Tag Archives: poverty


Once upon a time, the DR could make a lot of money selling sugar all over the world.  But it needed more workers, so they imported Haitians by the thousands.  But they didn’t ant the Haitians to stick around, so during the dead season they were kicked out.  And on and on it has gone for decades: importing Haitians to do the work Dominicans won’t, and kicking them out as soon as they’ve served their purpose.  They also massacred Haitians by the thousands, in 1937–except for those working on the all-important cane plantations.

If you’re born in a batey and your parents don’t have papers, that means you can never become Dominican.  You can never get a high school diploma, even if you attend every class and get straight A’s.  You aren’t entitled to health care, and you can’t own land.  You can be deported at any time for really any reason at all.  It’s likely you can only make money on odd jobs, cane cutting or re-selling clothes, since Dominicans don’t trust Haitians to cook food properly, and you can’t complete the requisite education to be a doctor, lawyer or something other profession.  And with cane wages low and us purchase orders falling fast, even the soul-crushing work that is cane cutting is hard to come by.

Living in a batey is another challenge altogether.  You may have electricity, but that certainly wont be all the time.  You may have a toilet that you cant put toilet paper in, the kind that needs a bucket of water to flush.  If you’re lucky.  But you probably just have a latrine.  You most likely live in a rural area, far from paved roads.  If there is public transit near you, it will likely take a full day and several bus changes to get to the capital.  You may live in the old cement barracks built decades ago by the CEA, the sugar ministry of the Dominican government.  If you’re not packed into an over-crowded cement room, your house is probably made of wood, with tin on the roof if you’re doing well.  You don’t own your home, or the land it sits on.  You can farm if you want, or even raise animals, but you know that at any moment all of that hard work can be taken away from you.

Police force?  Health care?  Paved roads?  Potable water?  What planet are you from?

Lest you think this problem is solely the creation of the Dominican government, remember the massive role the US gov has played in the sugar industry.  Setting price ceilings, placing massive orders for years only to set extreme restrictions suddenly, and of course invading Haiti and the DR to boot.  Not to mention largely ignoring everything that has been going on in the bateyes in order to product US sugar industry and stay out of the limelight.

If you want to learn more about life on bateyes, something that has been largely out of the public eye, check out the films The Price of Sugar and The Sugar Babies.

Happiness and Poverty

People ask all the time if the poorest of the poor are happy.  Actually, they don’t.  ask me if the people of country x are happy, most likely without realizing where they fall on the poverty scale.  I’ve been learning to distinguish between incredibly similar levels of poverty, which at first glance are indistinguishable since they’re all so devastating compared to the America many of us live in.  When we think of poverty, it’s fast food and metal detectors in schools and no health insurance.  Poverty in a batey is no food all day, no high school diploma even if you manage to walk to a school 3 km away and no access to health care.

The things we look for to distinguish amongst the levels of poverty:

  • Tin roof vs. cement walls vs. wood
  • How healthy the dogs are (are they pets or a nuisance?)
  • distance in km to a clinic or school
  • presence or absence of power lines, televisions, microwaves, washing machines etc
  • the color of children’s hair, the presence or absence of pits in their teeth, their age as compared to their apparent height and weight
  • distance from the closest city, paved road, or bus stop

When we go visit the bateyes (which are current or former sugar plantation barracks, mostly inhabited by people somewhere in nationality limbo between Haitian and Dominican, and largely forgotten by the world) it’s often hard to process.  Kids come running and singing, or sometimes people spit at our feet.  There is an overwhelming sadness to seeing so many grown adults with no work all day and so many caved in roofs, and yet we are welcomed with the frenzy warranted to celebrities and religious figures.  bearing that in mind, there is a natural inclination to declare these people (especially their children) as happy.  They sing, they dance, they hold our hands and climb on our shoulders.  They are tiny and adorable, as long as you don’t ask too many questions or look at anything other than their smiling faces.

It worries me sometimes that once we begin to see those in the bateyes as happy, we can excuse ourselves for forgetting them or for not doing enough to help them. But then you think about how awful a life without occupation would be.  How much a toothache hurts, and how bad that would be if it just went on for days months or years.  How unfulfilling to never advance or have a chance of advancing, to be illiterate with virtually no chance of ever changing that fact.  To not have a country to call your own, to be subject to arrest at any moment, to be hated in the most insidious and subversive of ways:  neglect, condescension and collective denial.  I’m sure there is happiness in their lives, and in a way that is perhaps enviable because it involves tradition, community and pastoral cliches.  But it is not the lasting happiness and sense of content that comes from autonomy, advancement and stimulating work.

what we’re doing for Esperanza will (i hope) help their borrowers, especially those of Haitian descent or nationality, but we can’t know that for sure.  it’s very abstract, what we’re doing.  We’re not sure yet that our results will be worthwhile, or what they’ll say, if we will have good recommendations based on that data, or if our recommendations will be taken.  I think social entrepreneurship can be harder than straight charity because (at least for us) we’re not seeing results.  There is no school to take pictures in front of, or bags of food to hand over.  Just us and our clipboards, fumbling through Spanish, French and Kreyol, trying to make sense of hundreds of years of oppression, racial tension, poverty and industry.


