Fred Jacob

NICARAGUANicaragua, wounded, bleeds mud
from the open fissures in its heart.–from “After the Hurricane,” by Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan poet

My Return to Villa Nueva

The coffee is tepid, muddy, and weak. The eggs are swimming in grease, and the rice and beans look oppressive in the dawn light. The blare of the horn of the local public transport is the deafening morning serenade–welcome back to Villa Nueva. For better or worse, Doña Christiana’s restaurant is about the only place to eat here in this northwestern Nicaraguan village that borders Honduras.

I was here three times immediately after the rains from Hurricane Mitch had subsided and had begun to wreak havoc on Central America. My third visit was in mid-November with two French medical teams, and my mission was to just deliver the teams and return home. However I was captured by the plight of the inhabitants, the energy of the people, and impressed with my new French friends, so I stayed for 10 days.

Mostly we worked in coordination with the local health center and the mayor’s office, battling major epidemics of cholera, malaria, and the deadly leptospirosis–a malady carried in the urine of infected animals that is fatal when untreated. Since then, conditions here have improved somewhat, but it was quite disheartening today for me to see hundreds of people still living under plastic in the crudest of huts.

The focus with the displaced people is on moving away from giving handouts, and they are now being paid in food for their work. Mostly they clean contaminated water systems and bury the thousands of beasts that perished here, to create adequate conditions so that they can move back to their land. There are many communities where not one house was left standing. The ground is still wet and muddy seven weeks after The Hurricane has passed–mosquitoes are ferocious, and living here is as hard as ever.

There is a lot of emotional trauma that has surfaced during the holidays, and that is why I have returned to Villa Nueva with three Nicaraguan psychologists. We are coordinating with the health ministry in offering workshops to health workers in the communities, teaching them the basics in identifying and working with post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional traumas.

The depression here isn’t only due to the trauma of loss of life but to the desperation of parents who cannot give their family even the minimum of comfort–no house, no food, no clothes, no school–because there is little work and no crops. The international donations that have given some comfort to the difficult life here are needed, but they also trigger in the parents a sense of frustration that they have to rely on outside agencies in order to keep their families fed and clothed.

The whole scene here brings me back to that sense of frustration and heaviness that I felt during the first weeks after the damage became apparent but that I had lately forgotten about because I have been working in areas not as heavily affected as Villa Nueva.

Next: mental health work.