Monday, November 23, 2009


Two of the generators are out at the local plant and energy is being rationed. As a result, we've spent a fair amount of time sitting around in the dark with some friends from the neighborhood, talking and exchanging riddles and stories. Tonight we were playing Two Truths and a Lie. What is the proper response when someone offers as one of their statements that they were raped as a child? And then when it turns out that it's the truth?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Critters 'n' More

Critters in My House, Part II

1) Hummingbird- They're fast little buggers. We tried for hours to get it out of the house. It couldn't find the door for the life of it. I suppose it's evolutionary: when they feel like they're in danger it goes against their instinct to fly downward to go through the door, as opposed to going upward into the ceiling. Once the sun went down, it went berzerk and tried to burrow into the light. After having exhausted itself in this effort, I was finally able to use a shirt to pick it up by the beak, wrap it in the shirt, and carry it outside. It lay there, prone and shocked, for a moment, as I held my breath, thinking it was dead. Then came to its senses and flew away.

2) Frog- in the bathroom. Not much more to say.

Critters Not in My House, Thank God

On Thursday, we walked down to the beach at night with our neighbor Michael. This is not an enterprise I would have undertaken without a local companion, as everyone claims the beach is full of drug dealers at night. As it turned out, we encountered no drug dealers, but lots of rather large crabs. As it also turns out, Michael is rather terrified of rather large crabs, scurrying about in the dark. He claims one of them pinched him. Susan brought her flashlight, so we were able to scope them out and avoid them pretty well, but Michael still shrieked every time the light illuminated one. I, of course, seized the opportunity to play crab and grab his calf.


Michael is part of a dance group called Swetin.
"It's a word in Miskito," he explained. "It means..."
"Sweating?" I suggested.
"Yeah, that's it!"

I sat in on their practice, and also attended the aerobics/dance class that the group's coach also teaches. It was fun working out to hilariously vulgar songs in English that no one in the room probably understood, as well as a pumped-up version of "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Language notes, etc.

Padre Roger loaned me a Miskito language Bible, and I have discovered that the Miskito has interesting built-in ways of doing gender inclusive language. Like English, nouns and adjectives do not, as a rule, carry gender. Unlike English or Spanish, the third person does not have gender. "Witin" means he or she, and "witin nani" is they. Furthermore, the words "brother" and "sister" function a little differently. The word "lakra" is for siblings who share your gender, and "muhni" is for those of the other gender. Because I'm a woman with two brothers, I have two "lakra," (or "laikra," because they're mine), and no "muihni." If I were a boy, I would have two "muhni" and no "lakra." Because the Miskito Bible uses "muhni" to mean "brothers" or "brothers and sisters," it's normative to the person of reference. For a woman, "If you are giving your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother has some grievance against you," it would actually read "your sister."

It gets really complicated when you have a word for the son of your sister, provided you're a man. I had to draw a diagram to figure out how all the relationships worked.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I sit in when the counseling teacher at Escuela Maureen gives class. Last week, I suggested to her that since the 4th grade class ranges in age from 10 to 15, it might make more sense to divide the class into older and younger groups for talking about sexuality. In my mind, you can talk to 10 year olds as pre-sexually active individuals, but by 15 years old they are definitely already making those choices. She said okay, next week the younger kids are all yours. So I have about 30 minutes on Monday to talk about sexuality with the 10 to 12 year olds. Even better, I probably won't have any more time than that, since the school year is drawing to a close.

To get advice, I stopped by Bilwi's equivalent of Planned Parenthood yesterday. A woman named Mildred gave me some great resources. When I asked if they were going to be giving any workshops, she said she was giving one for sex workers today, and would I like to stop by. "Would I!" thought I.