Sacrifice has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.  How much should we do it, is it meaningful, is it imperative.  While sometimes I think Farmer goes overboard, it seems selfish to question making personal sacrifices when there are lives on the line.

I tend to agree with Paul Farmer on one thing: the token sacrifice (such as wearing a Che shirt or going without shoes, both of which I often do) seems largely irrelevant if it is an isolated “act” of solidarity with the world’s poor.  However, I do admire people like Michael Franti who partner a small personal sacrifice like his barefootedness with genuine good works, philanthropy and publicity for his causes.  On many poverty alleviation-style trips, there have been many…conversations about finishing one’s food.  I agree that we should not waste food, and do my best not to.

However, I don’t think we can be punished for failing to eat the massive helpings others often serve us against our will, and I think hounding someone to keep eating when they’re not hungry is damaging on so many levels.  Only a fit person who has never had personal food issues would think that yelling at someone that they have to eat whether they want to or not was somehow okay.  But getting back to my point, even if the rest faded away, I still think that most of the time, my cleaning my plate won’t make anyone any less hungry.  Neither would not eating food at all, unless I had a specific goal and a lot of publicity.  Otherwise, it’s just a way or making this about me instead of about the people I claim to be helping.  It becomes an empty gesture.

Of course, there are differing circumstances.  For example, in Cruz Verde I think Tim is totally in the right to lecture people to serve themselves small helpings and go back for more if they’re still hungry.  In this instance, what we do not waste will in fact be eaten by our Sister Island Project colleagues, who wait, hungry, until we have served ourselves.  And I understand people like Claire who quietly live through discomfort at the site of food because it is so emotionally charged for them when in a place like this.  Furthermore, in my book, neither Tim nor Claire is a WL (White Liberal, a term of Farmer’s).  They take real, tangible steps to alleviate poverty.

I am always wary about veering towards becoming a WL, about centering this experience on myself to the detriment of those with whom I work.  Wary of being a fake ally,

Food Donation: Is it Ethical?

After a day or two in Mata los Indios, a rural, poor village in Dominican Republic, we reflected on what we had seen and what we could do.  We came there with the intention of assessing the needs of the community and mapping their assets, in an attempt to persuade Esperanza International to open a Bank of Hope.  This Bank of Hope would most likely be funded by a donation raised by our group of 40 people in a capstone class in poverty and social enterprise.  The Bank of Hope would help 25 or so families start their own businesses with a series of small loans that they would repay over a 6-12 month period, with a relatively low interest rate.  The interest would pay for services like health and dental, which the community badly needs.

That was the plan.  Use our questionnaire and our Spanish to take thorough notes of the community, literally map them out, present our findings to Esperanza, and come back to the states to do a more thorough analysis.  And hopefully, at some point, make an actual damn argument about it.

But then we saw the community.  As we reflected, some people were getting pretty choked up (did you not know people are poor?).  Professor was saying it had been a long time since he had seen poverty this bad (you mean since last summer?).  There was shock that people were only eating once a day (that wasn’t in our questionnaire, and no one wanted to talk about it–how did you learn this?).  Then there was the woman who had lost 9 of her 10 children (ok really, what kind of intrusive questions are you asking to get this stuff?).

I sort of felt like a robot.

At this point, we were basically ordered to make a considerable, one-time food donation.  This seems logical.  They are hungry, we are not.  They need food, we have money.  Except this is not a group of missionaries.  We are students who study how to develop poor areas in a sustainable and socially responsible way.  A one-time donation is not sustainable.  We are linked to Esperanza, so that may send an incorrect impression about what Esperanza does.  We are almost entirely white; this might send the wrong message about what the presence of gringos means.  These are the landmines we have been taught to look for.  And here we were, plowing forward with our one tonne of rice.

We went through the local pastor, and created the equal portions ourselves, which were equivalent to about one month’s worth of food per family.  I have no idea how that was calculated.  Every household was to receive one.  No more, no less.  While this meant no one could get screwed out of their food, it also meant some people perhaps got more than they deserved/needed, while others got less.  But in a community where everyone lives on less than $1 a day, how bad could that disparity be?  the food would be dropped off and distributed without us there, which was a good decision.  Except maybe some people went?  It’s unclear.

Professor asked Esperanza, our partner and a micro-enterprise institution (MFI), what they thought about what we did.  Their response was polite, but they had concerns. They didn’t want Esperanza to be interpreted as party to this, their central message is that working to lift yourself out of poverty is more effective and dignified than receiving charity, and they were concerned that the distribution may not have been equitable.  Here, equitable would mean going to who needs it most, not necessarily giving out fair portions to all.

If I had been able to answer, I would have said this, exactly: Gracias para todo tus consejos, y creo que estamos de acuerdos por la mayoridad.  Pero, no podemos hacer lo que es mejor ahora mismo.  No tenemos este abilidad.  We all agree, for the most part, with what you said.  However, we cannot do what is best right now.  We don’t have that ability.

We aren’t a micro-finance institution, and unless they would help us, we were utterly impotent to do anything else for the people of Mata.  And as it became clear that our allegiance was to working with Esperanza (regardless of whether they help Mata) instead of to Mata (to help them somehow, even if Esperanza wasn’t the answer), it felt imperative that we do something, anyhting, to help.

I only hope that one thing I didn’t list as a concern doesn’t happen: that the food drop doesn’t help us was our hands of MatalosIndios.  That we don’t check it off our list and move on, because rural is a pain, and we miss electricity, and Esperanza may not agree to help them.

Was what we did okay?  I don’t know.  It certainly isn’t what we’re taught to do.  And I do think it contributes to mismanaged expectations, which is another post unto itself.  But I think it’s a very human impulse to feed someone when they’re sitting next to you, hungry.  And I think we should cultivate that impulse, because sometimes the friend who needs help the most isn’t next to you at all, they’re halfway around the world.


This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago.  The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird.

I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window.  Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa.  I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home.  But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself.  It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up.

There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles.  One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando.  Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall.  They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time.

Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated.  He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum.

“Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me.  So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.”  He seems pleased at my immediate shock, annoyance and curiosity.  But it will have to wait, as Fernando rushes back out.

We talk about what they do when it floods, where the high water marks are.  How they take to the roof with dominoes and rum, and laugh the disaster in its face.  I feel guilty for complaining about my hunger enforced by the massive flood the other day, because I was safe and dry on the fourteenth floor.  They lose everything in the barrio every time there’s a flood, but I only lost my lights and wifi, something they never have in this neighborhood, even on a good day.

“I…I cannot talk about that.  It is shit.  I cannot talk about it.”

Fernando’s suddenly stoic expression shatters into a million pieces with a high, forced laugh that seems to take up the whole alleyway.  The severity is gone as soon as it came.  I wonder if the children are sleeping, and where his daughter is.  She usually spends this time curled up in my lap, playing with my hair or glasses, or hitting Brit and calling him ugly while she laughs and makes eyes at him.  I think she likes his beard.

Instead, a woman I’ve never seen before struts up.  In typical Cuban fashion, she is wearing heels, her hair is immaculate, her clothing tight.  I’m wearing a dirty t-shirt, flip-flops and shorts that feel like pajamas.  I haven’t brushed my hair in a few days.  Fernando stops tending to me to greet and chat with the woman, something that extends for hours.  He leaves the bottle with Brit and I, and we work our way through it as he tells me what I missed.

“He wants to marry you.”

“What?!” I try to keep my voice quiet, but Brit’s dancing eyes infuriate me even more.

“Yeah, yeah, he says you’re so good with his daughter, you’d be such a good mother.  You two talk about politics and you both speak french, and you’re so nice to always be coming over.  Get it girl!”

Truthfully, I probably do send all sorts of weird signals to every Cuban I meet.  I am usually the only female playing dominó, and I do bring his daughter gum or nail polish to play with.  My presence has apparently not gone unnoticed.  But I’ve never been anywhere alone with Fernando.  I’ve never offered my contact information for when I go home, or been the one to make plans.  He gets no more of my attention than any of the other aseres we play dominó with, even when he tries to egg me on.

I look back on all the afternoon baseball games, to find what I must have done or said.  Drinking rum with my male friends as well as his, trying not to let his little girl get on my nerves when she won’t stop playing the same game for hours on end.  Winning dominó when Britito is my partner, losing atrociously when I’m paired with anyone else.  Fighting with Fernando’s friend about politics, and trying not to get myself in a discussion about Castro.

And it makes me miss home.  It makes me miss people who believe that a novio means something, no matter how many miles I am from him.

Not long after, on my last day in Havana, I didn’t say goodbye to Fernando, his daughter or the neighborhood.  I just up and left.

Is this African Enough?

Yep, this is Africa, too.

When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa.  When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt.  I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was:

  • too rich
  • too Arab
  • not black enough
  • too developed
  • too wealthy
  • filled with too many people who were fully clothed
  • not hungry enough
  • not in civil strife
  • not “native” enough
  • too educated
A beautiful new university building
A beautiful new university building

If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be.  Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is.  When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry.  Wooden, hand-carved statues.  Or wooden, hand-carved anything.  Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap.  But that’s what the women around us wore.  Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads.

The beautiful game.

Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us?  Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya.  We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes