King of Latrines

Greetings all, it has been a spell since I have written or have even thought about my blog. I am sorry that I have not kept you all updated about my life, but it seems to have slipped my mind. While there is no adequate excuse, you are just going to have to accept that I have been quite busy and that my life just hasn’t been that interesting. Well, I think at least one of those previous comments is true; I’ll let you be the judge. I don’t want to this be an overzealous approach to recollect all the events between January and the present, but rather I will tackle the main events entry by entry. The most pressing issue at hand has been my SPA project or more commonly known as Hell. The idea of SPA is that it is an opportunity for a Peace Corps Volunteer to initiate a community driven project with the ability to acquire USAID grant funds. Usually these are larger projects such as building bridges, wells, latrines, community centers, or even libraries. Volunteers can solicit up to $10,000, yet there are several restraints. Remember, I said it was a community driven project. This means that the community is supposed to think of the idea, work on the proposal, and be the organizers. Well, let’s just say that things don’t always go as planned. Yes… I did start the project late. Another aspect of SPA is that you cannot do one in the last 6 months of your service. I waited until January to propose the idea of SPA to my community and that meant I only had two months to go from nothing to a being able to defend our proposal in front of the Peace Corps committee. Everything started off so well, it was like the calm before the storm. I called a meeting at the Alcaldia with all the different community leaders. We proposed different ideas ranging from wells to latrines and we eventually decided on building latrines. The idea was that they were the most cost effective and would benefit the general theme of water and sanitation. We then decided on one neighborhood that agreed upon as the poorest and with the most health risk. From there we were able to successfully survey the neighborhood and choose the 20 families that would benefit from a new latrine. Here, is where the drama begins. Who wouldn’t want a gringo showing up at their door with the proposal for a new latrine? From the get go I was taking flack about how I chose the 20 families and why I couldn’t add just one more family to the project. I was accosted daily by different families and neighborhoods wanting to take part in the project and while I told them that there just wasn’t enough money to go around, several people took the answer rather harshly. I am going to fastforward two months to the present. Don’t worry, I didn’t skip much, just the usual and expected. To quickly summarize, I had to write a 20page report regarding the needs and organization of our project, I got cost estimates for all of the materials, and looked for labor contracts. Now, in the present the issue is the delivery and execution of the construction. As a community project the families benefiting from the project are responsible for 25% of all the costs. We were able to circumnavigate this problem by putting a cost on labor and them promising to give food to some of the extra laborers. In addition, I also had a contract from the Alcaldia that they would supply the transportation of the materials from Matagalpa to San Dionisio. So far so good right? Kind of, after a month of waiting I got the money last week and I immediately went to Matagalpa with the truck from the Alcaldia to get the money and buy all the materials. While the Alcaldia promised to help, it was a pain in the butt to coordinate the travel date and the worst is that the prices of all the materials skyrocketed. Here is my first major complaint with this program; we are required to get 3 proformas for all the materials, but by the time the money comes they are 2-3 months old. I know it doesn’t take much of an extrapolation to assume that prices of materials are going to continue to get more and more expensive. Compound this known fact with the obvious that we are in Nicaragua and it means I am C$3,000 in the hole or roughly $142.00. Luckily, I am coming up with ways to bridge the gap in the old and current budget, but I think it is ridiculous that the project demands lowest costs and then overlooks the fact that prices in Nicaragua are anything but stable. While this is a pain and I am stressing out about the C$3,000 it pales in comparison with the issues I am having with the local masons. I don’t know if it is a rural thing or people just taking advantage of me, but a contract is a contract. Last I checked, a contract is a legal binding document for both parties. I am expected to uphold my end of working with the agreed upon mason for a set price and to reciprocate the mason has agreed to do the work. Nope, not in San Dionisio, a contractor can back out when the feel like it because they feel the price is now too cheap and then come crawling back when I have no problem ditching them. It is a giant game of call my bluff, and it leads to enormous headaches. These bluffs lead to my project being held up and lead to further contract issues when I am delayed and the whole timeline has to be pushed back. I have wanted to walk away from this project countless times and I keep asking myself why I am going through the agony. I will tell you why… I am a masochist. I enjoy the pain and I would feel useless if I wasn’t bogged down by way too much stress and responsibility. Yes, my executive board is more honorary than functional, but they have their moments of pulling through. I have put in countless hours and have been working side by side with the families, but I enjoy it, I feel like part of a bigger idea. And yes, while I moan and complain about the lack of support, I love taking the lead. I like the power of deciding and delegating jobs. I like being the person people have to rely on and look to for guidance and support. Most of all it is worth it for the few people who realize I am busting my butt for them and the small thank you’s that they offer. I do it for the glass of water they give me when I have been working all day moving blocks or the mango that I am given for dropping off a 300lb cement tablet. Finally, I do it for the families that always exceed my expectations and have the patience to tolerate me and have followed me to the river to shovel sand, to deliver cement blocks, and to deliver the cement tablets. While this project has been far from perfect I feel positive that I am helping families. Perhaps my original expectations of bringing a group together and creating a fine oiled machine were not realistic, but there has been progress. There is no “hora nica” with my group, all families show up on time, families are willing to help if I ask, and even my executive board has taken the lead to make sure all materials are accounted for and dropped off. We will be done within the next two weeks and while I have been waiting for this moment since the project began, I am going to miss the insurmountable stress and pride I felt working with my families. 

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.