Mosquito Trails: Ecology, Health, and the Politics of Entanglement / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Ecology, Health, and the Politics of Entanglement
By Alex M. Nading
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
City of Emergencies
THE TOYOTA TRUCK came to a stop at the end of a rutted, narrow dirt lane, where the section of Ciudad Sandino called Mostatepe, or zona 13, met a long, paved stretch of highway. The truck's driver, don Gilberto, checked his rearview mirrors and whistled out the window, partly in the direction of the group of women awaiting a bicycle taxi to carry them to the nearby bus stop, and partly in that of the two recolectores (collectors) who were trailing the truck on foot, picking up refuse stuffed into old fifty-pound rice sacks from the houses we passed. The recolectores, clad in oversized yellow jumpsuits and frayed cloth gloves, hurled the last pair of rice sacks up to a third man, who was perched in the truck's bed. The third man dumped the leaves, food waste, and other garbage into the brimming hold and tossed the rice sacks down to the ground. At the sound of don Gilberto's whistle, the two recolectores latched themselves onto the handles on each side of the already-moving truck.
As we sped down the smooth highway toward the dump, don Gilberto began telling me about local history. It had just been a few days since I began riding along with the garbage team, hoping to learn something about the connection between dengue, mosquitoes, waste, and the city's geography. Don Gilberto, like most of the drivers I would meet, seemed to like having someone to talk with in the cab of the truck, and he took it upon himself in those early days to teach me something about the city. On that day, as we bounced along, with leaves and mango skins flying into the wind, he told me that to understand Ciudad Sandino was to understand that it was a "city of emergencies."
Like most residents, don Gilberto could recall two key moments in Ciudad Sandino's history. The first was November 5, 1970, the day a flood destroyed homes in the slums (asentamientos) of La Tejera, Miralagos, Quinta Niña, and Acagualinca in north and east Managua. For most Nicaraguans, that flood was probably unremarkable. Floods are yearly occurrences in the capital, and its asentamientos are always the most vulnerable areas. But that particular flood, which left several families homeless, prompted the Nicaraguan Organismo Permanente de Emergencia Nacional (Permanent National Emergency Agency) to create a new settlement just north of town, near a small village called Bello Amanecer. The Organismo Permanente de Emergencia Nacional settlement, known by the acronym OPEN, formed the seed of what would eventually become Ciudad Sandino.
While the 1970 flood is alive in the memory of just a handful of families in present-day Ciudad Sandino, the second key moment remains a historical touchstone for all Nicaraguans. On December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake destroyed 90 percent of Managua. After the earthquake, which left tens of thousands of people without shelter or livelihoods, the OPEN became home to a new influx of migrants.
Catastrophe is at the center of Nicaragua's national narrative. In 2008, my friend doña Eugenia helped host a group of American college students who had come to Ciudad Sandino to volunteer on an "alternative spring break" trip. As part of their orientation, she asked a professor from the Universidad Centroamericana to teach them a bit about Nicaragua's history. He began his lesson on what Nicaraguans call the "land of lakes and volcanoes" (la tierra de lagos y volcanes) with the story of another tropical storm. In 1502, after they had spent several days battling a hurricane, Christopher Columbus and a crew of sailors landed in the area that is now Nicaragua's North Atlantic Autonomous Region. The storm must have been abnormally strong, given that they named the spot at which they finally found refuge Cabo Gracias a Dios (literally, Cape Thank God).
The 1502 hurricane might be written off as force majeure. The inclusion of Nicaragua in a colonial system, though socially catastrophic, was of course intentional. Over the five centuries since that landing, Nicaragua has remained a target for international interlopers. The professor went on to tell the students the story of William Walker, the American white supremacist and filibuster who briefly ruled the country in the mid-1800s. In 1856 Walker overran Nicaragua with a private army and installed himself as dictator, legalizing slavery, among other things. He was ousted after less than two years, but violent foreign incursions did not cease. The professor told the students about the U.S. and British fruit companies that transformed much of the Atlantic region into plantations in the twentieth century, the U.S. Marines that supported agricultural elites in the 1930s, the CIA-backed contra army that fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s, and the transnational corporations, including Unilever, Cargill, Wal-Mart, and Texaco, which now have warehouses, plantations, and refineries in the country. The professor's history was peppered with references to hydrological and geological instability, as well as human-induced land degradation and pollution.
Ciudad Sandino is a young city, just forty-five years old at the time of this writing. Its evolution from a loose collection of refugee houses to a city of nearly 150,000 people happened within the living memory of many of its residents. The history of Ciudad Sandino is, quite literally, a history of the building of streets, as well as of pipes, water pumps, and power lines. It is the story of how its inhabitants forged attachments to one another, linking public spaces and activities to intimate ones. Infrastructures are "demanding environments." As technologies and techniques of entanglement, infrastructures, like public health systems, steer people into certain ways of behaving and knowing the world. They have the potential to create social solidarity by establishing formal lines of affiliation between otherwise isolated houses, families, and social groups. But in Nicaragua, as elsewhere, neither infrastructures nor public health systems come into being in a vacuum. Rather, people build them on top of already-existing technologies and techniques of entanglement. Historian Julie Livingston, examining how new medical technologies changed social life in periurban Gaborone, Botswana, found that urban Botswana had a long-standing sense of the moral tension between concern for individual survival and concern for collective well-being. What it meant for people in Gaborone to care at once for themselves and for one another—their sense of public health—emerged amid that moral tension. The meaning of care changed with the adoption of new technologies of attachment.
The story of Ciudad Sandino's public health, its infrastructure, and of the changing role of community members in it—particularly that of community health workers called brigadistas—is similar. It is the story of a landscape-as-palimpsest: of the (partial) erasure of old technologies of entanglement by political and ecological catastrophe, followed by the (partial) installation of new ones. Attention to the lived experience of urban construction and destruction shows how public health and infrastructure, for all their potential to create solidarity, have an equal potential to promote isolation and fracture. The building and replacement of streets, sewers, pipes, and electrical grids has frequently been disrupted by nonhuman forces of geology, weather, and—most relevant for Ciudad Sandino's recent history and for this book—circulating pathogens. As Ciudad Sandino's physical infrastructure changed—from its founding, to the earthquake, to the Sandinista revolution, and into the era of dengue epidemics—so too did residents' ways of thinking about health. New systems of public health were built alongside—and sometimes within—the relics of old ones, and in the process, new forms of care and concern became entangled with old ones. The story of Ciudad Sandino is the story of people's struggles to maintain a sense of collective concern in the face of forces that pushed them toward self-preservation. Understanding those struggles is essential for understanding Nicaraguan experiences with dengue.
As don Gilberto and I discussed the history of emergency and infrastructure, I let myself stretch a bit. After two hours plodding along the jarring, unpredictable roads of Mostatepe, a few minutes on a paved highway felt luxurious. Ciudad Sandino contains all kinds of streets. Most are made of dirt, occasionally graded but mostly taking shape in response to the less regimented tracings of footfalls and car tires. A few of the city's central arteries are paved in asphalt, which permits a rapid (and some say dangerous) flow of buses and taxicabs, decorated with vivid decals that range from graphic depictions of the Passion of the Christ to copies of the Rolling Stones' famous tongue-wagging logo. The houses that line the paved streets that run along the road between the plaza and the market echo with the sounds of revving engines and novelty car horns, interrupted by the whistles and shouts of the bus touts, slender young men in baggy jeans who swing out the doors of re-purposed American school buses. Leaping into the crowd of waiting passengers, they list the route's upcoming stops in staccato Spanish while they prod people, baggage, and the occasional animal into the child-size seats and aisles: "El dos-diez; Velez Pais; Siete Sur; Zumen; Julio Martinez, La UCA; Metrocentro! Managua, Managua, Managua!"
Most other streets are made of "Somoza stones." In 2007, when Daniel Ortega and the FSLN returned to power after a decade and a half in opposition, they sought to make good on promises to undo a period of austerity and inattention to urban planning. The FSLN initiated numerous infrastructure campaigns, and Ciudad Sandino received funding to improve some of its roadways. In an initiative Ortega called Calles Para el Pueblo (Streets for the People), dirt and gravel thoroughfares in the city began to be covered with stones. Anyone who has traveled in Nicaragua probably remembers these stones, hexagonal in shape, laid together in a patchwork down the street. Though preferable to mud and gravel, they are still hell on the shock absorbers of cars and buses. These stones are not generally sealed with cement. This makes them cheaper to install than asphalt or concrete pavement. As my neighbors explained to me, stone streets also require more labor to build, which means that such projects can employ more people.
