The Mayangna MD Who Longs to Heal in the Bosawas Reserve

 Ricky Pineda, the young Mayangna, who studied Medicine in Ucatse-Estelí.

Ricky Pineda, 23, is originally from the Amak community. He left to become a doctor and now wants to return to serve his people

By Karen Díaz Lopez (La Prensa) 

HAVANA TIMES – “Kasak kulna Papang kau” (“Faith in God”) is the phrase in Mayangna that has accompanied Ricky Leopoldo Pineda Talavera throughout his life. This young Mayangna finished his medical studies and is waiting to officially receive his degree and offer his professional services. His true dream – beyond the degree – is to return as an internist to serve his community, Amak, from the Mayangna Sauni Bu indigenous territory, in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.

Born in 1998, he was the second of seven children who grew up in the midst of the endemic poverty of the indigenous communities of Nicaragua. At the age of 6, his parents Leonel Pineda and Isidera Talavera decided to enroll him in the only primary school in the Amak community, Niños Indígenas Mártires de Ayapal (Nima), where he finished his primary studies when he was 12.

His machete in one hand, notebooks in the other

Rubber boots, blue jeans and a long-sleeved checkered shirt crowned with a hat, that’s how Ricky remembers his childhood. Like many indigenous boys and girls, he grew up learning and working alongside his parents, planting and harvesting, hunting or fishing to meet the many needs of his family.

“My childhood was very hard, like that of many indigenous children. It was difficult, very difficult, we mayangnas do not have a normal childhood, instead it is hard work in the fields for most children, and I was one of those children.  I grew up with a machete in one hand and my pencils and notebooks in the other. I helped my parents clean and plant – children there work just like adults,” Ricky told La Prensa.

At the age of 12 he had to leave his small wooden house, his parents, siblings, his culture and the immense green forest where he grew up. He went looking for opportunities that his town no longer gave him, hoping to attend high school. He left Amak in a panga for the nine-hour trip to Ayapal, then took a bus. After a day of travel, he reached his destination. “Despite poverty, my parents decided to send me to study in San Jose de Bocay, Jinotega, one day away from my community. I was staying at the house of a lady my parents knew, and it was a bit difficult since I couldn’t speak Spanish well, I was just trying to learn and adapt to being away from home,” Ricky said. He will be the first professional in the Pineda Talavera family.

Ricky Pineda, 23 years old, finished his university studies in Medicine. He travels from San Jose de Bocay to his Amak community. Photo: La Prensa / Courtesy

From priest to doctor

Ricky’s family is Catholic and he defines himself as a person who believes in God’s will.  As religion became more important to him and he saw the many needs of his community, he felt that the priesthood might be a pathway for him. “Kasak kulna Papang kau” has been his motto ever since. Ricky says that as a child he wanted to be a priest because he thought it would be the way to help his community.  

But time passed and he faced other needs. On his study trip to Jinotega, he saw what an odyssey it was for an ill person to leave the community and travel to San Jose de Bocay for medical attention. A whole day of travel by water and land, and with scant money to cover the trip expenses.  When the Mayangna community members are sick or bitten by snakes or other animals, the custom is to turn to healers who, with their ancestral knowledge, use medicinal plants to heal them. However, some die from diseases that cannot be cured with herbs. Many require specialized medical attention for more serious problems. It was in San Jose de Bocay, in his fourth year of high school, that he changed his dream and decided to study nursing.

“Since childhood, I had dreamed of being a priest. I thought about studying the priesthood because I always thought of doing more for my community, of helping one day. In my fourth year of high school I decided to change my mind and then I thought about studying nursing.  It never even occurred to me to study medicine because of its high cost,” explained Ricky.

Ricky began to clean gardens and even taught his Mayangna language for some extra cash which he used to buy school supplies. His parents helped him rent a small room when he was studying at the local high school in Bocay. When he finished high school, his father decided to travel to Managua and enroll him in the UNAN-Managua for a nursing degree, but he didn’t know that the ravages of nature would stop him. He had everything ready, his backpack packed, and everything set to go, but that day the only panga that was supposed to cross the river did not show up, and he was not able to cross the river.

