3. Moscow/Pullman Daily News Articles
I’m copying them here for the record and in case you didn’t see the articles in the paper). The first focuses on the history of Moscow Sister City Association; the second, on my February trip to Nicaragua.
Moscow-Pullman Daily News, March 28, 2020 /// For 30-plus years, staying true to its mission
Moscow Sister City Association makes a difference ‘one individual, one community at a time’
Editor’s note: This is the first of two installments from Moscow’s David Barber and his work with the Moscow Sister City Association.
In February, I spent three weeks in Nicaragua. So much has changed in everyone’s life in the past month that it’s a different world, with COVID-19 at the center. But other endeavors continue; my trip involved a local organization whose goal precedes and will outlast the current crisis: “To promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time.”
My main business was to visit Moscow’s sister city, Villa El Carmen, on behalf of the Moscow Sister City Association, to check on our scholarship program. This program builds on the organization’s long effort, going back to the 1980s, to offer physical and emotional support to people in a country suffering from poverty and war.
Early in its existence, the Moscow Sister City Association, or MSCA, supplied basic resources, especially medical equipment, to the community. We sent funds to the Villa El Carmen mayor’s office – until learning that city officials in Nicaragua were diverting funds intended for community aid. At that point, MSCA changed course and began a program of supporting local schools.
MSCA has funded school supplies, equipment, and repairs, and over the years we have brought three English teachers to Moscow to live with families and study English at the University of Idaho or Washington State University. The first of these, Ana Julia Castillo, spent six months in Moscow in 1998 and since then she and her husband, Mario Mendoza, have been our representatives in Villa El Carmen making sure our support has been used responsibly. Ana says they do this to repay the kindness of Moscow people during her time here. That’s 22 years they’ve been repaying us.
In 2015, MSCA began awarding student scholarships of which we’ve developed two types. The first is a small grant to parents of elementary-school students who cannot afford the cost of school uniforms and supplies. We give grants of $50 to help parents. We have provided as many as 50 of these small grants annually.
The second type is a grant, from $350 to $1000 per student, awarded to high school seniors or recent graduates to attend universities in Managua, the capital city. Villa El Carmen is a small town (c. 6,000 population) and county (c. 45,000), rural but only about 30 miles from Managua where the universities are located. Nicaraguan public universities are tuition-free. They are not residential so our scholarship students live at home.
That means they have to take the bus to Managua every school day. From the town it takes an hour to get to Managua by bus and 20 minutes more to get to their university on another bus. Most of our students live in the hills and fields that surround the town; and for some it may take nearly an hour to get to the highway to catch the bus to Managua. Commute time may be four hours daily. Our scholarships are designed to help transportation costs as well as book expenses.
In 2016 we had eleven scholarship recipients, selected by their teachers and principals on the basis of academic ability, financial need and the value of their study to the community. But we knew nothing about them but their names, grades and areas of study. So in 2016 I returned to Nicaragua to get to know these scholarship students.
I did this by riding the bus with them individually into Managua and attending classes with them and by meeting their families at home. I was thrilled with the results: these were serious, dedicated students of business, English, medicine, psychology or physics with highly supportive though impoverished families. They needed and deserved our help. They were and remain very grateful to MSCA for our support.
Just having money for books and a year’s funding of bus rides and lunches is a big thing for them. Beyond that, they hugely appreciate that people from the outside world consider them worth noticing. This appreciation intensified after the uprising and crisis that began in April 2018. Knowing that the international community had some sense of what they and their country endured mattered greatly to them.
I returned last month to visit the first group of twelve scholarship winners, most of whom have graduated by now, and to meet five new scholarship winners. I also wanted to see how the country might have changed since 2016, even as the way countries change is taking on a whole new dimension in the current global crisis.
I’ll cover that in my next installment.
