A Fighter in the Waste by Nolan Janssens
Tossing dead scorpions to chickens, slicing through a tangle of thorny scrub with a machete, and shitting in a dirt hole has become our daily routine. The cattle-pen that we had volunteered to build is almost complete. Our goal is to help an orphanage near Chinandega (Nicaragua) become self-sustainable, but we haven’t yet spent time with the kids we are hoping to help.
A couple dozen kids spill out of a rusted bus. On one side of the bus, I notice graffiti of a snake weaving its way through a simplified map of Central America. The letters CIA decorate the scales of the cartoonish snake. The owner of the orphanage explains that President Reagan allowed the CIA to carry out covert plans to help the Contras defeat the Sandinista government—a democratic socialist government. Cocaine. Soviets. Warfare. Issues too complicated for today. Today is about the future. Today is about the kids. Together we snack on Gallo Pinto, and Nacatamal, a corn dough that, here, was always prepared with lard to guarantee sustenance throughout the day. The children look into our eyes with confidence and respect that, from my experience, is rare with many kids in the first world. Their gestures are grand, and their warmth is contagious. Most of them laugh and play. Most show-off the little English they know. Most don’t seem angry at an unjust world.
All except Marcos.
The other kids avoid him, and I notice him stare. His eyes: big, round, and fierce with a pain I will never understand. The owners of the orphanage warned us about Marcos. A boy that came to the orphanage from La Chureca, the largest garbage dump in Central America. When the owners of the orphanage found him, he was suffering from malnutrition and kwashiorkor; his belly looked stretched and empty like a balloon. And now that he’s healthy, he wants to do nothing other than to flex his newfound muscles and wrestle.
I let him use me as a punching bag, and we wrestle like two outcasts that just want to be held. The owner approaches and tells me that Marcos is on his last warning for violent behaviour. One more violent act and he will get kicked out of the orphanage. To distract him from fighting, I let him listen to my iPod mini. Music can heal, I think. I hope.
“No me gusta esto ¿Tienes buena música?” Marcos asks.
“¿Quieres música Española?” I ask.
He skips through the songs until he finds the gangster rap song, "Jefe", by Daddy Yankee and asks me to turn it up. With the earbuds in, he shouts out the chorus, revealing his anger and pain. Then suddenly he hugs me, his anger gone. At that moment, we become friends, and I am transported back to La Chureca, wanting nothing more than this boy never to return there.
Just weeks earlier our introduction to Nicaragua had included a drive past La Chureca on our way to the farm. La Chureca is home to hundreds of families, and half the people here are children. Over a third of the people were piercing the never-ending garbage with homemade spears, looking for recyclables that they could later sell. Others dug through food scraps that the nearby restaurants dumped. The other option for food would be the fish in Lake Managua. A lake that the city uses as domestic and industrial wastewater. And there we sat in our bus, safe and satiated from our morning hotel breakfast.
My full stomach turned with the thick stench of piss, decay, and the chemical odour of shoe glue that filled the bus. There were dozens of vultures, some of which seemed to stare at a young girl that wore a surprisingly clean white button-up shirt and backpack. I scanned the dump, and among the emaciated cattle and dogs that lay around the rotting garbage, I noticed a few women washing clothes on a rippled piece of hard plastic. Even here, amidst some of the most gruelling poverty in the world, Latino pride didn’t die. The shack next to the women had a mural of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the de facto ruler of the country from 1967 to 1979, painted with the teeth of a vampire. Spray-painted words leaked down the mural like stained droplets of blood. Even though I couldn’t decipher the words, I knew they represented the blood Somoza bought and sucked out from his people for cheap to later sell to the United States and Europe.
There we sat, safe, peering out our windows as though La Chureca was a tourist attraction. Most of the people outside ignored us as they focused on their labour. Some adults glanced up at us, their eyes blood red and defeated. Unlike the children, their fighting spirit seemed to be dwindling and trampled on by decades of corruption and greed. All that seemed to be left was their physical drive for survival.
Their eyes looked nothing like Marcos’.
At the time, I wasn’t yet thinking about my friend and his hardened glance that liquified when we sang and danced and wrestled. At the time, I didn’t know that my friend would return here.
Should I have left my iPod and music with Marcos? Could I have taught him to channel his anger? These were questions I didn’t know yet to ask.
Nolan Janssens was born in Santiago, Chile; took his first steps in Antwerp, Belgium, and grew up in British Columbia, Canada. He was born without borders; thinking outside the box is part of his make-up. Nolan often subverts and challenges the status quo with humour, metaphor, and an eclectic mix of narratives.