Working as a humanitarian photographer and documenting the work of organisations that are improving people’s lives, inspires me endlessly. More than anything, it brings a sense of hope. I have witnessed so many seemingly hopeless situations turned upside down, resulting in thriving human beings and optimistic communities, all thanks to the committed work of everyday people . These people show me that any one of us can be a hero, a lifesaver, even an angel.
I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a book I am writing, about my 3 year journey through Latin America. This passage describes an experience I had in Nicaragua, while working with the amazing grass roots organisation, Empowerment International. The organisation was formed by an extraordinary North American woman Kathy, who couldn’t walk away from a community in need, so she moved to Nicaragua to work day and night to change their situation.
I volunteered with Empowerment, teaching photography classes to the children and creating a photo documentary of their projects.
On my first day volunteering with Empowerment, Anielka led me into the barrio of Villa de Esperanza, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Granada. Many of the families there were surviving on less than two dollars a day, and the desperation was blatant. The barrio was a single dirt street, deeply corroded by rain and grey water.
As we walked, Anielka asked a young mother what she was up to, and the girl replied, “Cooking and cleaning, like always”. Her shack was one tiny room surrounded by a small dirt yard. I could see that even in the poorest areas of Nicaragua people are obsessive about hygiene and appearance. Most people’s blocks of land were smaller than my parent’s barbeque patio, and majority of that land wasn’t even officially owned.
The homes were even more piteous than those I’d visited with Opportunity International (another NGO I’d volunteered with), constructed of scraps of wood, metal, and cardboard. The people we passed seemed fairly happy, but when Anielka stopped to talk, each person weighed her down with their worries. None of the four women we were scheduled to visit was home. The neighbours of each told us the women were busy dealing with some problem that had just arisen, involving either their children or abusive husband.
We stopped outside a well-built wooden shack to talk to a girl bouncing a baby boy on her knee. I guessed that it was her brother. I was wrong. She was older than she appeared, at eighteen years old, and her first child was born four years earlier. The next home we stopped at was of a woman, about my age (of 28), who had nine kids. She wasn’t sure if she wanted more. On our way out of the barrio two pretty teenager girls with babies greeted Anielka and she introduced us. The mothers smiled proudly as they talked about their babies, one of them giggled coyly behind her hand when she told me she had her first baby at thirteen.
As life in the barrio presents the girls with little opportunity or hope, being mothers seems to be the best and often the only thing to which they can aspire. Intoxicated with romance, they often fall pregnant in the hope that a baby will enkindle a commitment from their equally young boyfriend, even as they see families fall apart around them every day. In Nicaragua the infamous Latino Machismo dictates that a manly man can get all the girls he wants and getting girls pregnant proves that he is a real man. If your girl isn’t pregnant, there’s something wrong with you.
If things continued on the same course, by the time the thirteen and fourteen year old mothers were my age they would be grandmothers. With no jobs other than selling wild fruit for a few dollars a week, they would continue to live in overcrowded houses and perpetuate another generation of poverty, with a rapidly increasing number of sufferers.
It was evident to me how important the work of Empowerment was to this community. Poverty isn’t just about missing out on comforts and pleasures: it spawns powerlessness, breads domestic abuse and leads desperate people to criminality. Through education, the cycle of poverty can be broken in a single generation, but you don’t just have to convince the children to go to school. The hardest part can be convincing parents how important it is to allow the children to stop working in order to learn.
Kathy looked heartbroken as she told me the story of one of her most successful student’s struggle. With the support of Empowerment, the girl had completed primary school and high school. Her mother was uneducated and became jealous of her daughter’s success. The woman felt worthless in comparison and accused her daughter of thinking her mother wasn’t good enough and that was the reason she wanted a different, better life, and she expressed her feelings through abuse towards her daughter. At times the abuse got so bad that the girl had to stay in the Empowerment office, where Kathy kept a bedroom for students from rural areas to sleep.
The Empowerment staff spent time communicating with the mother about the importance of education and how it could make life better for the whole family. Eventually she came to understand and the girl returned home, continuing on to University education. It was one of the many struggles that I would hear about during my two weeks with Empowerment. I was overwhelmed with the change that was happening everyday in the village, thanks to one human being’s commitment to help others.
The following day there were three police cars blocking the muddy street into the barrio. Heavily armed officers concealed by balaclavas scrutinized the home where four Empowerment kids lived. Anielka explained to me that they were narcotics officers, and they wore balaclavas to hide their identities from criminals. I followed her closely, not sure if I was allowed to watch the commotion and nervous that we might be about to get caught in the middle of shootout.
It was all the barrio women could talk about that day. Our home visits were enlivened with gossip amongst the mothers who were all relieved that the cops had finally busted the drug dealers. Each one assured us that they didn’t inform the police, and that it could have been anyone because everybody knew those people were dealing. They told us that buyers would turn up at all hours looking for the house where you could buy cocaine and marijuana. The mothers hated their children being around that kind of activity. The community was safer now, but Anielka was worried about what would happen to the kids now that their parents would be going to jail.
Drugs were a big risk for kids in the barrio. Cocaine was available on their doorstep for $1, money which they might steal or earn by selling fruit or sweets. Glue was also easy to get and Anielka knew kids who were addicted to sniffing. In that environment even the most promising kids were at risk. Some of Empowerment’s most successful students were suffering anxiety and depression.
When we returned to headquarters after the home visits, Kathy invited me into her office to talk about our plan for the rest of the week. She looked worn out. Two teenage girls were in the room sobbing. They both had bandages around their wrists and were cradling each other. I sat down in the spare chair and looked at Kathy, unsure what to do or say. She told me in English what had happened, that the girls had slit each other’s wrists. My heart broke at their desperate cry for help. For Kathy, it was just another day.
- Anielka during one of our home visits in the barrio
- A young mother