It has now been over a month since I saw stars like I had never seen before — so clearly filling an entire night sky with an overwhelming luminescence — nothing like I had become accustomed to experiencing in New Haven. We had all just barely fit our 15 bodies into the small van that would carry us from the airport in downtown Managua into the dark, rural countryside in the hope of finally arriving in the outskirts of Leon, Nicaragua before midnight. We drove quickly and in complete silence, each of us weary from the long day of travel. As we drove I could not help but simply stare out the window, the warm breeze whistling past my ears, shadows of palms dancing in the dark, the full moon casting a temperate glow on volcanoes in the distance.
An indescribable feeling that came over me then — a sense of letting it all go, of returning to the basics, away from the clicking of computer keys and second-semester academic worries. The exhausted but content look of the rest of the group let me know that we were all relieved. We were free from the classroom at last; we were spending our spring break in Nicaragua through Reach Out, a growing Yale international service program, and the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project.
Our mission was to learn about public health issues in Nicaragua and, in turn, discover what we could do as concerned students to assist the people of the country. It was a daunting, overwhelming project — but crammed into that open-air van hustling under the cover of our first night, over dirt paths and under dense vegetation, up and around steep mountainsides, through crowded marketplaces and across open valleys — all I could do was take a deep breath and enjoy the sweet night air, not knowing what difficulties would lie ahead in the week to come.
Throughout the course of our stay in Leon, our group absorbed as much of the culture, history and language of the country as possible. We enjoyed the Nicaraguan beaches, parks, museums and food; we lived with families, and we played with their children. We felt at home. But this closeness we felt with the people only made our fleeting stay there more difficult. We saw the effects of Nicaragua’s difficult past in our families’ eyes and saw the victims of a lack of economic opportunity and flawed governmental decisions of years gone by. We saw that extreme poverty has a face and has a name. We saw that it could not be ignored.
Nicaragua is a country that has been devastated by natural disasters and unstable authoritarian and socialist governments — and the people have suffered consequently. We traveled to this poor, highly economically stratified country aware of its past, curious to learn about Latin American public-health issues, AIDS in particular. We also came to address a distinct problem in the country: the lack of a national program of health and sexual education for teenagers. To accomplish this, we visited health clinics and a center for health statistics, volunteered at an elementary school, spoke with health-care professionals and teenage peer-health educators, met with government leaders, talked with our families, and discussed amongst ourselves realistic ways in which we, as American students, could make a difference.
Each time we visited a clinic and asked a doctor to describe to us the problems he faced as a health care professional, the answers were always the same: infant mortality, respiratory disease, malnutrition and lack of vaccinations and medicines. These were essentially all problems with health care access, health education and easily preventable disease. Problems that can be quickly solve, but only with adequate human resources and money — things that Nicaragua acutely lacks. Another problem we became familiar with while in Nicaragua was the pesticide contamination of groundwater in rural communities around Leon from sugar-cane plantations owned by the Pela family. One of the wealthiest families in the country, the Pela family owns multiple plantations that are slowly encroaching on the land of smaller farmers and is the chief producer of rum, beer and sugar for Nicaragua and surrounding countries. The family is very powerful financially and politically and comprises a good part of Nicaragua’s tax base. Thus, the government allows them to skirt zoning regulations for cane planting, and as a consequence, people and their crops die from the pesticide contamination in the water supply, though the Pelas deny any causal relationship. Our group met up with a young woman named Stacey, a graduate from Quinnipiac University, who had been living in Leon for the past two years studying the effects of the contamination on local populations. For one day, we helped her perform some simple water tests to check for the presence of mildly toxic chemicals in wells across the area; Stacey’s battle is still ongoing, and we wish her the best and will continue to help in whatever way possible.
We left Nicaragua, having seen the poverty and injustice, having experienced the seemingly dismissive governmental bureaucracy first-hand, and knowing that, despite our best and continued efforts, all these problems would continue to exist. It was tough. But on the other hand, we left knowing that it was possible for us to serve as an impetus for positive change. Through continued work with the Sister City Project and other NGOs, through constant communication with the families and doctors we met in Leon, through raising awareness of health issues in Latin America, and through petitioning the U.S. government to increase economic aid to fledgling democracies like Nicaragua, we know it is possible.
The other night, as I walked down Wall Street, I looked up at the cloudy sky for stars, desperately searching for those that had shone so clearly over Nicaragua. And although none presented themselves to me through the haze, I was still reminded of the Nicaraguans’ daily struggles. I’d seen them so clearly before, I would never forget.
Austin Broussard is a sophomore in Morse College.