Friday, December 31, 2010

This is my December

A week or so ago, my neighbor was married. A goat was slaughtered to provide for the festivities. I had previously been fairly squeamish around the slaughtering of goats. I resolved myself to watch this slaughtering that I might test the strength of my conviction that if you eat something, you should be comfortable with killing it. I missed the killing, but watched the skinning for a few minutes. While I was watching, two twin girls, age four or five, relatives of the bridegroom, cautiously edged near the scene. Holding hands and peering around the back of their mother, my fellow onlooker, the bolder of the two tried to make sense of what was happening. "It can cry?" she asked with her finger in her mouth.
"No, baby. It's dead," responded her mother.
"It has blood in it?" she inquired.
"Yes, baby."
"It cannot say 'meh-eh-ehhh' anymore?" she moaned. We all laughed at the adorably astonished girls. I almost died.

The wedding was on Christmas Eve. That night I went to the capital to experience Dominica's custom of lighting firecrackers, reveling, and waving replica firearms in the air. After dinner I road back to Portsmouth on the back of a truck and enjoyed a starry sky. Stuck in Portsmouth for the night, I walked up the mountain to get back to Penville -- somewhere around 4,000 feet.

On Christmas day, I strolled through the village visiting friends, handing out Christmas cards, eating, drinking, and being merry. That night I attended Christmas dinner at Church. The Nativity play was darling.

The night of Boxing Day, I gave into the spirit of celebration, bucked social norms, and danced in public. I have since heard from many sources that I have a new girlfriend, much to my amusement, and to that of the young woman named. The range of personal freedoms enjoyed by Dominicans, often seemingly deeper and wider than is found in the U.S. of A., takes on quite a different and interesting flavor in such situations. You can enjoy a cold beer on the back of a pick-up truck; you can play music at whatever volume you see fit and at any time; you can express yourself emotionally to whatever degree you are inclined and in any setting, and you can take or make a phone call anytime, and anywhere. Dancing or otherwise consorting with the opposite sex, however, is strictly taboo, if not done in an indiscriminately abusive manner. This makes me think of the book I am now reading, the Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson. Segregation, in this case social segregation of the sexes, leads to stigmatization and marginalization of the less-advantaged group. Of course, I am being extreme, but it makes for more entertaining writing. Enjoy the new year!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Coffee and Milk

I went to buy some coffee from my neighbor, Ma Jane. She picks, cleans, and roasts it. When I stopped by, I saw her chatting with a visitor, Fifi. I tried to sneak up and frighten Fifi, but Ma Jane gave me away. The following dialog pursued.
"Good afternoon! I had make the thing for you, but you don't pass for it," shouts Ma Jane, my bubbly neighbor of ninety-plus years.
"Three times I pass for it, wi," I retort, deflecting the accusation.
"Yes, but I didn't meet you there."
"Well, look: Three I have for you."
Fifi, one-eyed peer to Ma Jane and equally eccentric, interjects, "But, Austin, I didn't believe you were drinking coffee."
"How much for three?" I avoid the comment, wary of its roots.
"Eighteen," they respond simultaneously.
"So what change?" ponders Ma Jane after I slip her a twenty.
"De dola ou ni pou moin." Two dollars you have for me, in Creole.
"If I have, I'll give you," Ma Jane teases with a child's mischievous look in her eye.
"Ou pa ni? Pa pou manti!" You don't have? Not to lie! I again parry and jab. Ma Jane and Fifi laugh hysterically as Ma Jane searches for the change. "So what make you believe I wasn't drinking coffee?" I have to hear her explanation, even though I have a good idea what's coming.
"Well I thought it was milk and those things you were drinking," says Fifi. More prodding is required.
"So you don't drink coffee?" I ask her.
"Well, I'm black."
"So I'm white and must be drinking milk but not coffee?"
"So what about people who drinking passion fruit juice and those things there, what color are they, yellow?"
"Well, no. I drink those things and I'm not yellow. But my husband doesn't, and he's red." We all laugh a good-natured laugh as I take my leave of the matrons of Carib, Penville.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seeing the Forest

