September 28, 2015

Nicaragua vs. Jamaica

Nicaragua is currently ranked 139th in the FIFA/Coca Cola (when did FIFA sell out to the corporate world, oh wait, never mind) world cup rankings, just after Aruba, but ahead of Tanzania. That may not seem all that impressive, but one must take into account the situation. Recently, the Nicaraguan national team has been on somewhat of a roll. Winning 5 games in-a-row before suffering their first and what proved to be last game in their bid for a spot at the Russian World Cup in 2018 (just think maybe Putin would have made the Nicaraguans win as a way to avenge the U.S. involvement in the Contra Wars of the 80’s.)


At the beginning of the year the Nicaraguan team found themselves in a pretty dreadful place having amassed an international ranking of 180th after going 0-7-1 in 2013 and 14. However, this little nation, adopting a popular slogan, once utilized by a now not so overly popular president, believed, and raced into the 2015 season with a win while chanting, "YES WE CAN OR SI, SE PUEDE."


With all the hype Cassie and I (Kevin) were thrilled to find ourselves at the game with friends to watch last month match versus Jamaica (currently ranked 52nd in the Corporate World Rankings.) The Nicaraguans had just traveled to Jamaica, and surprisingly pulled off a 3-2 victory, shocking the tiny Caribbean nation. With a win, a draw or even a narrow loss by a point the team would would advance in their quest for Russia 2018.


The game was fierce and fun. We found ourselves sitting just off center, three rows up (for once we were all very thankful of the fact that Nicaraguans normally enjoy being fashionably late to all things, including our Nicaraguan friends whom we were with, one of whom is more timely than your average North American). We chanted “SI, SE PUEDE” with the crowd, waived our Nicaraguan flag, sang Nicaraguan songs, yelled, laughed, jeered and cheered for our white and blue.


Unfortunately, the once triumphant Nicaraguans were turned back. Only minutes into the match the Jamaicans would score first in dramatic corner kick fashion. However, the pride of the humble Central American nation could still move on in world cup qualifications, if they could just prevent the islanders from scoring again during the match. But, with only minutes remaining, after our* home team had fought and controlled the majority of the game, but found themselves unable to find the back of the net, the Jamaicans scored again and many dreams were shattered.


We want to share a little bit of our experience through pictures and hope that in some way you can experience the magic that we found in this night.


September 22, 2015

Judging the Poor

“To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”

-Pearl S. Buck

After living in Nicaragua for four years, I (Cassie) have thought and reflected often about the decisions that poor people make.  I have never wrote about it in this space because it is such a sensitive topic.  But today I have the courage to write.  I ask for your patience as this is still a work in progress.  The “poor” that I am referencing in this essay are those with economic challenges.

As I use the term poor, I am referring to material poverty.  According to the World Bank, the average gross national income for a Nicaraguan is $1,830 USD.  Nicaragua is the second-poorest country after Haiti in the Western Hemisphere, with 42.5% of the population living below the poverty line and the majority of the population living on less than $2 per day.

It is common to hear value judgments about poor people, especially from foreigners who are visiting.  The statements often revolve around what the poor own and why they have chosen to own those things.  Examples that I have heard include cable television, smart phones, fancy clothing, you name it, it has most likely been said.  I myself, cannot deny that I have had these thoughts as well.  It can be hard to understand why my neighbor, who is a new dad, recently went out and bought a motorcycle, when just a week before his girlfriend came to me and asked me for money to help buy formula for their baby.  It can be extremely difficult to make sense of these decisions.

Back in 2005, when I lived in South Africa, I was introduced to the work of Ruby Payne.  In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she provides practical guidance and understanding for why people make the choices that they do.  After reading this book, I began to understand the differences in thought processes and decision making between people who are living in poverty, those who are middle class and the wealthy.  I began to better understand the rules, emotions and knowledge that go into ones decision making.  This understanding became both more profound and complex as I went to graduate school and in my practice as a Social Worker interacting with populations from all income groups.

This judgment of the poor often goes beyond material purchases and decision making.  For the past for years, I have witnessed child abuse on a daily basis.  Each and every day from my very own home, I hear physical, verbal and emotional abuse.  Again, I have chosen not to write about this here in this space because it is such a delicate topic.  I have done my best to build relationships with my neighbors, to provide them with education on safe child rearing, to model a different way to interact with their children, I have even confronted them in the middle of the event, and yet the abuse continues.  In these moments, I have to remind myself, why would I expect anything different?  This is the kind of authoritative parenting that was modeled to them.  Childhood experts around the world have long noted that poor families often have a more authoritarian childrearing style than middle-class families.  And just to clarify, this is true not only in Nicaragua, but around the world.

