I've been on a soapbox for the past six months or so - shouting to whoever would listen about the rules for "visiting" developing nations. I know it's kind of hypocritical - I get that. I am, for the most part, aa outsider living here. I will never be Dominican. But, I do live here and have invested in a life here and it drives me nuts when I read or hear certain things.
"... we drove through the slums of Santiago to reach our destination."
"... the kids were all unsupervised because their parents just don't care."
"... it was in that moment that I knew, these kids were not just materially poor, they were starved for love."
There are some very unsavory places in Santiago - one might even argue that our school is in a terrible area - but there are very few places in the Dominican Republic worthy of the term "slum." Some people live in shacks. Some people live in houses made of pallets. Others live in unfinished, poorly made apartments. There are homeless people. Many people live together in small spaces. But, slums are characterized by filth, disorganization and general squalor. They are informal settlements - not neighborhoods with real roads and public utility services.
It might seem nit-picky.
What's the difference between calling it a slum or calling it the hood? or the ghetto?
It's that by calling our neighborhood or any neighborhood like it a slum is negating that real and terrible poverty that others actually live in. Just across an invisible line that divides the island, there are slums, a tent city where there aren't even bathrooms or running water. By calling a barrio a slum, it negates the time and energy and effort that many of the residents put in to make their communities work - it negates the organization and working-together that happens to avoid becoming a slum.
And it's that same community work that allows people to leave their kids on the streets - unsupervised. My kids play outside still with the neighbors, and I know that even if I'm not 100% on it, someone else's mom has her eye out the window. In the places where most "visitors" visit, there are tons of kids playing outside. Houses are hot. They are small. There is no internet, no cable tv, no 24 hour cartoon network. There is no air flow. Kids play outside.
Just because you can't see mom, doesn't mean she isnt' there.
And just because the kids are unsupervised it doesn't mean their parents don't care about them. It means they are letting their kids play, like kids do. Or they're working. You know, to put food on the table. And the kids come home by themselves - like many, many children across the world.
While there are many cases of parental neglect - that's not unique to the developing world, I know a ton of people in the "developed" world who could care less about their kids.
Which brings me to my last rant:
just because people are poor does not mean that they do not love their kids.
This is the commentary that gets deepest under my skin. How dare you, short-term visitor, decide that a child is just "in need of love?" Do you know the family? Do you even know the child? After 3 days of contact, in a foreign language, do you really suppose that you know so much about a person to know if they are loved?
It is easy to jump to conclusions based on our cultural background - our own baggage taints our vision. We are not, and we should not be, carbon copies of each other. The way that I show love to my children may be vastly different than how you do. And we can't even begin to figure each other out - our needs, wants, desires - in three day trips.
Please, by all means, visit those hard places - but understand that poverty does not negate love, and the visitors are not the only people capable of giving love. an materially empty home does not imply an emotionally empty one. and if you are to visit a real slum, there is love and hope present even in the ugliest shack.