Commentary: Despite turmoil, people of Nicaragua warm, welcoming and willing to help visitors [April 4, 2020]
Editor’s note: This is the second of two installments from Moscow’s David Barber and his work with the Moscow Sister City Association. Last week, Barber discussed the scholarships provided by the association and the students who receive them. Today, he looks at the people, the culture and recent unrest in the country.
This description of Nicaragua as I experienced it in February predates the major ways in which COVID-19 has transformed all our lives in the United States and is starting to do the same in Nicaragua. So my account is on one level out of date, but I think it will remain basically accurate. I won’t try to adjust for the pandemic.
This was my fifth trip to Nicaragua; my purposes were to see friends, develop Moscow Sister City Association’s scholarship program and observe the present condition of the country. It was my first visit since the civil uprising of April 2018, which sparked a crisis that still continues. The United States is playing an important role (as it always has in Nicaragua) in this crisis.
Nicaraguans who support the current Ortega government are angry at the Trump administration’s recent actions against that government. Those who criticize the government — including most of the Nicaraguans I know — are pleased that the U.S. is applying pressures, such as financial sanctions against government officials for human rights violations. But the political scene hasn’t changed the basic nature of the people as I’ve experienced them: warm, welcoming and always willing to help you. These are the essential qualities of the people I know.
Certainly there is an undercurrent of brutality in Nicaraguan culture as seen in the behavior of the National Police, which the government has turned into a powerful repressive force against dissidents. And certain groups are common targets of assaults: in particular, women, farmers and indigenous communities. I often read about that, but personally I’m not seeing it. On my recent trip I was hosted warmly by four different families in four cities, but I also felt good will from people I didn’t know.
For example, one day getting off the bus in a new city and needing to contact the people who were going to host me, I realized my cell phone needed a Wi-Fi connection. I asked two schoolgirls, who were waiting for a ride home, where there was a place with Wi-Fi nearby.
There’s none around here, was their answer. I was standing around for a couple minutes trying to think of a Plan B when the girls offered me the use of their phone. One of them made the call I needed.
My hosts were always vigilant to keep me safe, especially in Managua, famously an unsafe city. My last full day in Nicaragua, my host in Villa El Carmen, Ana Julia Castillo, drove me to the center of Managua where a taxi driver, a friend of the family I was to stay with that night, would pick me up. Since Ana did not know this taxi driver, and since taxi drivers in Managua have a reputation for kidnapping and robbing tourists, she arranged with my new host for her taxi driver friend to give us a prearranged password at the meeting point. He arrived, spoke the password, and off we went.
In some ways Nicaraguans are different from Americans. They have a lot less money, of course (Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America), and their governmental structures, such as separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, are much weaker, which allows dictatorships to develop. On a personal level, they are much like us. One difference is that their sense of personal space is minimal; often they seem to want to share it with you.
This quality also applies to car and bus drivers who regularly charge into traffic openings so slim that I was sure the space being entered was narrower than the car. Drivers do respect other vehicles’ personal space when they get really close: no car or bus I was in ever got within, say, two inches of a neighboring vehicle. I would never drive there.
Nicaraguans treat dogs differently than most Americans do. Dogs there are usually guard dogs, or they pretend to be guard dogs by barking a lot. My hosts Ana and Mario have a pit bull, however, who is both pet and guardian. I was assured that Trixie would eat me if we were ever in the same space together so a gate always separated us. But Ana has ways of keeping Trixie calm. Regularly she bathes the dog in warm water infused with chamomile tea leaves while playing soothing music. Trixie loves the bath and the music and she naps long after.
Nicaraguans strongly possess qualities of friendship, loyalty and family strength. I hope for their future, which seems full of dangers. It’s hugely important that national Nicaraguan elections are scheduled for next year. Unfortunately, since the Ortega government has grown more authoritarian over the years, free and open elections do not seem likely. When I asked a friend about that, she said, “Oh, we already know that won’t happen.” I hope she is being too pessimistic. Many Nicaraguans are working publicly to reestablish a democracy. How effective they will be — I have no idea.