Trees of life: come bask in the glow of irony

There’s something you can’t miss as you make your way through Managua. They hover tall, like an amusement park spectacle on the streets and roundabouts. At night their yellow glow can be seen through the traffic miles away. They are called the Trees of life. As one commentator put it, it’s as if we’ve walked into the chocolate factory and are now in Willy Wonka’s world.

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Trees of life on Bolivar Avenue in Managua, Nicaragua.

It is said that these trees of life are an initiative of the country’s first lady, Rosario Murillo, who sees them as representative of Nicaragua’s happiness and prosperity. In one of Murillo’s speeches she announced that the trees are a way to celebrate the “…really happy feeling inside, as we convert the city into a celebration of its great blessing, prosperity and victory”. 

It’s obvious that the government is using this spectacle of lights as a political strategy. The trees are big, flashy and opulent. So look, citizens of ours, Nicaragua is booming! See how happy we have made you! They have underestimated their citizens though, who see right into the heart of the irony of it all. These trees of life have become a running joke around the country. Most meetings and workshops I attend include at least one sardonic reference to them. The government’s attempt at using light installations to construct a reality that does not exist has failed.

Critics have pointed out it would have been more appropriate to have planted real, living trees if you´re going to call them the trees of life after all. To me they only serve as a reminder of how industrial and sterile the world has become. We forgo nature in favour of the artificial. We create that which is supposed to celebrate the very thing we have destroyed – the earth’s natural resources.

And what about the cost? There has been an unsurprising lack of transparency from the government, but the newspaper Confidencial has calculated that each tree likely costs more than $20 000 US. This doesn’t include the costs associated with energy consumption and security – they are guarded by watchmen 24 hours a day.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. Nearly half of it’s population lives in rural areas and 68% of them are surviving on just over $1 US a day. By my count there are about 25 of these trees in Managua. It’s shameful that $500 000 then was spent on something so frivolous. Why not invest that money in education or in social services such as women’s shelters or healthcare? In Esquipulas there is just one small health centre – closed at night. If you have an emergency outside of opening hours, you either wait or you drive the 2 hours to the nearest big city (if you have a car). Half of a million dollars could go a long way in this country, and would have been better spent investing in the welfare of the people than creating an eye sore in the capital.

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I want to be like the air

Last week I took part in the last of a series of workshops on gender equality with representatives from different organizations around Nicaragua. The last evening I finally had a chance to see the Colectivo’s theatre group perform their feminist play ‘Ser como el aire quisiera´or in English, ‘I want to be like the air’.  All of the plays the group performs are written by the actresses themselves in extensive consultation with the feminist movement and survivors of domestic violence. The group’s mission is to generate critical reflection on the subordinate status of women in society and in the process they hope to transform this reality.

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Actresses: Sandra Arceda, Migdalia Tórrez, Martha Meneses and Cristina Arévalo Contreras.

‘I want to be like the air’ focuses on a woman named Shante who is being abused by her husband. She comes into contact with three women at a studio, where they are rehearsing for their own play. She shares with them the story of her life, her dreams and her fears. Through the process all their lives are transformed. Shante spends most of the play with her leg attached to a stool, representing her captivity to her abuser and her own internalized sense of worthlessness and objectification. She feels as if she is just another piece of furniture in the house.

The play unmasks the excuses many abused women make to defend their abusers and to  justify the violence they are being subjected to. It makes you feel the difficulty victims face in admitting the abuse to close family and friends and even to their own selves.

Shante protests:

¨I  know he loves me¨

¨He is not a bad person¨

¨He says he won’t do it again¨

¨No one else will love  me¨

¨It was an accident¨

¨I deserved it. He was right. I hadn’t done the dishes. I hadn’t cleaned the house¨

¨He wasn’t always like this. Maybe he will return to be the man he once was¨

As the play continues, and with the help of the other characters, Shante confronts her situation and sees her husband for who he really is – a violent man who doesn’t deserve her love and who has no right to dominion over her body. She sees the freedom, joy and lightness in leaving him – in being like the air. She unties the rope binding her to the stool. She dances and sings and smiles. She is free.

This play, and theatre more broadly, is a powerful way to explore gender discrimination and violence against women in a way that is accessible to a wide audience. ‘I want to be like the air’ balances the gravity of the issue of domestic abuse with humour and the musical elements of song and dance. It is sobering and entertaining, a difficult combination to achieve. It is hard to get men and boys interested in feminism and women’s rights. Many young women these days are also distancing themselves from the label ‘feminist’, believing the myth that the word signifies angry, man-hating, extremist, no fun activists.  The arts is a creative tool to help people see that this is their issue too. If you believe in equality between men and women, you are a feminist. Feminism and the equality of the sexes belongs to all of us.

The Colectivo theatre group has performed all over Nicaragua and in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I would love to see their show brought to the United States and Canada one day.

