A Tale of Two Cities: the twinning between Maastricht and El Rama, Nicaragua
June 7, 2007 Leave a Comment
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”*… in short, it was the 1980s. A group of Maastrichters was touring Central America, enjoying the lush beauty of the continent. When they arrived in Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes, little did they suspect that their trip had reached a turning point.
Their steps led them to the small city of Rama, which was suffering at the time from the ravages of civil war. Many farmers from the larger El Rama region had been displaced by the contras (US supported counter-revolutionary guerrillas) only to encounter rampant poverty in the city. Shocked by the situation and wanting to do something, the Dutch travellers returned to Maastricht with a plan. In 1987 they opened the Café Rama during the yearly Carnival festivities, with the purpose of raising money for development projects in the El Rama region. Café Rama was so successful that the group of volunteers decided to set up The Maastricht-Rama Foundation (RaMa), which would later become the main platform for the twinning between the two cities.
The neighbouring German city of Aachen also formed a bond with El Rama back in the 1980s. Samuel Mejia, then mayor of Rama, visited Aachen and Maastricht, thus beginning a personal exchange of official visits that continues to this day. In 1989, two medicine graduates from the University of Maastricht, Koos Jansen and Els Jacobs, worked in Rama as doctors for two years, also helping the Foundation. Those were the early days.
The official twinning
Ger Houben has been the project coordinator of the Maastricht-Rama Foundation (RaMa) for the past five years, but his involvement with the organization really dates back to 1989. A Limburg native, Houben specialised in health education at the University of Maastricht and has been involved for almost 20 years in the field of development. He works at the office of the Foundation, which is located at the Mondiaal Centrum, Cortenstraat 4.
“There are two types of bonds,” Houben explains. “There are official bonds between two cities and also particular bonds between NGO’s in both cities. The bond with El Rama began with the RaMa Foundation but it became official in the mid 1990s, when the municipality started financing some projects and an exchange of official visits started taking place.” The year of 1997 was a turning point in the relationship between the two cities, when Maastricht city officials visited El Rama to assess the status of the various projects.
A bond or twinning (“stedenband” in Dutch) establishes a special relationship between two cities that share something. Sometimes it is their history; sometimes it is a socio-economic goal; sometimes it is the fact that one of the cities has a large immigrant population from the other. According to the RaMa website, Maastricht and El Rama share a common double objective: “Helping the development of El Rama and using Nicaraguan culture and global issues to increase awareness about Rama in Maastricht itself.”
Funding for the RaMa Foundation’s projects doesn’t only come from the municipality of Maastricht. At the national level financial support can be obtained from the Landelijk Beraad Stedenbanden Nederland-Nicaragua (LBSNN), an organisation that oversees all the city bonds between the Netherlands and Nicaragua. The LBSNN, which is directly funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Development, reviews applications for projects and allocates funds. The association of Dutch municipalities (Vereniging Van Nederlandse Gemeenten) is another source for funding through its department for international development.
El Rama: a city and a region
Located in the eastern part of Nicaragua, near the Atlantic coast, the region of El Rama is comparable in size to the province of Limburg. Only one third of the total population of 60.000 lives in the main city of Rama. The rest lives in the countryside, working mainly in the agricultural sector. Due to extremely humid weather conditions the land is hard to work and, during the rain season, floods are common. For this reason many houses are built on two floors.
On the subject of houses, Houben remembers his first visit to Rama in 1991. “You go there with your ‘cultural luggage’ and you are shocked,” he says. “I remember seeing the quality of the houses with no doors and windows and thinking how bad the poverty was. But then I realized that the architecture is conditioned by the hot and humid weather. These houses allow the breeze to flow and cool down the rooms.”
Despite of this, El Rama is a poor region. Its geographical isolation (from the city of Rama one can only travel further by river boat, horse or on foot) makes the area particularly underdeveloped in comparison to the more relatively prosperous western coast, where about 80 per cent of the national population lives.
