issue 171 - May 1987
God with wrinkles
ONE of Nicaragua's State radio stations begins its daily broadcasting with a well known religious song by the country's foremost composer and singer, Carlos Mejía Godoy. The music is 'allegro con brio' (with faint echoes of 'How much is that doggie in the window?'). The text is unashamedly liberation theology:
You are the God of the poor
the God who is human and simple
the God who perspires in the market
the God with a face that is wrinkled.
God seems to be as popular as ever in Nicaragua but Church attendance is not what it was. There is one exception: the fast-growing evangelical sects of North American parentage - like 'The Church of the World' or 'The Evangelical Church of Central America'. Charismatic in their worship, fundamentalist in their Biblical beliefs, they are also arrogantly right-wing in their political ideology. Their God is the champion of unbridled capitalism. Their Devil is very much alive and kicking, and likely to be found at any moment in either Moscow, Havana or the Vatican.
Roman Catholicism is, for these sects, the Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse, and it is no coincidence that red is also the favoured colour of the Kremlin (heaven knows what John Paul II would make of such an unlikely cocktail). But for most Nicaraguans, Roman Catholicism continues to be the normal ambience.
God, however, is much more real than the Pope, and rather more human as well. The Nicaraguan God has some delightful characteristics, among which is a sense of humour reminiscent of Chaucer and Kipling. On one occasion I was travelling on horseback through the tropical rain forests with a deacon as my guide. We were suddenly confronted with a dozen or so howler monkeys swinging in the trees just above us, howling in horrific chorus
The visual effect, however, was even more remarkable. The male howler monkey (and they all appeared to be males) is completely black except for its testicles, which are, in startling contrast, snowy white. The deacon, once the surprise encounter was over, entertained me with the following narration.
'Once upon a time, when the whole of Nicaragua was a jungle, God decided to hold a music festival for all the animals and birds. The musical contributions were extremely varied - from the hummingbird to the squawking of the great macaw. The last competitors of all were the howler monkeys. In those far-off days all the howler monkeys were completely white, without a hint of any other shade or colour. But when they struck up their infernal howling from the tops of the giant cedar trees even God stopped up his ears in horror. Since the howler monkeys failed to take the hint and continued with their ear-splitting noise, God sent thunderclaps to shut them up, but to no effect. So God then sent down streaks of lightning to the tops of the giant cedar trees, and the howler monkeys were so frightened that they instinctively covered up their private parts to protect them from burning. From that day on, all howler monkeys are the colour of charcoal from top to bottom - with a small exception in the middle.'
God is a part not just of mythical stories but of day-to-day conversation. 'Thanks be to God and the Revolution' peppers the parlance of the two-thirds of the population that supports the Sandinista 'process'. Even the use of the simple word Adios gives the impression that its meaning 'God be with you' is really intended, rather than the neutral significance of the English contraction of the same phrase, 'Goodbye'.
Sickness and death find the Nicaraguans at their best. I once had the good fortune to faint in an overcrowded bus (all buses are overcrowded). Within seconds I was given the best seat near an open window, and became the object of a vast process of fanning in which every passenger, as well as the conductor, seemed to participate. Assorted liquids were poured down my throat and the bus driver would have made a special detour to a hospital had I not protested that I was by then fully recovered and extremely comfortable.
The dying and the dead are always accompanied by large numbers of friends, relations and neighbours. The village 'wakes' frequently go on for 24 hours, punctuated with the praying of the rosary, the reading of Bible passages, hymn-singing. and the dispensing of refreshments at public cost (a collection is made among the neighbours).
It is sometimes observed by outsiders that all the poets, musicians, theologians and artists are on the side of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Most of the bishops, on the other hand, are against it. The wrinkled 'God of the poor' certainly lives on in the tropical rain forests and the shabby shanty towns of Nicaragua. He may well, under a different theology, also exist in the air-conditioned limousines of Nicaragua's right-wing Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. But, if so, I Imagine he feels uncomfortable. Perhaps the saving grace of Nicaraguan Christians is that they have never expected too much of their prelates.
John Medcalf is a British priest working on a rural libraries project in Nicaragua.