The stones have symbolic importance for Nicaraguans as well. For many, they are signifiers of poverty. My neighbors knew that even the backstreets in wealthier parts of Managua had "real" pavement, made of concrete or asphalt. Hexagonal stones were an old technology, relegated to poor neighborhoods. But the stones were also reminders of a history of urban resistance to political repression. In the 1970s, the only company that made them was owned by the family of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the dictator who ruled the country from 1967 to 1979. Stones were the primary material used in the reconstruction of Managua's streets after the 1972 earthquake, and the cement company profited significantly from the reconstruction. Partly because of numerous such self-serving schemes on the part of Somoza, the earthquake and its aftermath became catalyzing events in the acceleration of the popular revolution that overthrew the dictator. During the 1970s, the Sandinistas consolidated their base in poor urban neighborhoods like the OPEN, where the government's laconic and corrupt disaster response became a common point of discontent. Over these new streets, Somoza's personal army, the Nicaraguan National Guard, carried out house-to-house raids in search of Sandinista insurgents. During the peak of revolutionary violence, insurgents would pull the stones off of the streets to build barricades to prevent the Guard from entering their barrios. In the first years of the new century, people in Ciudad Sandino still pulled them off the streets, to repair the pipes below or to prop up broken-down cars.
In many ways, the Somoza stones turned the city into a recognizable political unit, in which the space of public, productive life—the polis of streets and plazas—was clearly distinguished from that of private, reproductive life—the oikos of households and patios. But floods and earthquakes—not to mention dengue epidemics—confused this neat dichotomy. People felt the impact of environmental disturbances in the oikos as much as in the polis. For people in Ciudad Sandino, infrastructure meant attachment to systems of political and economic power, but, as the Somoza stones graphically reminded them, even a modern-looking street could be a symbol of marginalization.
There were other such symbols embedded in the landscape. As a child, don Gilberto told me, he moved back and forth between the OPEN and a small family farm north of the city. Traces of Nicaragua's agrarian past remained in evidence throughout Ciudad Sandino, even though the city was now the most densely populated part of Nicaragua. Horse carts were a common sight, and artisan dairies selling fresh, raw milk—much cheaper and more versatile than the pasteurized kind available in the market—were never more than half an hour's walk away. I had been living in Ciudad Sandino for nearly six months, however, before I first noticed the cotton shrubs.
I had walked down one of the rutted dirt roads to visit my friend Felipe, who lived in zona 11, on the northern edge of the city. I arrived early. Felipe was not at home, but his father, a frequently inebriated but friendly man, invited me to sit and await him in his patio. He stopped me and pointed to a tall flowerless plant at the center of the patio, saying, "Ya es la mediodia [It's noon]." He was indicating that the plant's shadow was falling directly at its base. I assumed aloud that this meant that the sun was at its highest point in the sky. "Asi se marca la hora en el campo [That's how we tell time in the country]," he replied approvingly. Then he showed me where the shadow would fall, on the wall of the house next door, around 4:00 P.M.
The plant looked unusual, and in the awkward silence that followed the brief lesson, I inspected it more closely. Whiffs of white were poking out of the end of one of its branches. I peered closer and tugged at them. "Algodón?" I asked. Could this be cotton? He smiled. Of course it was cotton. He then recalled that in the 1970s, there had been a big hacienda just outside what would have been the original group of houses that made up the OPEN. He added that the village of Bello Amanecer (later to become zona 9) used to have a hacienda as well. Back then, he said, cotton grew as close to Managua as the Las Piedrecitas Park, on the northern edge of town. Now, Las Piedrecitas sat across a busy highway from the U.S. embassy. At its gates, commuters weary of the crowded buses could pick up taxicabs for the seven-kilometer ride over the ridge from Managua to Ciudad Sandino.
Talk of el campo and cotton led Felipe's father to reminisce about his days selling sorbetes (fruit-flavored ices) in and around Managua. He said that his boss at the sorbeteria would load up a cart with tubs of sorbetes on the weekends and send him into the streets to sell. In March and April, the hottest months of the year, when the cotton came in, he would go to the houses on the haciendas after the workday ended and sell great quantities of sorbete. He remembered when trains ran through the countryside, not far from where we were now standing. The tracks took people and plants in and out of the grand estates owned by the wealthiest families in Nicaragua, most of them close cronies to the Somoza family. Laughing, he recalled the time he got a ride on a large boxcar, sorbete cart and all, to a farm near Chinandega, in the far northwest corner of the country, some three hours' journey. There, too, he did very well at his sales.
Then he pointed out a little cotton sapling sprouting up near the wash sink in the patio. The bush by which he had told the time, he said, was abnormal in its height. Perhaps that was why it took me a while to recognize it as cotton. Demonstrating on this smaller bush, he showed me how each year, at harvest time, the workers cut the plants down to stumps, after which a tractor would come through and plow the fields. The haciendas had another machine, he said, for planting the new seeds, but even then, a worker—someone with skill and a good eye—had to come through and identify the weak plants, pulling them up so that they would not sap the soil. He told me that all plants I would see today were weak. In Ciudad Sandino, cotton was a relic.
Excerpted from Mosquito Trails by Alex M. Nading. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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