Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 15, 1999
Inner healing in Nicaragua
By CELINE DANIS
Special to the WCR
A year ago, more than 20,000 Central Americans were killed by hurricane Mitch. Calgarian Celine Danis is there now and tells of the emotional devastation left by the disaster
I was just completing a two-year term as a cooperant, with a rural women's organization in Waslala, Nicaragua when hurricane Mitch ravaged Nicaragua on Oct. 30, 1998.
Waslala, a rural community located in the mountainous region of Nicaragua, is home to 35,000 subsistence farmers in 90 villages. These villages lack fresh drinking water and electricity, the farmers earn $1 per day on average and have a Grade 2 education.
Although Waslala was saved from the destruction of hurricane Mitch, we did receive heavy rains which damaged crops and left the farmers without food for some time. All communication lines were down and there was no way to contact my family to tell them I was alright.
After 10 days, we made our way to Managua. The flooding and the destruction had made travelling difficult. As we manoeuvred our Toyota pick-up truck over the pot-holed roads, the sight was shocking. Uprooted trees and telephone poles struck down; communities that once existed were now just a sea of mud.
By the time we arrived in Managua, I'd seen enough of the destruction that hurricane Mitch had brought to the people of Nicaragua. I wanted desperately to be a part of re-building Nicaragua and stay to assist however I could. But part of me felt exhausted after two years of volunteer work in Waslala and was ready to go home.
On June 25, 1999, I returned to Nicaragua, this time working as a member of the mental health team of the Centro Antonio Valdevieso in a temporary refugee camp called Santa Maria on the outskirts of the town of Posoltega.
River of mud
After five days of heavy rains during hurricane Mitch, these quiet villages of El Porvenir and Rolando Rodrigues were overtaken by an unimaginable mass of mud from the Volcano Casita, which roared down and buried 2,513 people in a matter of minutes.
Another 2,800 people were affected. Fifteen hundred houses, 50 wells and 650 latrines were destroyed. Over 2,000 hectares of crops were lost, together with 2,000 head of cattle. In seconds, the people lost everything they worked years for.
Nicaragua has received more than its fair share of disasters. Among them are the earthquake in 1972 which killed 10,000 people and the Contra-Sandinista war which took 50,000 lives. Nicaragua continues to be one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Often in disasters, NGOs (non-government organizations) and governments tend to focus their attention on providing houses, food and medical services.
Seldom do they recognize the importance of psychological and emotional attention to victims themselves, says Martha Cabrera, coordinator of the mental health team at the Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdevieso.
The psychologists and social workers here believe that when affected populations like these experience symptoms such as depression, anxiety, fear and nervousness and their needs are not attended to, reconstruction of the communities is difficult.
That's why the psychologists of the centre, in this first phase of their work, have been providing individual psychological attention and post-trauma therapy, giving workshops to leaders and women, and training promoters in crisis intervention so that people like Don Vicente who lost 50 members of his family may have the strength to go on.
Thus far, the response has been positive, says Cabrera. The community leaders say they feel better and are more readily able to accept what has happened to them.
Lucia is one of these people. She lost four of her children in the mudslide. She and her husband were working in Costa Rica to raise money to pay for their daughter's graduation from high school, when her community was swept away by the mudslide.
Not knowing whether her children survived, Lucia returned to the site only to learn that the same mountain that once provided her with food, shelter and community life had now taken the lives of her children and her mother. Lucia has had a tough year - she has attempted suicide on several occasions.
One year after hurricane Mitch, Lucia is pregnant and ready to start a new life. She says the workshops have helped her come to accept what has happened. She now participates in re-building her community and is part of a housing reconstruction committee for rebuilding houses.
Wounds run deep
The psychologists at the Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdevieso are discovering that the people's wounds are much deeper than they believed, in most cases the people are not only traumatized by the disaster, but in the case of many women, by the everyday violence they have experienced and are experiencing against them.
The workshops given by the team at the Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdevieso are based on, in part, on Recuperacion Psicosocial a guide written by Dr. Gilbert Brenson Lazan, an American psychologist, after the Volcano Arenas in Colombia erupted killing 20,000 people. The guide helps facilitators assist others in crisis and disasters.
Lazan came to Nicaragua to give workshops in which Cabrera and Nora Ligia, psychologists from the Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdevieso, participated.
He says there are certain reactions which people will experience after they have gone through such a trauma. The immediate reaction will be a state of shock, then physical symptoms may arise.
We have observed that many people have headaches, are very tense, depressed, are experiencing nightmares and are afraid of the rain because it makes them remember everything that happened.
The workshops provide a space for the people to deal with the pain. It is crucial, says Martha Cabrera, that the people do not repress their symptoms and that they try to talk about what happened.
During the workshops, the psychologists teach methods of relaxation such as how to breathe properly, meditation, visualization (where the people imagine a safe place) and Tai Chi. They also emphasis the importance of eating properly, getting plenty of rest, strengthening their faith, talking to family members and friends. They are also taught how to deal with a crisis should another one ever happen.
Just the thought of hurricane Mitch makes some people in Santa Maria nervous. It's been difficult enough dealing with the torrential rains that battered Nicaragua last month, taking the lives of some people.
They must also deal with the conditions in which they are living - about 250 families live in temporary plastic houses; they all must line up to get water from the same well; they remain completely dependent on food-for-work programs; the latrines are in rough shape; the children and youth are not in school; family violence, alcoholism and drug abuse have increased.
The orphans taken in by other family members lack attention. Little Oscar, one of these orphans, can't seem to get enough attention and clings to every visitor to the community.
In response to this, the Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdevieso is entering its second phase of work - community development. This means we are interested in attending to both the physical and emotional needs of the people.
While providing continued emotional support, four psychologists, two social workers, an anthropologist and, myself, a popular education teacher, are organizing the people of Santa Maria to integrate the children and youth back into the school system as soon as possible and provide workshops on family violence and soya production to women and youth.
Until now the group has received financial support from CUSO, ASODEL and US Aid. Although we are just beginning the brunt of our work in Santa Maria, financial aid is drying up. I am shocked to see the people still living in black or white plastic houses under the scorching heat and I feel sad when I hear their stories.
Although I have shared the grief and the loss of many, I return from there every week marvelling at the strength of the people and I am filled with the admiration for their capacity to sustain hope.