After the Cameras Leave by Sophie Watson
“IF YOU THINK I’M SEXY, AND YOU WANT MY BODY, C’MON BABY LET ME KNOW…” rasps Rod Stewart from the blaring boom box perched on the hood of a red four-by-four. The dusty day starts to shake off its listlessness. Teenagers emerge slowly from their tarp-shacks; kicking rocks; baseball caps worn backwards, ratty soccer shirts and tank tops; hands stuffed in pockets of low-riding jeans, just baggy enough to be cool. They congregate at the designated shed with that studied, bored look teenagers all around the world share—here though, it is not studied.
On the tenth day, they mistook the droning, deafening noise, for government helicopters sent to rescue them. Instead it was a mad race of human against mud.
Music is a major luxury in the Santa Maria refugee camp in Posoltega, Nicaragua. Some of the worst victims of 1998’s Hurricane Mitch remain camped out at this site in late 1999 and only the extremely lucky have scored a donated tapedeck. Batteries are an even scarcer luxury. Last week, a Canadian aid worker showed up, cranked the tunes and succeeded in rounding up some teenagers to plan the painting of a mural. This week they are going to whitewash the only non-plastic building on the site, gessoing the wall like a canvas. Brushes are handed out, cans of white paint distributed, more 80’s disco blasting. Skeptical at first, the kids are soon laughing and splotching each other with paint. The cement bricks start to make their way from grey to white. First coat.
The 350 refugee families at Santa Maria originally came from two communities, Rolando Rodriguez and El Porvernir which ironically means the forthcoming. The communities resided on a hill called Cerro Las Casitas (hill of little houses). Their former land is very much visible on the giant hill that frames this parched brown valley on the east side—one yellow bald scar against an otherwise green hillside marks the path the mudslide clearcutted. During the ten days of torrential rain that precipitated the mercenary slide, people thought the end of the world had arrived. On the tenth day, they mistook the droning, deafening noise, for government helicopters sent to rescue them. Instead it was a mad race of human against mud. Scrambling survivors watched family members drowning alive in an ocean of thick mud; skeletons of mud racing for three days and nights.
The next day, help arrived—helicopters showed up to evacuate. After living in various refugee sites around Posoltega, the survivors were transported here to dusty flat Santa Maria, where they begun waiting. Farm people not used to close quarters, they are organized in a grid of 17 by 22—374 square one-room shacks made of a basic wood frame and wrapped in plastic. In the beginning the plastic used was garbage-bag black. This was a serious mistake as Posoltega is aptly referred to as the hottest place in Nicaragua. Santa Maria, often pushes 50+ Celsius and swims in 100% humidity; it is so hot that during my day at the camp the film inside my camera melted. There are no trees, there is no shade or shelter from the elements. Luckily they’ve since replaced a lot of the black tarps with white—less absorbent of the unrelenting sun.
They wait. Largely forgotten about. Out of sight. They farm the fields bordering the hill in the mornings in exchange for a meagre sustenance, beans and rice. Nothing much to occupy them but their memories. Memories triggered by the ever-present scar on the hill. October is in the middle of the hurricane season, torrential downpours can occur a couple of times a day. Existing shell shock, already widespread, is now combined with the fear that it could all happen all over again this season.
Sympathy is hard to find. This person lost a spouse, another lost their children—losses come in horrifying and varying combinations. Leaning against a truck, a wrinkled man with white stubble poking out of his brown skin and a baseball cap announcing Jesus is my Saviour itemizes his loss for us: “I lost my wife. I lost 14 heads of cattle. I lost my dog. I lost my cat. I lost 2 homes. I lost my chickens and pigs.” Another man lost an entire family tree, fifty people. Reunion fantasies pass the time because innumerable bodies, loved ones, were never recovered from the mud tomb that spread a couple of hundred acres. With no sense of closure, people cling to the miracle stories that go around the camp of their friend’s cousin whose husband survived and ended up in the next town, recovered and found his way back to his wife.
October 14, 1999 I arrived in this refugee camp in Nicaragua with my translator Alex and a group of aid workers to see how Canadians are contributing in the effort to help these refugees. My project is to profile Canadian development workers, and my homebase for six weeks is Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Up until this daytrip, I had been interviewing Canadian co-operants working with streetkids in the city. I was anxious to see the rural aspects of development work. Contacts told me of two Canadians who work out at a refugee camp, two hours north east of Managua.
