Archive | February, 2014

celebrate we will

27 Feb

Happy Dominican Independence Day!  Led by national hero Juan Pablo Duarte, the Dominican Republic gained its independence from Haitian occupation on the 27th of February in 1844.  Given its historic importance, February is also the month of Carnival.  I haven’t seen fireworks yet, but this little country sure knows how to party and Dominicans seem to always be looking for an occasion to celebrate – Christmas, Kings Day, Independence Day/Carnival, and not too far away is Semana Santa!  Hopefully next year I’ll be able to write a more descriptive and first-hand account of the locura that is Carnival.

Lots has happened since my last semi-chaotic and long post so I’ll do my best to keep this short and highlight the important (and positive!) stuff:

Chicas Brillantes Conference:

  • Invited 3 girls that participate in my Chicas Brillantes group to a regional 3-day conference in San Cristobal (How did I choose which girls to bring?  It was tough, but I based my decision on their ages, participation and attendance at meetings, maturity, and who I thought would best use and share the information they would learn at the conference back in Pescadería)
  • Over 80 girls and volunteers participated in dynamic and educational activities concerning HIV/AIDS prevention, nutrition, women’s health, self-esteem, team work, inner and outer beauty, sports, and so on
  • Many charlas were led by graduates of the Chicas Brillantes program – a group of adolescent girls known as the Comité.  This was SO important for the girls to see because a) they could look to them as role-models and b) it promotes and ensures the sustainability of this initiative
  • The girls got to meet many other girls from other communities around the country who are also participating in the program.  For my girls, they made at least 20 new friends that live within a 30-minute radius.  We’re getting together this weekend to plan how to incorporate what we learned into our meetings, and also which events we can plan to raise money for our group and/or activities with our new friends
  • A panel of professional Dominican and Dominican-American women came to talk to the girls –natural hair promoter (and fellow blogger: http://www.missrizos.com/2/post/2014/02/las-chicas-brillantes.html), architect, social worker, journalist, muralist (and fellow blogger: http://innovativeinitiativesblog.com/about/), and even the DR representative for Miss Universe 2013.  They shared their life stories, gave advice about how to plan and reach professional and personal goals, and promoted natural hair styles (a semi-controversial topic here because many women chemically treat their hair so it’s straighter and therefore ‘more beautiful’)
Mujeres Brillantes - our awesome panel of role-models

Mujeres Brillantes – our awesome panel of role-models

Girls practicing correct condom use

Girls practicing correct condom use

Two of the girls I brought to the conference (Grisele and Odalina) with DR's Miss Universe 2013, Yaritza Reyes

Two of the girls I brought to the conference (Grisele and Odalina) with DR’s Miss Universe 2013, Yaritza Reyes

volunteers with the panel

volunteers with the panel

Last day of the Chicas Brillantes conference

Last day of the Chicas Brillantes conference

Translating for Builders Beyond Borders:

  • Joined up with other PCVs to help out our friend Jim, fellow volunteer AND Vermonter, at his site near Alta Mira in the province of Puerto Plata
  • High school group came from Connecticut through the program Builders Beyond Borders to start construction of a local clinic
  • We helped with translating and some construction work, but also shared a lot about our Peace Corps experience and Dominican culture with the students and chaperones
  • BBB invited us volunteers to join them on a field trip to 27 Charcos!  Located on the Damajagua River and literally meaning 27 ‘puddles’ or waterfalls, it’s a beautiful and adventurous attraction for both locals and tourists alike.  Depending on the water levels/time of year, you basically hike down the river, jumping off or sliding down natural rock formations on your way (wearing helmets and lifejackets of course).  This adventure had been on my bucket list, and was certainly one of the coolest things I’ve done since arriving in country (it will be one year March 6th!).  We only were able to do 12 of the 27 falls/slides, so I’d be more than willing to accompany someone who wants to come and visit 🙂  Fun fact: Joe Kennedy III was a PCV in the Dominican Republic, and helping 27 Charcos develop a guide association was one of his assignments as a volunteer.  More info about 27 Charcos here: http://www.27charcos.com/index.php
  • Realized how resilient and not-awkward Dominican youth is
  • Gained some insight about how this court project is going to be – how I should organize accommodations, construction materials, plan activities, etc.
Fellow PCVs - Stanley, me, Laura, and Jim

Fellow PCVs – Stanley, me, Laura, and Jim

Speaking of which…The Court:

  • So after a few semi-heated meetings, we are going to build the court in the Pley
  • We will have the mayor’s support – has committed to leveling and filling the entire area; will build streets around the pley so that the people that live there are no longer trapped by mud when it rains
  • Today we measured the entire area and marked the court’s official location – PHEW
  • Working on creating a Facebook Page to share the progress of the court and to fundraise – will have a working link where YOU will be able to donate to this project soon 🙂
future location of court!

future location of court!

some of my guys bidding a hopeful farewell to one of their old basketball hoops

some of my guys bidding a hopeful farewell to one of their old basketball hoops

That’s “all” for now – off to celebrate!

stones.

