Tablet World

A day in the life of a Nicaraguan nun

13 July 2017

Dressed in a pristine cream habit, battered shoes and carrying a glinting metal box of communion wafer, the nun emerges from the shadows to greet us with a weary smile. Today is the day of taking communion to the sick and old in her parish and we are going to make it twice as quick, driving her from house to house.

Sor Esther appears to be neither young nor old, and her general aspect is rather serious but when she erupts into laughter, the ripples reverberate inside you for a long while after. She stamps her feet and snorts with joy.

We load up the open back of our truck with boxes of rice and head off into the startling sun of 9am.

We are in Granada, in Nicaragua, a jewel of a visit for tourists but hidden behind the colonial facades lie the real lives of their true residents. 

The Order of Madre Albertina is the only Nicaraguan set of nuns - devoted to helping the poor in schooling and food.  The founder Maria Albertina Ramirez Martinez was born of a rich family (the niece of a president) but despite her privileged background she would spend her time giving away her own food and offering religious instruction to young poor children who did not have the opportunity to attend school.

Our first stop is an elderly mother Andrea with her two daughters Lilliam & Rosario, all suffering with cancer and all sitting slumped in their rickety chairs. Set before them is a meagre looking shop offering a few razors and cheap sweets which are so covered in the dust from the parched street, they look quite un-sellable. The father sits in the doorway,almost masked by shadows, an alcoholic points out our nun.

The women take communion solemnly as he looks on.

A huge airy house, by the rubbish strewn  river is our following stop, obviously affluent one day long ago.

The river is no longer a source of life but a place to throw life’s trash into. A parrot squalls in its small cage by the beaten wooden table.  Accompanied by his 2 daughters, one now living in Miami, works to provide for her family in Granada.  She trained as a doctor  in Nicaragua but in Miami she is a mere caretaker.  The father with tears in his eyes takes communion, gazing at the nun as he listens to her prayers. Don Miguel Borge has Alzheimer’s and the warmest of smiles.

The stench of pee attacks us as we enter into a dark messy & filthy house. Simon is looking rather bemused at us from his rocking chair.

There is a  child screaming a rather chilling shriek in a heavy looking nappy, with 2 revolting looking sugary drinks in plastic bags with straws, one in each hand.  These do not appease him.

“Mal criado” (badly brought up) says the mother smiling. The nun repeated the sentiment to me later, telling us that he spat at her last week. As we say goodbye to Simon, I notice his shorts are stained wet and realise it was him and not the child from which the astringent odour emanated.

We made nine more visits that morning.

Off to the dump next, where the rubbish is out of control. We jolt down an unpaved road, to the entrance where a guard sits in his tatty hut, checking in the trucks piled with waste. As more tourists enter the town of Granada lured by its colourful buildings, fantastic churches, horse-and-cart culture and smiling people, there is less and less space to empty all the plastic and waste.  As the chief of the dump Jamileth, explains, they can’t buy anymore land as it is out of the league, due to the influx of foreign buyers in the area.

The dump site has been there for 33 years and is over flowing.

Jamileth tells us the rubbish workers all live around the dump and are searching for anything they can sell on, scraping a living. They are not alone. Surrounded the trucks emptying the waste, are a profusion of vultures and cattle.  They are also steadily sorting through to see what they can pilfer.

We are handing out rice with soya protein mixed in. There are sixty boxes, the maximum we could fit in the truck and everyone forms a meticulous queue as we pass one heavy box out after another, which they place on their heads and disappear off site to their makeshift shacks. Quite naturally the men form into one queue and women into another. They are quietly appreciative.

I meet Juana who is tough and dressed like all around her, covered top to toe in faded garments. Wearing caps with snoods, jeans and big boots to avoid the blazing sun and filth. The dump has no shade, no respite, no comfortable resting spot.

It’s not a grand job but it is a livelihood, she tells me.

The afternoon is spent in Sor Esther’s principal job, at a home of 31 girls, an orphanage of sorts. Hogar de Niñas Madre Albertina homes children with social issues and situations.

The children in Nicaragua do not have rights. The government wants children to stay with their families and all orphanages closed down.

Therefore the centre is run on a weekly basis with children returning at weekends to relatives, so it can stay open.

The parents need to give their consent but ultimately the family can take the girls back when they want to.  The nuns try hard to re-educate and talk to the relatives and girls. There is a therapist on site and lots of interesting activities, including art and music, which feature strongly. The home is a constant worry to keep going.

Sor Esther returns to patiently work through the issues the day may bring her.  The main concern today is a mother who is called in as her daughter has been abusive to staff, wielding burnt sticks at the younger girls.

The rest of the day is spent getting ready for their next fund raiser a huge Bingo with donated prizes, food cooked on the premises by the nuns and mothers – nacatamales (meat, vegetables and rice wrapped in banana skins) and sweet, teeth-rotting coffee. It’s a big day out for Nicaragüenses in Granada.

A calm sets over the twilight, as Sor Esther eventually says mass with her fellow nuns.

This day is done.

By Rachel Collingwood



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