by Richard Walden
The people of Nicaragua and the village of Santa Rosa lost a real hero last week in Petrona Perez Basilio.
One of the joys of international relief and development work is the people you encounter in the most unlikely places. In 1999, over 20% of Nicaragua’s land and population were seriously affected by the destructive power of Hurricane Mitch. Homes were destroyed, fields were flooded, and critical infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, while more than 1 million people were rendered homeless.
Santa Rosa, a resettlement camp-cum-village born out of the “Contra War” with US proxies during the 1980s, was severely impacted by the storm. Situated near the landmine-strewn border with Honduras, devoid of natural vegetation and with limited access to water, the village–a 600 person community– was blessed by being home to Petrona Perez Basilio, who with just a 4th grade education and several children dependent upon her, relentlessly carried this village’s story and its needs to the outside world.
Petrona was termed “a village leader,” but was so much more than that. While our lack of a common language separated the two of us, there never was a moment when I felt we failed to communicate. Our Nicaragua country director, Douglas Fuentes, became what we term a “village advocate”–translating Petrona’s laundry list of needs for the village to Nicaraguan provincial and national officials and getting them to take necessary action to improve the lives of villagers. Once they were induced to visit Santa Rosa, all of them felt compelled to act after meeting with Petrona.
In acknowledging that strength, a Swiss foundation in 2001 awarded Petrona its gold medal for her development projects–the only one given that year in Central America.
We learned more from 11 years working with Petrona than we were able to give her; but in later years we followed her Santa Rosa model in other parts of the world and stayed long after disasters occurred.
I am so grateful for Petrona’s many years of service, and will always remember her fondly as a wonderful woman and a great friend to myself and to Operation USA.
Rest in peace, Petrona.
Learn more about all our work in Nicaragua here.