12 Feb

Peace Corps is all about the little wins.  That’s how I started my last post.  And I’m finding that the longer I’m in service, the truer this holds.  Without capitalizing on the positive moments, no matter how small or insignificant they may be, two life-changing years of Peace Corps service could easily become a disheartening nightmare.

I continue to stress and embrace the philosophy of realistic-optimism because I’m currently experiencing two frustrating conflicts.  It’s the parts of my day that put a smile on my face – usually lasting no longer than a couple of minutes, and pretty insignificant in terms of what goals I’m accomplishing as a Peace Corps Volunteer – that keep me from getting too deflated, encourage me to stay motivated, and remind me that regardless of the outcome, this is the ultimate learning experience.

Disclaimer: Like it says at the bottom of my blog, these are my ideas and feelings, and mine only.  Also, this post is longer than others (and without too many pictures) because there is a lot of interconnected information that needs to be shared so I can at least try and convey what is going on.  Also because I just had a very large cup of coffee.

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Conflict #1: La Cabrita

Some of you may still be wondering how I managed to end up in Pescadería in the first place, or what I’m actually doing here (sometimes I find myself asking the same question).  Truth is, the Fundación Central Barahona (to make things simple it’s the ‘do-good branch’ of a multi-million dollar Guatemalan sugar company) solicited Peace Corps volunteers to help with various projects they are supporting in the region of Barahona, La Cabrita being one of them.  That’s how I got here.  FCB applied for a Peace Corps Volunteer to be placed in Pescadería to assist the members of La Cabrita, a community project that FCB has helped finance and develop, strengthen their organization, develop business skills, and improve their performance as a business. 

Long story short, FCB and La Cabrita are not on good terms, and actually have not been since even before I arrived to Pescadería in May.  Most of it all stems from lack of confianza (Spanish for trust or confidence, and a key aspect of Dominican culture).  Without being too specific, FCB has said things or acted in ways that the socios do not agree with, so now they feel that FCB or the people that work there cannot be trusted.

The vision of La Cabrita is to become a nation-wide supplier of high-quality goat cheese and yogurt that not only provides the citizens of Pescadería with a nutritional product, but also stimulates economic growth within the community. Unfortunately, the members feel that FCB has ulterior motives for the organization – that the socios are ‘slaves’ to FCB’s grand plan to capture all their profits and take over their project.  If I’m being honest, the idea seems pretty grandiose, but, I have also not been a fan of more than one decision FCB has made in regards to La Cabrita.

So, what does this have to do with me?  To put it short, the members feel threatened when I communicate with the Foundation.  Over time they’ve given me a lot of confianza – at one point knew all their Facebook and email passwords, and had access to documents they were using to applying for various funding projects (including the government loan I mentioned for RD$11,000,000).  All of this information they had provided me with could have made it easy for FCB to meddle with their plans, if they had the intentions La Cabrita believed they did.  After two (and from my point of view, meaningless) interactions with FCB, the members of La Cabrita have decided to put their guards up.  I am not invited to meetings that they consider to be “internal”, and I know very little about what projects they are currently executing.  Why?  Because they’re afraid that I will leak it to the FCB who will use the information against them.  Would I purposefully tell the Foundation information that I think could jeopardize the progress of La Cabrita?  I don’t think I should even have to answer that, but that’s how I have their perspective understood.

How does this make me feel?  Well, frustrated, and kind of sad to be honest.  I’ve given up a life that I was comfortable with to eat every fruit under the sun, to sweat more than I ever could’ve imagined possible, and to make a difference in a group that was provided with the opportunity to take advantage of the skills I have to offer.  I’m sad because I’ve befriended these people, and there has been very little discussion about what I actually did to make them feel like they have to protect themselves from me – and I feel that friends owe that conversation to each other.  I’m frustrated because, without trying to be too selfish, I don’t feel that I’m accomplishing what I expected to, and they’re not taking advantage of a useful resource.

So what am I going to do to fix this?  I think it’s pretty obvious that we have to have a conversation to reach an understanding.  Simple idea, just difficult to coordinate.  I need to recognize why they’ve lost confianza, and what I can do to try to earn at least some of it back; they need to realize that I am in fact not in cohorts with FCB, and that I am here only to help them with what they want to accomplish.  If it’s gotten to a point where for some reason they don’t want my efforts anymore, yes, I will be disappointed.  Bottom line is though, I am here to support people that are looking to be supported; interestingly enough, most volunteers don’t end up working on the original projects they were solicited for in the first place.  I hope that’s not the case with me, because I know that La Cabrita has all the potential in the world to succeed; I believe that I can help them reach at least some of their goals, and they do understand that I’ve done such for them so far.

“Looking-on-the-bright-side” Intermission: My neighbor, Reina, just brought me a ‘tester’ of her new income-generation project – homemade coconut/banana ice cream – and I give it two sticky-thumbs up.

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I can still go to the farm whenever I want, I’m just not invited to some of their meetings, so when I do go I bring my camera and take pictures of all the baby goats!

