Our first day in the field was spent traveling to Fila Grande, a relatively remote mountain community situated in the middle of a mountain range that shares the same name. Fila Grande translates to “Big Line,” which refers to the line of mountains in central Nicaragua. To several in our group, the name seemed fitting for the community as it avoids the normal grid-like city plan we are accustomed to, consisting instead of houses are interspersed along several kilometers of the main gravel road that traverses the mountain range. The town is a linear stretch of small farms, houses and stores for simple provisions.
The journey from the AMOS compound in Najapa to Fila Grande was long and slow in our large semi-open truck. We arrived at the small clinic where we would be setting up camp close to sunset, thoroughly covered in a thick layer of dust from the road. We were met by a crowd of elders from the village, led by Don Petronilo Gaitan who has served as the community’s health promoter since 1988. A larger crowd had been assembled to greet us earlier in the day, but we were delayed by rough roads and a brief detour to make a donation of supplies from AMOS to the regional hospital in Matiguas. The faithful few had remained to wait.
Don Petro seems an ancient figure, though he is only 55 years old. In his role as health promoter, he has successfully delivered 517 babies for families in Fila Grande. The clinic has seven rooms, but the largest is no more than 120 square feet. Once our bags are unloaded and night has settled in, our group and the members of the health committee headed by Don Petro try to squeeze into the largest room at the entrance of the clinic, but some of the crowd spills out the front door and joins in the conversation through the open windows.
Most of the houses in Fila Grande are even smaller than the clinic. With a concrete floor, block walls and two light bulbs, the clinic is a clear step above the standard residence made of of slatted wooden planks and dirt floors. It is quickly evident, though, that Don Petro is very proud of the progress his community has made during his lifetime. He beams when he tells us of the large water cistern installed above the town on the overlooking ridge, and the 13 kilometers of piping that bring clean water to 135 homes — 85 percent of the community. The trek up the mountain every 15 days to add chlorine tablets to the reservoir is a small price to pay for the near elimination of diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses from the village. Directly across the road from the AMOS clinic is a new Claro cell phone tower that allows Don Petro to contact the regional hospital in the event of a serious emergency. The 2-hour drive for an ambulance crew from the hospital is a vast improvement over the day-long journey it used to take for a resident of Fila Grande — where practically no vehicles are available — to travel into the next town and contact the hospital.
The Parajóns have been involved with Fila Grande for over two decades, before AMOS was conceived. But Don Petro has an extensive network of other NGOs and development groups he has lured to this rural outpost to help improve the lives of his neighbors and kin. “We will do whatever we can to make life better for the people of our community,” said Carlos Flores, a member of the health committee who has a small farm near the clinic.
Life is not easy in Fila Grande. Contrary to the sentimental myth, poverty is rarely beautiful. The members of the health committee were packed into the clinic giving introductions and helping us make preparations until nearly 11:00 PM. Most of them had to rise before 4:00 AM the next day to gather food, tend to animals, milk cows, mend fences, carry laundry to the river, gather wood and make provisions for the day, all before they came to meet us for breakfast and help set up for our vision screenings. They are motivated by something more than self preservation and personal advancement. They want to make life better for their entire community, to serve their neighbors, to offer something more for the next generation. Though they do not have much in the way of wealth, these simple mountain people have a passion for the common good that burns like a city on a hill — it is a bright light that refuses to be hid.