issue 162 - August 1986
The butterflies and the orchid
In Central America May is the month of butterflies. They suddenly appeared one day last week, In an astonishing range of sizes and patterns, like so many coloured telegrams announcing peace for Nicaragua. I watched the children in Cam de Mono village running excitedly after them, without any apparent intention of capturing or harming the exotic insects. The new sport came to an abrupt finish when a tropical storm sent children and butterflies in search of dry shelter.
The children have 62 schools in our rural parish, but this year only 40 are functioning. The others - in remote villages populated by maize-growing farmers - are closed because the contras have murdered the teachers.
I have spent a good part of the month visiting these isolated one-teacher schools set in a landscape of palm-trees and volcanic hills. The children are remarkably resilient, even those who have witnessed rape, torture and assassination.
But I was haunted by their faces. If Reagan gets his money, many of them will not reach adulthood or even adolescence.
One parent put it to me succinctly and truthfully when he said 'The super-powers experiment with their bombs and with our blood.'
This extraordinary preoccupation with education in the middle of a vicious war of aggression is another testimony to the special qualities of the Sandinistas. Illiteracy is treated like any other disease: to be eliminated as quickly and as painlessly as possible, so that the nation can stand on its own feet and short-cut the path to progress for all.
We have now inaugurated our first Rural Library in Cars de Mono. Some of you will remember (NI 159) that this village was the scenario of a contra attack on November 24 last year, days after my arrival in the parish. The library is named after Ivan Torres, the 17-year-old killed in battle. His mother Maria gave a little speech before cutting the pink ribbon across the doorway;
My son is living still. I know it. He is living with us, especially in this small library that has grown out of his dead body. If I could give birth to more sons like Ivan to die for our revolution, I would gladly, gladly do it...
The villagers cheered and clapped - and wept. Ivan's photograph hangs over the chess table in their new building that cost less than $400 to buy, and about the same sum again to fit out with a few basic books (agriculture, first aid, children's stories, a dictionary, a Bible). Representatives from eight other villages were at the inaugural ceremony; all of them are now clamouring for their own village library. If we can raise the money we shall find ourselves with plenty of inaugurations in the months ahead.
I had very little time for sleep in Holy Week. In Nicaragua shops, offices and schools close for the entire week (this in a country of supposed religious persecution) and not just for two days. The people spilled onto the streets for multitudinous processions on Palm Sunday, complete with real donkeys and real palms. Men and women alternated to carry an exaggeratedly heavy wooden cross through the villages on Good Friday. Sermons, I felt, were superfluous: these people know more about death and hope and living Christianity than their shepherd who walks with them.
A nun of this diocese, Sandra Price from California, gave me a written report yesterday.
'On March 25 a group of contras took one of our Catholic catechists, Donato Mendoza, from his home. Two kilometers further on they castrated him, gouged out his eyes, pulled out his fingernails, cut the flesh from his legs, broke every bone in his body, and shot him...
'Three days later, on Good Friday, his naked, mutilated body was found. Donato had always worn a chain and cross, as a distinctive mark of his position in the Church. He said he had lost the cross a few days before, while working. It was this chain without a cross that identified his dead body. He no longer wore a cross of metal; his life had taken on the passion and death of Jesus.'
I began this letter with butterflies; I wish to end it with a flower. What is happening in this small republic is a delicate orchid unclassified by botanists. It is attacked from right and left (only a few weeks ago Eli Altamirano, President of the Nicaraguan Communist Party, declared .... the Sandinistas are ideologically promiscuous. They have priests, nuns, evangelicals and bourgeois in their government. It has nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism'.)
An atheist could never understand Nicaragua; an agnostic has a faint chance; a Christian - unprejudiced by the selfish consumerism of Western society - can see the Gospel of Christ being applied to the multiple problems of a Third World nation.
Father John Medcalf is a British priest working on a project to set up rural libraries in Nicaragua.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7