Conflict #2: La Cancha

Because my efforts with La Cabrita have been on the back burner for a couple months now, I’ve been focusing on other projects to stay involved in the community and still affect positive change.  One of these projects is to construct a basketball court – something that the youth in Pescadería have not had access to in their own community for over 10 years.  As I’ve mentioned, we formed a Youth/Sports group in Pescadería to apply for Courts for Kids, a US organization that brings American youth to other countries to help communities there build basketball courts.  They also provide the community project with US$5000 to purchase construction materials.  In October, Courts for Kids approved Pescadería as one of 7 communities in the DR to build a court, and we’re expecting a group from the States to arrive here June 8th to help finish the construction by June 14th.

So what’s the conflict you ask?  Well, it’s difficult to build a court, or any type of structure for that matter, when you can’t nail down a piece of land to build it on.  Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned but can’t stress enough, politics control (and often ruin) EVERYTHING here.  So, at the moment we have two options:

The “pley” – old baseball field

  • Low-lying area and semi-susceptible to flooding, meaning that if we built a court there the houses around it could fill with water when it rains
  • Surrounded by cow and pig farmers who don’t own the land, but would probably have to be relocated to begin construction = smelly animal poop + disgruntled farmers
  • Pretty central location
  • Rumored plans to use part of the space to build a funeral home – oddly positioned next to a basketball court?
  • PLD (current government/mayor in power) is in complete agreement with this space; mayor has “promised” his support to prepare land by March (sidebar: our mayor was voted as the most corrupt mayor of the southern region)

“Arriba” – next to where they’re currently building the new high school

  • This land was originally donated to the community by former PRD president to build a technical school, but project was never realized
  • Current mayor and the president of the local political party (PLD) “obtained” title to the land and are currently reaping economic benefits from plantains they have planted there – so no, the mayor is not in favor or this site
  • Land to build high school here was originally obtained from mayor because the members of the community held a strike – don’t want that to happen on my account
  • Good walk from the center of town (security of court?), but is the first thing you’d see when entering the community
  • People would regard this space as the “community growing forward”
  • Land is flat, not susceptible to flooding, and would need very little prep work
  • Mayor has said that if we fight to have the court here that he will not contribute to the project financially – what a guy

Basically what it comes down to is, like I’ve said, politics.  The US has plenty of problems to worry about, but political corruption like that seen here is thankfully not one of them.  It’s the PLD (who wants the court built in the old baseball field) versus the PRD (who wants to use the mayor’s land for a community project like originally promised).  And I’m stuck in the middle with an approved project that, regardless of political party, will benefit the community.  I could cancel the project  – not only would Pescadería remain without a court, but Courts for Kids would be very unhappy – but I’m still convinced, though it might not be pretty, that one way or another this can be resolved.

There are two main issues to this court conflict – time, and obviously, location.  Time, in the sense that we have no later than April to start prepping the land so that by the time the group comes, the base and forms of the court are ready.  Time, in the sense that if we do want to go against the mayor and fight for the land that paperwork here can take ages.  Time, in the sense that we still have to raise over RD$300,000 to finance the rest of the construction.

In terms of location, most of my friends and key/responsible community contacts (coincidentally PRDs) believe that the rightful location of the court is where the mayor currently has his crop of plantains.  This is something to take into consideration – have the mayor on our side or listen to the people that truly fight for what their community needs and that have, since the beginning, taken me under their wing (including the people of La Cabrita).

As for the youth/sports group I’m working with, these kids are superstars.  Unlike other parts of the country, the youth in Pescadería are still very safe and sane.  Many are studying or working, and most have found ways to stay out of trouble; despite the fact that there is no official court, playing sports is one of ways they do that.  There are five or six guys (ages 18-27) in particular that have been with me every step of the way, always stopping by my house to share information or to ask what we need to do next.  I try to tell them often as possible that I recognize that because they are the front-runners of this project they are taking a risk, but that I appreciate their dedication and that when this is finished their community will consider them heroes. We have a proposed budget, are working on fundraising (because regardless of the location we’ll need money), and are making the connections necessary to ultimately determine the location of the court.  This is stressful, and not exactly what I signed up for, but helping these kids get justice could be one of the most rewarding parts of my service (once it gets done anyway).

ANYWAY.  I apologize for any ranting or rambling you might have just read, but this is important and this is what is happening.  I am trying to not lose sleep over either of these issues because I know it will all turn out the way it’s supposed to in the long run, but I won’t say that dealing with either situation has been a walk on the beach.  But as easy as it is to feel dejected or deflated when conflicts like these come up, the “little wins” that I keep mentioning are what we as volunteers learn to live for; the photos that I share and/or scroll through when I’m having a bad day; the moments I plan to think of when recalling my service in the Peace Corps.

Omailin helping me water my guandule (pea) garden

Omailin helping me water the guandules (pigeon pea plants) behind my house

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And as my wisest, best, and most honest and loyal source of comfort and advice told me  (can you tell I’m talking about you, Mom?) when I was stressing about these issues: “Kate these are all just stepping-stones on a path.  They are not unimportant, just stones.”