Posted: 9th December 2016
By John Parsons
Who wants to live in a house without running water? Take a walk to the river every time some is required to wash the dirty pots, flush the toilet or personal hygiene?
In the UK fresh water is taken for granted, but in many parts of the world due to natural weather patterns, climate change or monetary constraints, there is a dearth of natural resources. Certainly there is in the isolated community of Severet in the northern hills of the Dominican Republic, a holiday island in the Caribbean.
But things are about to change. For the first time since the dawn of history clean water will shortly be available through the good offices of a Canadian humanitarian organisation named ‘Samaritan Foundation’ and its British partner ‘Mission Direct’ for whom my team of volunteers work. This will be a giant leap forward.
At present villagers use a sluggish river where cattle drink and defecate for their personal ablutions. Fresh water will change the lifestyle of some one hundred families. Skin diseases and intestinal parasites will be a thing of the past.
I was a member of the first British team to work on the project. The nearest water main was on a wooded ridge-line, a kilometre away. The supply would go through a jungle of thorn bushes to reach the village. This task was too a big for a small team so an excavator was hired to dig the main trench but this brought an unexpected setback. Zebu cattle came to gauge our progress. They ambled along the trench or strode across the top, bringing down the spoil that had been excavated.
Despite using modern machinery there was still a lot of physical work to be done with pick and shovel. The main water supply was near woodlands which barred the excavator from operating. Genori, the smartly dressed civil engineer overseeing the project said, ‘Excavators are designed to dig. They do not clear jungle.’ That was our cue to get cracking.
The work-site wasn’t accessible by minibus due to the pot-holed track. From Severet we crossed a river on stepping stones before footslogging along a cart track in the burning sun.
As we dug the trench through woodland several old garbage dumps were unearthed, and pipes where water was filched illegally. At the other end where the supply would enter the village, various diameter PVC pipes would divert the supply to a school and then into residential areas.
We were assisted by several enthusiastic local men and their children. Youngsters are not allowed on Mission Direct work sites but this was their abode and our authority, such as it was, would be overruled by their elders.
Working in temperatures of 42 C was a killer but moaning would have been inappropriate. Besides, our discomfort would last for two weeks whereas the villagers had to cope every day of the year.
The team consisted of six people whose ages ranged from seventeen to seventy-seven years, from all walks of life in the UK. One was a student at the University of Newcastle, another an occupational therapist, and a third was a child-minder in Italy. I learned this while resting in the shade following a strenuous bout of shoveling.
The reason for the villagers’ change of fortune is due to the relocation of a Rehab Centre from Puerto Plata on the coast to Severet. The villagers complained that the casualties of society were being cosseted whereas those who slaved to raise their families received nothing. Officials of the Samaritan Foundation pooled their ideas and found a solution that was satisfactory to all parties. This explains why my team was beavering away with picks and shovels.
The main thrust of the project was the installation of a water supply but our organisation also supported other partners who are working to improve the lot of disadvantaged people in the Dominican Republic.
One afternoon we called at the ‘Transform Rehab Centre’ which will be relocated. It is a run-down wooden building with a rusty roof that leaks and its facilities are inadequate. Some fifteen men are receiving treatment and the staff are all volunteers. One guy in a yellow T-shirt and a haggard face said that the pastor who runs the centre doesn’t turn anyone away, no matter how many times they abscond.
A second guy, unshaven, arms covered in tattoos said, ‘I was put in a cell and chained for twenty-five days to wean me off heroine.’
‘How did you get here?‘
‘I thought I was going to die,‘ was the reply. ‘I had nightmares. They were terrible. Someone suggested I come here to get dry. When I came out of the cell I was mad at them. I grabbed a piece of wood to hit them.‘ He smiled, seemed relieved to have told his story. ‘Now I am free.‘
The community was partially self-supporting on my 2014 visit. ‘What happened to the domestic animals I saw last time?‘ I asked.
It was a sad story.
I was told that thieves stole the four goats and the cow. ‘That’s why we’re going to Severet,’ he said, and looked around before continuing. ‘This place is falling down.‘
And it was!
The rehab centre is also funded by voluntary contributions so our team left bags of provisions, charcoal, cooking oil, flour, onions and rice.
Voluntary work brings its own rewards. On an afternoon when the sun was hotter than usual a villager at Severet invited us to his small-holding. He led the team into a banana grove where the ground was covered with the leaves of sweet potato. The place was an education in itself. There were trees bearing avocado, cherry, grapefruit, orange and paw-paw, although not all the fruit was ready for eating.
Another afternoon of respite from our back-breaking labour was a visit to Sister Mercedes, a Carmelite nun who manages Casa Nazeret, a home for fifteen children with physical and mental disabilities. The Sister has just two volunteers to help with the domestic chores so the children do not receive any mental stimulation, no interaction with mature people. That was our job for a couple of hours, but it was demanding.
Casa Nazareth has minimal resources and merely sustains life. Now even that is in limbo. The owner of the house has put it on the market. Mission Direct is raising funds for this project and is working to purchase land for the Sister and her 17 adopted disabled children, but land in the Dominican Republic is expensive – as it is elsewhere in the world. The Sister, however, is a woman of faith. I recalled her words on my 2014 visit, ‘God provides for our daily needs.’
Two weeks passed. This project had been a mental and physical challenge and it had given me a lift. My colleagues had become close friends, but more importantly the villagers’ common ailments would belong to the past. The team could go home satisfied that they had made a lasting difference to the community at Severet.