In El Rama very few public services are available and the local government is constantly struggling with the lack of funding. Not all houses are connected to the electricity grid and blackouts are frequent. Most of the houses are connected to the water system but water is only available for two hours a day. Therefore, most people rely on rainwater. Toilets are often no more than buckets and diseases and bacterial infections are a major health concern.
The history of the region is as interesting as it is turbulent. Originally populated by the native Misquito and Sumo civilizations, El Rama was colonized by the English, as opposed to the Pacific coast of the country, where the Spanish ruled. During the civil war that unfolded in the 1980s, El Rama suffered the ravages brought upon by the contending factions. The rivers Escondido, Siquai and Rama made the region a perfect strategic location. El Rama offered secure shelter due to its remoteness yet afforded combatants a fast retreat route to the South Atlantic.
Politically, El Rama is as polarized as the rest of the country. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Liberal Alliance (AL) are the two fierce opponents in the political arena. In El Rama, the liberals came to power in 1996 and were re-elected in 2000.
Projects and proyectos
Francisco Javier Balmaceda Flores is the coordinator of the twining scheme in El Rama. Balmaceda was born in Acoyapa Chontales in the south-western part of the country, but moved to Rama in 1980, at the age of 13. After studying at the universities of Managua and Juigalpa, Balmaceda started teaching mathematics at the Instituto Berardo de Cirauqui in El Rama, which has a bond with the Bonnefanten highschool in Maastricht. (In May 2002, Dutch students visited their sister school in Nicaragua where, under the guidance of a local artist, they painted a mural celebrating the twining of the two cities).
After teaching at the Instituto, Balmaceda started working for the Municipality of Rama. In 2000 he became the Director of Projects of El Rama, directly supervising many of the projects initiated through the twinning.
“In my opinion, one of the projects with greater impact on the population has been La Biblioteca Pública,” says Balmaceda, referring to first public library of El Rama which opened its doors in 1998. Located on the first floor of the Casa de la Cultura, the library not only offers books and a reading space to its users but also organizes different activities in conjunction with the local radio to promote reading among the population.
The project began in 1995 in collaboration with Maastricht’s city library, who sent one of its staff members, Henry Frantzen, to Rama. Frantzen’s task was to help local volunteers and staff of the future library with the development of the book collection. His efforts were part of the larger support offered by Maastricht, which included financial support for the building of the facility.
In February 1999, Lizette and Mayella, the two librarians from El Rama, returned the visit. They joined the Maastricht’s city library to gain insights on the management of the library here and determine which approaches could be applied back in Rama. In cooperation with the staff they developed a system for book lending and learned more about the different educational programs between the library and the schools of Maastricht.
In fact, one of the main areas of focus for the RaMa Foundation is the improvement of education in Rama. Under the framework established by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG), RaMA seeks to work towards the fulfilment of MDG number 2: “Achieve universal primary education by 2015.”
With this goal in mind, the RaMa Foundation in 1999 launched the “Children at Risk” project. “Children at Risk” gives the opportunity to more than 300 children whose families’ economic circumstances force them to work, to attend school. The program presents a holistic approach that does not only deal with the issue of education but seeks to tackle the surrounding socio-economic problems in the lives of these children.
Teachers encounter a whole array of problems that affect the children, from sexual aggressions and physical abuse to health problems. “Our idea,” says Houben, “was to try to implement something similar to the Dutch School Help Service where doctors, social workers and counsellors are also involved in the development of the child.” Several local organizations and NGOs in El Rama, such as Mi Familia, Ascora and Policia Nacional, have partnered in this initiative.
RaMa hopes that the Nicaraguan government will take ownership of the project, thus making it sustainable. However, the political polarization of the country makes things harder than what they seem. The Foundation strives for neutrality and hopes to stimulate the two parties to work together on development projects. Nevertheless the lack of coordination between some institutions and authorities in Rama, as Balmaceda points out, is one of the constant challenges the Foundation has to face.
