Right to Reply

This post has been inspired by a comment made by our dear friend Lin Bloor.  Lin is one of our most faithful blog readers, commenters and thought provokers. She is also a mother of 4 young children and home educator. She is also an amazing cook; she makes the most fantastic cheesecakes in the world and runs a cookery school from her own home, complete with wonderful website www.linsfood.com. Definitely worth a visit. Lin, this post is inspired by and dedicated to you.

In response to Richard’s post entitled ‘The Park of Disappointment’, Lin commented:

I wish I had the time to write all the things that come to mind with this post, Richard! Lack of civic pride is abundantly obvious even here in Southbourne. Broken glass in the playground? Try the little one by the Stourfield schools!
This is meant to be an observation not a criticism. There’s been a bit of moaning (for lack of a better word) in recent posts.
The next are my feelings, not meant to be antagonistic. A simpler life in a simpler society comes with its drawbacks. Of course these are drawbacks to non locals. Who are we to condemn others’ lack of civic pride and attitude to life?
As a recreational diver, I have been to many places like where you live now because it’s always those with the least amount of modernisation that gave us the best dive sites. What I could never stomach was all the criticisms, cynicism and mockery I’d hear from many fellow divers about the people and the places we were at.
And this last is not meant to be patronising. Don’t let your frustrations overshadow your search for a Utopian existence. Lin xx

Lin’s post was very thought-provoking on many fronts. I started to write a comment in response to Lin’s, which quickly grew into an article in it’s own right.  Here it is:

If it appears as if Victor Meldrew has been writing our recent posts then we apologise faithful reader – I can only say that our posts try to truly reflect our feelings and experiences without any gloss or hyperbole. If we are appearing to moan, it could be that we are getting a bit weary of some of the problems (or at least what we as “long-stay visitors” perceive as problems) that are needlessly endemic here.

I completely understand what you are saying about the recreational divers and their crass, unsupported comments and criticisms about places they drop into for a few days. I have encountered plenty of the type of people that I think Lin refers to, especially when working on cruise ships. I was endlessly amazed and outraged at the extremely well-heeled passengers who would disembark for a few hours in port, and then criticise the street vendors, and hawkers for ‘hassling’ them. The one thing cruise-ship passengers have is choice: land or don’t land. Buy or don’t buy. The locals have few, if any choices and are just trying to scrape a living by whatever means they can. So don’t disembark from a $25,000 cruise dripping in diamonds and criticise the locals for wanting to polish your shoes for a dollar.

I hope, however, that we are not being tarred with that same brush, because our criticism is always constructive, our cynicism is based directly on experience and we do not mock the Dominican people any more than anyone else (and usually ourselves most of all).

I fully accept that a simpler life in a simpler society comes with its drawbacks (there is no Waitrose anywhere on this island for example!) and whilst I do fully agree with previous comments that it is not our place to invade this (what could be a devastatingly beautiful) country and try to change their culture, I think I do have the right to condemn the lack of civic pride here, in exactly the same way as I would condemn it in Southbourne – I am not a geographist!. I have risked a punch in the face many times in the UK by telling groups of kids not to drop bottles, cans and cigarette packets in my local park and I will continue to do so wherever I go in the world. I have very much a “live and let live” attitude to life until other people’s behaviour has a negative impact on somebody else, (especially me) and then I’m afraid I do think I have the right to speak up, to question their lack of civic pride and to question their attitude to life. Not only do I think it’s a right, I think it is the responsibility of anyone who wants to live in a civilised society.

I doubt if any of us would accept someone driving into our neighbourhood, opening their car door, depositing a sackful of rubbish in our street or park and driving away again. It happens here all the time. So yes, I will continue to question the lack of civic pride here and some of the ways they chose to live their life because 1)it affects me and my community and 2) I have earned it. We are not here for a lovely two week vacation and then back to our very comfortable lives in our home country. We work hard here as volunteers and are trying hard to improve our school and to integrate into the community by learning the language and understanding the culture.

We are not looking for a Utopian existence – a different, simpler life for sure but nothing unrealistic and unachievable. But, and here is the rub, this is not Utopia – far from it! The Dominican Republic is part of the developing world, but not the under-developed world. People here have access to education and are well connected to the rest of the world via the internet, 24 hour news, a range of newspapers and 300+channels of multi-lingual, multi-cultural TV. There are lots of indigenous, extremely wealthy people in the DR (Santo Domingo, the capital city, proudly boasts more Mercedes Benz per capita than any other capital city in the world!) They are in the throes of a presential campaign that rivals (relatively) anything in the USA in terms of money thrown at the campaign trail.

