There is a scene I can’t escape or understand from my recent visit to a Haitian immigrant village in the Dominican Republic.
Our church team built a few latrines, re-roofed a house, painted a church and held Bible School for children in a village so isolated and nondescript that its name was Batey No. 7. Hundreds of such villages are hidden in the Dominican Republic.
Was Batey No. 7 a prison without walls? The village had only one car and a few motorcycles. It was 30-45 minutes from the nearest town of consequence and I suspect few villagers had ever visited.
Surrounded by machine-harvested sugar cane fields, the immigrants have no jobs. Villagers bathe in an irrigation ditch. Herds of goats pass through the street; chickens and pigs are penned alongside the 70-80 shacks in the village.
There were few shops, a rudimentary medical clinic, one church and dozens of children whose play area was a large dirt field strewn with plastic trash, a few tins cans, broken glass and a single shade tree.
The tiny cinderblock homes were roofed with palm branches or corrugated tin. A tangle of wires running from pole to pole suggested a primitive electrical grid. A few satellite dishes were visible.
These immigrants seemed isolated from their own country and the country where they now lived. Could they leave? Did they want to leave? I don’t know.
I was told the children attend a government school. Is it true that education opens doors and expands horizons? Is that true in Batey No. 7?
Here’s the scene that seared me: As our team built an outhouse, a village girl idly ripped pages from a hard-bound book, dropping them to the ground. A hot, dry wind created a mini-cyclone of the paper and a lad, using the trash in time-honored fashion, launched one paper airplane after another.
Curious about the textbook, I picked up a few pages and was stunned to see Paulo Friere’s name on each. Though I cannot read Spanish, I recognized this book had been a manual for teaching literacy according to the philosophy of the Brazilian educator and social activist. Friere’s most famous work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” (1968) asserts that education is never neutral; it comes with hidden assumptions that often disadvantage the poor. This passionate Roman Catholic combined teaching reading and empowerment of the poor, successfully teaching Brazilian peasants to read and encouraging them to break the invisible chains binding them.
Friere’s concepts had seeped into a Haitian immigrant village. Or had they? Who in that village could read such a book? Was it an educated Haitian? Was it a Dominican Republic Catholic? Had somebody tried to help the villagers break their bonds?
Had Friere taken root in Batey No. 7 or was he only good for providing the stuff of paper airplanes? I don’t know. I don’t know. Friere was present, but, like so much in mission work, I didn’t know what it meant, if anything. A line from an old Bob Dylan song comes to mind: “The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind …”