Savannah Weeks
Savannah Weeks
Nicaragua 2016
I will be traveling to Managua, Nicaragua to work with Manna Project International. For two months, I will teach English and nutrition education and help improve the health of those living in Managua through diet and exercise. I plan to work with girls and women, who are most at risk. Read More About Savannah →

Final Week

I can’t believe I only have a handful of days left in Nicaragua. These past two months have been a blur of new friends, a new language, and incredible experiences. Today I had my last exercise class with the women of Cedro Galan. Tomorrow is my last English class. It’s hard to believe it’s all coming to an end.

I have fallen in love with Nicaragua, this beautiful country brimming with culture, history, and vivacity. This is a country where someone you barely know will welcome you into their home. A country where revolutionary slogans are scrawled on concrete throughout the cities. Where at any moment the sky could crack open and wash away the dust covering you from walking on dirt roads. I have seen lava churning in the gaping mouth of a volcano, a strawberry moon as bright as a spotlight in the sky, moths the size of birds, and the Pacific crashing into the sandy Nicaraguan coast.

During my two months here I witnessed the slow shift from dry to rainy season. Grasses, vines, and all green things stealthily cloaked the earth. It happened slowly, but it seemed as if one day I woke up in a suddenly verdant jungle. Nicaragua has a way of quietly changing, quietly changing you. It wasn’t until a community meeting last night that I realized just how far my Spanish has come. As I begin to say goodbye, I’m realizing how much I’ll miss the people I’ve met here. I’m sad to go, but these memories will stay with me forever. It’s not really goodbye, just until next time.


Nutrition in a Food Desert

This past week we had milk day for the kids in Manna’s Child Sponsorship program. Once a month, the children come to the clinic in Villa Guadalupe and have their height and weight checked and receive a can of milk, a bag of food, and a bottle of liquid vitamins. Through this program the children also receive hemoglobin testing, regular deparasiting, and consultations with a nutritionist. Even with these resources, many children still struggle nutritionally.

The nearest grocery store to Villa Guadalupe is around 2-3 kilometers away and there are only a handful of residents that own cars. Most people get their groceries from carts that come through the neighborhood selling a variety of foods. There are many small ventas run out of homes that sell processed snack foods and sodas. Residents usually eat meat about once a week. White rice and beans are the main staple of their diet.

I was was able to shadow the nutritionist at the Villa Guadalupe clinic this past week, which was an incredible experience. I sat in while she talked with moms of young children and pregnant women about their diets and cooking methods. Although the conversations were sometimes hard for me to follow, I understood that she was making recommendations for foods to include in the diet and food safety practices. The majority of children are anemic, so protein was a big topic as well. Rice and beans together make a complete protein, but the white rice that is readily available is stripped of many nutrients such as iron and magnesium, which are incredibly important for someone with anemia. I have never seen brown rice, which includes the nutritious bran and germ, in Nicaragua. The easiest way to combat anemia is to eat more red meat, but most residents in Villa Guadalupe cannot afford to do so. So the job of the nutritionist is doubly hard.

How do you help someone improve their nutritional status if they can’t afford to eat the foods that will make them better? This is a question I also struggled with in the States. I spent many hours working with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee during my time in college, helping sort food donations that would be distributed all over the state. The most commonly donated foods were processed snacks and cereals. The people who needed nutritious foods the most were only able to get foods of low nutritive quality. But calories are calories, and something is better than nothing.

The difference, of course, is that here in Villa Guadalupe there is no food bank. The food assistance comes from NGOs like Manna Project that rely on overseas sponsors. People make do with what they can get in their communities, and are largely a products of their environment. Problems like widespread anemia, which causes weakness and fatigue, are difficult to alleviate in a community like Villa Guadalupe that has limited access to high quality proteins like red meat. Environment is a huge influence in health, so long term change will probably have to start outside of the home and work its way in.


