This piece was published in early 2006 after I travelled with the Irish charity Trocaire to Nicaragua
DOWNTOWN Managua on Valentine’s night is jumping to the sound of salsa music. A five-hour dance marathon is being held on the roof of a shopping mall and thousands of people have gathered to watch.
The night is humid and a full moon hangs in the sky as non-stop latin-style music blasts from huge speakers while TV film crews weave between the dancers.
Around 150 couples started the competition but four hours into it they have been whittled down to 20. Many of the crowd cheer on family and friends taking part and some dance on the sidelines.
Managua is a lively city with chaotic traffic, packed restaurants and bars and a daytime temperature that can reach 36 degrees in the middle of February. The city has a population of around 1.4 million and more than 50 per cent of those are under the age of 15.
The next morning one of those children, 12-year-old Pedro Garcia, is hauling a huge plastic bag through la Chureca dump on the outskirts of the city.
Dust and smoke mingle to create a tangible smog that after just a few minutes you can feel gathering on your skin and in your hair.
Pedro has a scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose and carries a six-foot stick with two metal prongs, called a gancho, which he uses to sift through the rubbish.
There is a constant flow of trucks coming into the dump to tip their cargoes of rubbish, including industrial and medical waste.
A crowd of adults and children gather behind the trucks as they start to tip and then surge forward to start raking though the stinking load.
They are looking for aluminium, copper, plastic, paper and glass which are sorted and separated and sold to buyers who recycle them.
They will also collect foodstuffs from domestic rubbish, including pig and cow bones that can be cooked and eaten at home.
The smells from the dump, which mingle with those of a nearby open sewer, are awful but they are the least offensive of the sensory perceptions.
Once the dumped rubbish has been picked over it is set alight and the acrid smoke burns your eyes.
A wind blows in past the active volcanoes that sit on the opposite shore of the picturesque Lake Managua and stir up the ash and dust on the dump.
La Chureca also sits on the lake’s shores, polluting it with the toxins, which seep into the water. Cows and dogs wander freely over the dump and pick through the waste while vultures circle overhead.
Pedro is just one of an estimated 600 children who work on the dump. Around 1,000 adults also make their living from scavenging through Manaugua’s waste.
Skin diseases and respiratory problems, including bronchitis and asthma, are common among those who work there. There are also instances when adults and children have been injured and even killed by the huge bin lorries.
Many of those who work on the dump live in the neighbouring barrio (neighbourhood) of Acahualinca but others actually live on it.
Twenty-year-old Carla Vanessa Lopez lives with her husband and three children in a rusting shack made from corrugated iron and other materials gathered from the dump.
Inside dust swirls around and the peeling, rusted tin walls creak in the wind while her four-year-old son Jose runs around barefoot and an infant sits on the floor.
She has been living in the sparsely furnished hut for seven years.
Her eldest son, Marvin, is eight - Carla gave birth to him when she was just 12.
Marvin attends school in the mornings but works on the dump in the afternoons with his father.
His mother said she tries to ensure that Marvin goes to school every day but admits that sometimes he misses lessons because he is working on the dump.
Yelda Melebdez Garcia, who is a former child worker on la Chureca, said many children who work there are discriminated against by classmates because of their background.
“I used to be called the garbage girl in school because I worked on the dump,” the 22-year-old said.
“I often suffered from cuts when working there and got skin infections. I still have a constant cough from the smoke and the dust.”
Yelda’s mother was living on the dump when she was pregnant but had moved to Acahualinca by the time she gave birth.
The family had moved from the country to Managua in search of work.
Yelda, who is in Belfast today for the launch of the Trocaire campaign, began working on the dump when she was eight years old and continued working there until she was 14 but is now studying journalism at university.
She said it was the Trocaire-funded organisation Dos Generaciones which helped to change her life and that of her family.
“They came to my family and helped them to see that there were other work alternatives,” she said.
“They invited my parents to come to workshops and helped them to get new skills.”
Yelda said that even though she worked on the dump and sold sweets to passing motorists in the middle of the street, she never missed school.
Although she is now at university she is also working with Dos Generaciones helping other children on the dump and their families to move away from it.
The organisation’s project director in Acahualinca is Roger Toledo. He said it had four main aims: to protect the human rights of children working in the dump, prevent sex abuse, to encourage children and adolescents to participate in its programme and to raise awareness of the work it is carrying out.
At its centre just a few streets away from la Chureca, Dos Generaciones provides training courses in beauty and hairdressing, sewing, carpentry, for electricians, cookery and in printing tee-shirts.
The skills provide an alternative career for the children and teen-agers, as well as their parents, who work on the dump.
“We are working with the whole family because if we can help find alternative employment for the parents they will be persuaded to move their children away from the dump,” he said.
“Our objective is to stop the children from working in the dump and to persuade them to go to school and to create labour opportunities for the parents.”
Roger said that while many organisations had come and gone, Dos Generaciones had been working in the neighbourhood since 1990.
“People working on the dump know who we are and come to us for help but there are new families arriving every day,” he said.
“Last year we provided training for 120 adults and teenagers and 115 finished their training. We have just started a new programme for 120 adults and 120 teenagers.”
Trocaire is just one of a number of charities which provides funding for Dos Generaciones but Roger said those participating were aware of the Irish connection.
“People who participate in the courses know about the funding coming from Ireland and where we get our other money from,” he said.
“Trocaire provides funding for technology used in out training programmes, the building in which we work and helps to pay our teachers.
“The people who come to us do not have to pay anything.