I Volunteered in Nicaragua and Learned a Hard Lesson About Voluntourism

Though anger that any human should have to live in these conditions overwhelms me, we must tread lightly.
Publish date:
May 31, 2016
volunteering, privilege, Nicaragua, Voluntourism, La Chureca

The wind was still for once, and the smoke settled in circles close to the ground. I stood on a mountain of trash and gazed intently at the glowing horizon as the moment grew closer. Lake Managua sagged off to my left. Heavy and exhausted from too many years of raw sewage disposal, the lake wasn't really worth a second glance. Though the wind wasn't strong, the constant fog that surrounded the dump still remained thick. The stench of burning rubber and thick smoke was relentless.

Even though I learned to breathe through my mouth, the horrific smell brought me a strange sense of comfort on this tranquil morning. The smell reminds me of the children's smiling faces and signs of hope that shine through the tragic place.

I looked behind me and moved around a few bottles and plastic bags to find a perch and then sat down. I watched the town wake up as I sat on top of our perch.

The first workers wandered into the dump from the community just down the road. The early birds get the worm, or the first dibs at the trash that comes out of the truck. Some scavengers brought kids and families, while others came alone or with friends. A pied piper type followed by seven or eight stray dogs marched into the dump and triumphantly looked over his shoulder at his impressive audience as he continued up the path. Perhaps the man shared his meager rations with the countless stray dogs who also call the trash dump home. Some walked with a purpose clearly set out to get the first truck of the day. Others meandered without a clear purpose and took in the morning just as we were.

Somehow, sitting on top of my perch surrounded by complete despair, I felt a sense of peace. Spending a week in La Chureca, a trash-dump community in Nicaragua, made me feel alive. I was forced to live in the moment because the moment is all the locals have. The future does not exist when the main concern of the day is where the next meal is coming from. And I learned a lot from the moment. Millions of moments. Concerns of tomorrow, next week, and next year are suddenly a little less urgent and important.

I almost felt invisible on top of the mountain of trash as we watched the world wander by. But really, we weren't invisible at all. Our white van and white skin automatically marked us with a status of privilege and power.

The privilege has really set in. The Nicaraguans assume that the color of my skin equates to a status of wealth and power. Though I am blessed with a life of privilege, my personal wealth does not immediately carry any power or stature. I do not have the answers to why some people live like this, nor do I have the ability to create any policy change.

Though I have more money in my savings account than some Nicaraguans will ever see, in this world, I felt completely powerless. I came to help and had this naive perspective that I could really make a difference. And now I see how detrimental this perspective can be. The last thing that this community needs is "white saviors" coming down from America thinking that they are fixing the problems in this community.

What brought me here to learn invaluable lessons was a serendipitous encounter in a deli, a love of lacrosse, a passion to help others, persistence, and a little luck. A group of lacrosse players and lacrosse fans went down to Nicaragua with a group of individuals sharing a passion of lacrosse and a desire to help others. Lacrosse the Nations was established a year ago to use lacrosse to bring communities together and build trusting relationships to help others.

Twelve of us went down to Nicaragua for a week to teach lacrosse and continue to build trust with the community members. I expected to have a great time, meet new people, and learn about a community in need. However, standing on the top of the mountain of trash looking out at a beautiful sunset over a community of squatters in a landfill at the end of my week in Nicaragua, I realized that the trip taught me more than I could possibly imagine.

The constant contradiction of emotions sat somewhere between my gut and my heart. I was no longer able to look away and pretend as so many others do that there aren't people in the world who live this way. I will never be able to forget this "forgotten" community of squatters. Somewhere in the midst of emaciated stomachs with skin so tough it felt like hide, there were beautiful, perfect smiles. In the middle of playing and allowing kids to be kids, a look deep in their eyes was just pleading to be able to let the truth out. In a place of utter despair and inhumane conditions, humans were more alive and compassionate towards complete strangers than I could ever be.

We were accepted into the community as family, and not simply because we arrived and came to help. A trusted relationship has been formed, fostered and grown over time. It takes work and trust to foster this acceptance, and it takes time to figure out how best to help.

Of course, all of these people ultimately need to move. No one should be living amid trash. But after more than 40 years living within a dump, the solution is not that simple. Each family has established a home, and a definitive sense of place in this community. A sense of belonging overrides the inhumane conditions that surround them.

Though anger that any human should have to live in these conditions overwhelms me, we must tread lightly. As foreigners, we don't know best. We can only try to understand and to help when help is asked for and necessary. I have only begun to understand. But a trip to La Chureca has planted a seed and made me want to learn more.

I know that so many people are well-intentioned and want to go on service trips to give back to other communities, but we need to be aware of the impact that we make. We cannot help communities and individuals if we simply give money and donations; instead, we need to seek local knowledge and ask individuals in the community how we can help.

I watched the first tip of the sunrise above the city skyline and desperately tried to take it all in. We didn't have to wait long for it to rise above the horizon as the city's infrastructure was completely demolished by an earthquake in 1972. Though the city has slowly been rebuilt, the majority of development money went straight into greedy pockets instead of into the city's infrastructure. Most buildings within our view were not more than two or three stories high.

The sprawling skyline of Managua covers a large area, but is far from impressive. The earthquake and years of political unrest have left nearly half of the population living under the poverty line. However, compared to life in the dump, those getting by in the city are living in luxury.

I had a perfect view of the dump with the city sitting just behind it. It's amazing that this little, forgotten world is just half a block away from the bustling city. However the two worlds never collide. The trash comes and the recycling and raw materials leave, but the people are somehow left behind. The sun rises over the entire city every day just the same.