With Session 1 interns leaving and Session 2 interns arriving earlier this week, things have been pretty busy here at the Manna house. Here’s what’s been going on:

  • On Saturday we said goodbye to the Session 1 interns. We were sad to see them go, but so many incredible memories remain.
  • On Sunday the Session 2 interns arrived. Everyone has settled in well and gotten to know each other. This group has a number of medical students with special projects so there will be a big focus on health this month.
  • Rainy season has officialy begun, bringing downpours and power outages. Many programs have been cancelled recently because the rain floods the dirt road that leads to our main meeting space. Power outages have also caused problems, although we don’t cancel programs because of them. I was amazed last week when our English 3 class took their test in the dark, using only flashlights. Part of living in Nicaragua is learning to adjust on the fly.
  • This past week I led a yoga class in Spanish for the women’s exercise class that takes place twice a week. Since it was held in an open air building, I joked that is was a natural hot yoga class. It was a challenge but I was so glad I did it.
  • Last night there was a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in norther Nicaragua, close to the Honduran border. Some of the PDs in the house felt the earthquake happen and heard reports confirming what had happened soon after. Everyone here is fine and as far as I know there was no damage in Managua.

That’s all for this week!


Villa Guadalupe

A street of Villa Guadalupe

A street of Villa Guadalupe

One of the communities Manna Project works closely with is Villa Guadalupe, a fairly new neighborhood in northwest Managua. Before Villa Guadalupe was the barrio it is today, it was known as La Chureca, the largest open air landfill in Central America. The dump was closed by the Nicaraguan government, and the thousand or so people that lived there were relocated to Villa Guadalupe, along with another nearly 4,000 people displaced by floods in 2010. Although La Chureca is officially closed, many people still work illegally in the dump, mainly because they have no other option. Those who live in Villa Guadalupe face unemployment, food insecurity, and chronic malnutrition.

As an intern with Manna Project, I am in Villa Guadalupe a few days every week, building relationships with those in the community. Last week I met a woman named Ingrid and her four year old daughter, Stephanie, who is in Manna’s Child Sponsorship program. At first we talked on her doorstep and watched Stephanie gleefully play with the coloring pages we’d brought her. Ingrid was all smiles and warmth. After a few minutes, she invited us to walk through her house, into the back garden area. In the privacy of the backyard, she began to tell us about Stephanie’s severe malnutrition and her son’s headaches and vomiting. She had no money to buy nutritious foods or medicine for her twelve children. She began to cry as she asked us for help getting a job.

When we left, we discussed our options. We told Ingrid to take her son to the clinic Manna works with in Villa Guadalupe, and that we would talk with others to see what could be done. Ingrid’s problems are not uncommon in Villa Guadalupe. Over 80% of the residents who had their blood tested were anemic, and many children have trouble growing at healthy rates. Once a month Manna gives bags of beans and cartons of milk to the children in the Child Sponsorship program, which helps, but doesn’t solve the chronic malnutrition problem. One of the things I’m learning while working with Manna is that development is a long, slow process. We could bring Ingrid some food next week, but what about the week after, and the week after that? She wasn’t asking for a handout, she was asking for help to help herself.

It was so painful to walk away from Ingrid’s house knowing that there was nothing we could do right then and there to help her and that it would take thoughtful planning to help her get out of poverty. The reality of working with a nonprofit is often heartbreaking and hard, as I’m learning every day. Manna Project is doing good work in Villa Guadalupe with the Child Sponsorship program and jewelry cooperative, but results take a long time to see. I have learned so many things in my first month in Nicaragua, the biggest being patience.

The Hardest Thing About Living in Nicaragua

Working for a nonprofit in a developing country definitely isn’t glamorous. Budgets are tight, living spaces are crowded, and the work is sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes tedious. I knew when I traveled to Nicaragua that I would be working in very impoverished communities as well as traveling throughout the country. I knew that as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American, I’d stick out a bit. What I wasn’t prepared for was the nearly daily, unabashed harassment from men.

Nearly every time we, the female interns and program directors alike, walk down a street, we experience wolf whistles, shouts of “chela!” “hey baby!” and other things I won’t repeat. In Granada, I caught a man taking rudely angled photos of female interns. When I said something to him he laughed at me. Once, during a girl’s health class on anatomy, two grinning men leered in the window.

