Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fat Babies

There is a narrative of poverty about the Dominican Republic, perpetuated by people like Angelina Jolie that most people accept as par for the course in “developing countries”. I do not dispute that people here are poor, and to be sure, there are people here, like everywhere, who live in conditions of grinding poverty and desperation. I would also add that a lot of those living in poverty here are Haitians, whose struggle for existence is exacerbated by lack of documentation and unreliable work visas. But, poverty has many faces. One of them is dignity. Another is perseverance. Another is the strength of women and families.

I questioned my own assumptions about poverty and this place when I first came in 2007. I saw things in the rural areas that surprised me—well-fed animals, neatly swept yards, freshly painted houses and lacy curtains waving in the windows. But it was the fat babies that really turned my head—then and now. Everywhere we go, we see fat babies waddling around, and it makes me really happy for lots of reasons. One reason is that infant mortality is usually a result of malnutrition, and this is also related to maternal malnutrition. The fact that we see a lot of fat babies suggests that both mothers and babies are getting enough food—which is usually not the case in poor populations.

I puzzled about this for a bit, and wondered if maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, or rather, just had my head turned by cute babies, until I ran across a very interesting statistic. Almost a quarter of the world’s children under five years old are underweight. The average percentage for the Caribbean and Latin American region is 8%. The percentage for the DR is 5%. So I was right, babies here—are at least statistically fatter than they are elsewhere. But why? The DR is slightly below the world average in terms of income (using purchasing power parity as a measure), as has an average annual income per person of around $8000, vs $10,000 for the world average. This on par with the rest of the region, which have (in some cases astonishingly) higher numbers of underweight children (15% for Ecuador). The DR also has the same income per capita as Thailand, but they have rates of underweight children closer to the world average (20%). If it’s not income, then what is it?

I would like to suggest that it is because women are the main breadwinners and heads of household here. I know this is paradoxical, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It is well documented that female headed households are generally poorer than male-headed households. But what I see here is that female-headed households have complex relations with other women in female-headed households, and that a reciprocal social economy revolves around children that prioritizes sharing resources, including food. For example, in our guesthouse, our housemother, AnaJulia is a single mother and she regularly babysits (for no money) for her sisters, sisters-in-law and other female neighbors while they work or go to school. She also regularly feeds a large extended family every time they visit. Roosters and rum (the provenance of masculinity) do not compete for resources in these households, and women in the DR regularly forsake relationships with men because they have failed to support their children. Tellingly, the countries with the highest levels of underweight children (Bangladesh, Yemen, Ethiopia) are also those countries where women have the least amount of autonomy, mobility and control over their bodies.

I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, and I probably won’t pursue the question any further than this. I’m just happy to see fat babies, and I hope to keep seeing them for a long time to come. I’m also happy to see the ways in which people cope and prioritize in the face of scarce resources, and turn the narratives of poverty and hopelessness into narratives of dignity, resourcefulness and strength.

Casabe Cottage Industry

The high point of today was a trip to a home-scale casabe factory. Casabe, which is made from yuca (also known as cassava or manioc) is a staple food in the Dominican Republic. Moncion happens to the be the casabe capital of the DR--maybe even the universe. There are several large scale factories here, but we drive by a home-scale factory at least twice a day. Today, we decided to stop and see how they do it. Yuca originated in the Caribbean, and has since spread throughout the world, via colonialism. It takes a long time to grow (18 months), and resembles a small tree. The root is waxy and brown and tastes a bit like a potato when boiled. Casabe is made from the crushed yuca root.

There are several stages of washing, crushing, straining, pulverizing, sifting, etc. before it becomes a kind of lumpy powder. This dried powder is spread inside cast iron rings on a wood fired griddle and roasted until it gets crispy. More yuca root powder is added, and the casabe is turned to cook on the other side. When done (a process that takes a few minutes) the casabe is stacked, cut (with a bandsaw!) and wrapped for sale.

Mechi, the woman who owns this factory, sells her product mostly on the "Road to Moncion" but also in Mao (the closest large town). She was delighted to share her very fine product with us and sent us home with a couple freshly wrapped packs for the equivalent of a couple dollars. The price of food continues to rise due to CAFTA-DR (Central American Free Trade Agreement), the consequent increase of food imports and the decline in the viability of food production in Dominican Republic. As we are finding out, the rising food prices are causing a tremendous amount of anxiety among poorly paid banana workers.

I hope that small-scale, home-based production of indigenous and locally-produced and consumed foods can remain viable in a rapidly changing economic situation. Indeed, given what we are finding out about the impact of globalization here, it may be the only kind of enterprise that does. Or dare I say, should...

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Chickens and Roads

Chickens are a rather important (and at times fairly irritating) part of the social economy here in Moncion. Right now, as I sit in my "office" on the porch of our guesthouse, I am watching the neighbor train his roosters for fighting. This involves a practice fight (traqueo) between his various roosters and consequent selection of a few who are taken away. My guess is that a cock fight is in the works for this evening or weekend. There is a constant din of crowing throughout the town of Moncion, and the sound of it pulses across the valley all day and most of the night. As we inadvertently determined via an interview recording a rooster crows every five seconds in our neighborhood.

The roosters of Moncion only take time off from crowing between the hours of 7 pm and 3 am, which is now when I sleep. There must be thousands of roosters here, which is an indication of the role cockfighting plays in the entertainment "industry" here. It's a blood "sport" during which roosters often fight to the death (and then are eaten by the crowd), and it has huge social significance for the construction of masculinity here and in the wider Caribbean region.

But...if you think the roosters have a terrible fate, consider the fates of the hens. The Dominican Republic has adopted much of the North's industrial models of farming, and just up the road there are several chicken houses. Whether they are layers or broilers is not clear, but what is clear from menus and our meals in the guesthouse, is that eggs and chickens are a staple food for Dominicans. What is also clear is that these chickens live short, miserable lives crammed into cages just so we eaters can have cheap food, and those farmers can make money. (Incidentally, livestock farmers have the nicest houses in Moncion).

After our housemother AnaJulia made Erin and I (industrially produced) eggs for breakfast five days in a row, we began to worry about our health and the impact of our "choice" to eat these eggs. And so we took matters in our own hands. One day, I saw a woman on the beautiful "Road to Moncion" (a book I will write someday) selling small, brown eggs in the shade of a small stand. I am not kidding when I say I slammed on the brakes, almost got us flattened by a truck and backed into a tree just to get me some of those eggs. Turns out the hens are housed in wooden cages, but out in the open air, and they probably live lives a lot like the hens in my own backyard. The hens belong to the "sister of Emelita" and the eggs they produce are for sale along with sweets, cake and casabe most days of the week.

Even though AnaJulia has three sweet hens and a Foghorn Leghorn rooster in her backyard, she still buys the white eggs in the colmados (small local groceries). We weren't sure how she would receive our donation, and haven't explored the issue yet, but I suspect that she thinks we want the industrial products. We have slowly and gently been steering her towards the idea that we actually *like* to eat local fruits and vegetables. (We both have been having green vegetable fantasies...). This seems to mystify her for the most part, but she does her best to please us, no matter how weird our tastes might seem.

While the roosters and the layers of Moncion have uncertain and often horrible fates, the "wild chickens" of Moncion lead lives that most chickens would envy. They are literally everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and colors. They bring back fond memories of my own little Banty chickens, and it makes me happy to see livestock freed from the bonds of human desires for profit, pleasure and captivity.

So to answer the age old question, why did the chicken cross the road? Because, here in Moncion, it could.