Friday, July 31, 2020

Future Fridays: Climate Change is still happening, folks.

Each evening when we pull up the PBS Newshour on YouTube, almost every evening one of us says, "Wonder what will be the headline...COVID or BLM?"  Both are pressing items in the news cycles and for good reason, but we are hearing less and less about Climate Change, which as our son, Daniel, says, "If we don't address climate change, there will be fewer Black Lives and COVID will seem easy."  And he is right.

The police brutality that exists in the U.S. and around the world, HAS to have to work on changing this "norm" for our lives and all   When governments are threatened from their people who are starving and suffering, they tend to react with order to keep their power.  We see this everywhere. 

The Defense Department says that climate change will be a new threat to the world...militarily.  As more and more people are displaced with rising sea levels, droughts, floods...those who have nothing are going to come for those of us who have much.

With forests disappearing, the human race is going to deal with more and more pandemics as viruses jump from animals to humans.  

Climate Change HAS to be everyone's top priority.  Corporations have to change their polluting ways and we have to make them. Governments have to address their laws and make the climate number one.  Communities have to become more adaptable in order to limit carbon emissions.  Individuals have to focus on what we can do to save our environment.

We cannot wait any longer to make Climate Change our number one priority.  If we do, COVID and the now brutality will seem like a walk in the park.

Shutterstock and composite Photo

The good news is...humans (ergo corporations, governments, communities) can multi-task.  We tend to forget that.  We can demand that racism end and brutality stop.  We can demand that communities invest in social work as well as trees and bike paths and sidewalks.  We can demand that corporations quit funding political candidates who are racist as well as that they quit polluting our waters and air and pay their fair share of taxes to go into ways to heal our earth.  We can demand from our governments to work on COVID, provide PPE, and funding for those most vulnerable, as well as demand that they pass some version of the Green New Deal.  

And we must.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Jessenia Castillo, ¡Presente!

Photo by Joe Alexander

Last night we lost the face of the Nueva Vida Clinic, Evelyn Jessenia Castillo.  She died from COVID-19.   Jessenia was our health promoter.  Jessenia suffered from diabetes and struggled mightily to keep it under control.  This made her passionate about helping others maintain their own health and gave her deep insights on how to help.

Let me share a few memories with you to help give you in-sight into this caring, darling, wonderful woman…

Ten years ago, I decided that we really needed a health promoter to organize our public health outreach.  I asked César, who is gifted in community organizing himself, to find us some candidates.  He brought us Jessenia.  She was mild spoken, unassuming, and told about her organizing experiences.  She had limited public health organizing, but was willing to learn.  To be honest, I wanted someone - anyone - and I wanted them working ASAP.  Little did I know just how perfect she was for the job.

Two friends who gave the CDCA the money to hire Jessenia, Nora and Becky, always went to the clinic to visit... especially with Jessenia.  The three would chat and strategize about how to help the new mother’s programs.

Jessenia would soak in information and ideas from anyone willing to teach her, but she was also wise to what might work and what might not.  She loved having Professor Ronna Krozy come and Ronna loved working with Jessenia.  Every time Ronna came she would always comment on how we had a gem in Jessenia, something that we already knew, but high praise from a public health nurse with her doctorate.  In fact, everyone who worked with Jessenia was highly impressed by her knowledge, her caring, her wisdom and her kindness.

Jessenia was the face of the clinic in the community through our lay health promoters.  If we had problems, she would gently but forcibly tell me about them.  She would explain why my logical choices were absolutely ridiculous… but never in those words… though sometimes I wish she had… we would have saved ourselves some troubles.

Jessenia loved the patients and they loved her back.  She knew so many by name and knew the burdens that they lived under.  She could - off the top of her head - tell us who needed extra help, who needed follow-up, who needed to be visited, who struggled to eat, and the list went on... all in a community of thousands of poor people.  She could walk anywhere and volunteers could walk with her and be safe, because she was known and loved.

Jessenia had backbone.  She would stand up to a volunteer when they were not being culturally appropriate and not back down... a true gift… not to mention great responsibility.  It is hard to do this, because we all know that volunteers give of their time and expertise. It was difficult for Jessenia who did not like conflict.  She would frequently confer with me to see if her choice was right.  It always was… always.

