I used to think that my neighbors next door were poor. In actual fact they are not. They have a good roof over their heads, food every day, toys on their birthdays, a variety of nice clothes. They are also always spotlessly clean, as Nicaraguans like to be!
There are four little girls who have been coming to our door asking for food. They are the cutest, most charming and always have a huge smile. When we are out of apples, they are thrilled to get a tomato or anything else edible.
I asked them a few days ago if they go to school and they said no, they have never been. The oldest is 11 and the youngest is 9 and they can’t read or write. We saw them in the street one day with their mother who told us she has nine children and that school is too expensive. I asked my neighbors next door what school costs and found out that public school is free, but you do need to have a uniform and supplies.
So, the next day off we go, Ben and I to the nearest public school on the main street and find out that the girls are welcome to start school. We are given a list of one text book, notebooks, pencils, a plate, a cup, a spoon. School offers breakfast or lunch to those who need it, and they need it! We meet the teacher to be who has a class full of what looks like first graders, but this is where they will have to start out until they catch up. Cost for all of them for supplies, about thirty dollars… a fortune for the mother.
When I asked the oldest girl Silvia if she would like to go to school, she got very happy and was almost crying with excitement when I told her that we had been to the school and that they could start on Monday. “But we will need uniforms… and shoes, and socks. Estamos pobres” (We are poor.)
Ben left for his meetings and I left the house with three little girls in dirty clothes, ragged hair, thin plastic shoes that were breaking apart. Oh, and they left their little stray dog in our house with Mango and Dwayne. We walked holding hands, towards the shops near the market. First stop, the shoes.
Oh the joy! Rows of black school shoes with bows and straps to try on.. Lets just say that this process took about an hour due to my crappy Spanish and the frustrating sales person who looked down her nose at us! The girls of course had great fun and more so when I decided that had to have at least something else to wear when they were not at school, so they each got a pair of flip flops, much to their delight. (At three dollars each, this in itself is a big deal for them.) We walk out, with the oldest carrying the bags of new shoes proudly and all three of them slapping their new flip flops loudly against the sidewalk.
Ten dollars each and we are sent to the back of the store for each girl to proudly get measured for her school uniform by the seamstress who is going to sew these in the next two days.
Nicaraguans are very clothes and cleanliness conscious. They take a lot of pride in keeping themselves and their homes very clean. I decide that the girls need underwear and they tell me they need soap to wash the clothes. We buy two blocks of the laundry soap and they point to the toothpaste and a hairbrush telling me that they don’t have these. Okay we are starting to run out of the cash I have brought along which means we will have to skip the much anticipated coche (horse and cart) ride back to the house. Now remember I am doing all this buying and talking to these kids and to the people in the market in my broken Spanish, so its exhausting, but somehow we manage.
I offer them a shower, to which Maria asks me “Is there shampoo?”. Imagine a child that has never been under a waterfall before, and a warm one at that, and you can get an idea of how much fun it was to take a shower in a real bathroom and get your hair washed and there is even a big towel to dry off with. Final step, I brush their hair, give them a sandwich and off they go until the big day, Saturday when we go to try on and pick up the uniforms.
Next dayFriday, the girls are back at our door with an extra little girl that they claimed was another sister who wanted to go to school. We went through the same process with her from shoes to backpack, at the end of which I explained to the oldest girl Silvia that I knew she was not her sister (and it turned out that she is a cousin), and that it was important to me that she be honest with me. I also emphasized that five girls was our limit, as in six months or so they will most likely need new shoes, etc. No mas!
I used to think the kids next door were poor. This week I spent time with kids who have nothing. India poor. Hopefully the step of getting them to school will impact their lives in a very profound way. Only part I am not looking forward to is the 6.15 wake up on Monday morning so that I can accompany them on their first day to the school.
Today, Monday I open the door at 6.30 and there they are: all fresh and clean, hair brushed, uniforms on and huge smiles. I realized in that moment that they weren’t just getting an opportunity to learn, but gained something in the category of pride and dignity. Ben gave them breakfast at the table of watermelons and cashews and then off they went to school with Ben and the dogs as their chaperones for their first day. After school they were back excitedly to show me their days work – pages of writing vowels and numbers. They were so hot with their uniforms that they stripped them off to reveal vests and shorts underneath to walk home in.