La Chureca dump in Managua is a totally different ball game to La Joya in Granada. Originally it was the only dump we knew about in Nicaragua, having been notoriously one of the biggest inhabited landfill sites in Central America, until a recent intervention to close it by the Spanish Government.
After our first visit, it became clear that distributing aid was going to be dangerous and filming it would probably be worse. Most NGOs warn people, and I always tell the volunteers, ‘Don’t take anything with you that you don’t mind giving away or being taken off you.’ That means no watches, jewellery or cameras!
We knew we couldn’t do this project alone (without endangering ourselves and probably causing a riot) so we had to be very careful. We sent hundreds of emails, made numerous phone calls and organised meetings, trying to find an established project working with the people on La Chureca with whom we could work to deliver aid, effectively and safely, to the children living there.
The total lack of coordination, understanding or knowledge-sharing between existing organisations made this very difficult and the skepticism and suspicion felt by the community, due to the Spanish government’s plan, heightened this.
We couldn’t work with the Spanish because, at this stage, their remit is to flatten and close La Chureca (with implementation of social welfare projects for the children who live on the dump seemingly last on their to-do list, if there at all). We were lucky to be able to partner and move forward with Los Quinchos whose centre we saw on a previous visit.
Los Quinchos is the only day centre for the dump children (providing meals for approximately 50-70 children a day) and it is actually located in the dump (though ashamedly its closure is planned to make way for a recycling centre). Unfortunately no provisions have been made for the children once this is gone, neither has a date been set for the recycling centre nor a new facility planned to look after these children.
We met with the Los Quinchos founders and told them that we would like to provide shoes and socks, hygiene products, clothing and school supplies to the children who attend their centre, seeing as it precisely met our target group and would offer us a bit more security. We bought all the shoes in Granada and drove to Managua with a group of four volunteers (one of who was a medic who collected data for our medical research team back in the UK).
Once inside the dump, we quickly carried all our supplies up to the centre as news of our arrival had evidently travelled quickly around the dump. We organized the children around tables and, to their genuine delight, handed out drawing books, pens, crayons and stickers which meant they wouldn’t go wandering off while we organized the shoes.
Volunteers handed out the Small Steps hygiene kits (which the children would later take back to their families), which once again included toothpaste, toothbrushes, antibacterial soap, nit combs, shampoo and other items to ease the problems associated with the squalor outlined to us.
We then set up a row of seats where children took it in turns to sit, clean their feet and put on their new socks and shoes. After each wave of ten children had received their shoes, the next ten would be prised from their colouring-in and come and get theirs. In total, we gave out seventy pairs of shoes. The babies and toddlers who were too small for shoes got new clothes and everyone got the hygiene kits, which are hugely popular and, from now on, will be a staple of Small Steps distribution projects.
As the day progressed more and more people from the dump heard about the distribution and came to see what all the commotion was about. They weren’t children, but adults, which, as we’ve seen in the Phnom Penh documentary, is when things start to get a little hectic.
Fortunately, the adults watched on without any major interruptions to our work and the children of La Chureca now have the regulation school shoes they require to be able to attend school.
We are confident that the aid we gave out has enabled several children to take up their place at the Esperanza school on the dump and made life a little bit easier for their families. We certainly brought a few smiles to the faces of this community who are living in such uncertainty.
Now our foundations have been laid at La Chureca, Small Steps Project will continue to try and meet with the Spanish government demanding transparent information about what they intend to do with these children when they are essentially evicted from the dump and surrounding slums. If they think no one will notice a community disappearing, we will gladly prove them wrong.
I will leave you with this rather unpleasant symbol of how the community is being treated by the Spanish government. When we were driving off the dump, we saw that four large western-style houses had been built in the dump and, when we enquired who they were for, were informed that they were for the workers of the Spanish team. They had been put up in just under a month.
If they can provide such amenities for themselves it came as a surprise that no such care had been taken for the workers who were already there, many as young as three, many who were born there and who have lived there their whole lives.