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Dominican Republic Part 1: Sugar Sugar

May 14, 2012

(Guest post by J.D.)

I’m typically not an emotionally reactive person. In fact, amid all of the poverty and challenges of cross-cultural travel during this trip, I only once felt like my emotions were getting the better of me. It was when a young boy, maybe a year or two older than my own son, took my hand and walked with me.

What struck me was the meritless and random determination of privilege. My son has a life in which all his basic needs are met. He has security. He has luxuries. He has great opportunity. That little boy has none of those things. Not because he is less deserving for any reason – but because of where and when he was born.

The first couple days after landing in the Dominican Republic were spent visiting bateyes. A batey (bah-TAY) is essentially a work camp built to house the people working in the sugar cane fields. Dominican sugar companies send headhunters over to Haiti to recruit labourers to fill jobs so bad that Dominicans are unwilling to take them. Rather than just being a temporary camp for seasonal workers they are communities with hundreds or even thousands of permanent residents: male, female, children, adults, elders. Many of these Haitians become practical slaves, unable to obtain the papers required to participate in Dominican society and constantly under threat of deportation by their employer. The bateyes are often given little or no recognition as towns by the government and don’t get basic infrastructure or support.

A sugar cane cutter works all day in the tropical sun using a machete to hack and trim sugar cane: tough and woody like bamboo, wrapped in leaves. They make around $2-3 USD a day. Essentially all income is spent on food – and even then it is not enough. Our group was given 100 pesos ($2.50 USD) and assigned the task of buying a day’s food for a family of seven. The results were sobering – food prices are not that much less than in Canada. We bought some rice, beans, oil – but not enough. With no money left, homes are cobbled together from scrap metal, scavenged wood, tar paper, and whatever else can be found. Many workers were supporting family members disabled by accidents in the field and unable to work with no support from either the government or their employer.

I’ve never considered sugar an expensive item by any measure. Not a luxury. I suppose those are the reasons why.

That little boy was one of many children who ran up to us when we arrived in the batey, took our hands, and stayed with us during our whole visit. Children are children everywhere and these were the same: smiling, fighting, playing, watching, making mischief. The boys all dream of playing major league baseball in the U.S. like so many Dominican athletes. Unlike most of those athletes, however, the children want to use their hoped-for wealth to help their community. The lucky ones will access education through the support of external forces – maybe become clerks, civil servants, teachers, own businesses, work in tourist zones. Most won’t though.

This is where and when they are born and that is what they can do with their situation.


(Later posts will be more uplifting.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jaelyn permalink
    May 16, 2012 10:54 am

    Thanks JD. An eye opener to life in the Dominican Republic that most of us don’t think about when we book an all inclusive vacation and treat our good fortune as a reason for excess and gluttony.

  2. Mary Caudle permalink
    May 19, 2012 8:52 am

    This is a wonderful post JD, very well written. We weren’t aware of the Haitians working in the DR so this was all news to us. We new that the two counries were not friendly, A book about the late president of the DR, Trujillio talked about the animosity they held for the Haitians, likely due to the fact that France and Spain each colonized a part of one island. The poverty is not unique in this world and looks similiar to what we saw in West Africa and other South American countries, especially in the rural areas. Your past Xmas gift to us of a donation to Kiva has provided us with a method to help people in these disadvanged countries. We will make our next donations to the DR and Haiti as they become available. Love Grandpa and Grandma

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