By Ben Suttle, Jonathan Sledge, Deb Norton & David Anderson
Several Pullenites had the privilege to travel to Nicaragua earlier this year to work once again with our partners at AMOS to conduct vision screenings in several remote communities in the Matagalpa District. Nicaragua’s landscape and history are tumultuous. Stephen Kinzer, a veteran New York Times journalist and author, wrote the following upon his arrival in Managua for the first time: “Sweeping Majestically up from the plains of central Nicaragua, classic in its natural symmetry, lies the Masaya volcano, sulphuric steam ceaselessly rising from its cone as it has since the beginning of remembered time. It was a stirring sight, perhaps all the more so for one who could not yet grasp its full meaning. In Nicaragua, geology is destiny. The Masaya volcano, like others scattered across the country, has erupted several times with terrifying violence, and is liable to erupt again at any moment. Even when the ground feels still, tremors flutter through layers of rock below. Nicaragua is said to be the most seismically active spot on earth, and the turmoil underground has somehow infected the inhabitants.” 1 We found this a fitting description of Nicaragua.
Economically disempowered people from developing countries like Nicaragua often are portrayed in the United States as helpless, pitiful individuals who yearn for help from the exceptional Americans. Indeed, the four communities we visited and conducted our eye clinics in were very poor by our standards in the United States. People often lived in houses made of wooden planks with significant gaps in the walls that encompass a dirt floor. Clean, running water wasn’t a guarantee and sanitation facilities were rudimentary at best. No one, or very few families in any of the communities we visited, had a car. However, we were struck by the spirit of compassion and enthusiasm the members of these rural communities had when it came to working for the common good, to making life better for their families and their neighbors, even at great personal sacrifice.
We were fortunate to meet a Health Promoter and a midwife, neither with formal training, who have delivered well over 500 babies. The same midwife smuggled vaccines to her community during the war years in the 1980s, evading the Contra fighters who would kill her if they found her with the vaccines. We met men who had joined the Sandinista army as young as 12 years old purely as a means for survival, but who were now working together to improve the lives of everyone in their communities.
The clinic building in Fila Grande had a concrete floor, block walls and two light bulbs—a significant step above the standard residence. It was quickly evident, though, that the Health Promoter in Fila Grande was very proud of the progress his community has made during his lifetime, especially the large water cistern installed above the town, and the 13 kilometers of piping that bring clean water to 135 homes — 85 percent of the community. The trek up the mountain every 15 days to add chlorine tablets to the reservoir is a small price to pay for the near elimination of diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses from the village.
The Health Promoters and health committee members we met were motivated by something more than self-preservation and personal advancement. They want to make life better for their entire community, to serve their neighbors, to offer something more for the next generation. Though they do not have much in the way of wealth, these courageous sisters and brothers have a passion for the common good that burns like a city on a hill — it is a bright light that refuses to be hid. Witnessing this joy of service to the community, the love of one’s neighbors, and the hope for a better and more peaceful future, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, reminds us of what is truly important in our lives during this season of Advent.