I've been back since Saturday evening and spent the rest of my weekend catching up on sleep and snuggles, then dove into a business-as-usual week with everybody heading back to school and work and all of our other usual routines. Aside from a mild panic attack in a WaWa shortly after getting off the plane, which I'm sure I'll come back to later, re-entry has been OK. Slight culture shock, nothing I can't handle. Many thanks to the experienced friends who have commiserated or advised me to stay out of Target or Kroger for a few days.
(As an aside...while I'm thinking about it: when I heard that the Carytown Kroger, which is already a really big grocery store, is expanding by a good 50% or more so that they can carry more products, my first reaction was to think, how many products do you really need? I have trouble finding stuff already! Now, though, that reaction is even more intense. Really?!? I mean, there are already at least ten brands of peanut butter, several consistencies of each, many jars of each consistency. Sometimes more than one size of each product. There's a whole aisle plus of cheese. There is a beer section, a dairy section, a coffee and tea section, a juice and water aisle, and a soda aisle - all just for drinks, not counting the Natural Foods section. Not to mention the smaller coolers of drinks here and there. What will we fill 50% more space with? More beer? More cheese? More boxes of Band-Aids with different cartoon characters on them?)
So back to the Dominican. While I was there, I was in taking-it-all-in mode for the first couple of days. After that, what I had learned led to yet more questions, and I found myself endlessly trying to step back one more level, to understand how the government is structured, or what services people in places outside Esfuerzo typically receive, or how neighborhood associations work.
Our days there were very long. We got on a bus at 7am and returned to the hotel around 6pm, after which we usually had a brief meeting, then a few moments to ourselves (I usually used this time to upload images), then dinner, then maybe another meeting, then some social time if you were still able to stand. By then it was about 11 PM. I was usually beat by that time but wanted to sort through the hundreds of images I had captured and hopefully add some captions, feeling as I did that the images shouldn't be viewed without contextual information being provided. I usually threw in the towel between 12:30AM and 1:30 AM. Then back up at 6-6:30 AM to start again. There was no catching up, no time for me to get out of doing and engage in mentally processing to a point where I could write.
Meanwhile, a couple of folks back home were asking via Facebook: what is it like? I still don't know how to answer that, but I'm going to step back a bit and slow it down, and hopefully by the end, you'll have a little bit of an idea of where we were and what we were doing.
Before leaving and during my first couple of days there, here's what I was wondering with regard to the purpose of SOMOS and life in the Dominican:
- How do we define "marginalized" and "poverty"?
- What is the overall standard of living in the DR? How do we decide how what is necessary and what is luxury? How does life in Paraíso compare to life on average in the DR?
- Why Paraíso/Esfuerzo? How was this community chosen?
The phrases "medical outreach" and "humanitarian aid" evoke ideas in each of us about the places where outreach workers go. I was envisioning dirt floors, very improvisational shelters, no electricity, little to no access to potable water, lots of obvious illness. I had a notion - based, I'm sure, on the sum of my experiences and exposures - that an overseas effort such as this one was only worthwhile if the need was immediate and severe. This reflects the savior complex common in our culture: affluent benefactor who is model of good health and 21st century prosperity swoops to the rescue of disadvantaged, pity-worthy, third-world people and cures ills (however temporarily) via application of humanitarian Band-Aids. I may recognize the complex, be critical of it, and feel cautious about it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still reside in me. And it does.
Please note: I'm using the words benefactor, disadvantaged, and third-world very self-consciously. They're part of the language of unchecked assumptions.
Before leaving, I looked at some data on the Dominican Republic. I wanted to know, why them? I compared DR data to US data in the CIA World Factbook. I pondered what makes something a human "right" and looked at what the UN has determined to be the rights of all people. I wondered, when do we offer assistance to people in another country? How do we assess need and how do we decide that we are the ones to meet that need?
I can't say that I've answered that yet. In discussing the roots of SOMOS during the trip and thinking about it more since then, I've realized that I'm still unclear on how the initial "duffel bag medicine" trip came into being and how Esfuerzo was chosen. What I can tell you is what I do know about Esfuerzo and about SOMOS. And I've gone around my ass to get to my elbow here, so I'll try to keep it brief.
Part I: what and where is Esfuerzo?
Esfuerzo is one of four self-defined communities in the neighborhood of Paraíso, in the city of Villa Mella, in the region of Santo Domingo Norte. Which is, as its name indicates, to the North of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I've used Google maps to cook up some visual aids (click on each to view larger):
Just to get your bearings - view of continental US, with Hispaniola/Republica Dominicana outlined in red:
The island of Hispaniola - Santo Domingo area outlined in red:
Santo Domingo area. Villa Mella outlined in red.
Villa Mella map. Paraíso portion of the city outlined in red.
Satellite view of Paraíso, with roads outlined and communities/neighborhoods labeled (Esfuerzo, Altos, 28, 6). The complex of three large rectangular buildings in Altos (lower left) is the school that hosted our clinic for the week. All of Paraíso is socioeconomically depressed when compared with the surrounding region. Esfuerzo, on the upper/mid left, is the most marginalized of these communities.
Satellite view without map overlay. A small river curves around Esfuerzo to the West and South, hidden by trees in this view. The large rectangular open area between Altos and Esfuerzo is a flood plain, la canyada. Drainage ditches run toward and alongside la canyada, but are insufficient to drain rainwater quickly, so that when it rains, the river swells and the drainage ditches back up, leaving the canyada and parts of Esfuerzo under water. Flooding of the canyada also covers the road from Altos, cutting off access to and from Esfuerzo.
The name Esfuerzo means courage, effort, or spirit. I'd be interested in learning about the way this community got its name. (Also worth noting: Paraíso means "paradise"...and David was often heard to say "another day in paradise" at the breakfast table in the morning.)
So that's a basic sketch of the "where we were" part of things. I'll continue soon with more about Paraíso, Esfuerzo, la Zona Colonial, and things in between.