows two interviews with CFC staff. From the beginning, the participants are introduced to the basics of grass-roots development work—they are responsible for fundraising most of the money to go on the trip. Before the trip south, CFC organized four orientation sessions; two camping trips to give the group a chance to get to know each other. The participants are well briefed on what to expect and how to be prepared for the culture shock of visiting a developing country. After Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With a population of just over 4 million, 50% are under the age of 18. Nicaragua is a nation of kids with an economy that can never get out from under crushing international debt and interest payments. It has an unemployment rate of 60%, and a desperate situation is made worse by recent infrastructural chaos post-Hurricane Mitch. Streetkids, often the only breadwinners in their family, work in the informal job sector, selling Chiclets, squeeging windows, hauling garbage, selling their bodies, anything to get by.

Led by CFC staff and associates—Ron Berezan, Lorraine Swift, Ed Carson, Susan Spronk, Chris Peters and Angel Martinez—the teens toured Nicaragua in a converted schoolbus, staying in hostels and with Nicaraguan families, visiting projects of a sister NGO called The Institute for Human Promotion (INPRHU). INPRHU works with street-working kids, trying to recruit them before they resort to drug abuse and crime. INPRHU’s approach is comprehensive; starting with a diagnosis of the kids’ needs, and then putting them in the appropriate programs of health, education, counseling, and art and skill-acquisition workshops.

The tour started in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, where the participants stayed for just under a week. From day one it was a third-world eye-opener, never sugar-coated. They visited the city’s dump. A harsh but important visit as the presence of high-rises and malls can almost fool the foreign eye. The juxtaposition of this seeming prosperity with the dump—where naked families live in the rain, scavenging for food alongside dogs—makes the disparity between wealth and majority poverty obnoxiously obvious.

The Canadians toured the Roberto Huembes market in Managua where many small children work and where INPRHU has set up a project house. The INPRHU kids at the project performed the cultural dances and Salsa music they had prepared for the visit. In turn the Canadians, in very basic Spanish, performed the broad-humoured skit they had rehearsed: “Canada is very big. In Canada we play hockey…” CFC leader Ron Berezan asked if the Nicaraguans had any questions about snow and what sports we play and what foods we eat. The first boy stood up and asked, “Do children work in Canada?” The second boy asked: “Do the police hit children in Canada?” And then an eight-year-old girl asked, “Are many girls sexually abused in Canada?” Back in Edmonton, many of the youth confessed that they had found this question-and-answer session especially jarring. Nicholas Little, a participant who was not able to be in Edmonton, sent an effusive eight-page email from Montréal. He described this very scene and how he felt: “It was only day one and I had to go out to the empty lot next door. Mario, a seven-year-old boy, came out and found me crying. He took my hand and climbed onto the back of a park bench and showed me how to use the palm leaves as a swing. And that defines it: for the major part of this tour, children were teaching me; children taking the lead and showing me how to cope with reality and ultimately it was the children who revealed to me how I could help them. That’s where it began: the incredible journey and transformative education I received last summer.”

The tour went from smoggy, polluted Managua to the lovely, fresh Esteli for three days where the Canadians visited the murals that are painted all over the small town. One popular photo is of a mural with a giant fist clutching a paintbrush—championing Nicaraguans’ strong belief in the power of art. Then the tour went to Jiñocuao and Nombre de Jesus, two remote northern communities in the department of Somotillo that were heavily affected by Hurricane Mitch; most of the townspeople’s houses were lost to the river. The youth stayed there for six days with everyone billeted in families, teamed up in twos. With no electricity or running water, deep in the bush, the participants got to know the townspeople, communicating with gestures and improvised Spanish, playing games like the Name Game to introduce themselves: Anna fofanna, momana, bobana  fofama, give me a name  Suzanna. The Canadians helped make bricks for a park that was being built for the communities’ children so that they would have somewhere to play in the otherwise rundown landscape. All day the youth trudged down to the river, filling bags of sand and hauling them back up to the church and learning the basics of brick making. The locals were very impressed to see the Canadian girls carrying all those bags of sand, working alongside the men.

Cultural revelations were not limited to great music and dancing but also included insights towards personal space and community. “One of the hardest things about coming home is how when you’re on a bus here people will try to not sit next to you, or when you’re walking down the street, people will look straight ahead. There you know everybody will greet you, kids will touch you. People there depend on each other totally.” It was certainly not an easy trip: one girl admitted to never having felt safe during the entire time: “I’m just so happy to be home.” But for others coming home was a harder adjustment; one seventeen-year-old said that being in Nicaragua was one of the only times in his life that he didn’t feel discriminated against for the colour of his skin or his ancestry. As an Indigenous Canadian he was thrilled to see that Nicaraguans celebrate their European/African/Indian/Mestizo roots. For once in his life, being Native was cool.

Sometimes it takes going to a different country to learn more about where you come from. “My first day back we went to Costco and I was horrified and I started crying, thinking Oh my God…” Jania tells her peers in the circle. This revulsion aroused by the sight of North American over-consumption was experienced by several others in the group. As it was late August when they returned from their trip, many had gone shopping for school supplies. After having visited a Third-World country where school is a luxury not a right and then coming home to the choices of ball-point/Bic/felt/mechanical pens, WWF erasers, Venus pencils, coily/duotang/softback binders, rainbow Post Its, NHL daytimers—the culture shock was severe.

Development work is a twofold effort involving fieldwork, such as the INPRHU projects that CFC participants visited, coupled with popular education. Part of the bigger picture of international cooperation is raising awareness of global issues like poverty and the disparity between the Third and First World. Beyond giving friends and family an earful, the returning participants also made presentations at their schools, churches, and amnesty groups about what they learned and experienced in Nicaragua, and six of them held a slideshow in the amphitheater at the Citadel in Edmonton. Not only does this dissemination process help the youth digest their experience by sharing it, other citizens can learn how Canadian foreign policy in terms of aid, debt relief etcetera can directly affect change in developing countries. For many of the kids, the trip launches a new world perspective and a renewed appreciation of their own country. Most get involved in related work once they get back, doing volunteer work in their communities, participating in fundraisers. Jania is helping organize and fundraise for the upcoming Voices of the South  project which involves six cultural performers from INPRHU coming to tour Alberta schools in late February 2000.

“I realize that what I experienced was an intense sample of what goes on outside the western world. Not fun, I know, and yet ultimately, this trip has left me soaring. The inspiration I have found in the work and the struggle that goes on in Nicaragua and the grass-roots effort to ever so slowly change things has left me with such strength and such desire to help,” Nicholas sums up in his email.

In July/August 2000, CFC has planned another Youth Tour: a five-week mural tour to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. For more information on the tour and ongoing projects please contact Change for Children at: (780) 448-1505.

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

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