When I arrived in Penville, a small agricultural village in the Eastern Caribbean, I was assigned to the Village Council to work in institutional development. The Council's office and computer center occupy the first floor in a two story complex. The second floor houses an arts & craft center. It quickly became apparent that the craft center was extremely under utilized. In a community without many resources, this is an obvious problem. When I inquired further I discovered that the use of the craft center was a point of considerable friction between the Village Council and a community based organization that had been behind the construction of the facility. I was advised to stay out of that particular issue. New to the Village, I was hesitant to get branded a partisan or to become entangled in community conflict. Being me, I couldn't help myself. Little by little I started to make noise. After I had been around for about nine months, I received EC$35,000 to run an educational outreach program. Part of this involved a youth oriented "life-skills" component. The problem was that simultaneously, we were running adult literacy and family health classes, and IT classes. There was no venue for the life-skills sessions. So I started using the Council's key to access the craft center. I failed to seek permission from the CBO and this negligence got me in some hot water, unnecessarily I admit.

The youth sessions went forward and from these sessions emerged an energetic and entrepreneurial youth group. They called themselves the Young Motivators. I have worked closely with the group and have provided encouragement wherever possible. We don't always perceive the impact our actions have on the lives of others. It was extremely rewarding to be thanked by my good friend and leader of the Young Motivators during his secondary school graduation speech. This young man has always been an enthusiastic self-starter and a born leader, and I have watched him mature from a pseudo-troublemaker into a thoroughly positive role model and an active member of his community.

October is independence season in Dominica when heritage is celebrated with a number of competitions in different areas including cultural dance. Penville's children have been dancing for the neighboring village's team for some time. However, this year, with funds from the same grant that had funded those youth sessions a year ago, the Council sponsored Penville's own dance team. Most of the team members were also members of the Young Motivators group. Over that same year, I had continued to make noise about the craft center, and eventually it was opened up for community use. The dance team practiced there and competed in the semi-finals in front of a large crowd.

Somehow, I hadn't seen my role in all this, though looking back it is quite clear. In a large part due to my influence, an under utilized community resource was made available; a group of youth was empowered through life-skills sessions I funded and organized; those same young persons used that resource to participate in a wonderful experience; and that experience was made possible by funds from that same grant I had secured a year ago. I thank the District Development Officer for having helped me to see the forest through the trees.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I set out to distribute some consent forms and talk some parents into sending their sixth grade children to 3 weeks of Summer School, 3 days a week. The deal is that under-prepared children have flooded Dominica's Secondary Schools since the imposition of universal secondary education. This has resulted in a frustrated student body, increased violence, and the decay of the overall academic culture of the nation's secondary level institutions. The first child's grandmother told me that the family works during the vacation, and that her grandson is unlikely to learn anything at the summer school.

I was upset by this. My reaction was a compilation of frustration with her stubbornness, despair that she was probably right (the child is twelve years old and cannot read or write), and some personal embarrassment emanating from her lack of trust in my ability to assist the child, compounded by my own doubts in the same. The next parent I talked to was enthusiastic and appreciative. Her son is somewhat better off as far as academic achievement goes. I was still feeling a bit down despite the positive response from this parent.

I dropped in on a family that lives just down the road from the Village Council's Office. The mother of the family was washing dishes and clothes with the help of her daughter and a girl who has been staying with her, a niece or maybe just her daughter's friend. Her eldest son and his friend were sitting in the living room playing their respective guitars. Her two younger sons were outside on the road, investigating crabs they had just caught.

The guitar playing son has recently moved out of the home, renting a small house for him and his guitar partner. I purchased a set of strings for the kid after I found him in his unfurnished 'apartment,' laying on the floor strumming a guitar with four strings. I've seen him carrying the guitar around since then. The scene of him and his buddy strumming out church songs together cheered me up. When I saw two certificates were on the wall that the mother had received from some adult education programs I had organized, I had the inspiration I needed go track down the rest of the parents for the Summer School.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


My mind works in a way that seems to trend away from the nitty-gritty. For an example pertinent to the subject of this post, consider contrasting methods of teaching reading comprehension. I would instantly get bogged down in assessing comparative merit on grounds of efficacy. Failing the availability of hard numbers demonstrating the superiority of either method, I would presume variance in learning propensities would call for the implementation of both methods.

