Melanie Argent set out from the green hills of Devon to work for a programme in the highlands of Nicaragua, which aims to improve literacy levels among young people by using creative teaching.
After 12 years in Devon working in youth development, I recently spent three months working in Nicaragua, through Raleigh International. I was based in a village called Ca¤as de Castillas, a few miles from the old colonial town of Granada.
Subsistence farming forms the occupation of most people in the village, where many houses only have running water every other day between 7am and midday. My home was a typical breeze-block house with a mud floor and three rooms, including the kitchen, where mice and cockroaches made food storage more problematic than one is used to in the UK.
The main focus of the project – a new venture for Raleigh – was to develop a creative teaching programme for the children of the village between five and 14 years. Our project partner, Corin Perdomo, a Spanish woman, runs a school for adults with learning difficulties in Granada and has strong links with the community we are working with. A few young volunteers also travel to her school each day to teach English and do handicrafts with the users.
Following a well-advertised community meeting nearly 200 children signed up for the teaching project and 170 turned up on the first day. The volunteers -Êmostly British (including young people from disadvantaged backgrounds) but also from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Australia, Belize, Ireland and Malaysia -Êworked in pairs and taught English, games and sports, arts, crafts and drama, culminating in a production of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood.
Although literacy increased in Nicaragua under the Sandinista government of the 1980s, it has since fallen back with a growing population and limited funds for even basic education. Government figures reveal that in 2000 less than a third of all children of high school age were attending school.
Nicaragua has a very young population, with 72 per cent being under 30 years old and 42 per cent under 15. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of child labour.
Our project took place during the rainy season, between September and December, so we had to build a shelter for protection against the daily downpour. The children sat on logs and did art on the floor.
Teaching in Nicaragua is limited because of the lack of resources and English-speaking teachers. Children learn by rote and there is little creativity. The project gave an opportunity to children to experience new teaching methods and meet people from other cultures.
The daily leadership system that Raleigh operates on all its projects gives each young volunteer an opportunity to take a turn at being a leader, taking charge of the organisation and decision making. This is empowering and it gives them real ownership of the project.
When I return to work, I will have lots of creative ideas for working with young people, will be more adaptable and understanding and have a greater insight into how others live. I also hope to build links between a disability centre for young adults in Devon and the school in Granada.
Melanie Argent worked with Raleigh International as an assistant manager on a community project in rural Nicaragua.
- The Republic of Nicaragua covers 129,494 sq km – just over half the size of the UK – and has a population of 4.9 million.
- Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 69 per cent; white 17 per cent; black 9 per cent; Amerindian 5 per cent
- Nicaragua is one of the northern hemisphere’s poorest countries, with 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.