An Invitation to Hispaniola

Three years ago, I was led to move to the island of Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Thirty years ago, I lived in Haiti for six months and fell in love with her proud people. I could not, of course, even voice my current desire to return; it was madness to even think it. Haiti was under the protection of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, and even the Peace Corps had withdrawn. The Dominican Republic, however, was a suitable destination, host to thousands of tourists every year with a reasonably sized English-speaking expatriate community. Never mind that I had never been there. I had lived before in Grenada and then in Puerto Rico off and on. Friends urged me to visit first, but I knew that a few weeks as a visitor would not help in the long process of becoming accustomed to a new culture, and would perhaps give me enough pictures of piles of garbage, starving street dogs, and hungry children to dissuade me.

I was both pushed and pulled into exile. Having spent my life concerned with peace and social justice, my heart was cracked to breaking to see the state of my country. I could not envision that I had anything new to contribute to the discussion and imagined that if I remained, I would be led to such extreme civil disobedience that I might be imprisoned. I hoped to be more useful and feel more productive in another part of the Americas. I had long held a concern for the legacy of our slaveholding history, whose remnants reach at least down into Brazil and are particularly strong in all the lands of sugar cane. I speak reasonably fluent French and adequate Spanish, so Hispaniola seemed the perfect spot. I also had a growing concern for my extended family and for others in my generation, particularly women, who might be facing increasingly financially insecure retirement years, without much sense of usefulness. Could I perhaps find a habitable place, an interesting corner in the developing world in which to live? One where I could live a simple life in reasonable comfort and still have a sense of making a contribution?

"I have no doubt that you have a genuine leading," my elder Friend said to me, as she poured tea for the three other Quakers and me during a clearness committee meeting that I had requested. "What concerns me is your expectation that the meeting should follow you." This sound observation, made five years ago, still informs me. It was true then, when I was extremely burdened with my concern for Vieques, that I held the unreasonable expectation that the meeting would perhaps transform itself from a group of quiet contemplatives into a small army of activists and go with me into the bombing range. As I struggle a bit with loneliness, being far from the loving center of assembled Friends, I find that once again I cherish the hope that some Friends might also feel led to relocate here—to what for many might seem the edge of the Earth, but is in fact a very close neighbor.

Listening for the will of God, as expressed through the sense of the meeting, became a spiritual exercise in my ongoing quest for divine obedience. In the course of my four years with the Vieques witness, I learned that a leading is a burden not only to the concerned Friend but also to the entire meeting—and that a burden shared is a burden lessened. So I seek to share my enthusiasm and my concern for this island, and her two developing democracies, with the wider community of Friends. I also learned that the Light that comes forth from an assembled and gathered meeting is often as nurturing as its physical presence. So I know that while I may be alone here in the Dominican Republic, Friends in Asheville, North Carolina, hold me in their collective light. And now perhaps the Light will shine from an even larger body of Friends.

I spent a year in preparation, packing up and shipping off my various treasures, startled by how much emotional energy I had invested in my "stuff." How could I have grown so emotionally involved with all these inanimate objects—these dishes, books, and clothes? I proceeded through my possessions as if they belonged to a recently deceased relative. But I was far more informed and was able to include notes with the dispatched treasures. "This shawl comes from the marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. I spent the day there and examined every shawl and this was the finest." My wish was that my goddaughter be transported back there with me. Some of the treasure had to sit in the garage in boxes for months before I stopped mourning it. Friends comforted me with the thought that I could always get a storage shed; but I have always thought that they are God’s way of telling you that you have too much stuff. I left the States with two suitcases, my guitar, and a laptop.

This detachment from my material possessions was good preparation for the more difficult challenges that occurred and continue to occur after leaving my familiar community of friends and family, language and culture, climate and trees. I am pushed daily into a more profound relationship with my Inner Guide, relying more deeply on the strength found in silence.

Inspired perhaps by Monteverde and visions of utopia, I had dreams of a dairy goat farm, making chocolate milk, not taking into account the stark reality that, having been raised in New York City, I had never even milked a goat. Unlike Costa Rica, there is no Quaker presence here. Yet I was definitely drawn to this Afro-Caribbean area, which seemed like a bit of New York.

My first placement here was in Las Terrenas, a small, recent settlement in the northeast Samana Peninsula, a predominantly Protestant area once populated by freed slaves sent down from Philadelphia. Via the Internet, I had made contact with one of the few U.S. expatriates who lived there. Over a six-month correspondence, we became friends. Once I arrived, I reveled in the spectacular beauty of the region, with the palm tree-lined white sand beaches rising up to the mountains. I set about the business of starting a new life, finding housing, making friends. For the first year, all was going well. There was a little free school set up by some of the French residents that needed help, a new children’s library starting, a sense that there was a growing community of people with good intentions.

When I returned from a summer visit back to the States, seeing friends and family, collecting books for the library, and being in place to witness the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the horrible racist consequences, I found my little apartment flooded, my clothes moldy, the concrete wall seeping water after every rainfall. I fled to a hotel and searched for a new home; but reasonable rental housing with indoor plumbing, my minimum requirement, was in short supply. I was forced into a lovely little villa that strained my budget and challenged my thoughts of simplicity. I comforted myself that I could stay for a year and family could come to visit and be reassured that I was doing well; then perhaps something more modest would open up.

