Sunday, June 29, 2008

What the #%$@ AM I doing in Nicaragua? Part II.........Lunch Lady

Let’s say that you are a kid living in La Chureca or Acahualinca (area just outside of the trash dump). The idea is that you would go to school and get some type of education, right? I mean the school is right down the street……and it’s FREE. So why would you NOT go?

Well, let’s start with this. Sure the school is technically free……..except for that a few years ago, there was suddenly this new rule from the government making it mandatory for every kid in Nicaragua to wear a nice little school uniform……a nice uniform that ISN’T free (but quite nice I have to say……blue and white…..really quite lovely). And then there are those other little things that aren’t free…….like any “supplies” you may need for your reading, writing, and arithmetic. And then there is the whole OPPORTUNITY COST of attending school. I like to call this one the “hey, I know that you’re only 7 years old…..but you’re a part of this family and we need EVERYONE to contribute…….so as terrific as going to school would no doubt be, we need you to go spend your day digging through trash or begging in the street……we’ll pool our resources at the end of the day…..who knows, maybe there will be dinner tonight” factor. Oh, and let’s not forget the concept of “School? Why would I want to do THAT? I’m young (like 10). I’m hip…….cool…… tough. I have unlimited freedom and friends in the neighborhood. Nobody’s going to make me go? Uh….yea…I don’t think so.”

Enter El Comedor. The MAIN idea was two-fold. First, since malnutrition is such a problem in the area, they wanted to provide the kids with ONE good meal per day. Second, by providing these kids with this one meal per day, that’s all many of them get. If they come to school, they get fed. Put another way, if they sit through classes each day (hopefully getting some sort of education in the process), they are rewarded with lunch. School=Food, and it’s a great way to bribe kids (or their parents) into getting an education.

So with these ideas in mind, NicaHOPE (in partnership with various other NGO’s) built “El Comedor” (i.e. the dining hall) about a year ago. The dining hall has a large seating area, a small kitchen, an even smaller area to store food, and a little sink out back to wash dishes. The staff consists of a lady named Hazel and….well…..Hazel. There are supposed to be “mother’s from the neighborhood” that show up and volunteer their time with the program. Unfortunately, only one of them comes on a regular basis. That means LOTS of work for a VERY FEW people. As for the food, it is donated collectively by USAID, the government of Nicaragua, and a couple of small NGO’s.

The good news? Well, the good news is that the program IS functioning and 300-600 kids per day receive a plate of relatively nutritious food (no frozen pizza or tater tots for THESE guys). The other good news is that after the implementation of the feeding program, registration at the beginning of the year was UP (i.e. initial success)! We’re hoping it stays that way.

So remember that lady from the school cafeteria? The one who was older, heavier, less than attractive (probably at least one large facial mole…with or without hair…….on the mole that is……the hair on the lady was anyone’s guess), ALWAYS clad in white, and NEVER caught without her crown (that would be the hairnet)? Four days per week, I am she…….she is I…..we are one. Yep, in addition to being the nurse’s aid in La Chureca, I’m the LUNCH LADY (self-titled, of course) at Acahualinca Elementary. Four days per week, I cook, I serve, I visit with the staff and kids, and I wash a LOT of dishes……like a LOT of dishes.

But in reality, one can only stay in the mailroom (or in this case, dish room) for so long without finding opportunity for advancement. At least, that’s what I’m finding with my lunch-lady duty. So despite the fact that I’m perfectly content chopping vegetables, pouring soy beverages, and getting pruny digits in the sink out back. there are often times bigger fish to fry (yes…pun intended). For example, what happens if you have 500 kids in a school with no water? I mean not being able to cook or drink anything is one thing. Even 500 kids doing the old #1 can be manageable on a good day. A few hundred….uh…..#2’s? Now we have a problem. So what do you do? Cancel school! Ah, but wait a minute! Wait a minute! There’s actually NEVER any water during the day (one of the little inconveniences of living in a third world city). The water is only on for a few hours in the night and early morning! So what do you do? Well, you install a large storage tank that can fill each night and then be used during the day. What do you do when the pipes break or the tank doesn’t fill due to lack of water the night before? Like I said before, you cancel school! But wait! Wait! Wait! Before we do that, there may be one other option. Let’s call Jason!

Yea, the water problem has certainly become one of my main projects at the school, and I seem to be finding different solutions on different days. My best one involves “borrowing” water from one of the neighboring storage tanks by running a system of hoses a couple of hundred feet across the road and then directing (at times, quite vigilantly) traffic around the hoses. I’ve also been meeting with contractors to come up with a better solution for the long term. That being said though, I do wear a number of hats around Acahualinca Elementary besides the stylish hairnet (OK, so I don’t ACTUALLY wear a hairnet either….standards are a bit different down here), and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a low profile behind the endless mounds of plastic wear. AND, when I’m not running around the kitchen or solving the daily water crisis, I’m loading a pickup truck with large sacs of beans and rice (I seem to be the only guy around with a drivers license), picking up cleaning supplies from the Ministry of Education, and answering to “Hey Gringo” from all sides.

As for the future? Well, I have a meeting with the official boss tomorrow. I’m learning more about the ordering procedures, the menu planning, and how things magically get done behind the scenes. There are also attendance records to analyze, that whole water problem to solve, the current infestation of flies in the kitchen(think PLAGUE), and the guys who want me to teach them how to watch porn on the school’s only computer. I’m swamped, I tell you……absolutely swamped.

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