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Re-entry–Zoë Elizabeth and “Holy sticky notes, Batman”

Jeanie:  Juli-Ann and I left Santiago on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 2.  We felt sad–always hard to say “goodbye”, especially because we have no prospects of returning–but, hope springs eternal, so we “nos vemos, si Dios quiere” (we’ll see you, God willing) as we made a last round of hugs.

Uneventful trips home–Juli-Ann to Omaha and me to New Hampshire.  Here is what, rather who!, I had waiting for me:

Zoë Elizabeth, Jeff and Alyson's new baby. Jeff and Alyson are adopting her. Zoë was born in Ohio the day before I left and didn't come back to NH until mid-January so I had not yet held her!

In spite of the thrill of a new grandbaby, re-entry was hard as always.  First, I am always TIRED!  More importantly, the problems I leave behind don’t solve themselves, the unfinished tasks don’t do themselves, and new problems and tasks accumulate while I’m gone.  And organizing/prioritizing all that can be a nightmare.  So, what do Juli-Ann and I do when we have a big confusing organizing task?  Pull out the sticky notes! 

Holy sticky notes, Batman!

I started going through all my lists, all my emails from the past 6 weeks, etc. and put one task on each note.  Then I arranged them by catagories (NHPHA work, follow-up on the DR project, misc., etc) and prioritized within each category.  “Finish the final blog posts” is one I am about to cross off.  I recommend this technique highly!!

Thanks to our readers!

Last Interviews and Model Construction

Jeanie: We did our last set of interviews on Sunday.  We only had 5 names; we always want more than the number we hope to interview because always someone is not available for whatever reason.  Sunday was no exception so we only got to do 3 interviews.  This certainly decreases any reliability of what we find but we can emphasize that in our report to ADOPEM.  Basically, what we got is what we got!

Puñal, the barrio we went to, is very different from Hato del Yaque.  First, it is obviously much more prosperous.  Most families live in houses constructed on concrete block.  In addition, the block is covered with stucco and painted so the barrio looks bright and clean. 

One of the "poorest" houses in Punal--compares to some of the best in Hato del Yaque

While the streets in Hato del Yaque were rutted and hard to walk on, Puñal’s are either paved of smooth.  Heavy rain on Saturday night left the unpaved streets quite muddy but I can imagine how much worse the streets in Hato del Yaque were!

One of the ladies, Mercedes, in Puñal makes jewelry.  When we visited before, Juli-Ann bought a lovely beaded bracelet.  It was bright spring green so, of course, she had to buy it! 

Mercedes also makes hair accessories for babies and little girls

I told Mercedes that I have been wanting a pair of bright red earrings and if she made them, I’d buy them when we came back with the students.  Well, she made 2 sets of jewelry—a bright red necklace, bracelet, and earrings; and a deeper red necklace and earrings.  The necklaces are a bit gaudy for my tastes but I bought both sets and will restring the necklaces to tone them down a bit.  And I will very much enjoy wearing them!

Mercedes had also made a green necklace—very much the style Juli-Ann wears so she bought it.

Mercedes, Norma, Juli-Ann and I enjoy a laugh and a hug

After the interviews, we took the students to Helados Bon one last time.  They are so appreciative and we have a good time with our cones and laughter.  We certainly tracked in the mud!!

Monday evening in class we reported back on the interviews and struggle together for a while trying to pull together a model or models of our findings.  Nothing really popped out but we let it steep overnight and on Tuesday morning, a brief conversation between Juli-Ann and me pulled out an idea which I spent the day developing.  One of the big challenges this year is that basically none of the people we interviewed saw ANY connection between their businesses and family or community health.  After the first set of interviews we even reworded the questions to ask if the additional income helped buy more nutritious food or access to health care but even that just didn’t get us anywhere.  In addition, over and over in Hato del Yaque we heard, “ADOPEM is good—they bring money”.  And the message was clear—that is all they bring.  In Puñal one woman talked about ADOPEM’s role in bringing the community together and another hinted at their role in mental health.

In spite of this, people in both communities talked about what was good and what challenges their community faced.  Building on the National Prevention Strategy (which, admittedly, is a US plan) and what they told us, we created a 5-pointed star representing a healthy community.  The points of the star are: employment and opportunities; disease prevention (dengue, malaria, diabetes, hypertension); clean water, stable electricity, and clean, safe streets; houses constructed with concrete blocks; social, emotional support and community unity.  Then we superimposed a smaller star into the center so we could talk about the strengths of the community as well as where it needed to grow.  We are doing a separate model for each community.  The next step is for the students to take these models back to the people we interviewed and provide us with their feedback on how this reflects their experience, what is missing, etc.  Once we have that feedback, we will combine both communities into a report to ADOPEM.  I’ve attached 3 PowerPoint slides.  In the presentation to our interviewees and to ADOPEM we go on to discuss some of the ideas the community and our class had about steps to help grow each community toward the healthy ideal.  Healthy Community Star

Santo Domingo

Jeanie:  We spent less than 24 hours in Santo Domingo seeing the historical sites and doing a little shopping.Santo Domingo skyline  I took many, many pictures and tried to take notes of the histories and stories connected with them but in the end, I think “you had to be there” to get much out of it.  One thing that always strikes me is how proud the Dominican people are that Columbus first landed in the DR, first built a city here.  While they talk about the genocide of the native peoples (though they never use that strong a word) and about a long history of slavery, they always come back to this pride. 

The shield of Santo Domingo with the crown representing the Spanish royalty, lions for strength, and the key representing Santo Domingo as the door to the Americas

For example, our guide explained that all the conquistadores who invaded the Americas from Spain (again, not using the word “invaded”) had to come first to Santo Domingo for “training” and “blessing”.

Diego Colon palace--restored at about half its original size. This balcony looked over the city market place.

We arrived in the late afternoon, dropped our stuff at a hostel in the “Zona Colonial”, and headed to the square in front of Diego Columbus’ palace where we met our guide.  Diego Colon (the Spanish version of “Columbus”) was Christopher’s son and governor of Santo Domingo for some period of time.  Diego had the palace built in 1510-1516.  Three generations of Colon lived there before it passed into other families and finally fell into ruin.  Trujillo restored about half of the palace. 

An original column made of coral; building constructed of blocks of coral

We didn’t go inside—just got the story outside.  The palace was placed so that Diego could look out over the harbor from one balcony and over the main city marketplace from another. 

Balcony which overlooked the harbor

We saw many buildings with brick "trim" but the vast majority of colonial construction was coral blocks. This small chapel was the only all brick facade we saw.

Basically all the buildings in the colonial zone were built with coral blocks.  Many were constructed in the 1500’s; Trujillo restored some of them.  Others, like the Cathedral, have been in continuous use and continuous repair.

Inside the cathedral--coral block construction

One of the places our guide took us was a “factory” where jewelry is made from larimar, amber, and black coral.  Larimar is a pale blue stone, similar to turquoise.  It is the national stone of the DR because nowhere else in the world has this stone.  Dominicans call it the “love stone”.  Amber, of course, is mined in many places around the globe but the DR has a good deal of it.  It is believed to bring good luck.  The jewelers in this shop/factory told us that the black coral is found along the beaches, not harvested from living coral reefs.  We got the same story the next day at another shop/factory—I hope that is true.  Anyway, I have wanted a nice larimar and/or amber ring and earrings—easy to buy cheap stuff but I wanted something pretty nice so I bought myself a ring and earrings.  I bargained the woman down a bit and then ended up about $10 short of the cash price we had agreed to so I got the set for about $85.

Larimar and amber rink

After a delicious dinner in the Colonial Zone, we headed back to our lodgings.  The students stayed in a hostel—8 to a room.  I stayed in a “hotel” down the street.  It was kind of a cross between a hostel and a hotel.  There was no lobby—we (Mary Bean, the Academic Director of the semester abroad program, and I) had to check in before 6 p.m. in a jewelry story where we got keys to a door between two shops that led to second and third floor rooms.  My room overlooked the street—“no problem” I figured, “I brought my earplugs”.  Well, when we arrived to go to bed about 8:30, the tourist shop below my room had a “band” playing—a drum, an accordion, and (I don’t know what this is called) a rasping can.  They played and sang loudly—AND they were not good—AND the earplugs didn’t do much to block out the sound.  They played until about 10:30—I was grateful it wasn’t midnight!

On Saturday we toured one of the national museums and the cathedral, and went shopping.  We also went to the lighthouse constructed in honor of Columbus—in my opinion probably the ugliest building I’ve ever seen with a pretty sordid history of urban reconstruction abuses and money spent inappropriately.

The Columbus "Lighthouse"--shape of a giant cross with lights that project upwards to make a giant cross in the sky. No windows--just a huge concrete mass.

  We got back to Santiago in time for showers before supper.

Alta Gracia–a Reformed “Sweat Shop”

Jeanie: Alta Gracia, like many Dominican towns and cities, had a “zona franca”, a free trade zone where multinational companies constructed large factories which employed many people, “sweat shop” style.  And, like many other zona francas, Alta Gracia’s closed down when labor became cheaper elsewhere.  In one factory, however, a group of women decided to fight back.  (Some of the history here isn’t entirely clear to me)  They teamed up with Students Against Sweat Shops, an American student group, to keep their factory open—but with differences that make it not a sweat shop.  Thus, the company Alta Gracia began.