Nagua has its fair share of big beautiful homes and plenty of Porsches and Mercedes on the roads. This wealth has been acquired here through local businesses and as a little bit of a Thatcherite I applaud this achievement; the main street in town is linded with small and medium sized private enterprises – supermarkets, opticians, clothes shops, bars, restaurants , private schools, etc the owners of which are the Porsche-driving –big- house- owners of Nagua. But let me give you an example of what irks me about this town, and yes country because we have travelled enough to know these problems are not peculiar to Nagua. These businesses inevitably generate lots of rubbish which is often just dumped out on the street to be washed away by the rain into the river and eventually to the sea. Along the coastline here there is an on-shore wind which blows all the rubbish back onto the beach. We have moaned endlessly about the state of our local beach and the reason we moan is because the problem could so easily disappear with a little effort and consideration others and the future.

As a result, the streets, the rivers, the parks and the local beach, is so covered in trash – food cartons, broken glass, old shoes, nappies, plastic bottles and a whole lot worse it’s basically unusable by anyone (locals and non-locals alike). I have seen this problem on many other Caribbean Islands, and sadly many of the most beautiful islands in the world in the South Pacific, like Tonga and Bora Bora. But just because this issue is widespread doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged by those with a different perspective.

My point ( which I am labouring I know, blame the beer) is that whilst the Porsche-driving-big-house-living business owner has a right to make as much money as he can, he also has a RESPONSIBILITY to clean up after himself. There are dumpsters on the streets and there is a surprisingly regular rubbish collection. So disposing of rubbish responsibly is easy but it takes slightly more effort than just leaving it in the street. It is that small extra effort which is so sadly lacking that could make all the difference between us living in something close to Utopia and something close to a rubbish tip.

Before the rubbish from the town makes it way to the beach it detours via the local river. There is, for want of a better word, a shanty town on the river bank. Nagua’s poorest and most desolate souls make their home here. The dwellings are nothing more than bits of corrugated iron leaning precariously against each other, offering the barest minimum of privacy and shelter. But they are generally occupied by women with young children – the dads are long gone and the mums can’t work because they have young children to look after. They have nobody to turn to for help and there is no welfare state here. Their children’s playground is the heavily polluted river and the mountains (this is not an exaggeration) of rubbish that is piled up around their home. I am pretty sure if I asked the shanty town dwellers if they would like something to be done about Nagua’s rubbish problem (and its associated dangers and disease) they would answer with an enthusiastic “Si Senora” . So the issues we try to highlight are not just “draw backs to non-locals” but issues that affect our whole community, often the poorest, most down-trodden and whose voice is least likely to be heard. The business owners, on the other hand, who dump their rubbish that ends up in this river, have lovely homes in beautifully manicured gardens with not a blade of grass or a palm frond out of place.

Of course the rubbish problem is not created by solely by the business owners of Nagua; it is a problem created by all of us and needs to be addressed by all of us collectively. But the problem exists to such a degree that the locals are, in some sense, oblivious to it. Why should I put bother to put my crisp packet in the bin when the streets are so filthy that one more crisp packet won’t make any difference.

To speak directly to our experience rather than speculating on why the problem exists everywhere in the DR and other beautiful places in the world, I will draw on examples from our school. There is a big problem with a lack of respect in the school and it drives me bonkers. The students don’t respect teachers, they do not respect the fabric of their school and its property, they do not respect books and they do not respect learning. Many of them write nothing in their books but they scribble on desks, walls and window shutters in black permanent marker.

Left unchallenged at school, this behaviour extends into the wider community and I have seen evidence of our 15 year old pupil’s graffiti-ing the walls of our town and have seen them with my own despairing eyes throwing bottles and cans out of a moving bus. I wish I could confidently say there is no way any of our pupils are responsible for the vandalism in the park but I cannot. For other examples of their appalling lack of respect for fellow students see an earlier post, “The Show Must Go On”.

Despite the fact that there are several huge bins and dumpsters in the school yard, at the end of the school day, the yard is full of discarded bottles, cups and crisp packets which the poor school caretaker spends a couple of pointless hours every afternoon sweeping up.

When Rich and I first arrived, full of optimism and enthusiasm, not a cynical bone in our bodies, we tried to organise a “Be proud of your school” campaign, encouraging everyone to take responsibility for, and a pride in, their school environment. I addressed the whole school in my fledgling Spanish asking if they dropped litter in their own house and garden “No of course not!” “Do you scribble on tables, chairs and walls at home?” “No of course not.” “So why do you do it it here?” Stony silence. To cut a long story short (hardly my forte so welcome it here please!) our campaign failed miserably due to lack of support from above and whilst I still battle on against the litter and graffiti in my classrooms, I no longer have the heart to tackle the yard.