Una Holandesa in Rama
One of the most interesting components of the bond are the visits of young Dutch volunteers to Rama. Last year, Annemieke van Dijk was one of the participants in the exchange that took place in July and August. Annemieke was born in Leeuwarden, but graduated from a Masters program on Health Sciences at the University of Maastricht in 2005.
Annemieke first learned about the possibility of volunteering in Rama when she saw a poster at the University about the “Xplore project”. Sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Xplore project stimulates young people to share cultural differences and experience life in developing countries by subsidizing exchanges, voluntary work and internships.
“I was already interested in development co-operation, North-South relations and the culture of Latin American countries,” says Annemieke, “but I wanted to experience living in a different country, talking with people, hearing stories about how they feel, how they struggle in one of the poorest countries.” In order to prepare herself for the challenge, Annemieke joined nine other young participants in a series of events and lectures that took place in Maastricht between January and June 2006.
Participants learned about the aims of RaMa and the Xplore project; facts about Nicaragua and the Dutch history of development co-operation with Nicaragua. They also discussed cultural differences and took some Spanish lessons. Simultaneously, they organised fund raising activities, such as selling Nicaraguan art and postcards on Queen’s Day, organising a sponsor dinner, and taking part in a radio programme.
On July 14th, the Dutch volunteers arrived in Managua. That same evening Annemieke had her first experience with the socio-economic realities of the country when her washed clothes were stolen at the hotel. “I was surprised by the fact that they only stole my pants, not something more valuable like jewellery, money or my passport.”
Four days later Annemieke and her companions took the seven hour van trip across the green fields and sparkling lagoons of Nicaragua to the city of Rama. They were welcomed by a delegation headed by the mayor of Rama, who said “it was an honour to have us there and that he hoped for the continuing progress of the relationship between Rama and Maastricht.”
After the welcome reception the participants met their host families and were brought to their new homes. Here Annemieke discovered that the toilet consisted of a hole in the ground with a roof and a curtain. She was able to put her basic Spanish into practise with the family. The next day she began her internship with Ascora, an NGO focusing on health promotion and increasing access to healthcare in Rama, with an emphasis on sexual education.
Annemieke visited the city hospital and a healthcare centre (Centro de Salud), where nurses gave advice and help to pregnant girls and women. “Sometimes 12 year old girls have a baby and about 45 per cent of all 19 years old girls are pregnant,” says Annemieke. For her, the hardest part of her internship was to hear about domestic violence and learn that many young men abandon their girlfriends when they are pregnant.
By the time that Annemieke was used to “Nica time” (“time is more relaxed there… people make appointments and show up 1, 2, 3 hours later”) it was time to return to the Netherlands. Back in Maastricht Annemieke has been working on informing people and raising awareness about development activities in El Rama.
Between September 2006 and April 2007 she participated in a TV program, gave presentations on the healthcare system in Nicaragua at the Faculty of Health Sciences, organized a photo exhibit about her work at the city library and designed lessons for first year students at the Bonnefanten highschool.
Changing Maastricht through the twinning
For the city of Rama, stresses Javier Balmaceda, the bond with Maastricht is a really positive initiative, and local people are very thankful for this relationship. But how do the inhabitants of Maastricht experience and see the bond?
Ger Houben points out that one of the most important goals of the RaMa Foundation is to make Dutch people understand that many of the problems in developing countries are caused by our way of life here, in the developed world. We must realize that our lifestyles, our choices when buying food or clothes affect the economies and lives of people who are thousands of kilometres away. It is important to change here too.
In this respect RaMa works together with the Maastricht Platform for the Millenium Development Goals. Together they organize activities that address MDG8 (“Develop a global partnership for development”), and issues of fair trade or energy consumption. As Houben says, “Rama is not the goal, but a medium to reach our goal: to change the mentality here.”
By Hector P. Alvarez
Hector Pascual Alvarez, 21, is a Spanish student enrolled at Macalester College in Minnesota (US) where he is majoring in International Studies and Theatre Arts. He is spending the first semester of 2007 at Maastricht University as part of a study abroad programme.
* “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” – Opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
Further information: please visit the RaMa website