Isidera Talavera (mother), Leonel Pineda (father) and Ricky Pineda at his high school in Bocay. La Prensa / Courtesy

“Transitioning to the university was hard, I was already enrolled, I only needed to take the placement exam. When it came time to go to Managua, no boats cold leave because the river was too high. I couldn’t travel that week, and I didn’t take the entrance exam… I thought I wouldn’t be in school that year, and that my hopes of studying were over,” said Ricky.

In the midst of despair, Ricky remembered a good friend from high school, Jorge Ramírez, who had told him about a university in Estelí that offered scholarships to students with good grades. “I told Jorge that I wasn’t able to study, because I hadn’t been able to take the exam.  He told me to go to Bocay, and said we’d figure out what to do.  We went to Estelí to check out space in Ucatse (Catholic University of the Dry Tropics) so that I would be able to study. We got there and spoke with the rector, Monsignor Abelardo Mata. I gave him my grades, he reviewed them and gave me the scholarship”, says Ricky.

Despite the good news, Ricky now had to resolve another issue – how to pay rent, because Ucatse does not have dormitories. “I come from a place where families are poor, poverty is part of daily life, but I always had the hope that something good was going to happen, I knew I could do a lot of things, and I told my friend to help me find work,” he commented.

Ricky Pineda provided his professional practices at the Estelí Hospital. Photo: La Prensa / Courtesy

He started washing cars to be able to pay rent and buy school supplies. He also notes that he met good friends who helped him with photocopies. “At noon I would go to work for two to three hours in the car wash and that, with the little that my parents sent me, let me pay for my room,” he explained. Ricky provided his professional practices at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Estelí, now he hopes to do his residency and finally obtain his degree.

With his heart at home

While he was studying, he longed for the guabul that his mother prepared for him, a smoothie of cooked bananas and water, or the traditional fish with whatever they find to complement it, and rice and beans from the garden. He says that he always had his heart in Amak, even though his mind was focused on his studies. He traveled to his community once a year. He collected money every year for toys and food for the children in his community. The difficulties he experienced firsthand motivated him to seek help for the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. It started with Christmas collections, bringing toys to the boys and girls, as well as sweets, piñatas and snacks, and if possible, a Christmas dinner for everyone. His goal was to help 200 children with school supplies so they could attend school.

During his time at the University, he raised funds to share toys and food with the boys and girls of his community at Christmas. Photo: La Prensa / Courtesy

After Hurricanes Eta and Iota, he had to request help and travel earlier to bring support to his community. “Hurricane Iota was something we had never seen, it was very strong and devastating, and the community felt that they were not going to overcome it. No one warned them that there was going to be a hurricane, they didn’t know, the hurricanes caught them off guard,” said the young Mayangna.

Marlene’s house

After the hurricanes, he traveled three times to Amak. He brought mattresses, food and clothing for the affected families. But then he knew that there was something else to do: Marlene Alvarado Bucardo, 70, is caring for five orphans – three children and two teenagers – and her bamboo house was destroyed by Iota’s winds. She did not receive any government assistance and her story was not seen in the media, but she urgently needed help. So, Ricky carried out a campaign to rebuild her house, collecting 20,000 córdobas to buy zinc for roofing, nails, wood, hammers, and cement. His parents and siblings provided the labor. And while Marlene’s case is just one of hundreds of families affected by the cyclones, Ricky’s help has made an impact in her community.

Ricky Pineda with Marlene Alvarado Bucardo, in front of her rebuilt house. Photo: La Prensay / Courtesy

“She was totally left without a house and with nothing, her house did not resist the wind. We rebuilt it with what was collected and with my family’s help. There are many people who have asked me to help them but I have no resources, I tell them to keep praying. Doña Marlene’s new house has two rooms, a kitchen room, a living room and a tiled patio”, he says.

Still to be done

 “No matter where we are, dreams can always be achieved, with faith in God,” says Ricky and shares that he has two more goals at age 23. The first is to get a specialty in Internal Medicine and return to the Bosawas Reserve to practice his profession there. “I want to get that specialty and be able to serve my people. Another dream is to be able to build an orphanage to serve and educate children, and support the children with few resources, so that they have opportunities like other children.” That’s why he wants to go back to Amak.

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