She took her calling to be the clinic’s health promoter seriously.  I firmly believe that her job was as important as the doctors and other medical services; if not sometimes more important.  Here are some of her accomplishments:
  • Recruiting, organizing and supporting the 30 lay health promoters
  • Creating and teaching three new mother's groups bi-weekly or monthly
  • Leading teen girls' and boys' groups
  • Starting and maintaining support for HIV positive patients
  • Teaching weekly classes for our chronic care patients
  • Leading volunteer doctors, nurses, nutritionists, dentists, lactation specialists, and respiratory therapist into homes of patients and bridging the cultural gap with sensitivity
  • Creating and maintaining a home visit program for chronic care patients, new mothers and pregnant women, patients at risk, and asthmatic patients
  • Organizing and teaching so many in Nueva Vida on umpteen million topics, it seems
  • And connecting our clinic with the gay and transgender community in a respectful and dignified manner.
She was a powerhouse of ideas and  her desire to make Nueva Vida a better place was palpable.

Jessenia was loved and respected by the clinic staff.  She was heart and compassion through and through.

She was  patient with me. She taught me how to listen to the staff as well as the community of Nueva Vida.  I loved her... we all did and we will miss her… terribly. 
- Kathleen

For nearly 5 years I had the privilege of spending every Tuesday afternoon with Jessenia
- and 12 teenagers! - when we started the Las Lobas group for at-risk girls together. Jessenia had trained as a teacher, she was an educator down to her core, and she taught me so much!

With the Lobas she knew how to strike just the right balance between love and discipline. Jessenia was physically affectionate with them - so important in Nicaraguan culture and in particular with these girls - allowing them to hug her, braid her hair, even practice putting make-up on her. She taught me that it was okay to let these girls fully into our hearts. And yet she never let them walk all over her, she insisted on respect - but it was a mutual respect, and the girls recognized that.

The stereotype of a Nicaraguan mother teaches her children and grandchildren through regaño - berating and chastising them. In many cases the mothers are so terrified for their children that shouting is the only way they know to get their kids to understand. Jessenia did not berate. She was always calm and patient and helped the Lobas understand tough topics in the way that the best Nicaraguan community organizer artists do - by explaining the same thing three times in three different ways using everyday examples.

Jessenia, a gifted baker, gave Las Lobas an 8 week baking course in her home.

We made it a custom to take the Lobas out of the neighborhood every other week - one week we would do something educational, and the following week we would take them on an outing. The first outing we went on was to see the movie Godzilla, and one of the girls came to us to tell us that another was carrying a knife. Jessenia helped to negotiate with the girl - who insisted the knife was for peeling mangoes - to leave the knife in the pharmacy with Danelia while we went to the movies. Anyone who's ever chaperoned a school field trip knows that our hearts were in our mouths each time we went out, but as long as Jessenia was with us, I knew we'd all make it back in one piece.

Jessenia was invaluable in helping me to negotiate the world of teenage girls in a culture other than the one in which I grew up, which made me a better leader for the Lobas, but also a better mom for my own two Nicaraguan teenage girls. I am forever indebted to her. Jessenia Castillo,
¡Presente! ¡Presente! ¡Presente! 
- Becca

NOTE: If you are reading this blog using the mobile version,click on "web version" to see the full blog with all the features including "subscribe to blog by email".  

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Donate here to the ongoing work of the CDCA with the poor in Nicaragua.  You can help continue Jessenia's work by giving in her memory:

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Virtual celebration; Real progress

A pandemic changes everything. We knew that the 19th of July, Revolution Day in Nicaragua, would also be different this year, but we weren't sure how different. We'd been watching the build up to July 19th with televised virtual concerts all week. On the 18th, the traditional Eve of the 19th with hundreds of live concerts all night long was replaced with a televised concert with people from around the country texting in photos of their families watching the Vigilia Virtual from home.

On Sunday afternoon, Paul and I donned masks and drove into Managua to see for ourselves what it looked like. Every other 19th of July, we are stuck in traffic as soon as we hit the edge of Managua, wall-to-wall buses bringing 600,000 people to the plaza, passengers spilling out the windows and waving flags from the atop the buses. This year, one lonely half-empty bus running it's regular route was the only traffic.

Km. 6.5 Cta Nueva Leon 19 July 2020 1:11 PM Photo by Becca Mohally Renk

Normally we can't get close to the Plaza in a car, instead walking the last two miles down the boulevard crammed with vendors and people until when we finally get up next to the stage and can no longer move due to the absolute mass of celebratory spectators. This year, the six-lane boulevard was empty of traffic and pedestrians alike. Right down in the Plaza we encountered a handful of people tailgating in their cars, and on the corner there was a group of drunks under the only shade tree. Police watched quietly from the edges wearing masks with the police insignia in the corner. There were a few t-shirt vendors hawking their wares, but their biggest sales were in masks - red and black, FSLN, and Che Guevara masks.