The brand/logo on the factory wall

  They make shirts and hoodies for universities—those are their only products.  We got a tour of the factory and then spent a couple hours in the homes of workers before gathering at the union headquarters for lunch and more chatting.  The women were very proud of the differences between Alta Gracia and other companies:

Worker safety and health: 

  • Dust—one of the big hazards in a clothing factory is dust.  Dust from the cutting, sewing, handling of cloth gets in the air and the workers breath it.  It also contributes to the risk of fire.  The workers giving us the tour pointed out the large vacuum cleaners they use to clean floors and cutting tables.  “Sweeping just puts it into the air” they told us.
  • Fire Extinguisher and Vacuum Cleaner

    Fire—being a clothing factory, fire risk is higher than in some kinds of manufacturing.  There are fire extinguishers mounted on every support pillar—about every 10 feet.  According to our guides, a company specializing in fire extinguishers advised them on what type was most appropriate for each area of the factory.  This company also checks the extinguishers every few months to ensure that they are working.

  • Evacuation—AG has building evacuation routes clearly marked and kept clear. 

    Evacuation routes painted on the floor

    One worker is the evacuation leader.  His picture is posted; he makes sure evacuation routes are kept clean; he holds frequent drills to practice clearing the building.

    One of the Alta Gracia workers explaining the evacuation plans and drills

  • First aid—the workers giving us the tour said that other factories they have worked in had first aid kits—but they were always empty.  As with evacuation, one worker is in charge of keeping the first aid station (it is a box on the wall about 2 feet by 2 feet by 1 foot) stocked and organized. 

    First Aid box; you can also see the large evacution route arrow above the box

    Her picture is posted on the first aid kit and I understood that she has received extra training in first aid.

  • Health insurance—the company offers health insurance coverage for workers, spouses, children, even the worker’s parents if these elders are dependent on the worker.  We did not get details of cost to the workers.  I got the impression that it is affordable and everyone takes the coverage.
  • Other—they also talked about ergonomics of sewing factories.  Alta Gracia uses good chairs rather than stools or benches for their sewers.  They also provide work-level surfaces rather than requiring workers to bend down to a box on the floor every time they need the next piece they are sewing.  They pointed out huge fans—“the weather is often hot—we do our best to provide cool air for us.”  Obviously these fans would blow a lot of dust around except for the vacuum cleaners they use to keep the dust under control.

Worker-management relations

  • Relations—“we are all a family”.  The workers spoke at length about the strong relationship between workers and management.  They represented it as very collaborative and respectful.
  • Union—85% of the employees belong to the union.  Our guides were all leaders in the union but one of the workers we visited had not joined the union.  The guides said the union represented the workers whether or not they were union members and there seemed to be close, positive relations between the union leaders and the worker we visited who was not a member.  The guides said that, unlike other factors where they had worked, management at Alta Gracia encouraged union organizing.

    Onof the workers we visited--telling us about her life before Alta Gracia contrasted with life now.


  • Pay—Worker pay begins at 3 times the national minimum wage
  • Worker rights organizations—Alta Gracia welcomes visits from worker rights organizations and others.  They said that management allows workers to talk freely with visitors and allows visitors to speak with whomever they choose.  Because of a lag in orders, the factory was not active when we visited.  Our guides took us to visit workers so, while we did not choose who to talk to, we had the freedom of asking any questions we chose.  I think we heard a similar story everywhere we went.  The women had worked in other zona franca factories where conditions were pretty much point by point the opposite of Alta Gracia: low wages; mandatory overtime; irregular pay day; no health coverage; job loss for union organizing, pregnancy, etc.; no regard for worker safety.
  • Pride—over and over and over the people we talked to spoke of and exuded pride in their work and “their” company.  While I am not clear about the legal ownership, these workers all feel ownership. They asked the students to carry their message and their hope to universities so that more colleges will carry their products.  “We want to grow so we can employ more of our neighbors.  Everyone wants to work at Alta Gracia so we need more universities to order from us.” 


Jeanie:  I never tire of looking at the way bananas grow.  Perhaps this is because I did not know until my teens that bananas grow “upside down”–rocked my world!

Bananas grow "upside down"


Banana flower--long, deep maroon "bud"; the "petals" curve up, one layer at a time, revealing hands of baby bananas hanging down with a blossom on the end of each

The "bud" is big--the unopened part is at least 2 feet long and the total producing stalk is 4-6 feet long


Banana blossoms and wasps


After several days and many layers of "petals", no new hands of bananas open and the hands gradually lift to the ripening position


Sometimes at this stage they look a bit like they are having a "bad hair day"!

