Back to School
IT’S never a good look, the red-faced, sweat-dripping one. Especially at breakfast.
But Nicaragua will do that to you, especially if you have to move around at all.
And this morning, I do have to move around. Not dusting myself off for a marathon you understand, or taking part in an inspirational bout of spinning, but just getting on and off a bus. Everything seems hard work in the heat when you’re used to throwing back the curtains to skies the colour of an elephant’s backside.
So by the time I step from the aforementioned bus in downtown Esteli somewhere, dust puffing up from the scruffy pavement as I disembark, there’s already a telltale dark patch appearing on the shirt between my shoulder blades.
While locals seem to carry off this look with ease, appearing to have just completed some healthy outdoorsy type of job, I look more like I’ve been thrashing through the undergrowth for a decade, narrowly avoiding the grasp of lurking serpents and fang-toothed mammals of every description.
It is this apparition, Dear Reader – minus the pith helmet – which greets the little old lady who stood meekly before the primary school, hands folded in front of her plain beige habit.
She is a nun, complete with wimpole, sparkling eyes and a height of not more than five feet in heels. But behind those eyes is steel she needs it. Sor Purificación Guitierrez is Principal of the Belen School in Esteli, which has been ‘adopted’ by some sections of the cigar community – most notably Sasja van Horssen’s Longfiller Company of the Netherlands. His amazing Amsterdam store, Cigaragua, donates 10% of every stick sold to this little patch of dry earth. And as Sor Purificación of the Fe y Alegria ‘Faith and Happiness’ Christian charity leads me around, I can see why.
Bright eyed, bushy-tailed little ones abound, in spankingly smart uniforms and with the gleam of freshly brushed teeth. They grin as we enter their classrooms and proudly sing in Spanish to show off their skills.
They have very little – but the sad truth is that these are the lucky ones. Statistics show that youngsters in Nicaragua’s poorest areas – like Esteli – spend as little as five years or less in mainstream education.
That means before they’ve even reached their teens, many of them are out working to help their families make ends meet. From here, it is easy to fall into a life of drudgery – gangs, drugs, under-age pregnancy or unemployment – and the cycle repeats itself.
The Pro Nica charity is determined to try and help break this cycle and last year handed over a cheque for in excess of £20,000. That may not sound a lot in Western terms, but it goes an awful long way in Estelí. It has bought equipment and paid for the building of new classrooms, designed to be able to cope with older as well as younger students – so they can do some evening classes and continue their education.
My diminutive guide leads me to some scrub ground at the rear of the school, where a set of rusty goalposts have been hammered into the cracked, parched, cemented ground. I wouldn’t fancy a sliding tackle on that, let me tell you.
“And this,” she says proudly, with a grand sweep of her arm, “is our new playground.”
There’s some rickety play equipment which has seen better days – a wonky swing, old seesaw and the like. And they are thrilled with it.
These are good people and they deserve better. I have two girls of my own and as I watch these little Nicaraguan bundles of energy I can’t help but appreciate that we all lead very different lives.
If you’ve bought this book – and I sincerely hope you haven’t stolen it – then you are doing your bit to help these beautiful raven-haired kids and their families have a better future.