Managua, Plaza de la Fe, 19 July 2020 1:31 PM Photo Becca Mohally Renk

It was eerie to find the streets so empty, but it was not surprising to me. The Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) was founded in the context of clandestine guerilla warfare in the 1960s, when lives literally depended on Sandinista combatants unquestioningly following orders. As a result, to this day its members are disciplined. So when the FSLN leadership announced there would be no mass rally, its membership fell in line and flew their FSLN and Nicaraguan flags from home.

What message did the FSLN leadership deliver to its base of supporters this 19th? 

First, the visual message: the speech was not given to an empty Plaza, nor was it prerecorded from home. The President spoke from the historic smaller plaza where the first impromptu Triumph of the Revolution festivities took place 41 years ago. With him were the Vice President, cabinet members and an audience of Sandinista Youth - all wearing masks and socially distanced.

Canal 6

Second, the spoken message: the President's speech on the 19th of July is like the State of the Union in the U.S. - Daniel Ortega talks about what the government has accomplished in the past year and announces new programs. This year he spoke almost exclusively about health care. In a time when news printed in other parts of the world about what's happening in Nicaragua tells the story that  the Nicaraguan government is "doing nothing" to protect its people from the pandemic, the President's message left no doubt that this accusation does not reflect the reality here.

After giving detailed statistics on improvements in the free public health care system over the past 12 years in government - including 18 new hospitals, 59 remodeled hospitals, 1,476 new health centers & health posts, 178 homes for pregnant women, 80 mobile clinics (made from semi trucks confiscated by police from drug trafficking) and 5 specialized clinics - Ortega declared that prioritizing long term investments in health "has allowed us to successfully confront this pandemic."

Because in the end, this year's message to the Sandinista base was not - as it has been in much of the world - "Let's do what it takes to get through this pandemic and then we can get back to normal." The message, rather, is an extension of what we have heard Nicaraguans repeating to us for the last four months, "This virus is here to stay, and we have to learn to combat it long term," just as we have done and are doing with other diseases: 2.23 million people vaccinated March-June, half a million homes fumigated against mosquitoes, 21,600 women cared for in homes for pregnant mothers. In addition to all the public health measures being taken - masks, social distancing, hand washing, sending the Army to disinfect public spaces - Nicaragua's strategy to fight this pandemic is  part of a much larger struggle, part of an alternative development strategy based on solidarity and justice which puts people first.

"The worse epidemic is one that causes hunger," Daniel Ortega declared this 19th of July 2020. "The epidemic of savage capitalism, which was imposed on the world until this epidemic came and shook it."
 - Becca

Friday, July 17, 2020

19 de Julio COVID-19 style

The 19th of July... 19 de Julio... is a national holiday here in Nicaragua.  Why?  It is like folk in the U.S. celebrating July 4th and the overthrow of British rule.  Similarly, Nicaragua on the 19th celebrates the overthrow of an extended dictatorship and the establishment of its democracy. 

Annually on the 19th, somewhere around half-a-million people swarm into the main plaza in Managua, coming from all over the country (population 6.6 million).  Bus cooperatives stop their normal routes to transport folk as charter vehicles, and everything that rolls is used.  The leadership of the nation and visiting international heads of state, as well as hundreds of significant supporters are seated on an immense platform, with the public merely yards away, singing, clapping, and having a wonderful time.  This has been a 40-year tradition.  Our international volunteers have witnessed this first-hand.

But this year... the 41st Anniversary... everything is different. Contrary to what you may have been hearing on international news media,  COVID-19 is respected as a life-threatening reality here in Nicaragua.  Masks, hand-washing, and social distancing are considered important, recognized not only by MINSA  (the national health system), and by the public at large, but also by those with political power.  So what has the administration chosen to do about this special day when the norm has been public acclaim of its achievements and progress?  It has chosen the high road of protecting health and safety for the Nicaraguan people.  There will be NO enormous official gathering in the Plaza.  Instead, the widely touted slogan is "Este año cada casa es una Plaza(This year, every house is a Plaza).  Beginning this week, a whole series of concerts and special events are being televised*, so that all over the country, people who wish to do so can safely celebrate.

Amazing!  Wow!


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*This list of events was published by the Nicaraguan Embassy:

July 16 - live concert on youtube
July 18 - live concert from the Ruben Dario National Theater... "Songs of the Revolution" broadcast by Channels 4 and 
July 19 - various activities broadcast on Channels 4 and 6
July 15 - 19 Film Festival: