This is not a sermon or a sales pitch, but a story about a place as inspiring as it is disturbing, where greed has raped a people of their material resources and dignity but where brilliantly applied generosity has created hope and enterprise of which Fortune 500 companies would be envious.
For months I had prepared myself for this moment, stepping off of the run down school bus in the middle of La Chureca, the dump of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Listed among the Seven Horrendous Wonders of the World, Chureca is not just a collection of refuse, but also a refuge for over 300 families.[i] Men, women and children compete with mangy dogs for sustenance and sex traffickers for their minds, bodies and souls.
I knew it was coming from the moment I accepted the invitation to join a contingent of teachers, health and finance professionals orchestrated by GraceCity, a young church in downtown Baltimore enamored with serving the poorest-of-the-poor in its home town and, interestingly, the Managua city dump. But nothing could prepare me for the sights: homes manufactured of rubbish; smoke lifting from piles of debris; a multi-colored landscape of mountainous trash dotted with laborers scrounging for something of worth under a 98 degree sun; a makeshift school[ii] lined with barbed wire; and scores of children, many without shoes or a single article of clean clothing but with stunning smiles lighting up their dirty faces. After all, they were thrilled to see us—we were there with the ORPHANetwork, a Virginia-based NGO devoted to serving malnourished and displaced children in Nicaragua. We were at one of their many feeding centers in the country, designed to provide at least one nutritious meal per day to over 10,000 starving children.
You hear of such things on the news and see pictures of such children on commercials filled with brown faces asking for money on late-night television, but it’s hard to believe it’s true—that I was fortunate enough to be born in a geographic location with a host of inherent benefits while these kids were born into the closest thing imaginable to hell on Earth. When I gaze into my children’s eyes, I see in them a vast universe of unencumbered curiosity and possibility, but in La Chureca, I was forced to look into the eyes of girls as young as six who have already been sold into prostitution.
It was as if I was in one of those movies when a scene strikes a subject so hard that all he can do is marvel in slow motion, unable to process the myriad of overwhelming stimuli. But as my worldview crumbled and my eyes welled up, I was forced to turn my gape downward. A young boy was tugging on my shorts. Once our eyes met, he throttled his hands upward in the universal sign for “Pick me up,” and before I could confirm that I’d been vaccinated for all that he was visibly carrying, he’d swung himself around to my back, stripped my sunglasses and made them his own, smacked my side and yelled “Vamos!” Just a kid. Any kid. Born in a garbage dump.
As I impersonated a horse for my newfound friend for the next 15 minutes, life began to return to normal speed. I could hear clearly, but I couldn’t understand. I had expected the smell of aging trash from opening my own garbage can, but the more pervasive scent in La Chureca was that of garbage burning. My brain began to re-engage, and I couldn’t but begin to process the questions How? and Why?
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, only behind battered Haiti. The per capita income is $3,200[iii]. Per year. While the official unemployment rate was just 7.03% for 2011, the underemployment rate is nearly 50%. Indeed, “minimum wage” amounts to about $90 per month. 29% of kids make it past the sixth grade, only 10% graduate from high school.
When I peppered our American guide with questions intent on discerning the “why” behind Nicaragua’s systemic extreme poverty, he gave me three reasons: 1) a history since colonial times tainted by corrupt leadership, 2) outside meddling and 3) persistent natural disasters.
Indeed, with Nicaragua’s exposure to the Pacific on its western coast and the Caribbean on its eastern, hurricanes and a particularly rainy, rainy season have wreaked havoc on everything from homes to infrastructure to crops. Additionally, “the country of Lakes and Volcanoes,” with 19 total volcanoes and eight active, is also prone to earthquakes. A quake in 1972 leveled much of the capital city of Managua, forever changing its face. But the other two reasons for extreme poverty in Nicaragua point to corruption and meddling driven primarily by greed.
The chief meddler would have to be the U.S. Of course we had that little issue of the Iran-Contra Affair, but long before it, the U.S. asserted its will in Nicaragua with boots on the ground from 1909 until 1933, when we could no longer afford to intervene mired in our own Great Depression. Why were we there in the first place? To stop the Nicaraguans from completing a canal to compete with our own in Panama. But along the way, we managed to foment enough nationalist dissent to create an environment ripe for the rise of Augusto César Sandino, the first Sandinista. Yes, we helped create the problem we were unable to correct covertly in the 80s.
