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United States

new internationalist
issue 165 - November 1986


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Better than nothing

Thank God Nicaraguans have a sense of humour. It may stand them in good stead when the US Marines come ashore here for the umpteenth time In their history. A few weeks ago I was travelling on horseback through some of the worst mud-swamp lands in this rural parish. Only ten years ago it had been tropical rain-forest, but the trees had been cut down by a hard-working, If partly misguided, farmer, who hoped to rear cattle in the cleared space.

[image, unknown] A herd of African hippopotami might, within a few generations, have adapted to the ubiquitous mud; no known breed of cattle would stand the remotest chance. But the farmer was not beaten. I rode (or rather, plunged) past an extraordinary melee of timber and palm-branches that made up the farmhouse, and noticed that he had painted boldly across the doorway 'The name of this farm is BETTER THAN NOTHING'.

And I suppose it Is. It sustains him and his family. He Is certainly safe from attack - the contras would be worse off than Napoleon retreating from Moscow if they ever got embedded in his horrific swamps.

'Better than Nothing' seems to me a good description of Nicaragua In the last month or so. When we heard the dreaded news that Washington had approved the $100 millions for the contras many people in my parish filled the village churches in spontaneous gesture of prayer. Others filled the taverns instead. Many of us did both. Two days later we were rewarded with a compensation prize (better than nothing): the International Court at The Hague, after investigations lasting more than two years, pronounced the US Government an unjust aggressor in their war against Nicaragua. Predictably the Reagan Administration rejected the verdict, but perhaps the rest of the world, and history will not.

Thanks to the help given or promised by readers of my letters our team is now working in five villages, organising or building rural libraries. The villages are large by Nicaraguan standards, with about 200 families in each, and almost all have been the victims of contra attacks in the last year.

Cara de Mono ('Monkey Face') village has the only fully functioning library. Small children play Ludo and read story-books. Sandinista militia play guitars and chess when off duty. Last week I saw two uniformed soldiers playing with wooden spinning-tops; each soldier was no more than 14 years old - their childhood is yet another casualty of this six-year-old aggression financed by US tax-payers.

In Muelle de los Bueyes ('Ox-ford') the greatest hope lies with the women's sewing co-operative. This is a village of shopkeepers disgruntled with the official down-grading of commercial activity and consumerism. But the women here are a beacon of light and progress. They have organised a co-operative to increase their family income, but they have also arranged educational programmes which will have long-reaching results.

El Coral village is named after a venomous snake though only because this is what its long, winding street resembles. Last May the contras attacked two local families. Six people were killed outright and eight (including three children) were gravely wounded. Their crime: refusing to spy on their neighbours (one woman was shot for refusing to betray her husband's whereabouts). The people of El Coral are forming a Committee of Culture to discuss how they envisage their Rural Library and where to build it.

It pains me greatly to see my parishioners eating less than they ate last year. With less rice and fewer beans on each plate, there is embarrassment at the arrival of an unexpected friend or relation. The war effort is producing under-nourishment.

In my weaker moments I am tempted to organise soup kitchens. Many priests do that sort of thing in different parts of the world. Certain readers might then be relieved that I had stopped 'being political'. But I know this would be wrong. The problem in Nicaragua is political, caused by political interference from the most powerful country in the world.

If the whole of the Central American region were allowed to choose its own political future, without hindrance and pressures, these people would be among the best-fed In the world. I intend therefore to stand by these Nicaraguan farm-workers, and to make known the justice of their case. My God is not a Lord of Death and War, nor a Defender of the 'status quo' in a world where the status of two-thirds of the people is inhuman. Life for these people is meant to be a lot better than nothing.

Father John Medcalf is a British priest working on a project to set up rural libraries in Nicaragua. NI readers interested in supporting this work can write to 'Rural Libraries - Nicaragua', 21 Victoria Embankment, Nottingham NG2 2JY, UK.

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