Eventually, though, they grow rounder, and nestle together next to the stalk, downside up, to ripen.

Risk Management, Part 2

In class, we have just finished a section on microinsurance products.  There is very little in the research literature about microinsurance.   We focused attention on two areas–agricultural insurance and health protection products.  Microinsurance is a relatively undeveloped product area in microfinance and is probably the biggest growth segment of this market.  At least one of our interviewees has a life insurance policy from ADOPEM, the microfinance institution we are working with.  I’m sure that it is sold by ADOPEM to protect repayment of their loans if the borrower dies. 

There are 36 insurance companies domiciled in the DR.  Only ONE sells agricultural coverage, specializing almost entirely on protection of the rice crop.  In an island this small, it would be nearly impossible to diversify your risk portfolio if you are an insurance company. 

We have found description of some very interesting models of health protection products–none of which are really medical insurance, but still function to ameliorate the monetary losses from medical problems.  Here are two examples. 

  • Medical expense savings account (Burkina Faso)–you deposit $1 a month or more.  When you accumulate $20, you can then begin to withdraw money to pay documented medical expenses.  The MFI (microfinance institution) benefits by having a base of savings deposits and the family has a source of pre-saved money to pay for expenses, thereby avoiding the need for a microloan for a small expense.  In this particular plan, after you reach the $20 threshold, you also automatically qualify for a microloan if there is a large expense bigger than the balance in your account. 
  • Medical insurance premium loan (Phillipines)–there is a national medical insurance plan, but it costs $26 a year, upfront, to join.  The poor do not have this lump sum available so they don’t join.  The CARD MFI program offers you a microloan to buy the coverage.  You pay $0.60 per week, which covers the $0.50 for the coverage and the other $0.10 stays in CARD as interest income and transaction fee income.  When CARD enrolls beyond some minimum number of people, the program can buy the coverage for the group from the national health insurance program at a quantity discount price, providing another source of profits for CARD. 

Risk Management

Two things happened recently to start new thinking about risk management.  The earthquake two days ago was not severe enough to cause any property damage, but it did prompt a safety talk with the students.  FEMA recommends that you not try to leave wherever you are, but rather put something solid above you, like getting under the table.  The interior room concept is also out there, but that would probably involve going somewhere, which they say to NOT do.  So you have to make a choice. 

Some issues that are being discussed at the breakfast table:

  • The water heaters are fueled by propane tanks.  Neither the water heaters nor the propane tanks are secured to their respective locations.  In a severe quake they would fall or rupture or get destroyed and being secured to a wall wouldn’t help much.  But in light quakes like we had this week (there have been several aftershocks according to the newspaper), they might just get jarred or tip (i.e., lose their balance!), which could also spark a fire.  So some sort of strapping to an adjacent wall might be a good idea.
  • The medical teams that come here have oxygen and nitrogen tanks that probably should be secured in the clinic.  
  • There is no fire department for Licey, the nearest town to ILAC. 

Second incident to ‘spark’ risk management discussion–early this morning there was a fire inside one of the sterilizers in the clinic.  The towels burned and the plastics melted, filling the clinic with noxious smoke.  The night guard making his rounds discovered the smoke pouring out of the building and alerted the on-site boss, Andrea, who called the Executive Director of ILAC, who told her to shut off the electricity and call Ismaelito, one of the ‘go-to’ guys who works here.  So she and two or three others shut down the electricity and opened up doors and windows to evacuate the smoke after they determined that there was no active fire in the building itself, just inside the sterilizer.  The sterilizer is probably no longer functional, so the plan I heard discussed at breakfast was to contract with a local hospital to use their sterilizer overnight.  This means putting together additional sets of instruments so that surgeries can continue all day.  So there is some work to be done. 

Did I tell you that there is no fire department in Licey?  Governmentally provided services such as fire departments and paved roads–we sometimes take  these for granted. 

The Road and Its Curb

In one of the towns where we are interviewing microloan recipients, some entity paid to have curbs installed along many of the streets, but the streets remain mud, dirt, and large stones.  Several interviewees have expressed concern about the state of the streets.  They say the streets are dangerous, but they are NOT talking about violence; they are talking about the physical condition.  It is not safe to walk at night because there are no street lights and you are likely to fall because of the ruts, holes, and stones.  Our guide, Rafael, says the town gets money to do stuff like fixing streets from the regional government, which gets money from Santo Domingo (the capital city), which gets money from the government of DR, which gets money from ??????.  He doesn’t know where the money comes from.