$5 a week and loving it


Death Dreams and Dancing in Nicaragua
By Penny O'Donnell
ABC Enterprises. 1991. 221 pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Pip Hinman

Like thousands of other Westerners during the 1980s, Penny O'Donnell decided to see for herself what life in Sandinista Nicaragua was like. But for Penny, it was more than that, as Death Dreams and Dancing in Nicaragua attests.

In the 1930s, O'Donnell said, international brigades went to fight the Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1980s, internacionalistas did much the same thing. "They lent their skills and their presence to an impoverished country claiming its right to peace, social justice and independence."

The author's first visit to Nicaragua was in 1985. O'Donnell took leave from her job with ABC Radio National and went to Central America to report on an international peace march which had been organised by European activists. Images of exotic birds, Caribbean dance beats and earnest young people sprang to mind, she recalled, as she set off on a trip which was to change her life.

She found that marching through Central America with a message of peace proved more difficult than first expected. After being hounded out of Costa Rica, the "Switzerland" of Central America, by armed guards, the peace activists sought refugee in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua was a welcome respite from the dangers of traversing countries whose political allegiance was to the United States. O'Donnell's first impressions led her to return a year later for an extended stay teaching radio.

O'Donnell relates two stories: her own as a chela (foreigner) and Nicaragua's. Humour, warmth and a tinge of frustration run through the selection of vignettes which make up the book.

Daily life in an inner Managua barrio included sharing many intimate moments; helping a neighbour's daughter with her abortion was hardly something she could refuse. At work, it was a battle at times to interest pupils whose real passion lay in defeating the contras rather than putting together radio programs.

Why did she do it? This was the question which not only plagued her parents, as O'Donnell admitted at the book launch last month in Melbourne, but was also asked of her by many Nicaraguans.

She replies, "Doing your bit for social change ... was so much better than the chequebook activism available back home.

"If the media labelled us trendy Western liberals then we all knew it was because they needed an angle to explain inexplicable things like leaving Australia for a job that paid $5 a week."

The inspiring thing about Death Dreams and Dancing in Nicaragua is its message that solidarity with people transforming their lives is not only important for them, but can also be the most challenging and fulfilling experience of a lifetime.

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