To add to the complexity, an Urban Institute Study found that 55 percent of babies in the United States who are living in poverty are raised by mothers who show symptoms of depression. The problem is that the struggling single mom, who has mental health issues, who is living in poverty is often stressed and busy, focused on survival, and she doesn’t realize or even have the opportunity to realize that there may be a better way to raise her children.  Beyond that, it is hard for a parent to know to do something if it wasn’t done for herself when she was a child.

Poor people often become depressed because it is an extremely stressful way to live.  When we are stressed, we produce more cortisol.  Cortisol matters because in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, it can interfere with impulse control, and that may be the reason why people under stress sometimes develop self-destructive behaviors.

While reading Nicholas Kristoff’s and Sharyl WuDunn’s most recent book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities, I continued to deepen my understanding about why the poor do what they do and how this impacts the field of aid and development around the world.

They write, “Americans worry that donations accomplish nothing because people are poor as a result of self-destructive behaviors, from substance abuse to laziness. In this view, helping the poor is like putting a dollar bill into a homeless drug addict’s tin can and thinking it will go for food. The blunt truth is that this cynical view has a certain foundation: self-destructive behaviors are indeed a factor in poverty at home and abroad. We must acknowledge all the underlying pathologies, including the human capacity to make bad choices. But these issues are far more complex than cynics believe, and the solution is not just to scold the poor. Humans anywhere in the world can be locked in a “poverty trap” of despair and sometimes clinical depression. One way of making a difference is to provide a ray of hope. If we were facing eviction and watching our child die of malaria or be expelled from school for nonpayment of school fees, we might seek comfort from a drink, too. Embedded in the human psyche is a yearning for fun, entertainment and companionship, if only as short-term relief from long-term misery. When in poverty, so many people feel locked in a trajectory of hopelessness, and they sometimes respond in ways that make that hopelessness self-fulfilling and transmit it to the next generation.”

After ten years of interacting professionally on a regular basis with people living in poverty, both in the United States and in the developing world, I have only come to the conclusion that there is a lot of complexity.  At times this can cause confusion, it can be confusing to know how I should respond individually to a request or to something that I witness.  After a long day at work, riding public transportation, putting up with the hot sun and navigating the complexity of life here, I do not always have the compassionate thoughts towards my neighbors that I would like to have.  However, I am striving to be more patient, compassionate and understanding each and every day.

How can I help the poor?  I can help them to expand their view of their own capabilities.  I can affirm them in their giftings.  I can help them to develop goals.  I can encourage them to continue in their education.  I will always share a glass of water or a plate of food, and sometimes I will give them money.  Each and every day I have to be open and listening to the complexity.

I will conclude with a quote from Kristoff and WuDunn:

“Let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on a street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, brain chemistry, child rearing, genetics, and outside help. Let’s recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower but also of chance and early upbringing, and that compassion isn’t a sign of weakness but a mark of civilization.”

September 15, 2015

Direct Deposit

I am missing an older form of technology that I came to take for granted in the U.S. -  direct deposit. We have interacted with the Nicaraguan banking system throughout our time here, but because of the way MCC handled finances, we now find ourselves much more involved in the banking process for the first time.  We tell you this story not to put down the system that is in place here, but rather to reflect on the similarities and differences, record for ourselves what life is like now and also share with you our day to day life.

Sidenote: I want to make it clear that I am very grateful to have employment here in Nicaragua when such a large number of the population is unemployed and/or underemployed. I am very fortunate to receive a check for my work which forces me to go to the bank in the first place. 

It all started with opening a bank account. Fortunately we were able to use an existing MCC bank account in Kevin's name. Without this we would have not been able to open an account as we do not have residency in Nicaragua.  But adding Cassie's name to the account was quite the process. We both went to the bank multiple times, waited in lines that usually averaged 1-2 hours, turned in three personal references and after a few more visits, Cassie was finally approved, given her own debit card which of course did not end up working. This required a couple of additional visits and finally she had a working card. Keep in mind that this is not a credit card, but simply an additional debit card for an already existing checking account.

Now onto our desire for a direct deposit option. We are currently working for five different "employers". We receive four checks and one cash payment every two weeks. Each of our four employers bank at a different bank. In order to cash the check, we have to personally go to each bank, wait in line (we avoid going on payday as one could wait in line for half a day) and cash the checks we receive from each of our employers banks.  Quick recap, we have to visit four banks every two weeks.

After we have cashed all four checks, which are given to us in US tender, we go to a money exchanger (normally on a street corner found in various places throughout the city) to exchange our dollars for córdobas.  The rate that we are given on the corner is much better than what the bank gives. While it is an additional step, it can mean saving a large amount of money in the transaction. Last time I saved $80 by doing this.

