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Nicaraguan girls learning to read. photos by Jane Mirandette.Nicaraguan girls learning to read. photos by Jane Mirandette.Nicaragua: Literacy Voluntourism in San Juan del Sur

The “#328th awesome thing in the world,” according to the book, One Thousand Awesome Things, is to “feel our shared histories softly swirl together through old books and stamped checkout cards as you smile and soak up all the little library smells.”

Since 2001, the shared histories of the human heart have combined with the gentle, salt winds of coastal Nicaragua, as they whisper through the halls of Jane Mirandette’s Biblioteca Móvil.

A shared history

In Innocents Abroad Mark Twain describes his trip to Nicaragua and across the overland interoceanic trade route. The town had a short boom-time when it became the premier overland link before the Panamerican Railroad was laid and the Panama Canal was forged. Twain approaches the coast at the shoreline of San Juan del Sur and describes it as “A few tumble-down frame shanties — they call them hotels — nestling among green verdure and overshadowed by picturesque little hills.”

I imagine Twain would be very proud to know that below the “picturesque little hills,” is a multilingual library (by no means “shanty”). And that in that library Innocents Abroad and his other books are now tucked proudly in the T-section. The fully-functional biblioteca—along with 37 other seed projects—is now the navel of volunteer tourism for literacy in Central America.

Flashback to the 1990s

San Juan del Sur is a quiet fishing village with a few hotels and hostels. Semi-tropical and beautiful, but impoverished and—like the entire country—weak and tired from decades of poor government and turbulent revolution. Not much different than Twain’s era. There is a trickle of tourists, international Argonauts, surfers—all willing to go slightly off the gringo trail. Pleased by the good vibes and resilient people, the opulent Craft time in the Biblioteca.Craft time in the Biblioteca.Pelican Eyes hotel opens—tourist companies, boutiques, international restaurants follow.

Fast forward to 2000. Mirandette’s bed & breakfast, Villa Isabella, opens. The library opens the patio of Villa Isabella in November, 2000. Mirandette and staff begin lending books in November, and be February 2001, all the books had been loaned to local kids. It takes one-and-a-half years to go mobile. “The key,” says Mirandette, is “the lending process. Nobody in Central America does that.”

The Hester J. Hodgdon’s Libraries for All Program, a 501C3 Charitable Foundation from Colorado, supports of this project and several others and actively solicits funding. Mirandette wins a grant to open transform her small project into cooperative non-profit.

The Biblioteca in 2011

Since, 45 similar loaning projects have developed using the model set by Móvil.

The project not only delivers the words, but offers seminars for the librarians. “We have provided workshops,” adds Mirandette, “in Managua for Nicaraguan librarians.” The group maintains a productive relationship with the Library Association of Nicaragua (ANIBIPA).

Volunteers can join us for workshops, create classes in social media, crafts, book repair. Bookworm voluntourists may also take site visits to many of the 45 libraries lending books all around Nicaragua.

The University of Maryland offers a study abroad program for students interested in library studies. Students are joined by Dr. Ann Weeks, UMD librarian, who work with Mirandette and mentor the students, as the encounter the multicultural, multilingual, Panamerican crux of shared history, through learning and serving. (More information on the UMD library project is available on their blog.)

Volunteers building latrines in the village.Volunteers building latrines in the village.

Mirandette says “Volunteers are welcome any time and some come for a day to play on the mobile program between surf trips.” There is currently a gal in her sixth month of volutouring. Some stay for shorter times. All aspiring voluntourists are welcome, as long as their intentions are to help, learn, and engage with the locals in the spirit of shared humanity.

“We are one of the few volunteer programs that do not charge a fee for people to come,” says Mirandette proudly—with full assurance, I can tell, that what she knows what she does is far better than the #328th most awesome thing. I’d agree.

Find our more about the library project at their website.

Mark Robertson lives and writes from Central America.

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Tags: storySection: Helps
Location: Central America, Nicaragua
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