Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Death in the DR

One of the most interesting things that I have learned in my service is how universal connections between human beings are. After 10 months in my new community I can proudly say that I feel like I am from here and that certain people in this area have accepted me not only as the “Americana” but as a daughter, niece, sister and friend. I feel like I've lived here my entire service. “Aplatanada” they say, which means I am one of them.
Family is number one in Dominican culture. Cousins who grow up together refer to each other as sister-cousins because calling each other cousins just doesn't quite describe the relationship accurately. You would be hard pressed to find a homeless Dominican outside of the large cities. Why? Because the people here take care of each other. They find places for the family members and friends to sleep and make a little extra food to make sure no one goes hungry.
Yesterday, La Red Guaconejo (my project) lost a close member of our family. Tita was the wife of the ex-president, Hilario, and both founding members of La Red, godparents of a close friend and leaders in their community.
Death in the rural areas of the DR is very different from American culture. As soon as the person dies (almost always in their house) the funeral begins. The house fills up with neighbors, family and friends to pay their respects. I mean inside, outside and in the street; people everywhere. Sometimes, the family will just leave the body in bed or laying on a table for viewing. In my personal observations here there is no shame in death, nor do people fear it. At first I thought it was disgusting that the body was just left in a bed but not only are there not many other options (Tita was in a casket with a window to see her face), but the rawness of the situation is what molds this culture to be fearless of death and gives them closure.
People pass through the room to say goodbye and then sit around for hours talking. It is customary for people to cry loudly, even scream, not holding back on showing their emotions. Plastic chairs are usually rented and it's common for about dozen of the family's closest friends to spend the night at the house. Since there are no embalming processes, the body is buried the next day. On this day the family of the deceased makes a huge feast (think food for 100+ people) for those who flock from near and far to show their support. After lunch there is a short mass and then everyone piles into pickup trucks for the procession to the cemetery. Goodbye music is played as the caravan parades through the nearby communities to the burial spot.
Once the deceased is buried (usually above ground) the process of los nueve dias, or the nine days of mourning begins. For nine consecutive days the house is totally open as a memorial to the deceased and many of the same people are there every day with the family, praying and remembering the life of their lost loved one. On the last day, the vela, which is the formal funeral prayer service, is held to close out the nine days of mourning. Attendees wear only black or white to show their respect.
In traditional cases, the anniversary of the death of that person is then remembered each month for two years. Once two years have passed the family is officially no longer mourning publicly.

Tita's funeral was really the first that I had been to here of someone who I knew. Being there with everyone gave me a sense of connectedness. These people take care of each other come hell or high water. Tita passed away from complications of advanced diabetes. She was in her early sixties. She can be seen in the trailer in this link at 1:05 sitting in front of the cocoa dryer right next to her house talking about the importance of development in her community. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On being pregnant in the DR

No, I'm not with child. This post was inspired by my mom, who told me that “no one would believe that shit if you told them that” after I shared this story with her recently.
Pregnancy is the Dominican Republic is a very interesting concept, different from my US perception.

First, it's almost absolutely impossible that a women doesn't have children and much more impossible at my age. I am asked almost daily why I don't have any kids or if my equipment doesn't work. Needless to say most women start and finish having children young. Kids raising kids.
Young men are dying to have kids and grown men want as many children as possible. It's like a status symbol. In rural areas it's not uncommon for a man to have two families, which is also a symbol of power and wealth. Women who are sterile or cannot have kids are often not married and seen as useless.

Pregnant women hold a special place in society here. They are adored by all men and are usually waited on hand and foot. Have to pee on the bus? No chance the driver will stop but if you tell him you're pregnant he'll pull over ASAP. Dominicans have some pretty crazy explanations for life's little wonders. One of my favorite ones is that when a child is born with a birth mark it means that the mother was not given the food she was craving and so it “stains” the child. No joke, people believe that.

Many women go their entire pregnancy without seeing a doctor. Not because they don't want to, but because they don't have the money and/or live in very rural areas that are almost inaccessible. I imagine being pregnant here would be much like being hungover in this country; it's 110 degrees outside and no air conditioning in sight, the water you are dying to drink could potentially make you sick and none of the food you want is available. Sounds pretty awful to me.

So yesterday late afternoon I head down to my host family's house to pay them a visit. They are from one the most rural communities in this area. To get there you either have to be in a very stable four wheel drive vehicle with an experienced driver (good luck finding either of those), by motorcycle (not recommended) or you can walk. It's about an hour motorcycle ride or thirty minutes on a motorcycle and a forty five minute hike. Either way you have to cross the river about 8 times, half of those times there is no bridge. You may remember this post when I went up to see another PCV's new house with the safety and security coordinator of Peace Corps.
When I arrive to their house I find my host mom's nephew Joel, his brother, and his girlfriend who is sitting in a chair in their kitchen in labor. When I turn the corner I see her water has broken all over the floor and she proceeds to tell me that she came down this morning at hour on a motorcycle riding down the mountain on the back of a motorcycle on a (rough) dirt road while in labor. ON THE BACK OF A MOTORCYLE IN LABOR. Mud flying, rock dodging...I can only assume she rode side-saddle because I can't imagine straddling a motorcycle while in labor. Jesus Cristo. As I go to get her a glass of water she stands up and tells my host sister that it's time to WALK to the hospital. They all agree it's good for her to get a little exercise. The hospital in my community is a 15 minute walk and she had been in labor all day. No epidermal no nada for the pain. Drenched in sweat Losauri took her by the arm and I watch them walk slowly down the street, my host mom in tow with towels and sheets because the hospital doesn't provide those things.
The hospital here does not really allow people to spend the night as they don't have the resources to pay staff members to do night shifts so in most cases the woman is given an IV and her vitals are monitored as she gives birth. She almost always goes home within an hour of giving birth because the hospital doesn't have enough beds to accommodate all of the sick people in the community.
This is normal here. All of the things that you and I find inconveniences and hardships in my story are totally normal for her, as this is her third time going through the process of giving birth.

The situation for giving birth here may not be up to our standards but the highlight of the experience was seeing the excitement and nervousness on Joel's face to welcome their newest member of the family into the world. I asked why he didn't want to go to the hospital right away and he said he hated to see her in pain. I stayed to help in the family store with my host dad since everyone was at the hospital and a few hours later when I was leaving I saw Joel finally going up to the hospital. As he passed me on my street he turned and waved, flashing an ear to ear grin.