We then carry this money on our person to our bank who will finally deposit it into our account.  Ahhhh, what work this is. The whole process often takes a whole working day, sometimes two depending on the lines
What a process! You don't know what I would do for a direct deposit option again!

September 8, 2015

What I Am Loving

As you know, we recently completed our contract or term of service with the Mennonite Central Committee.  One might ask, what has led to your decision to stay in Nicaragua?  While our family and friends are a large factor as to why we will most likely return to the U.S. someday, we are very content with our life here, right now.  We are doing our best to “be where we are.”  Here are a few reasons why I (Cassie) am loving life here in Nicaragua.

Photo Jul 27, 3 33 02 PM

A wonderful part of our life here is the access to fresh fruit and vegetables year-round.  They are great to eat and make delicious smoothies and juices.  Some of my favorites lately are maracuya or passionfruit, papaya and mamónes.

Photo Jul 24, 5 54 03 PM

I don’t think that lying in a hammock and reading a book will never grow old.  And our ability to do it twelve months of the year is heavenly.  I recently finished two enjoyable books, The Ladies of Managua by Eleni Gage and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  I am looking forward to starting Purity by Jonathan Franzen and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.


We love hosting people at our home.  Whether it be for a meal, a dessert and drink or providing a pillow to someone, it is always a joy to use our home to welcome and serve others.  To be able to host on our patio year-round is also a plus.  I think that there is a weather theme here!


Parties!  It seems that Nicaraguans are always finding a reason to celebrate.  And no party is complete without a piñata.  I would guess that we are breaking open a piñata on a weekly basis.

Photo Jun 28, 5 14 57 PM

I will never ever tire from seeing palm trees.  Being a girl who grew up in the frozen tundra, this is a gift.  I love this stately and elegant tree.


About twice a month, Kevin comes home with a bundle of fresh flowers.  This means that we have fresh flowers all throughout our house at almost all times.  For $6.00 a month, I don’t think this is a bad habit.  Although our Nicaraguan friends do think it is odd that we are decorating our house with “funeral flowers.”

Photo Jul 25, 11 48 17 AM

This textbook, along with several others have been key to the teaching of our current class at the Seminary.  I am currently building two additional syllabuses for classes that I will be teaching in the next few months.  Each and everyday I look forward to and believe in the work that I am doing here.

Narcos title card.jpg

Last week, I may have binge watched all ten episodes of Narcos.  I was somewhat familiar beforehand with the the history of cocaine in Colombia and the life of Pablo Escobar.  But my viewing of this series only reinforced the devastating role that United States demand for drugs and our governments’ response has had on this beautiful country.  I have been fortunate to dialogue with Colombian friends in this past week about this story.  I am learning more each day.  I would highly recommend this series, but just a heads up, there is an obscene about of violence and sexual content.


Continuing the climate based theme, I love living only an hour from the ocean!  Enough said.

Photo Aug 01, 11 27 58 AM

The best part of living here in Nicaragua is the people.  We have been so fortunate to create wonderful friendships with Nicaraguans from all walks of life.


And this guy makes life here pretty special.  I love doing life with him!

September 2, 2015

A Five Year History

To meet someone who is living life in the present seems like a rarity these days. After all we live in a time where our society is focused and obsessed with efficiency.  With our drive-thru windows, entertainment on demand and split second communication that allows us to talk with friends and family or do business 24/7.  To live life in the present demands that we focus on the here and now, the joys and sorrows we are experiencing in the moment.  To think about the present demands that we think about the past. That we take our world into perspective and in doing so gain a better understanding of who we are, where we came from and in doing so gain a better idea of what it is that we want to do today in order to live it well!

For this reason Cassie and I have chosen to gain some perspective of our everyday, often mundane lives through the concrete action of recording various key events, seemingly boring facts, points of sadness and shouts of joy to see just what kind of path our lives are on in the present moment. We are making a concrete step to reflect on the ebbs and flows of our life with the hope that one day we can look back and see where we came from and understand how it is that we got here in the first place.

To this end, Cassie and I have begun to record one such event at the end of each of our days for the next five years. 

From the simple and mundane entries like:

  • I turned 32 today, we enjoyed the beach and had good talks about our lives.
  • I watched the sun come up over the city of Managua during my run this morning.

To the scribbles of emotion, pain and joy:

  • My knee feels the best it has in many years!
  • Somewhere you (our kids) are out there and we are thinking about you today.
  • The rains are finally here!

We are recording our present as it becomes our past in order to enjoy today and move healthfully into a constructed future that depends entirely on how well we lived today and want to encourage you to reflect on how your decisions today will create your tomorrow.