Look, gentlemen judges. What I most want is my freedom. I want to laugh, write, read, shine, reach for the stars, fly.

Because of stories like this one.

I met a woman at the local park near our house in Managua the other night. My four year old Nicaraguan niece (as I affectionately call her) and I set off with her aunt’s chocolate brown puppy tugging ahead in front. The woman was there with her two sons, a bubbly and chatty seven year old and a more reserved four year old with a melt your heart smile. We chatted about the dog and the weather. She asked me about Canada. The kids bounced around on the rusty playground and chased the puppy around in the grass. I told her I was in Nicaragua working with the feminist movement, defending women’s rights and taking part in the struggle to end violence against women. She got quiet for a moment and seemed hesitant to speak. I sat there patiently, not sure of what she wanted to say. Then she spoke softly, “I too am a victim of violence.” Her story flooded out.

imagesA few years ago her husband began beating her. He would push her and slap her, punch her and leave welts and bruises over her body. He would hit their two boys. She divorced him, but he would not leave the house. He simply refused. She was given a state appointed lawyer, who did little to help and neglected her case. The police ignored her. Not long ago she walked in on him raping her younger son. Outraged and desperate she tried again to have him convicted. The boy wept that he was ashamed of what happened. One psychologist confirmed the rape, another claimed it was inconclusive. The judge decided there wasn’t enough evidence. Her ex-husband continues to live with them. She won’t leave her children alone with him, so if she needs to buy food, go to the bank or any other necessity she must do it when they are at school. With a deep sigh she said at least he pays for their food, though he won´t pay for his sons’ clothes, school supplies or anything else. She lives in constant fear and has nowhere else to go but the street.

She seemed unburdened by the telling, by the safety of sharing her pain with a stranger who believed her and who was on her side. The story is horrifying, both for its content and for its commonness. Stories such as these are all too familiar in Nicaragua. There is an epidemic of violence against women and the sexual abuse of children. It was difficult to hear, to bear witness to her suffering and to watch her boy who seemed so happy playing there in the park. I felt nauseous when I thought of what they were going back to. I urged her to visit the Colectivo’s office in Managua. I explained there are lawyers and psychologists there who can help her. There is a women’s shelter that can offer temporary refuge. I wanted to be able to do more, but what? The world can seem like a heart breaking place, a cesspool of hurt, ugliness and injustice. At times it threatens to overwhelm me. At least there is comfort in knowing that there are people like my Colectivo colleagues who wade through the muck of it all, fiercely believing something better is possible. It is because of stories like this one that I am in Nicaragua, away from my family and my husband, living off a stipend. It is because of stories like this one that I am making a career out of being a human rights activist. It is because of stories like this one that I persist.

The last leg of my Nica journey

photo (1) The last month has flown by and it’s hard to believe I only have six weeks left here in Nicaragua. My husband has come and left; we spent three wonderful weeks travelling around the country. Highlights include exploring Ometepe Island by motorcycle, communicating with howler monkeys on a hike around Maderas Volcano, wandering through Somoto Canyon near the Honduras border, getting nearly lost in a cloud forest and perhaps Ryan’s favourite, being serenaded by three competing Mariachi bands in a lively bar in Managua. It was hard to see him leave and his visit reminded me how difficult long distance relationships can be. Skype calls and text messages don’t replace the warmth and intimacy of being together in person. However, I am grateful for a partner who respects my independence and who supports and is proud of my career, even if that means spending half a year half a world apart.

photo (2)

In the last of my time here I’ll be focusing my efforts on wrapping up the webpage I have created for the Colectivo and putting together a context report on Esquipulas. The latter will involve interviewing the local health centre, the mayor, the local judge, schools, police and other NGOs to compile information on birth and death rates, prevalent diseases, education rates, average age of pregnant women, reported incidence of violence against women and so on. The latest statistics the Colectivo have are years old and are not comprehensive. It’s important to have this information as it helps the Colectivo to better address key issues, to plan effective initiatives and to track progress or setbacks. I’m looking forward to having a project I can focus on and creating a much needed resource.

There continues to be no working internet at the Colectivo’s office and there have recently been problems with the phone line and my laptop, meaning we are completely disconnected now. This doesn’t surprise me, though it continues to make work difficult and reminds me how dependent we have become on technology. I’m in Managua now, getting ready to head back up to Esquipulas and enjoying my last few days being ‘connected’. Here is to wishing everyone a happy and fulfilling New Year. May we take risks, find joy in each day, learn from one another and give thanks for what we have.

