Monday, February 21, 2011

El Techo (The Roof)

In 1991, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls Minnesota came into a neighborhood that had sprouted on land claimed by the revolutionary government a few years earlier and dreamed a house into being. It would be a home for up to four Sisters, a community resource, and a refuge for their neighbors from the stresses and difficulties of their daily lives. After a few years serving other purposes, that house has returned to its role as a place for the community, a place to house those who come to work alongside the community, and a refuge, as the Casa Misionera. As we have spent time and money restoring the house, I would look around at my neighbor's houses, some of which are grander and finer than this one, and some of which still have dirt floors (easier to clean than ours!). And when I ask myself “is it okay to have [fresh paint, new cookware, new plastic chairs], when some of my neighbors don't?” The answer that comes back is: “as long as these are resources to share.”
Roof of the Casa Misionera

With the intent of sharing their home as a place to escape Managua's sometimes oppressive heat, the women who dreamed up what is now the Casa Misionera chose to break from the far more common corrugated metal roof, and used insulating panels instead. Now, 20 years later, the report from the previous occupants is that the roof is “like a colander,” and needs replacing before the rainy season. To that end, I am inviting you to participate in Giving Change today by helping keep the Casa Misionera a refuge from the heat and rain.

Please consider giving $10 – not much more than pocket change for some of us – right now online. If everyone who has visited this blog does, we will raise $3000 to cover the roof and prepare the house to connect to a sewage line, due to come to the neighborhood this year, right away. If you can give $25, you will be paying for one of the 12 foot panels that make up the bulk of the roof, $100 will keep a bedroom dry, $1000 will cover the kitchen/ dining room that serves as the heart of the Casa.

New roofing panel
Whether you can give or not, I also would ask that you share this request with anyone you know who might be able to help with the roof, or would be interested in our work.

Thank you again for your ongoing support – in all of it's forms!

Again, you can donate online by clicking here – include the word “techo” in the description.

Or you can send a check made out to “Faithful Fools” with “techo” in the memo to:
Faithful Fools
234 Hyde St.
San Francisco, CA

With the rainy season not far off, we are hoping to finish the roof project by the end of March, so please take action as soon as you can.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


One of the things I looked forward to in coming to live alone in Managua was having an independence that I don't get when I'm here on Retreat with the Faithful Fools. I wouldn't have a group's schedule to keep, and most importantly, I would be able to go out alone. When we are here on Retreat, we stay with families who feed us, house us, help us do laundry and expose us to other aspects of how people live here, and show us around the community and the city. It is a wonderful kind of intimacy, being an adult living as someone's child and in their care. There are few people in the world I feel closer to than the three families I have lived with in Managua, though it was only for two weeks at a time. But it has always been a struggle to accept that I couldn't just go out and walk around on my own.

A typical Nicaraguan dinner - Gallo Pinto, Platanos, y Queso
I love to walk – it is one of the main ways I will get to know a place – and because I often walk long and fast, I usually walk alone. In Managua, our families feel a responsibility to care for us, and to keep us safe, and the danger of being robbed is real. Many of our friends here have been robbed, sometimes by people they know in the neighborhood, sometimes at knife-point. It is understandable why our friends are concerned about our safety, especially in light of our unfamiliarity with the area and with the language, and because people often associate gringos with money – which is probably justified. (One year, of the ten of us on Retreat, you were likely to find as many as eight carrying cameras worth at least a month's salary to our neighbors.) It is one thing to have your friend who is visiting get robbed, and another to have it happen to the “child” under your care.

With my growing familiarity with the neighborhood, and with the caretaker dynamic (mostly) out of the way, I figured I could go out wherever I pleased, limited only by my lack of knowledge of the countless unnamed streets and my willingness to get lost in them. After all, as I said to some Nicas the first time I came here, it is my job to walk on “dangerous” streets.

Curry Fried Rice - an improvisation
In my first week here, I was busy running errands to get the house set up and myself settled, and always had someone to show me the way, and sometimes to translate. I also figured it would be good to work on my Spanish more, in case I needed to talk my way out of trouble. So I didn't leave the neighborhood alone. In my second week, while visiting a friend in the neighborhood, she told me how “people were talking” about the gringo walking alone in the neighborhood (I would walk to houses I knew close by), and then told a story of someone being robbed down the street at 7a.m.! I had been relying on the morning being a safer time (I've found most “dangerous” neighborhoods are quieter in the early morning). I then had another friend explain, at length, that I would be safe as long as I was walking with someone, but as soon as I was alone, people would notice me as a target. I took these warnings to heart. In my third week, I would wake up many mornings imagining myself heading off to the market early in the day – slipping out and back before my friends could worry about me, and hopefully before any potential robber could figure out what I was doing. I needed to go to the market – there were so many ingredients I had run out of, and the errands I was running never seemed to fit with grocery shopping. I never managed my early morning escape, and I kept figuring out how to get by with a little improvisation, and the wares available at the pulperia next door and from the vendedores selling produce from horse carts and pick-up trucks passing through the streets.
Vending cart makes its way down my street
Finally, almost three weeks to the day after my arrival, I had no rice, no beans, no cheese – all that was in my refrigerator was a carrot and some onions. I thought about just waiting – I was going to the market to buy more paint the next day, maybe this time I could pick up groceries as well. I certainly could make it through one night and one morning without eating – I have before – but I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. So I grabbed my bag, and my dictionary, and headed down to the corner at Via Flor, the next barrio (actually a colonia, name for a fancier neighborhood) where we go to catch the bus. It is about a mile walk, and the entrance to the barrio is considered one of the hot-spots for being robbed.

