Journalism and Service

Photo: Two Siblings in Nicaragua

The Red Cross occupied much of my time in high school. As vice president of the Red Cross Club and editor-in-chief of the San Antonio youth newsletter, I was almost always busy.

However, most of my volunteer work was indirect. I never met the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami for whom I’d raised money, or the local families whose houses had burned down for whom I’d collected comfort kits. But I knew that there were Red Cross workers on the field whose jobs I’d helped make a little easier—and that made my work all the more worthwhile.

Last summer, I had an experience that put my volunteer work into perspective. It didn’t even involve the Red Cross. But after the experience, I realized exactly how important it is for the Red Cross to continue doing its work successfully around the world.

For two months in June, I lived with my friend, Renata Barreto, and her family in the suburbs of Managua. One of the first things I noticed about Nicaragua was how widespread the poverty was. Even though Renata’s family lived on a well-off estate with several servants, the moment I stepped outside the gate, I could see families living in metal shacks. While American suburban families would have to go out of their way to find poor people, even the wealthiest of Nicaraguans are forced to witness poverty wherever they go.

Every time Renata’s family would drive me around, I’d gaze at the faces of the poor and wonder about their life stories. So, on Saturday, June 23, I decided to go around the streets of Managua to look for a news story. After being on the San Antonio Express-News Teen Team, I was fortunate enough to know that if I wrote a good travel story about Nicaragua, the San Antonio Express-News would probably publish it.

So, Renata’s aunt, Karla Grace Montenegro del Carmen, gave me the name of a trustworthy taxi driver who drove me around the streets of Managua for two and a half hours.

Before the trip, Renata’s grandma, Dr. Gloria Montalvan, had asked me, “What parts of Managua do you want to see?”

“The poorest parts.”

“Then you should go to La Chureca.”

So, when I got into the cab, I asked the driver to take me to La Chureca along the way.

When he drove me into the city trash dump, I asked him, “Why are we going here?”

“This is La Chureca,” he said.

As he pulled open the windows so that I could get a better look, flies bombarded the car. I tried to ignore them as I took pictures of the dump. Getting out of the car was out of the question at this point.

I’m sure that for an outside observer, it was a sight to behold—a taxi slowly driving through a dump as hundreds of people walk around, picking through the trash. Most of them didn’t mind, although one man did walk up to the window, point accusingly at us, and shout, “What are you doing here? Go away! Go away!”

When we’d finally gotten out of earshot, the taxi driver muttered, “He’s crazy.”

After we drove around some more, the flies had really started to get annoying—especially for my two friends in the back seat—and it wouldn’t be safe to get out of the car to interview anyone anyway, so I asked the taxi driver for us to turn around.

However, after some more wandering around Managua, I felt a sudden pang of guilt. According to the taxi driver, two-thousand people lived in that trash dump—and I’d left without even trying to get a story.

So, I asked the taxi driver to go back. My two friends in the back complained—why on earth did I want to go back to that hellhole?

Finally, we came to the agreement that we’d drop them off at an internet café, and I’d go by myself with the taxi driver back to the trash dump.

It was an insane arrangement—but the taxi driver had already proved himself to be trustworthy and street-smart, and I was certain this was the story that I’d been looking for. So, I thought, “Why not?”

When we went back, I really got to take a good look at La Chureca for the first time. Throughout the trash dump, barrios dotted the horizon. The shacks were made of cardboard, plastic, plywood, metal, mattresses—all material dug up from the piles of trash surrounding them.

We pulled up to a shack where a family was sitting outside at a table. There were fifteen family members, living in a complex of just a few shacks.

When I approached them, they were very friendly—much friendlier than the man who’d shouted at us earlier to get lost. Even though I didn’t exactly look like a journalist, especially in my Saint Mary’s Hall cap, I was a journalist to them, and that is what counted.

So, I interviewed them to try to understand why they live here, how they live here.

First, I spoke to Reyna Isabel Arbizu, 49. She told me that they moved here twenty years ago because they didn’t have any work.

As she held her five-month-old grandchild in her arms, he suddenly broke out crying. A raw rash ran along his neck and buttocks. Nobody in the family knew what the cause of the infant’s rash is, and they had no way to find out either—the doctor in the area charges too much for them to be able to see him.

Celia Gutierrez Arbizu, 19, said that everyone in the family works in La Chureca from six in the morning to five in the afternoon, seven days of the week. Their job, like that of most residents here, is to search for recyclables in the trash heaps and sell them to a nearby facility.

“When we don’t go [to work], we don’t eat,” said Celia.

At the end of the week, according to Celia, they earn only 50 córdobas—roughly equivalent to $2.77.

The family had hardly any clothes. The clothes they did have, Reyna had sewn together from thrown away cloth on an old sewing machine.

According to Celia, they smell the trash to see whether it is good or bad to eat.

It is a gross understatement when Celia says it is boring to live in La Chureca. There is no protection from disease, let alone any form of entertainment. They walk around barefoot as pieces of glass dot the ground.

The hardest part was the children. One girl in particular, six-year-old Victoria, was ecstatic when she saw that I had a camera. Whenever I’d take a picture, she’d shout, “Take another one!”

This eagerness was painfully reminiscent of Renata’s three-year-old cousin, José Antonio, who’d also get excited when he’d see me holding a camera.

“Take another one!” he’d shout, posing and grinning.

This made me wonder what it was that made Victoria so different from José Antonio, why one got to live in a decent home and the other had to live in a trash dump.

When I finally bid good-bye to the family, I felt as though I’d left a piece of myself back in La Chureca. The worst part was knowing that they were no exception. There are trash dumps all over the world where children pick through the garbage—trash dumps where it seems society has discarded not only the unwanted things, but also the unwanted people.

Back at the home of Renata’s family, when I began to put my thoughts to paper, I felt myself being put back together again. In fact, I felt even stronger than I’d felt in a long time. After getting to know the poorest of the poor, I had a mission. I was determined to let the rest of the world know.

A week later at home, when I finally finished typing up my article, the feeling that coursed through my veins was incredible. My high school graduation didn’t at all compare to what I felt right then.

At that moment, I felt vested with a higher purpose. I realized that no matter my circumstances, I must always try to give a voice to the voiceless. I’d already known that I wanted to be a journalist, but now I realized exactly what being a journalist means.

A journalist always works in the service of others. In service of one’s readership, in service of the masses, in service of the truth.

So, to be a journalist, I must always be a volunteer. I must always search for stories in the least likely places, so that the people who need help will be heard.

Journalism and humanitarian work complement each other almost seamlessly. If journalists hadn’t been at the scene of the Asian tsunami in 2004, Red Cross donations would never have poured in as quickly as they did. Likewise, if there were no aid workers willing to help, news agencies wouldn’t have much reason to send their journalists to obscure parts of the world in the first place.

In the coming years, I hope to continue my work as a volunteer and amateur journalist and find a way to merge the two jobs. Because essentially, they both have the same essential purpose—to serve.

Bonnie Kavoussi, Massachusetts

Category: International, Recruitment · Tags:


One Response to “Journalism and Service”
  1. That Little Notebook says:

    Thank you for posting this.