On paper, Nicaragua is a progressive country with a strong feminist movement. Nicaraguan law dictates that half of all party and government positions must be filled by women. The chief of police is a woman and the First Lady has made impassioned speeches about female empowerment. Despite this, machismo culture is strong. A study published in 2000 in Social Science and Medicine investigated violence against women in León. The researchers found that 52% of married women had experienced domestic violence. Amnesty International reported  that between 1998 and 2008, there were over 14,000 cases of rape. Considering that most rapes go unreported, that number is staggering. A Nicaraguan nursery rhyme demonstrates the normalcy of violence against women: “Chico Perico mató a su mujer/La hizo pedazos y la puso a vender/Y nadia la quiso porque era mujer!” (Chico Perico killed his wife/He chopped her into pieces and made her for sale/But no one wanted her because she was a woman!)

I wanted to focus my time in Nicaragua on women because of attitudes such as these. I am grateful for the progress we have made towards gender equality in America and improved treatment of women, but I am also aware that many countries still have serious inequity. One of the ways Manna Project helps women is by employing them in their jewelry cooperative, called Camino Nuevo. Created four years ago in Villa Guadaloupe, Camino Nuevo gave the women in the community steady, fair work. This past Thursday the cooperative was invited to attend the First Congress of Women Leaders in Nicaragua, along with other enterprises that empower women. The event was attended by over 400 women, and promoted female leadership and empowerment as a national priority.

The work that Camino Nuevo is doing and events like the First Congress of Women Leaders in Nicaragua can change women’s lives. The money they earn from their work can help them leave abusive marriages and the confidence and sense of purpose gained through meaningful work is an important part of empowerment.  It won’t solve the problem of machismo in Nicaragua, but I have seen the impact it has made on women in Villa Guadaloupe first hand and it gives me hope.

If you’re interested in learning more about Camino Nuevo, or in making purchases, please visit

Settling In

Now that I’ve been in Nicaragua for over a week I’m beginning to get comfortable. The heat doesn’t bother me as much and I’m amazed at how far my Spanish has come since I got here. Even in just this first week I’ve been presented with numerous opportunities to step outside of my comfort zone and do things that I’ve never done before. I learned how to take someone’s blood pressure, navigate online medical charts, and converse with people in the community. (Side note: I’m sure my mom is shocked reading this. After I passed out in 7th grade biology, we never thought I’d do anything even remotely medical. Now here I am working in a clinic in Nicaragua. Who knew?)

The greatest opportunity I’ve had here has been getting to know the people in the community. I still have many names to learn and people to meet, but the Nicaraguans I have met so far have been beyond friendly and kind. English class is the time I learn the most about them. The classes are run by Manna Project and are open to anyone who wants to learn. As a result, the class is a mix of ages and backgrounds. English is a skill that will help them get hired, find a better job, and improve their economic status. It is truly amazing to see how hard they work and to have conversations with them entirely in English. As a native English speaker, I’ve often taken for granted just how useful a skill speaking English can be. For the people in our community, it can change their lives. It’s really amazing to be able to give back with something that’s so natural to me.

This past weekend we had the chance to go to Granada, an old colonial city about an hour from Managua. Managua is the capital of Nicaragua, but many of its historical sites were severely damaged in the devastating 1972 earthquake. Because of this, Granada and León are the cultural capitals of the country with many more intact historical landmarks.

Granada is a city unlike any I’ve ever seen. A maze of squat, red roofed buildings, the tallest structures are the churches built in the 15 and 1600s. On the street you’re as much at risk of being run over by someone on a motor bike as a horse drawn carriage. When it was nearing sunset, we climbed the dizzying spiral staircase of Iglesia La Merced to see the view from the top of the bell tower. Granada stretched out below us, with Volcán Mombacho looming in the distance.

The view from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced.

The view from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced.