And while the Sandinistas are in control again today, political power struggles of the last 100 years are still visibly evident. Whether in the capital city, small towns or the countryside, a drive through Nicaragua becomes a blur of competing political colors, flags, slogans and faces vying for one’s attention, or better yet, one’s vote. Not a single road marker, guard rail or bus shelter is unaffiliated.
Reflecting on the country’s endemic poverty and tradition of dysfunction, handing out bowls of nutrition-charged rice to the starving children of the dump, I wondered how exactly there was any hope to be found. I remembered something I read about “hell on Earth.” I’m no theologian, but apparently in the recorded instances of Jesus discussing hell in the Bible, he used the word “gehenna” to offer his followers a visual. Gehenna was the garbage dump outside ancient Jerusalem. A burning heap of trash. The people of La Chureca live there. In hell on Earth.
But there is hope, and I soon learned why.
You see, I wasn’t invited to Nicaragua as an expert in matters spiritual or nutritional. I was there to hopefully learn enough about the country and culture to provide any insight I might muster to a fledgling micro-finance operation (Neo) embedded in a small church (El Faro) whose stated purpose is to serve the people of the dump. Inspired by Muhammed Yunus’ Nobel Prize-winning work with the Grameen Bank in India and supported by a few U.S. churches, Neo’s goal is to nourish the bodies, minds and spirits of the Churecans by giving them vocational vision—a life purpose—and an economic infusion designed to fuel that vision.
It’s hard work to convince a father who prostitutes his 10-year old daughter to truck drivers to feed their family that there is a better way. It’s hard work to explain that a small loan isn’t to be used for short-term emergency subsistence, but instead to buy beads then crafted into a jewelry inventory. It’s hard work to instill an entrepreneurial vision in someone with HIV/AIDS whose self-worth is nonexistent, at best. It’s hard work to instill confidence and worth in children born in the dump, 90% of whom report suffering some form of abuse. It’s hard work that requires at least a generational commitment on the part of a diverse team of co-laborers.
Fortunately, such a team exists. Most of the team members are Nicaraguans applying daily effort toward the end of eliminating the abject dehumanization of their countrymen and women. Some of us Americans are privileged to work beside them in this glorious endeavor. We learn more than we teach, we are inspired more than we inspire, and we receive more than we give, ever mindful that many well-intended Americans sadly do more harm than good in similar initiatives.[iv]
The best-dressed member of this team is none other than Under Armour. The Baltimore-based clothing company—famous for celebrity endorsements and making those who adorn their sportswear look much cooler than we really are—already has an international presence, but they’re also in the dump. After Under Armour’s Senior Creative Director for Men’s Apparel, Nick Cienski, had an experience similar to mine walking off the bus in La Chureca, his wheels started turning. As of today, they’ve already donated several industrial sewing machines, fabric, patterns, some seed-money and training that is breathing vocational life into single moms from the dump, helping break the cycle of prostitution.
My head was spinning just trying to figure out how all these different players had come together. Under Armour makes a donation to begin a sewing business that works in conjunction with the micro-finance initiative run by the church in Nicaragua in partnership with the ORPHANetwork supported by GraceCity, whose collective mission is to serve a community living in the biggest dump in the poorest country in the Americas. Wow. I didn’t see that coming.
But my economic adventures in Nicaragua reached even more inspiring heights, and altitudes. Two gringos—former Erickson Retirement Communities CEO, Rick Grindrod, and I—headed into the beautiful Nicaraguan mountains with Mario Pérez, Executive Director of PAC (Pueblos en Acción Comunitaria or People in Community Action). As his son (also Mario) drove us over winding roads through nestled mountainside towns, the former economist with the Nicaraguan government told us a story that was to culminate as we reached our destination.
Over 15 years ago, the international aid organization, World Relief (coincidentally also headquartered in Baltimore), planted one of its own, Kevin Sanderson, in Nicaragua to lead an operation designed to help rural coffee farmers rebuild their lives and businesses after having left them behind for a 10-year civil war. With a background in both agriculture and finance, Kevin was ideally suited for the task and made Nicaragua not only his project, but also his home, marrying a Nicaraguan and starting a family there.