I have been unable to inspire any action for my idea to clean up the school and get the students to take a pride in and responsibility for their school environment. Teachers and students readily agree that the litter and graffiti is a big problem but putting the effort into a solution, well, it’s just too much effort really! In her comment, Lin says: “A simpler life in a simpler society comes with its drawbacks. Of course these are drawbacks to non locals “. Based on our experience, I want to challenge this view and say that these are draw backs for the locals and non-locals equally. I have surveyed anyone who will stand still and listen about the litter problems at the school and in the town and nobody says “Yes but we like living in a rubbish tip”. They all agree that the school and the town would be a much nicer place if it were litter and graffiti free but that’s as far as their irritation can stretch.

At the school we have a very forward thinking bill of children’s rights. It details their rights to be educated in a safe environment, to be nurtured, to be cared for equally without prejudice, all the ideas you would expect to see in a modern thinking western school in a developed nation. This is progressive and of course it is to be welcomed. What is sadly lacking is a list of the children’s responsibilities. The situation is not balanced and inevitably, as all things which are unbalanced are wont to do, it will topple over, taking the school with it.

I have tried to explain this to the teachers (in Spanish so there could of course be a wide gulf between what I intended to say and what I actually did say!) and they nod and applaud enthusiastically – wouldn’t this improve the our working lives, improve the children’s academic results and generally be an all-round good thing for the school? Oh yes everyone agrees – but when I ask the question, “Right, where shall we start?” there is foot shuffling and a hasty retreat from the room. Change and improvement is beyond their grasp.

There is a difficult and fine balance to be struck here: between foreigners like us using our education and experience of other parts of the world to offer help to create: “un mejor pais pero para todos “(“a better society but for everyone”, the presidential campaign slogan of one of the forerunning candidates in the up-coming elections) and sticking our noses into a culture we don’t understand. We have maintained all along that it is not our right, role or intention to change the culture here. I don’t see, however, that dumping waste from your businss in the street, breaking rum bottles in a children’s playground or trashing the school has anything to do with culture, I see it simply as bad behaviour and I would challenge that any where in the world. I was invited here as an educator and in that role I very much see bad behaviour as my responsibility to try to improve.

So I will continue to nag the kids to pick up their rubbish in my classroom and to clean the names off their desks and walls. To challenge restaurant owners who serve inedible food and dog owners who let their Rottweilers roam the streets biting people. If it ever means that one child does not need stitches because they have fallen on a broken bottle in a park, a restaurant patron is spared food-poisoning, and innocent Sunday strollers are never again bitten by an out-of-control dog, then my “moaning” will definitely have paid off.

Ahh, I feel much better now. Not sure if it’s just getting that all off my chest or my first ice cold beer since Christmas 2010 but either way it’s a nice feeling. Thank you Lin.


  1. LinsFood says:

    Touche! Siempre tu amiga! xx

  2. paul says:

    Oh dear, where to start? I so agree with you Alison. Ok, calm down, draft 2. People are lazy, no matter how educated they are some people have a part of their brain missing when it comes to litter. People are sheep, they add to an existing problem then claim it wasn’t their fault. I hate this. You should take a walk along Chesil Beach in the summer if you want evidence of this, as every angler seems to leave his own sacrifice to the litter gods. When i leave the beach I clear the beach around me, but alas,I can only carry one black sack. Does this make me a hero? No, I think it makes me normal. I could go on (i did infact, but deleted the first draft) and though I applaud your efforts, you will never win. Peple are sheep. Can you educate sheep? I don’t think so, you can round them up and make them scared, but as soon as you turn your back they will run away and just carry on as before. Oh, and your front lawn needs a cut…. Paul xx

  3. Ted Walkden says:

    WELL that’s a great deal of built in feelings off your chest Alison, pleased you feel better with a beer :-)
    I mentioned in an earlier response Richard should become a politician, well I have changed my mind, it’s YOU who should be.
    Whilst I agree with your principals, please be careful, remember you are not in the UK and as you mention locals could be envious and you never know how they may react……..
    The slums you mention are not only in the DR, every country in the world have these. Equality between all will never be achieved in this world BUT I agree with trying to educate the children to be tidy as well as schooled with other education.
    Well done but be careful.

  4. Nana says:

    You must be feeling so much better inside yourself having shared your feelings with most of us who feel as you do about problems which non of us can solve. Iknow as my daughter how strongly you feel and as long as you are away will have a constant battle on your hands. No consolation i know so keep on banging your pretty head and i will watch this space! L ove you xxxxxxxxxxxx

  5. david sparrowe says:

    Hi Alison, thanks for all the interesting posts. This one leaves me wondering from the point of view of respect, how bad-language is used and treated in DR, espesially when it comes to the kids at school?

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