Céline Danis, our guide, is a teacher and former national luge team member from Calgary, Alberta. She arrived in Nicaragua in June 1999 on a CUSO gig (Canadian University Students Overseas). No stranger to Nicaragua, she had previously spent two years in the northern mountains of the country in a church project, working with the campesinos in popular education. Her contract finished just when the hurricane hit a year ago; she felt compelled to return as soon as she could. With dark curly hair and almond eyes, she is lean and modest in her navy-blue baseball cap and breezy thin pants. Céline’s placement is with a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization called Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdieso, Grupo de Salud Mental. It is a group of 9 psychologists, social workers and teachers. Their purpose is to bring emotional help to victims of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, a country already established as the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
There are 6 community leaders in Santa Maria, 3 from Rolando Rodriguez and 3 from El Porvenir. Céline points out one of the leaders and motions him over to us. A confident man with an ironic smile and a urgent look in his large eyes, his name is Alonso Urtado Ruedas. Alonso represents the survivors of the Cerro Las Casitas in an association named ASC (Association of Survivors Casitas). Their mandate is to channel the aid between the two communities efficiently. The refugees came to Santa Maria and the community leaders bought land with the help of 4 organizations. “We bought 180 acres and we consider this like the promised land after having lost ours at Rolando Rodriguez and El Porvernir. What we had gained in generations of sacrifice and hardship—in a matter of minutes was buried along with our beloved ones. We believed that our world had ended after the tragedy, but then…we were alive.” Alonso says that when the community leaders started receiving the psychological help from Céline’s group, they started organizing the communities. Two weeks ago they finally finished the provisional housing.
“You can’t talk about mental health or bereavement issues if people haven’t eaten for three days. The primary needs are essential,” Dominique, another Canadian aid worker in Céline’s group, tells us. Emotional aid was one of the last things to come to this refugee community. When Céline’s group first arrived in Santa Maria they met with the community leaders and started planning workshops. Nine women healers with solace on their agenda: two Canadians, two Cubans, four Nicaraguans, and one girl from Spain drive up from Managua in a truck twice a week.
Women line up at the washing station, pumping their water supply for the day. The thick grey sky rumbles, lightning crackles, punctuating the calm like cymbals. Nervous roosters jig around; horses, chickens, and pigs in pokes move restlessly up and down the aisles. The air starts to smell dustier than before. But the rain doesn’t come today, just more humidity. Adults hang out in the bamboo rotunda at the centre of the camp, mopping their foreheads. Toddlers with distended tummies smile and jump in front of the camera.
The psychologists teach coping mechanisms like how to relax when it rains—this is invaluable, especially during the rainy season which lasts from May to October. The hint of a raindrop sends many people into nervous frenzies, children scream, mob panic can flare up. The psychologists hold individual counselling sessions, group work, and workshops in art and yoga to relax people. The two Cubans organize psychotitres, a form of therapy involving theatre. “We think that through discussion, music, art, and games people can begin to achieve psychological healing,” Reyna Blanco, a psychologist tells us.
Céline says, “We have few hours and so much to do, but we know they’re feeling better when they start coming regularly to the workshops. There’s this kid…there was this flash of lightning against his house one night, and he leaped out of his bed, petrified. He’s fourteen years old and he had lost his parents. He didn’t want to talk to anyone for a long time…very depressed. But lately he’s been showing up to come paint…I think that he’s starting to feel better.”
We watched a child tie an eaten corn husk to a string and drag it round and round the main rotunda, making himself and his friends laugh. Another played with a Saran-Wrap kite one of the psychologists helped her make. Some of the women work with the adults, some with the children; Céline works with the teenagers, currently she’s organizing the mural. The idea behind the mural plan comes from Nicaragua’s long history of muralism. During Nicaragua’s Sandinistan government (1979-1990) there was a massive revival of folk art—art in general was championed as an agent of social change. Vivid lushly-coloured paintings sided buildings everywhere, telling the history of Nicaragua’s perpetual struggle against oppression. Muralism is still deeply ingrained in the Nicaraguan esthetic. Céline hopes the Santa Maria mural will commemorate the refugee’s time at this camp while allowing the participating teens to express their grief creatively.