One day, two young Haitians stopped me in the road. "Aidez-moi, madame. Ayuda me." One had been hit in the head with a rock by a group of Dominicans. The lump above his ear was obvious. He could not hear. I took them both home, laid the victim down with an icepack and called a doctor back home from Asheville Meeting. How serious was this? Did he need to go to the major hospital, two hours away? "Yes," my friend assured me after a series of questions asked, translated, and answered. "It is serious enough. He may lose his hearing."

So I went to the bank and withdrew money to pay for the hospital, a service free to Dominicans but costly to undocumented Haitians. He returned in two days, with his wound drained, his hearing restored, his eyes clearer, his spirits lifted, and his hand out for more money for prescription drugs. Two days later my house was entered and robbed for the first time. It was the first of what were to be constant robberies, every few days for six weeks.

I went to the police, who politely took down the information and did nothing. I went to the reporter of the little newspaper who said, "Sorry, we don’t print anything like that as we are supported by the real estate developers." I became more concerned over the general lack of security and the growing problem of the distribution of crack cocaine in the village. I spoke to the ex-pats in the cafe. I went to the local political party whose officials came over and empathized. "We people of good conscience should surround the distribution houses and shut them down." We agreed but in the end there were not enough of us.

Meanwhile, a series of Haitians in need started appearing at my gate. A cut foot, a burned face. I gave what I could in first aid and comfort, and more than I could afford in money for medications.

I did not know if the robberies were from the Haitians whom I had helped or the Dominicans who wanted me to stop helping and remain silent on security issues. One day I returned home to find my hammock cut down from my porch, my guitar and one suitcase missing, and three empty bullet casings beside my bed. I packed my remaining suitcase, had a pizza party with my friends, and was on the plane to the capital of Santo Domingo the next day, abandoning my remaining clothes and books.

The capital better suited my capacities. I soon located the ecumenical Protestant church, which also holds services in three languages and a reasonably silent worship on Tuesday evenings. I also found two English libraries, an English-speaking theater group, and a studio apartment two blocks from the Malecon, the beautiful park walk that lines the sea near the Colonial Zone, first capital of the Americas. Having learned that it is dangerous here to undertake any sort of solitary action, I started looking for the groups who were working on Haitian-Dominican issues. Through one of them, I was able to travel to Haiti across the northern border in Dajabon and see the contrast between these two nations.

Both these countries struggle with their visions of development. Both have substantial populations living below the global poverty limits of $2 a day. The predominant model of capitalism that is being exported is the free trade zone. One factory built on the Haitian border manufactures clothing for Levis and Sara Lee. Through the concerted efforts of the Haitian workers, supported by international solidarity groups, the factory wages were raised to $3 a day. This is not ideal, but there are jobs here for 1,300 people who work in a clean, well-lit place with ample sanitation, far better than the heavy construction jobs and the sugar cane cutting that await other Haitians. And jobs are precious for Haiti, which has now an estimated 80,000 salaried jobs for a nation of 8,000,000.

I struggle for a vision of economic growth without exploitation. Is this the best that capitalism can offer? As masses of new jeans leave the factory, the bottom end of excess floods back across the border in the form of factory overruns and Goodwill used clothing that are shipped to Haiti and sold in the market in the Dominican Republic. Haitian women choose from these the finest styles, manufacture them for themselves, and walk into the market wearing beautifully tailored $150 dresses. On their return journey they carry cartons for eggs, in flats of 48 stacked up to eight high.

There is a hazy alternative vision forming. I have met with the director of the Heifer Project for Haiti who longs to see the 235-mile-long border region developed as an ecotourist destination with small, self-sustaining villages; houses with guest rooms; alternative energy. Haiti has many advantages, despite the poverty, or perhaps because of it. Much of the area is pristine, with no industrial pollution. It is not petroleum-dependent, being barely electrified. Many international organizations stand ready to assist this poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere, in a rush to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals of cutting severe poverty in half by 2015.

I left some of my fine cotton clothing up on the border with three Haitian women for them to embroider so that I could take it back to the States and look for markets. The art of embroidery and crochet, along with all the visual arts, still thrives in Haiti. Perhaps Friends have seen the new style of jeans, imitations of the hand-embroidered ones that many of us wore in the ’60s? Some of these are being sold in the U.S. for more than $200 a pair. If the Haitian women were equipped with the materials they need—needles, thread, scissors, eyeglasses, all impossibly expensive and difficult to get in Haiti—could they not perhaps sew and embroider their way into some level of fair-traded development? Could not Friends, with their tradition of sending resource kits, start assembling these little kits for delivery through American Friends Service Committee, and through Plan International, which has workers well placed throughout Haiti? I already have offers from people in San Francisco and New York to help with the marketing. And there are millions of Haitian women who can sew. And thousands of pairs of blue jeans.

It is an ongoing process, this following of my leading; and it will shift and sift until it reaches the Light and its destination. One Friend alone cannot do much. But with your collective energy and Light, we could make a difference. I am sure that there is more than one among you who dreams, as I did, of leaving the bonds and confines of your current life and setting out on a new adventure. There is much available land on the border for sustainable development, should a community finally arise. Egg farming first, perhaps, before the chocolate milk. Or simply a school. Or even just a meeting. There is always room for one or two more in my studio apartment.

I ask that Friends hold me, this leading, and this beautiful island and her diverse, glorious, and cheerful population in the Light of God.