Helping North Americans Experience Nicaragua

This year marks the 25 year anniversary of ProNica, and an important part of ProNica’s mission has always been to encourage North Americans, particularly young people, to visit Nicaragua and learn about its history, its culture, and its efforts to build a more equitable future for the vast majority of its citizens who live in dire poverty. In the early years, ProNica arranged Friends Witness Tours, which enabled small groups to experience the warmth of Nicaraguan hospitality, visit project partners, and admire the natural beauty of this materially impoverished but spiritually rich country.

In the past few years, ProNica has experienced a remarkable boom in the number and kinds of groups wanting to visit and learn experientially how Nicaragua is facing its challenges. What ProNica expected and promoted were college delegations with tie-ins to academic course work. And they have come, from University of Florida, Haverford College, Washburn University, Eckerd College, and Trinity University.

What came as a surprise, however, was a request from the Gesundheit! Institute, which wanted to send a delegation of clowns to bring cheer to people in hospitals and clinics who were suffering from the traumatic effects of wars, poverty, and poor health. The clowns, in full costume and make-up, spent long hours in the women’s prison; a clinic for women in the late stages of breast and uterine cancer; in a home for abandoned, disabled children; and in the "Alley of Death," an area in the main city market where pimps, prostitutes, and gluesniffers hang out.

Lillian Hall, ProNica’s program coordinator, was struck by the irony of the seriousness of their clowning, spending long hours with people to elicit a smile or a giggle. "Their visit shows how one doesn’t need to come to Nicaragua with an armful of donations in order to help" she said. "A heart full of love and a big smile with the desire to carry some of someone’s load for a few moments means a lot."

Another unusual request came from an Inuit group in Canada called Nunavut Sivuniksavut. This organization arranges an annual cultural exchange trip for Inuit (Eskimo) pre-college students who want to make links with other indigenous peoples in the world. They wanted to have a cultural exchange with Nicaragua’s indigenous communities, most of whom live in remote areas on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua.

No previous delegation had ever asked to undertake such a complicated trip but Lillian and Carmen Gonzalez, ProNica’s delegations coordinator, plunged into the task. The one road into the general area is often inaccessible due to mud pits known to swallow vehicles up to their axles. But that wasn’t even as problematic as the language barrier. Translators had to be found who spoke Miskito, the language of the largest of the indigenous groups.

"We wanted to give the Inuit youth an authentic experience, not just keep them busy," said Lillian. "Because of the language barriers, the conversations would go from Miskito to Spanish to English and sometimes into Inuktitut and then back. It was truly a cross-cultural exchange."

Several weeks later, after two college delegations came and went, ProNica hosted Street Squash, an organization whose mission is to enrich the life experiences of inner- city New York youth. Mary Cipollone, who organized the trip, had been a volunteer with ProNica eight years ago. "Because my time in Nicaragua had such an impact on the way I see the world, I wanted to give the Street Squash children the opportunity to come here and learn about all this country has to teach us."

During the trip, Mary bragged in a blog about a group discussion the students had the evening before. "The Street Squash students made some insightful observations about the poverty in Nicaragua and about the hope and energy they saw in the Quinchos children [a rehabilitation program for former street kids].

Delegations coordinator Carmen Gonzalez admired the maturity of the group despite their young ages. "It was great to look at them crossing rivers, dealing with insects and animals they had never seen before, helping community people repair a road, and eating with peasant families by the light of a candle."

Delegations learn a lot about Nicaraguan history and culture and the U.S. role in it. They learn about how people struggle in the under-developed world, and they may practice speaking Spanish. But the main purpose of bringing North American youth to Nicaragua is best summed up by Lillian in a video viewable on ProNica’s website:

People in the U.S. live such isolated and detached lives from the rest of the world. They need to leave the comforts of home and come here to live with people in their homes with dirt floors and chickens under the beds. It’s the only way the young people from the United States can take the Nicaraguan people’s problems to heart.

ProNica was founded 24 years ago in Florida under the care of Southeastern Yearly Meeting and became an independent nonprofit corporation in 2002. In 2006, ProNica received official NGO (nongovernmental organization) status in Nicaragua. The stateside office in St. Petersburg, Florida, has two staff members. The Nicaraguan operations are run by two full-time and one part-time staff in Casa Cuàquera in Managua.

In the past decade alone, ProNica has given nearly half a million dollars in direct aid to Nicaraguan community-based organizations with an emphasis on women and children’s health and education.

For more information on ProNica’s delegation tours, project partners, volunteering, or making a donation to ProNica’s work, visit the website

Kathy Hersh

Kathy Hersh is a member of Miami (Fla.) Meeting and on the board of ProNica. Her interest in the Nicaraguan people stems from her experience as a journalist covering the Nicaraguan civil war in 1978-79.