A Trip To The Desert

By Rachel Frey

On July 27, I drove across the desert to a volcano, Las Casitas. But it wasn’t really a desert, in that it hadn’t always been a desert. In fact, less than a year earlier it had been fertile cropland dotted with small farming communities in the region surrounding the city of Posoltega, Nicaragua. But when I visited, it was nothing but dry, cracked earth, changed since the sides of the mountains slid down, burying the fertile land under twelve to fifteen feet of mud in some places. In October 1998 when Hurricane Mitch crashed into Nicaragua, the crater of the volcano filled with water and the slope of the mountain burst out, flooding existing streams and rivers and creating new tributaries where they hadn’t existed before.

The mountain is scarred, literally; a huge gash is carved into its side where the mud slid down. And the desert is scratched with deep crevices and canyons where the water just kept rushing through.

There was nothing there when I surveyed the area, nothing except the overgrown weeds that had sprung up since the rains began in May, a few uprooted trees, and a scattering of crosses marking the places where somebody’s mother, husband, daughter, or grandfather had perished. It is estimated that between 3000 and 4000 people died there. Half of the Nicaraguans who lost their lives in Hurricane Mitch were from the region of Posoltega, many buried in a modern-day Pompeii.

When I was there, in this “desert,” I sat down on a rock and looked out over the vastness of the destruction. There was nothing, absolutely nothing there. This nothingness, this desert, disturbed me tremendously. I was too stunned to cry, too overwhelmed to feel. It was all I could do to remind myself to breathe. People had lived there. People had died there. 

As I sat there, Alfonso, a gentle pastor who is working with the psycho-social and spiritual rehabilitation of many of the survivors of Mitch, approached me and asked what I was thinking. I responded, “I can’t think,” meaning “I can’t understand, comprehend.…” He replied, “Come, meet the people who lived here.” He took me to a community several miles away where many of the survivors of the mudslides at Las Casitas had resettled. They have planted corn, are building a school and houses. They have even started a baseball team. They call their new community Nueva Esperanza — New Hope.

But there is no quick, happy ending to this story. All of the people who had lived in the communities on the unstable hillside of Las Casitas were poor. They are even more destitute now that they have lost everything to the rivers of mud that engulfed their homes. There is over 90% unemployment in Nueva Esperanza. The villagers do not have the funds to complete many of the building projects they have started. And with more than a year having passed since the disaster occurred and international camera crews stopped splashing images of hungry and homeless Nicaraguan children onto television screens around the world, the aid money just is not coming in anymore. The new rainy season brought many new difficulties, both expected and unexpected. Several roads became impassable with new rain. The construction projects for which there was money to continue were often stalled by bad weather. Many of the people were gripped by terror, literally paralyzed with fear every time it rained, which was nearly every day. And even as an outsider I could understand their fear when I saw their temporary houses made of black plastic and rusty tin. But they named their community “New Hope.” Where, amidst all of the chaos and destruction, did they find that courage? 

The same week as my trip to Las Casitas, I met with a group of seminary students at an evangelical seminary in the city of Léon. I asked the question, “How do you understand God when confronted with a natural disaster such as Hurricane Mitch?” The seminarians responded that God is not responsible for natural disasters such as Mitch. Rather, the tragic results of Mitch are the consequences of bad administration by humanity (las consequencias de mala administraccion de la humanidad). I didn’t understand at first (I thought I was hearing “punishment”), so I pushed further, asking for examples of mala administraccion. The seminarians responded:

Global warming caused by industrialization (an oversimplification, yes, but…) has intensified the extremes of existing weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña, creating the circumstances for more (and more severe) hurricanes in a season.

Deforestation — The people living near Posoltega, like most of the peasant class in Nicaragua, could not afford gas or kerosene for their stoves. Therefore, they took axes to the trees on the mountains. Without trees and vegetation, there is nothing to hold the soil in place.

Political infighting exists to the extent that when the mayor of Posoltega called for aid, saying that she estimated that 700 to 1000 were dead in her region, the president of Nicaragua, from another political party, suggested that she was exaggerating. When he finally did send assistance three days later, the government was stunned to learn that the mayor’s original estimate had been low and the death toll around Posoltega was more than 3000.

The government is so heavily indebted that it gives in to the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, demands that include downsizing the government to the point where it does not have the capacity or the resources to respond adequately to an emergency.

Political corruption — Some of the international aid was sold on the black market, and a portion of the funds are being used to build a new presidential palace.

“Vos sos el Dios de los pobres” — “You are God of the poor.” So begins La Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (The Nicaraguan Peasant Mass) by Carlos Mejia Godoy. I heard the popular mass many times throughout the summer. When I had the opportunity to interview the composer, I asked him the same question I asked the seminarians: “How do you understand God, a God of the poor, in light of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Mitch, especially since the victims of Mitch were poor?” Carlos’s response resonated with the seminarians: God did not cause the tragic results of the hurricane, and if anything, God is as shocked and saddened and stunned as we are. Carlos believes that God struggles with the poor in their affliction and oppression. As he wrote in his mass, Carlos believes “that [Christ] is resurrected in every arm that is raised to defend the people” (Credo). Perhaps this understanding of God is how those survivors of Mitch can name their new community “New Hope.”

Both before and after my three months in Nicaragua, I was bombarded with questions as to what my “mission” was, why I was there. Many people assumed I was going to witness to and evangelize the people of Nicaragua. While this was never my intention, I was amazed at how much the Nicaraguans actually evangelized and witnessed to me.

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