Linda Miller, an English teacher in St. Louis, remembers when her son learned the world capitals in 7th grade. Her own junior-high classroom was next door to his geography class that year.
"Te-gu-ci-gal-pa," intoned the geography teacher through the classroom wall.
"Tegucigalpa," came the students' reply.
She remembers the moment because the word itself was "so strange," she said. In the midst of guiding her own students, she caught a momentary sense of a window on the world opening next door for her son Michael. If the capital of Honduras loomed large to her 15 years ago for its strangeness, it looms larger today for its growing familiarity.
Michael, now 27, took up a teaching position in Tegucigalpa just over a year ago. It was an exotic assignment for the Missourian and Wheaton College graduate: tutoring drug-addicted, homeless, or orphaned street children through a crisis-center program in the capital. Six weeks into his job, exotic took on new meaning when the storm of the century hit Honduras. Hurricane Mitch transformed Mr. Miller overnight from teacher/tutor/friend to a dozen boys into emergency shelter coordinator/supply specialist/fundraiser/building director/liaison to international relief agencies-for an entire community.
Hurricane Mitch killed more than 11,000 people and cost $10 billion in damage across Central America last year. The storm stalled over Honduras and Nicaragua on Oct. 30, dumping record levels of rain on every Central American country and southern Mexico. It left 2 million people homeless. Only one recorded hurricane, in the Caribbean in 1780, did more damage to the region (it killed 22,000 people).
Miramesí was a jumble of Third World housing in the northwest corner of Tegucigalpa, cupped between the Choluteca River and surrounding steep hillsides. As more than three feet of rain fell, residents alerted one another to rising floodwaters and climbed up the mountain together, single-file, in the middle of the night. The Choluteca rose and swallowed homes in Miramesí. But, unlike the situation in most neighborhoods along the river, where three other neighborhoods were also destroyed, no one was killed. Long-standing fraternity among Miramesí's 280 families had proved life saving, and showed how they would approach the future.
Mr. Miller spent the days immediately after the storm working in the shelters for Miramesí residents. All had been absorbed into a hilltop neighborhood, into five scattered shelters located in a school and four churches. As it became clear that there was nothing to return to in Miramesí-not a single home was left after the swollen river literally changed course and large boulders rolled over the neighborhood-Mr. Miller adopted a two-pronged strategy: marshal his support back home to supply imminent needs; and encourage the community leaders to take charge of their future.
Mr. Miller's home church in St. Louis, Central Presbyterian, provided funds for basic supplies-food, gas stoves, mattresses, and medicines. An organizing committee of the displaced from Miramesí, formed at Mr. Miller's suggestion, provided vision. They had determined they could rebuild their lives more quickly by working together. After all, the average length of time families had lived in Miramesí was 21 years. The oldest resident had been in the neighborhood 47 years. Community leaders found a parcel of land six miles outside the capital where they hoped to relocate and began to optimistically call themselves "Project New Miramesí."
One year later, most residents remain in temporary housing. They are living in shelters set up by the Red Cross or staying with relatives or friends. But the diaspora has not destroyed cohesion, and vision is far from dead.
Support from abroad was overwhelming, enough for New Miramesí to purchase its dreamed-of tract of land, for $48,000. Most of the money came from small pockets. Mrs. Miller's Sunday school class now takes up an offering for New Miramesí once a month (one Sunday brought in $3,000). Students at Mr. Miller's junior-high and high-school alma mater, Westminster Christian Academy, raised $5,000 for New Miramesí in a "spare-change" fund drive last December. Money also came from Girl Scout troops and senior-citizens groups.
Residents meet twice a month to schedule work on their property. Most of it they do themselves, as families, clearing the land, opening roads, and installing a 35,000-gallon water tank. Two model homes have been built; and when real homes are underway, residents will commit to modest monthly payments over five years to pay for the new dwellings. They will also put in 30 hours a month of community service. The housing revenues will be funneled back into community enterprises. CARE Canada has agreed to provide construction materials, and CARITAS, the Roman Catholic relief agency, has promised to assist in building of the homes.
Construction has not begun, however, because the community does not yet have full title to the land. It has been caught for over two months in red tape in the National Registrar's Office. Honduras is known for its corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy (an annual survey, released last week, ranked it 94th out of 99 countries, and the last in Latin America, for ineffective government). In addition, local government in Tegucigalpa has been paralyzed, many relief workers say, since the hurricane and the death of the city's mayor. Mayor Cesar Castellanos, a presidential contender, was killed the day after the hurricane when his helicopter crashed as he surveyed damage to the city.
Waiting for housing is not a unique predicament in post-Mitch Honduras. More than 20,000 people are still without homes, and thousands in Tegucigalpa are without the prospect of new housing that they can afford. Mr. Miller insists that the project is unique, however, because the residents are making the decisions.
"They are there day to day running the project, being the labor force," he said. "That is important, because once this is over, these people will know what to do to make a dignified and healthy community, rather than simply living the way they did before."
Unity does not always come easy, said Mr. Miller, especially among "hard-spoken, hard-living people. But there are real differences among the people who are Christians. They begin meetings with prayer and commit the project to God. It is bathed in prayer."
Mr. Miller remains the man of many hats, working behind the scenes. Most mornings he meets with developers or financial sources. He sends regular progress letters to supporters in Missouri and elsewhere. And he is busy hatching more projects. Solidarity Project is bringing in longer-term support for families who lost everything in Mitch. Churches are recruited to sponsor families. A congregation from Spain has already agreed to take on several families in New Miramesí. Mr. Miller would also like to open a group home for street children, and he has not stopped teaching, working with ex-street kids most afternoons.
Nor do everyday worries in an underdeveloped country go away. Last week, Mr. Miller's own home was broken into, and he walked in on the intruders. He said they escaped with only a few of his possessions after he chased them.
Perhaps Mr. Miller's most uncomfortable test with the community arose when village fathers told him they wanted to name the actual housing project after him: "I was firmly against that. 'This is yours,' I said."
They were "very insistent," according to Mr. Miller, until they came up with an alternative. Community members voted at a monthly assembly meeting and agreed unanimously on Villa Linda Miller.
"And I did not even have a passport!" says Mrs. Miller with a laugh. She has since seen to getting one, and plans to visit the village named after her early next year, once the houses are far enough along for a dedication ceremony. For an English teacher with over 25 years' experience, it will be due time for a real-life lesson in geography.