new internationalist
issue 169 - March 1987


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A slip of a country

The street games of small children provide, in my experience, a reflection of the priorities and problems of their countries. When I worked in a shanty-town of Lima, the favourite game was borrachitos - drunken fathers and enraged mothers - acted out with a scenario worthy of Dickens and a realism reminiscent of Chaplin. This Peruvian street game reflected the massive unemployment and despondency common to most Third World countries.

Here in Nicaragua children play war-games. They make tanks and planes out of mud. When shot down by imaginary bullets they twist and writhe in simulated pain before falling dead. Contras and Sandinistas instead of Cowboys and Indians.

Punchline by Christian But there are more traditional forms of entertainment too. Several villages on the main road recently had a circus to entertain them. A few dozen wooden planks were arranged like a cock-pit or miniature ampitheatre, and the whole precarious structure was surrounded by sugar-bag sacking to lend an air of privacy to the evening. The entire circus troop consisted of a family of five and their monkey.

The father threw long-handled knives at his teenage daughter, while a four-year-old son heightened the tension with a series of drum-rolls on an empty dried-milk tin. An eight-year-old girl played the 'smart kid' to offset her father's clowning antics her fast repartee stole the show. The monkey seemed to be out of sorts that night and refused to do anything except shake its fists at the public. There was no vulgarity in the entertainment (perhaps because the priest was on the front plank) and the only political joke was about the world's biggest clown living in the White House.

The clown's wife was absent that night, but her husband promised that she would play the star role the following evening in an horrific and blood-curdling drama called Frankenstein's Castle. Minds and imaginations boggled.

I couldn't, unfortunately, witness the performance. I have had to do a lot of travelling of my own recently around my parish. This vast hinterland of what was once a tropical rainforest is divided into comarcas or regions. There are over fifty of them in our parish and I have been visiting them on horseback.

I have not yet met the Contra, though It seems they are aware of my movements and they are never far away. As I ride beside my local guide there is plenty to help me forget the agony of the war. The very names of the comarcas are suggestive enough - Painted Rocks, Black Hat, Conformity and Edible Iguana are just a few of them.

One of the community leader in Las Pavas (The Turkey-hens) gave me a great welcome when I arrived. Zacaría Gazón, the 45-year-old 'Delegate of the Word of God', had persuaded almost every family to attend the 24-hour mission I was to direct. He introduced me as the only English priest working in Nicaragua and jocularly reminded his fellow farmers that most of the English who had visited the Caribbean in the past had been pirates looking for Spanish gold.

In my reply I suggested that the turkeys after which their village had been named had brought more pleasure than Spanish gold and thanked Zacarías and the villagers - on behalf of all turkey-eating Britons. There then followed many hours of baptisms, weddings, confessions, first communions, and question-and-answer sermons. I remember particularly how, well past sundown, the young men of that community debated with me the precise meaning of the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. Zacarías seemed content (a premonition perhaps) to direct the debate without proffering an opinion of his own.

Three weeks later, the Contras dragged Zacarías Garzón from his hut and slit his throat in the nearby forest.

Why Zacarías? He was not known to be a Sandinista supporter. (Nobody who lives out in Nicaragua's dangerous countryside makes known their political allegiance, except in the secrecy of the confessional.) One of his nephews, it is true, works for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Even in my own village there has been a succession of deaths. The youth of Nicaragua (and I have always been struck by the high proportion of young people in the population) experience this war in much more direct fashion than through children's games. Segundo Torres, 24, was captured, tortured horribly and killed by the Contras. His mother sells beer and cigarettes, and wept quietly during the Requiem Mass. Yolanda, 19, was a child prostitute under the Somoza dictatorship. With the Sandinista revolution she was 'rehabilitated', joined the army and died in circumstances still unexplained.

One of the points about the David and Goliath story is that the Philistine giant - possessed of maturity, strength and arrogant self-confidence - was challenged by a mere 'slip of a lad'. Nicaragua may seem to outsiders a mere slip of a country to those who live here this is no bad thing.

Father John Medcalf is a British priest working in Nicaragua helping to organize a rural libraries project.

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