As we watch the teenagers paint, working their way up the wall, Céline tells me more about the progress her group has made: “There are not as many groups working with emotional support at Santa Maria. Initially the people thought that psychologists were for crazy people, but they’ve slowly gotten used to the idea. Just the other day a leader asked if we wanted to be there with them on the 29th of October—the anniversary of Hurricane Mitch, to be there to help them through it…so I think they do really recognize our role here and the importance of it.”
Dominique says there is a lot of violence in Nicaragua, especially against women. Women are not generally able to meet together under the pretext of women’s discussion groups, the men won’t let them—especially women that are abused. To get around this obstacle and to help with food security, Dominique is mounting a project with Céline. They will host workshops on teaching how to cook Soya grain because people don’t have a lot of food, only beans, rice and oil. Soya can offer a cheap alternative. Following the Soya workshops there will be sessions with the women to discuss gender, socialization and women’s rights.
“The kids’ parents are working, or are depressed, not able to care for them the way they normally would….there are a lot of skin problems, in their mouths and noses…sores, no one takes care of that,” Nuria, the Spanish aid worker, tells us as we walk into a hut where sixteen little kids are in a workshop. Orphans, bereaved children playing with Playdo, paint and balloons. The toddlers are gleeful to see us; big-size smiles and giggles hurtle around the room. Very dirty, covered in dust and fingerprint, three, four of them grab me, trying to get me to focus on each of them, kissing me, hugging. Meanwhile one pouting toddler named Darwin circled the hut while all the others sat together or on Alex and I. Darwin crankily tossed his pink balloon up and down in the air, stepping over children to volley it back upwards. Another child got up to try to play with him and instantly Darwin launched a screaming tantrum, his tonsils flailing while yet another thigh-high toddler charged me. They are starved for affection; I notice I am too as it turns out. The tremendous affection swallows me; the base of my scalp tingling with the delight of so much human touch. I suspect people come to work in places like this for all sorts of reasons.
Outside again, strolling thought the dirt alleys; I notice we are being followed—Oscar is peeking and sneaking from behind the white tents like a private investigator doing surveillance. Oscar, a five-year old, was the first kid we had met that day. He greeted us in the morning and hung on my arm, throwing his little body into me, going wherever we went, often asking the time. He is known to most of the aid workers here, he calls several of them Mom. He lost his parents in the mud and now lives with relatives. Most of the families here have been are reinvented in some way; a widowed aunt with an orphaned niece, a neighbour with a friend’s brother. I motioned Oscar to join us again and so he led us to his house. We had a brochure I picked up along the way and all the people in Oscar’s home wanted to look at a picture. Translator, nowhere in sight, I tried to ask the adults in my fumbling Spanish which picture they were looking at. They smiled and responded, “Nosayleer, nosayleer.” Trying desperately to understand, I kept repeating my question in different variations. After about six times of them smiling and saying nosayleer, I realized with mortification that they were saying no se leer, they do not know how to read and I had made them announce it over and over again. Oscar told me later in the day that he doesn’t know how to read because no one has taught him.
Illiteracy, like violence is not exclusive to the poor, but both are often symptomatic of a society without resources. These people were already drastically poor, before this disaster hit. Now with the desperation amplified by the hurricane, these people need more healing more than ever. Mission International sports-utility vehicles show up throughout the day: aid workers coming from different countries—their presence though will lessen as other emergencies around the world call them to action.
As one epic crisis replaces another in the news, suffering in places like Santa Maria continues long past media coverage. When you hear about the Canadian government sending aid to countries in need, it is not just money, it translates into human investment, a girl like Céline trying her best to help some traumatized teenagers, Nicaraguan women working together with Canadians in a Soya workshop.
In the truck on the way back to Managua with the wind blasting us, chapping our skin and blowing all of our hair huge, Céline says, “We have few hours and so much to do, but we know they’re feeling better when they start coming regularly to the workshops. There’s this kid…there was this flash of lightning against his house one night, and he leaped out of his bed, petrified. He’s fourteen years old and he had lost his parents. He didn’t want to talk to anyone for a long time…very depressed. But lately he’s been showing up to come paint…I think that he’s starting to feel better.” If there is doubt that sustainable development is realistic, think about it in the world of one person’s life—if you receive help that allows you to sleep and function and recover from trauma, then that ultimately can help to sustain you and you in turn can help someone else. Céline and her group is helping build a new beginning for these people, a beginning that doesn’t erase the past but honours it, like the mural-to-be with its expectant white background.
Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in The Ambassador newsletter of The Council of World Affairs in 2000.