On March 19th, around 11 o’clock at night, our group of 17 students and faculty from the University of
Oregon arrived in the Dominican Republic for the start of a nine day stay in Batey Isabella in the Barahona Province. This trip was the culmination of a class titled ‘Global Citizenship- Dominican
Republic Seminar,’ taught by Kelsey South for which the students received 2 credits and learned about the history of bateys in the DR. These communities were formed in the early 20th century when sugar companies imported Haitian workers to cut sugar cane. Numerous social and political realities still hinder the development of these communities and the residents face much greater poverty and marginalization than other Dominicans.
After spending our first night in Santo Domingo, we loaded up on a bus and traveled the four and half hours down to Isabella, watching as the landscape slowly changed from the green, rolling hills of the Capitol and its surroundings to the arid, flat (but with mountains visible in the distance), desert of the South. We went with our assumptions, borne from the photos and movies we had seen, about what poverty is and means for a people, expecting to see misery and sadness, and so found those assumptions challenged when we arrived in Batey Isabella and our bus was greeted by countless smiling, excited children.
We unloaded into our three houses, ate the first of many delicious meals provided by the loving Doña, then got ready to work. Our first day we helped level the land, but our progress was stopped short by lack of materials and a cement mixer. Although we still did not have a cement mixer the next day, we knew we had to press forward, and so we learned how to make concrete by hand. Over the course of the next few days we got to be experts at this, earning the respect of the Dominicans we were working with so that, by the end of the second day, whereas earlier the work site had been divided between Dominicans and Americans, we had come to be a united team working to accomplish the same goal.
One evening we were treated to an excellent talk by several Peace Corps volunteers and their Dominican counterparts from the NGO Reconocido about the particular issues facing Dominicans of Haitian descent, and were encouraged to spread the word to our friends and family back home.
As the days progressed, we continued to grapple with questions like, what is the role of development? What does our presence here mean? As the barriers between the community and our own group came down, and as we learned more and more about each other, the answers to our questions became more clear. Although the issues of development are very complex, we realized that aside from just helping to empower this marginalized community realize a long-standing dream, the meaningful and lasting relationships we were forming, as well as the cross-cultural understandings we came to, were important.
After overcoming several hurdles, on Monday we were able to complete the court. Although we are from different cultures and backgrounds, Americans and Dominicans celebrated together as we poured the last bit of cement. The celebration carried over into Tuesday, when we inaugurated the court with what felt like the whole community, followed by an intense game of basketball. That final night the community treated us to a talent show and then a pretty epic dance party.
With heavy hearts we boarded the bus on Wednesday. Although it was a sad departure, we left with the lessons that the wonderful people of Batey Isabella taught us. The community taught us myriad lessons about the world and ourselves, namely about the human element of communication, about the universality of love, and about the importance of family
and community. We also carried a new mantra into our unknown futures, a new way of seeing things. As a friend had shared with us during one of our nightly reflections, we left with the words, “Find the sweet spot between what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.” In those regards, the trip was a great success.
This trip has allowed me to realize how much is universal. There is obviously a language barrier but the smiles and laughter are recognizable among any culture. I love how the simple facial expressions are the main components of making bonds and building friendships. This trip has given me confidence that I now know no matter where I go, I’ll be able to connect with others.
I think my favorite moment was on our third day of construction, it was so hot outside. Everyone was working hard—mixing cement, carrying cement, pouring cement. All the kids were trying to carry the heavy cement buckets. I could barely carry them so the kids were really struggling to carry the buckets but they wanted to help so bad. I stood by the court ready to help life the buckets. Some of the kids just tried to hand me the bucket but I told them, “No, together.” For a solid hour I was running back and forth holding buckets and pouring cement. After a while I thought, I’m not building a court for kids, I’m building a court with kids.
I understand more clearly that people can live very differently but still have the same values. I think the universality of humanity is most evident when you put yourself in a new country, with a different language and culture. We all want the same things: love, joy, fun. No matter where you are, if you make the effort you can build relationships.
I came here expecting everything would be so different from what I knew, but was instead shocked by how similar I was to the people I met in Batey Isabella. Just as it would in the United States, a simple game of thumb war allowed me to connect with the children and bring smiles to their faces. It is beautiful how universal smiles and laughter are and how even with a language barrier if you can make a child smile you can make a life-long friend.
The community can not afford to have electricity throughout the entire day, but instead of letting this
ruin their day they just go outside, laugh with their neighbors and continue to live their lives. A young girl once took my hand and started dancing bachata with me. It did not matter that there was no music and that there was mud beneath our feet. In that moment we were happy. -Mallory Parke
I learned that, everybody, deep down, is the same. Everybody loves their children, values friendship, and also values love. Communities care about the well being of their peers and loved ones and I’ve learned that that doesn’t change. Children run around and imitate older people, they fight, they play, and they interact the same.
However, I think the most important thing I’ve learned about the world is that you don’t need language to communicate. There is valuable communication in laughter, smiles, and simple things like doing somebody’s hair (which happened to me often). That taught me that I can smile at somebody down the street in my own town and that simple form of communication can bring light to somebody’s day…and I wouldn’t even have to say anything.
It’s hard to pick a favorite memory. After all, so much has happened here. I loved celebrating with a community with which I do not share a similar language. Although gaining the respect of the men my age through working hard and arm wrestling was something I will never forget. And who could forget about the children. They are the reason we came here, and their curiosity, joyfulness, and obnoxious bombardments of questions and games made me feel connected with this batey the instant I arrived. So I don’t really have a favorite memory: I have a week feel of amazing memories.
[My favorite memories from the trip] are the little things: fist pounding with the Dominican workers to communicate solidarity; sensing la doña’s warmth and kindness and eating the delicious food she cooked; hugging my favorite little kid (Diego); and being drenched in sweat, dirt, and concrete at the end of the day and feeling exhausted but also inspired, connected, and fulfilled. Also watching the Americans and Dominicans communicating and interacting and working together more and more, day by day, until we were a united team.