Often deemed an MFI (micro-finance institution), PAC is really so much more. It’s a holistic “value-chain” operation. Soup-to-nuts. First, they scour for coffee farmers with entrepreneurial blood. They give that entrepreneur the freedom and responsibility to build his own team of farmers and plantation workers. Then, often contradicting over 100 years of tradition, they train them in environmentally sensitive, sustainable farming techniques. They provide the financing for a cash-intensive harvest and streamlined processing, even connecting the farmers to roasters. Every PAC coffee farmer now meets Fair Trade Certified standards, allowing their product to be sold at a premium and quite possibly end up in the bottom of your cup of specialty coffee.
After about seven years (and in keeping with their core beliefs), World Relief turned over the reins of the operation to the Nicaraguans, now led by Mario, who led Rick and me 3,000 feet in elevation to the home and business of Claudio Martinez. Claudio, one of PAC’s anointed entrepreneurs, was waiting for us on his porch with several of his farmers. Telling us their stories through a translator, Rick and I sat aghast as one farmer after another told us how this economic initiative had not only transformed their vocation, but redeemed their whole lives, providing their families and entire villages with the chance for a new life.
PAC’s innovation has now extended well beyond Central America’s most famous crop. They have also trained farmers to diversify their yields with cocoa and vegetables—and not just any vegetables. We traversed a recently developed farm that yields multiple specialized crops that aren’t indigenous to or even consumed in Nicaragua (or the U.S.), but are much loved in the world’s two most populous nations, China and India.
It may have been at that very moment—several days into the trip and 10 hours into the PAC expedition—that I finally understood paternalism and began to recognize my own. I had been warned of the difficulty we have rendering aid in developing regions as Americans. Almost immune to our own affluence, we tend to presume the superiority of our balance sheets and income statements equates to at least a higher work ethic if not (although we wouldn’t voice it) superior ingenuity or even intelligence.
It’s almost as if we assume our ideas for improved healthcare, education, business and waste management are better because we have a 401k and can record our television shows to watch at our convenience with a DVR from our iPhones. But standing in the middle of that Asian vegetable field in Nicaragua, I was forced to acknowledge that everyone I interacted with that day worked harder and longer, and employed a greater level of creativity, ingenuity and productivity, than just about anything I’ve seen in the States.
I am not their helper. I can only be their partner, and may be lucky to make the cut.
After completing our 13-hour tour of coffee plantations, vegetable fields and cocoa processing plants with the Marios, all the while hearing stories about how they’ve overcome everything from illness, weather and crop failure to social movements designed to weaken their businesses, Rick and I were about one cup of Nicaraguan Joe from applying for citizenship. Thankfully, our journey there is just beginning.
This is not just another emotional story intended to tug at your heart strings enough to get you to open your check book and help these organizations, although to that I am not opposed. This story is for you. While every word is true, it also stands as a metaphor for the influence of money in our lives, regardless of our geography. The same issues that create systemic failure and success with money on a global scale also impact us personally.
Were I to simply declare that the pursuit of money for its own sake—greed—leads to nothing short of death while money employed as the currency of relationship brings life abundant, you might accuse me of over-dramatizing. This is because in our country and your neighborhood this is not so pervasively and visually evident. But death visits those in La Chureca and other pockets of hell on Earth daily, even for the living, and the primary source of this pain is financially rooted. Meanwhile, tangible assets shared in partnership by caring individuals, associations, organizations and companies are often the very vehicle of hope that transforms lives for the better, materially, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
[i] This number is actually down quite substantially thanks to an infusion of cash from the Spanish government, fueling a plan to transform the dump into a landfill and displace the residents of La Chureca. Unfortunately, this has actually increased the desperation of the remaining residents as their source of sustenance has dwindled in size. Additionally, most of the major cities in Nicaragua have a similar dump with a similar population.
[ii] El Colegio de la Esperanza (the School of Hope)
[iv] The book When Helping Hurts opened my eyes to this and offers many helpful suggestions to ensure your charitable trips and efforts do more good than harm.