Category Archives: Nicaragua
Working as an NGO photographer and documenting the work of not-for-profit 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 three 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.
I am thrilled to have an article printed in SURFGIRL Magazine, the raddest womens surf mag in The UK.
EOS magazine is a great photography publication coming out of the UK, focused on the technical side of photography and specifically of Canon EOS cameras.
I wanted to write an account of my experiences volunteering in Latin America, thinking it would appeal to EOS readers. The editor Angela August agreed and offered me a two page spread in the Nov 2011 issue. When the article went to print, it ended up as four pages.
I was really pleased to receive an email from Angela saying
“Very many thanks for your contribution. I must compliment you on your fantastic pics, sparkling, well-targeted copy and generally getting everything to me on time and in sensible order. You made my job very easy!”
I put a lot of effort in to making the article as polished as possible, so it’s so nice to hear I could make Angela’s job easier.
Here is a copy of the article.
I love getting feedback, so please leave any of your comments here on email me at email@example.com
Antony Ledezma Mendin
& The Bethlehem Youth Club – A photo shoot for Opportunity Nicaragua
When Antony was eight years old his parents divorced, and his family disintegrated around him. Antony’s mother is Costa Rican, but his farther is Nicaraguan. When the family broke down Antony’s father returned to Nicaragua, forcibly taking Antony with him.
They moved to the Nicaraguan Capital of Managua and shared a house with Antony’s grandmother. Life at home was tough, and the family relationship was strained. Antony rebelled. He fought with his father and grandmother, who also fought with each other. At a young age he began experimenting with drugs, smoking and drinking, by 12 he decided living on the streets was better than at home. He ran away.
Antony lived on the streets with a group of friends. They stuck together and protected each other. To get money they would steel whatever they could, sometimes visiting local farms to rob fruit and then sell it on the street.
As he got older, the group of friends developed into a gang; drugs and gang related violence became part of life. Antony looks back on his past drug use with open honesty, recalling “I was crazy, but I liked it (to feel something different)”. The violence on the street was life threatening. At one point in a street gang related attack Antony’s skull was smashed open with a rock, he spent 15 days in hospital and came dangerously close to death.
His life reached crisis point after the sudden death of one of his close friends and soon after Antony was jailed for armed robbery. He spent two months in jail awaiting sentencing. While in jail, a Christian group visited the inmates. Their message resonated with Antony and when still in prison he accepted Jesus as his saviour. Antony was facing at least 10 years in jail and began to pray to for his freedom.
On the day he was to be sentenced an extraordinary string of events occurred. The official escort to court failed to show up. At the end of the day the police officer in charge did not know what to do. He called Antony inside and, astonishingly, gave him his release papers. The charges were dropped and he was free to go. In that moment Antony felt God had answered his prayers and became a committed Christian.
He was free, but with nowhere to go Antony was back on the streets and in danger of returning to his old ways. In his old neighbourhood he met Doña Suzie, who is part of the Bethlehem Youth Club community. The youth club rescued Antony from the streets. They gave him a place to live, food, clothes and support to turn his life around.
Now, the number one change in Antony’s life is a feeling of security. He no longer has to steal in order to eat or wonder where he is going to sleep. The Bethlehem Youth Club gives him a safe, supportive environment, for him to strengthen his resolve to live a new life.
Antony now dreams of being married and having a family, not such a wild dream. He already has a child on the way with his girlfriend, but is honest when he says he is not prepared for marriage. Antony feels inadequate about not finishing school and not having any job skills. He hopes to earn these and be able to support his own family before he asks his girlfriend to marry him. He also dreams of finding his mother who he has not seen since leaving Costa Rica.
Text by James Galletly, Freelance Travel Writer
I have just finished running a 1 week photography workshop with 12 wonderful children, through Empowerment International in Granada, Nicaragua.
Empowerment International’s mission is to build educated and productive communities to stop the cycle of poverty before it transfers to another generation. Their vision is for every child to go to school and achieve the level of education they desire, which is no easy task in a country where 50% of children who begin first grade drop out before fifth grade to help their families who may live on less than $1 per day.
Volunteering with Opportunity Nicaragua was an wonderful experience that allowed me a glimpse into the lives of many hardworking artisanas and farmers around Granada, who despite adversity, can go through life with a smile. The experience gave me perspective on how tough life is for so many people throughout the world, and how fortunate I am to live the life I have.
Here are a few of my favorite shots from the experience.
Playa Gigante, Nicaragua
This morning when I was on the front porch three men with very big guns walked past me, trailed by some very excited dogs. They returned this afternoon with a bunch of iguana for dinner, Saturday night special. My little friend took one of the iguanas from her Dad and started parading the catch around the main street (Yes, this is the main street pictured).