Little Corn Island

photo (8)A few weeks ago my colleague and I escaped for a few days to Little Corn Island. It’s a small island east of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, accessible by a short plane ride and boat ride from the main island. There’s no cars on the island and you could walk from one end to the other in about an hour. It was a definite change from what we’ve been used to in the rest of Nicaragua. The principal language is English and the locals tend to be Creole people of mixed black heritage. We had lots of fresh fish, fruit juices and coconut. We stayed in a little cabin built into a small hill on the beach, with everything made from natural, local materials and no electricity. It felt like staying in Bilbo Baggins’ house. It was peaceful to lay under the mosquito net at night, listening to the waves and reading by candlelight.

The water was blue and warm and lush palm trees stretched out in either direction along a mostly deserted beach. Night fell around 5pm and one evening we got caught on the way back from town, walking barefoot with mud up to our knees through fields and jungle shrubs, arms full of the goodies we amassed and fireflies flickering around us. About 100 feet from the beach I wiped out in the mud, shrieking as my dress turned a rich brown. We laughed, grateful that I was able to save the most important thing – the fresh loaf of coconut bread I was carrying.

photo (9)All of the resorts, homes and hostels on the side of the island where we stayed were owned by foreigners – Spanish, Americans and Europeans. Nicaraguans were employed as cleaners, babysitters, maintenance workers and cooks. In the 1970s the official lease of the islands by the US was terminated after more than 300 years of rule under foreign jurisdictions. Being there, however, I felt the neo-colonialist presence on the island and saw how the locals are not the ones owning, enjoying or reaping the benefits of this beautiful land and it’s resources. This is the sad legacy of colonialism it seems, for in all my travels through the developing world I don’t know if I could name a place where the opposite is true.

I recognize my privilege at even being able to visit this place, as many Nicaraguans are not able to afford the flight prices or the higher cost of accommodation and food on the island. I am grateful for this time I had to get away, to refuel and to spend some time with my friend before she returned back to Canada. If anyone is making a trip to Nicaragua it is certainly worth it to spend some time in this tropical place and to see a part of the country that is very different from the rest.

My name is not white girl, princess or baby

no me llamo

A good friend recently shared an article with me about Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh who started the art project “Stop Telling Women to Smile” in protest of men harassing her and invading her personal space on the street. The project features portraits of different women, including Fazlalizadeh herself, along with short, concise statements that capture each woman’s experience with street harassment. The posters are plastered across Brooklyn and she’s now taking the project on the road.

I love this project. It’s important that these posters are on the street, confronting these men and (hopefully) forcing them to take notice. I think all women, at some point in their lives, have experienced some form of street harassment. I have many stories to tell. In London, late one night while walking home from Brick Lane, a group of men shouted aggressive sexual remarks at me and after yelling back “no, not interested” was then told I was a “fat bitch”. In Marrakesh, on my way out to celebrate New Years Eve with my girlfriends, had a man on the street literally reach out and grab my breast – as if it were there for his taking. In Esquipulas, where I am living now, I deal with street harassment on a daily basis. I am whistled at like a dog and called white girl, princess and baby. There’s one guy who is particularly fond of practicing his English on me, which involves him yelling sweetie and honey at me, and telling me to “come here, I like you”. He gets upset when I don’t respond positively to his harassment and likes to ask me what my problem is. These are just a few examples.

As Fazlalizadeh rightly points out women are treated as if we are “there for consumption by men” and the streets, for many of us, do not feel like safe spaces. I can relate to this project and to the primal need to rebel against the harassment, to want to force the man to stop objectifying me and to look at and treat me as a person. Many men think that women “like” being treated this way and that they are “just being friendly”. These attitudes make the behaviour all the more difficult to combat, because street harassment, especially in its milder forms, is not taken seriously. It should be. It needs to be, because we have a right to be able to walk the streets free from the hassle, fear and injustice of this type of treatment. I would love to see Fazlalizadeh’s posters crop up in more places – with those words and faces staring down the men who walk by them.

A small glimpse of life in Esquipulas

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It has been quite the experience living in a small, Northern mountain town in Nicaragua for the past three months. It has been both challenging and rewarding. I joke that the one internet café in town has become my new office, because we are still waiting for the internet connection at the Colectivo to be fixed after two months. I’m used to sharing the roads and even buses with chickens and pigs and I have almost mastered the technique of the bucket shower. Every day I stop to take in the views here of the sprawling mountain ranges. I’ve picked up the local phrases and have learned to laugh when people can’t understand my Spanish, despite my best efforts at a Nica accent. Most importantly, perhaps, has been the people I have met – my colleagues and the local women who attend our workshops and come to us for help. They have taught me more about this country than I would ever learn as just a tourist. They have shown me the strength and resilience of the women’s rights movement, as well as the difficulty and obstacles faced here in the fight against patriarchy and machismo. I’ve included some photos to give you a small glimpse of what daily life is like here. As I come to the half way mark of my time in Nicaragua I would also like to thank you – my friends, family and supporters – for your encouragement on this journey of mine.