Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Working with Youth

In all of the Peace Corps programs in Nicaragua, working with youth is a major priority. Demographically speaking, Nicaragua is a very young country – more than 70% of the population consists of people under the age of 30. I haven’t started a formal youth group yet, but I have acquired some groupies among the youth in my town.

One in particular – her name is Gema (pronounced HAY-ma) – likes to accompany me on whatever I do during the weekend days when she is out of school. Together, she and I formed a small informal cooking group that meets every Saturday to try new foods. So far we’ve made banana bread, soy milk, and sweet potato soup. This past Saturday, we decided to make a chocolate cake. As it turned out, a volunteer friend who lives in the nearby town of Namanji is finishing her service this month and was also planning make a chocolate cake for her going away party, so the two of us teamed up. We bought the ingredients and borrowed cake pans, and we spent Saturday morning working with the kids to bake the cakes. The deal was that we would eat one and the other Sarah and I would bring to the going away party.

Fortunately, the house where we do the cooking class has a barrel oven, which is much easier to use than the old-fashioned ovens that most people have. Still, most Nicaraguan baked goods are cooked at very high temperatures, so we ended up burning the crap out of the tops of both cakes. We scraped off the burned parts, and one of the kids had the idea of making a frosting to cover up the parts where there was cake missing. This kid – his name is Pipe (pronounced PEE-pay) – totally took charge of the icing, and ended up saving the cake that Sarah was bringing to the party.

The plan was for me to spend the night at Sarah’s site, since there are no buses at night and it’s generally not a good idea to travel after sundown. We would go to the special dinner her community members were throwing for her and then to the big going away party. When we got on the bus, there were Gema, Pipe, and another teenager, Laura. “Hey guys, are you coming to the party?” we asked them. We assumed that they had family in the other town and had made arrangements to spend the night. But when we arrived in Namanji it quickly became apparent that they hadn’t made any plans. That’s when things got a bit awkward, since we didn’t have anywhere for three extra people to sleep, and the dinner was by invitation.

“Do you have any family members here that you can stay with?” we asked them. The kids were quiet. “Tell me,” Sarah said, “where were you expecting to stay tonight?”
The kids looked at each other sheepishly, and finally Gema replied, “With you.”
I would have been annoyed (well I was a little bit), except that it was just so cute that these teenagers wanted to spend the time being with us, and they were so obviously embarrassed to have assumed that they could just jump on to our plans without asking. In the end we were able to find places for them to stay, we arranged for them to be able to go to the dinner, and we brought them along to the party. And it was great. I was really glad to have them with us. The three of them danced all night, they had a great time, they borrowed Sarah’s camera and took great pictures with it, and it was especially nice for me to have some people I knew with me at the party.

The next morning we drank our coffee and ate sweet bread, and the kids and I decided to walk back to my community instead of waiting for the bus. To make the walk go faster, I whipped out all of my latent camp-counselor skills – we played word games and math games and guessing games. We played a version of a game I used to play with my mom – A my name is Alice, and my husband’s name is Albert, and we come from Alabama, with a basket full of Alligators! We went through the entire alphabet in Spanish, laughing the entire time. Then, I decided to work in a little bit of English practice. Students here take English class, but they learn just by writing and translating; they almost never practice speaking. So I got the kids all excited about the fact that my family is coming to visit in December. Then I had them practice what they were going to say to my mom and my dad and my brother when they come.
“What do you want to say to them?” I asked the kids.
“Hello, how are you? What is your name? Do you like Nicaragua? What do you like to eat?” We practiced all of it, with me pretending to be each family member that’s coming to visit. They had a great time with it, and it was just adorable.

Again, as continues to happen to me here, I was overwhelmed with joy at being able to connect with people, and it happened in a completely unexpected and unplanned way. I am starting to see that, most likely, the biggest impact I will have here will come from just being with people, from spending time with them in informal situations. Furthermore, I didn’t come here expecting that I would find my greatest fulfillment from working with young people, but the time I spent with my young friends this weekend gave me cause to reconsider.

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