As I walked, I felt free, and a part of the neighborhood. I stopped and kicked a soccer ball with a kid I know on the way back. I also thought about how this little bit of hunger I felt was the final motivation to get me past my reservations and fears of leaving the neighborhood alone. What kind of motivation is real hunger, the kind that sits in your stomach for days or weeks on end? Is that what causes the robbery here in the streets, or on any streets? We spend so much hiring police and security guards and border patrol, and building walls and iron grates for our windows and doors, and making weapons that hurt and kill all the more efficiently and frighteningly. We also know the strength of the human spirit – our ability to overcome obstacles – the only stories more common in the news are tales of crime and violence. Is it reasonable at all to think that all the walls and guards and guns that we can imagine can stop a person driven by a deep hunger with no prospect of it subsiding? What other kinds of hunger drive us, and to what ends?

I want to live in a world without bars, where I am not separated from my fellow humans by guards and police and armies, where human touch comes from a hand or a kiss, not carried by the point of the knife or a bullet. Is such a world possible if we feed each others' hunger? Can we afford it? Are we willing to give up the illusion we call “security,” if that's what it takes to have it?

Monday, February 7, 2011


Every morning I get up at about 6 or 6:30 (unless I am still up from getting water) and sweep the sidewalk in front of the Casa Misionera. If I wait much later than this, the wind picks up, and blows the dust I'm sweeping all over me and anyone else who happens to be walking down the street at the time. It is a great ritual – it gives me a bit of structure to my days, allows me to focus my energy on making a welcoming path for good things to come to the house, and allows me to participate in my neighbors' morning rituals. Men, women and children come to the pulperia next door to buy things to start their day; some head off to work on foot, bicycle, or the occasional car; sometimes someone is washing a car, or tuning one up to make it through the day – there is a 30 year-old red Datsun called “Rapidito” that seems to need daily tuning to do its job, which seems to be taking people up the hill from the bus stop a half-mile away. I get to say “Buenas dias” to everyone as they pass, and it doesn't take long for looks of surprise to turn to smiles – one small baby insists on waving to me the entire time he's passing in his grandmother's arms.

I have three practical goals as I commence sweeping my steps and sidewalk: to sweep up and return any stray rocks to the garden, to remove a layer of the fine dust (“polvo”) that settles on everything, and to pick up the trash left there over night. The trash is mostly wrappers from chips and candy, with the occasional cigarette butt or soda bottle - a friend once pointed out that most trash littering the environment comes from things that aren't so good for our bodies, either. Apparently, Gladys had tried keeping a trashcan in front of her store to help minimize the litter, but someone decided they needed the bin more than the community did, and took it.

One particular day, as I was out sweeping, I was joined by several others doing similar sweeping. It was garbage day, and people were scooping trash into their trash bags in anticipation of the day's collection. I noticed a neighbor across the street sweeping the cobbled street, as well as his sidewalk, and was reminded of a thought that had been gently nagging at me since I began my practice of sweeping errant dust, pebbles, and lollipop sticks into the gutter. At home in San Francisco, we have street cleaning day twice a month, where a big truck comes down the street with rotating brushes that sweep the gutters pretty cleanly out of the gutter and into the back of the truck. This makes the gutter a reasonable place to sweep leaves, trash, or anything else you want off of the sidewalk. As I continued this practice in Managua, I wondered “who, if anyone, would clean out the gutter?”

Flor de mi jardin
Unlike on my neighbor's side of the street, my gutter was wet with running water, making a slush of mud, pebbles, and trash. I decided to go ahead and let my outdoor broom and only dustpan get muddy, and sweep up the gutter. I filled the trash-bag with about ten pounds of the slush.

As I surveyed my thoroughly clean garden, steps, sidewalk, and street, I filled with a bit of pride, and was able to visualize the whole street clean of muck, trash and leaves. I thought of how nice it would be to live on a street like that, anywhere. More important, I thought about how my neighbor, with his own simple act of caring for the streets, which we all use, and all contribute to dirtying, inspired me to do the same. 

This is how I most like to be influenced, and how I hope to influence others, by simply doing what I feel is right in caring for myself, my friends and family, my community, and the world.
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