On Sunday we went to Laguna de Apoyo, a picturesque lagoon resting in the volcanic crater left by the extinct Volcán Apoyo. The lagoon has several species of fish found nowhere else in the world, and with a depth of 200 meters, is the lowest point in Central America. It was a beautiful way to escape the heat for a few hours and a perfect end to our week.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Arrival in Managua

After a full day of travel, I arrived in Managua late Saturday night. With so many weeks of anticipation and preparation, it doesn’t yet feel real that I’m finally here. My first impression is that Managua seems to be a city that plays by its own rules.  On the way back from the airport I noticed that we rolled through every red light. The program director explained that someone told him red lights become four way stops after 10pm. He wasn’t sure if it was actually legal, but everyone did it. Do as the locals do, I suppose.

Our first full day was spent getting settled and situated. After a few orientation presentations I felt slightly overwhelmed. We learned the basics of getting around Managua and how to use the public bus system. I vaguely comprehended the colorful tangle of lines that was the bus route map. Even though they’re kind and helpful, we learned not to rely on directions from locals. Most roads in Nicaragua are unmarked and directions usually are some form of “Go three and half blocks us, then east when you see the pile of rocks...” Needless to say, I’ll be double checking all of my routes before I go anywhere.

People here are friendly and warm. On Sunday we had lunch at Chepita’s house. She kissed each of us when we arrived and served us the most delicious food. She’s closely involved with Manna Project and has her own sewing business with women in the community. We met her husband and children (and many animals) as well. It was wonderful to meet a local family and get a glimpse into their day to day life. One of the great things about Manna Project is their emphasis on building relationships within the community. Throughout my time here, I’m looking forward to getting to know the people and making many new friends.

The view this morning from the roof.

The view this morning from the roof.

Until next week, adios!

This Briefly Becomes a Food Blog

So, I figured since I’m going to Nicaragua to work in nutrition related programs I should learn a little bit about the traditional food that’s served there. A good friend helped me out by giving me Nicaraguan Cooking: My Grandmother’s Recipes by Trudy Espinoza-Abrams. After perusing the recipes, I found two that seemed relatively simple to make and didn’t require hard to find things like iguana or turtle meat. The first is indio viejo (the old Indian), which is a soupy beef dish chock full of vegetables and flavors. The second is atolillo, a spiced vanilla custard that reminded me of Christmas.

Here’s what I learned during my cooking adventure:

  • Culantro is not the same thing as cilantro. Culantro (eryngium foetidum) is related to cilantro (coriandrum sativum) and is often described as a stronger version of cilantro. It is native to South America but is cultivated all over the world.
  • Achiote is a spice commonly used in South and Central American cooking. It is made from ground annatto seeds and gives food a vibrant yellow color. It’s also used commercially to color things such as butter, cosmetics, and some cheeses. I couldn’t find straight achiote paste at Kroger, so I used a spice blend of achiote and culantro.
  • Corn is a staple of the Nicaraguan diet and is in every kind of meal, from main dishes, to drinks and desserts.
  • While alligator meat can be used in place of turtle, there is no substitute for iguana.
  • Lastly, Nicaraguan food is delicious.

Making indio viejo with my trusty assistant.

You can find an indio viejo recipe similar to the one I used here, and an atolillo recipe here.


The finished product for the atoliilo.

As they say, barriga llena, corazòn contento.

Getting Ready

In less than two weeks I will be a Belmont graduate and on a flight to Managua, Nicaragua. With my departure date so soon, nerves and excitement have set in. I know that no amount of Spanish study or travel book reading can prepare me for the reality of living abroad. Until I arrive I won’t truly know what I’m in for. What I do know is that I am beyond honored to be working with an organization like Manna Project International and can’t wait to meet the people of Managua.


I am very fortunate to be a part of a family that loves traveling and tries to do it as often as possible. A friend gave me the map above, and after I had marked through all of the countries I had visited I realized just how huge the world is. I have traveled to a lot of places, but I’ve hardly scratched off any amount of the gold foil. There is such a beautiful amount of diversity in the world and a million different ways of life. I am hoping that my time in Nicaragua will open my eyes to a new culture and lifestyle. Part of what I enjoy so much about traveling is being outside of my comfort zone. I know that Nicaragua will challenge me with language, cultural differences, and new experiences. I hope that as I grow and learn, I can use my knowledge to make a difference in Managua and eventually here at home.