Heifers and Pencils

I just read an article in Christian Science Monitor entitled "Help for Uganda’s Farmers: A Heifer to Start a Family" by Danna Harman (3/22/01). It caught my eye because my meeting in suburban Boston has for years assisted a much larger Friends meeting in rural Kenya, next to Uganda. The several heifer programs in Uganda provide cows for qualified families as a means of helping them rise out of poverty. The article claims that the programs are long term, not a quick fix, and are very successful. Evelyn Kaledia, a ten-year-old whose family has benefited from the program, wondered aloud if her family would someday be able to afford some coloring pencils for her. A modest wish.

This brought me back to August 1983. My wife and I married on August 3 and were on a two-week labor tour of Nicaragua. As we left the airport in Managua, we were set upon by a group of barefoot street boys who asked us for pencils as we waited for our tour bus. Our guide or the airport employees told us not to encourage the children by giving them pencils. It seems unlikely that any of us would have been carrying wooden pencils in our pockets anyway. It struck me as odd that these boys were asking for pencils rather than money or gum, etc. I never received a satisfactory answer as to why. I still remember one boy, tall and thin and smiling, barefoot like all the other boys, short pants and torn shirt, about ten to twelve years old, and deaf. I have an older deaf cousin. Perhaps that is why I remember this boy. Our tour bus came, and I did not see this child again. We stayed in earthquake-devastated Managua for a couple of days, then went out to the provinces. Whilst in Managua we met with one of the nine members of the Sandinista Directorate. His office was in a leaky Quonset hut. August is the rainy season. He impressed me when he mentioned the street boys and said that it was his goal, his dream, to set up school-ing and programs for these boys to get them off the street and help give them a future. He reminded me of Fr. Edward Flanagan of Boys Town two generations earlier. But, he said that little could be done whilst the Contra war raged in the provinces. There simply were no resources. People were fleeing the provinces, the war zones, and coming to the safety of the cities. They were unemployed and homeless, but safe. The CIA was mining the harbor and funding the Contras with our tax dollars. Those of us on the labor tour, all Americans, were acutely aware of this. When the Contras attacked a village, they killed the men and impressed the boys into the Contra army. They raped the girls and young women and abducted them. Small wonder that people were fleeing the countryside.

Well, the CIA broke the Sandinista Revolution with counterrevolution in the countryside, embargos, and destruction of the economy. The Sandinistas lost the presidency in an election. Their wonderful social programs and experiments withered under "USA-friendly" presidents so that Nicaragua is again a safe, poverty-stricken, Third World country with massive unemployment and little hope for the future.

The deaf boy at the airport, if still living, would be pushing 30, twice the age of my son, Mark. I’m sure that he never received the sort of schooling that my cousin received at the Boston School for the Deaf. I can only imagine what Nicaragua would be like today if President Reagan had kept a simple "hands off" policy towards the Sandinistas and allowed people of goodwill to perhaps provide heifers for impoverished Nicaraguan farmers and maybe some pencils for their children.

Kevin Coleman Joyce

Kevin Coleman Joyce is a member of South Shore Preparative Meeting, which meets at the New England Friends Home, Hingham, Mass.