So today I attended a 5-hour workshop with about 20 women who work as prostitutes in Bilwi. We learned about human trafficking, the morning-after pill, and living with AIDS. I found out several things I didn't know before or had forgotten, like sperm can live in the uterus for up to 72 hours, and the morning after pill works by preventing the sperm from reaching the Fallopian tubes and fertilizing an egg. Neat! At the lunch break, Mildred brought out a camera and took a picture of the group. "Say 'clitoris'!" She said. "Clitoris" in Spanish rhymes with "cheese" in English.

The women were very nice. The oldest among them, whom they referred to as the Mother Superior, invited me to come back for the next meeting. I think I just might.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

a new language

My acquisition of Miskito is going well, though I still get impatient with the tedious process that is learning another language. One of my new favorite quirks of Miskito is that concepts are often created by putting together words that don't really seem to make sense together. For example, "Bili kaiks" means "Wait for me." Literally, though, it would be translated as "Look at my mouth." Some of the combinations make a sort of sense:"Latwan mai kaikisna" is "I love you," or literally "I see your suffering." "Kupia Kumi" is "peace," or "one heart." "To follow" is "nina blikbaia," or "to send name."

These phrases appeal to my delight in the hilarity of the nonsensical, and therefore make it easier to learn. Still, it means I very often understand a lot of the words somebody says, but I can make no sense of them when they are all strung together.

It also bolsters my efforts that everyone is thrilled to death that I'm learning their language. I am only now coming to appreciate the fact that the Miskito language carries their culture. In terms of heritage, almost everyone here is some mix of British, Dutch, African (Creole), mestizo, Miskito, and other indigenous groups. There are people here of every skin tone and other physical markers, and they're all intermixed. Language, not physical characteristics, seems to be the primary marker of ethnic identity. If you grew up speaking Miskito, then you're Miskito. Even if you didn't grow up speaking Miskito, speaking the language seems to more or less earn you some degree of acceptance as an insider. Even with the handful I've learned, some people are already joking that I'm Miskito now. It makes sense; I have heard from time to time, mostly from native speakers, that the language is seen as primitive and illegitimate. This is not generally said with anger; I feel like it may be a view that's been internalized. Hardly anyone who speaks it can write it, since only Spanish is taught in most schools, and it is the primary language in all the schools. Learning Miskito is a way of giving the language, and the culture, more legitimacy in the eyes of those who speak it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Last week was a difficult one for me here in Bilwi. The civil unrest of a few weeks ago blew over with a bunch of people arrested, a few injuries, and one death due to heart attack brought on by exposure to tear gas. School started again, just in time for Autonomy Day and Día de los Difuntos. It all amounts to far too many days off school, especially for kids who struggle with long term recall as it is.

This week also saw the departure of two dear friends. After we moved out of our previous house, I continued to return occasionally to visit Miguel, one of the guys who lived there, and Blanca, the puppy. The companionship of both of them helped anchor me during my transition to living here. Miguel was frequently around to talk to, and he often could commiserate because he had only recently moved here, and Blanca was always around to comfort me if I felt lonely. Last Monday, Miguel told me that he was moving back to his home city of Bluefields, and the owner of the house had given Blanquita to someone else.

Later, after the other housemate Eric had gone to bed, he told me the truth about the puppy. After coming back from a largely unsuccessful fishing expedition, Eric got very drunk and killed her. He said he was going to put her out of her misery because there was nothing to feed her. Miguel loved the puppy, and when there wasn´t money for dog food he shared his own dinner with her. Before he left town, he encouraged me not to come by the house ever again.

I´m grieved by what happened, and haunted by the widespread violence here, bred by poverty. I have acquired several bruises caused by my frequent tripping on the uneven roads here, but no one believes me when I tell them I fell, though only Miguel pressed me about it. I´m haunted by the fact that Blanquita is not the only victim of this displaced aggression. I have no idea how many kids I work with are beaten for similar reasons, but I know it´s far too many. I only see some of the bruises.

Poverty is no excuse for violence. Period. But poverty is its own kind of violence. It twists people and relationships into desperate, horrendous messes. Messes with no easy answers.