My justification would cue the keen observer to my preference for a less efficient but more egalitarian distribution of resources. One method may be better suited for students with innate reading abilities, more likely to benefit from strengthening such abilities and with greater overall prospects for future success. The other method may be better suited to students who experience more difficulty in processing language. Visual learners may be better suited to develop comprehension skills by direct exposure to text, while oratory learners may benefit from listening to stories read aloud. In a community populated by a high proportion of illiterate parents, visual learners with access to books will succeed at a higher rate than oratory learners.

Who do we target? There are a number of considerations. Instead of digressing further into considerations as to the likelihood of children with illiterate parents to learn to read at all, or the cost of making books available to those children while literate families are more likely to be able to afford books on their own, I would sooner abstract to policy level considerations regarding the trade-offs between increasing the availability of books to students and a campaign targeting adult literacy. Evaluating myself as a resource, I would quickly conclude that I was better suited to aiding policy decisions of this sort than making the in-classroom decisions regarding proportional implementation of various teaching methods (where the reality is more biting: Teach this girl here, today, as best you can).

I don't see the student in front of me. I see the hundreds of students like her, and calculate teaching decisions based on the hypothetical policy level implementation of that decision: What decision would best benefit those hundreds of students? I ask myself this question before assessing the individual needs of the child standing in front of me. This is what I mean when I say my brain trends away from the nitty-gritty. Perhaps I don't want to be responsible for the consequences the decision will have on Patricia. I am more comfortable with the impact of a decision on the students of St. Andrew's Parish as a whole. Some will benefit more than others, and I want to augment aggregate benefit. I am almost irritated by case-by-case assessment. However, I am not in the position to be making such decisions. Wherever my talents actually lay, I am in the field, for better or worse, and I have to deal with Patricia.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A pleasure to serve

On Friday I was discussing the Brazil-Netherlands match with some fellas at a bar in town. I was arguing that Kaka got selfish in the last ten minutes. My co-commentator retorted that the real reason Brazil lost was that the referees were biased in "all you favor." It was a "what do you mean, 'you people'?" moment about which laughs were had afterward. That's the difference in racism here. We can laugh about it. This was pointed out to me by a friend of mine recently.

Twelve score and four years ago, a group of rich land owners decided they didn't want to pay taxes to the British, or kiss British asses every time they wanted to make a move. They conjured up some rhetoric about liberty, inalienable rights, and equality (though some of them most assuredly believed in these notions through and through, those beliefs had rested largely inert for lack of utility) and stirred up an army of sorts. It's hard to know how fair this characterization of the causes of America's war for independence is. The constitution certainly does embody those ideas, to a certain extent. At that time, we had a sizable slave population and shared the continent with perhaps millions of indigenous people. There was certainly no dream, at that point, of an ethnically diverse people, peacefully coexisting. Extermination and/or enslavement was the order of the day. The constitution does seem to have catered for a reasonable pluralism when it comes to ideology and theology (the society may have been less tolerant than the legal writing).

The Romans dreamed of a republic from time to time. People had written about it for well over a century. We finally had one: A democratic republic. Today, we have an ethnically diverse population and our ideologies run the spectrum, as do our religions. The dream that we can coexist peacefully and prosperously is a bold one, historically speaking. The dream that we can find a functional degree of political unity is a bold one. The dream that tolerance and power sharing can be efficiently productive is a bold one. Whatever shapes the American dream has taken over the years, it has always been about a living, breathing society that would learn and grow. That we have done so for 234 years is no small achievement, and we ought to feel proud as a people on this day.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Trolleys are fun when you take one around Chicago with a bunch of your buddies and binge drink. Trolleys aren't fun when they're runaway-flying down a track towards a fork, on one side of which is trapped one innocent person and on the other side of which are trapped five. You can throw a switch to decide which innocent(s) get(s) splattered. So you choose the one innocent. But what if you have to throw him in front of the trolley to save five others? The response changes here. Most people don't approve of this. And neither do I. The only thing wrong with that is thinking that the two positions are inconsistent. Our moral intuitions are inseparable from our intuitions regarding appropriate and fair norms of social cooperation. If you get stuck in the first trolley travesty, throw the switch! It's the least you can do. We can trust you to make that decision. However, the picture gets much darker in the second trolley travesty, if we start sanctioning the decision making authority of individuals to throw people in front of trolleys. Inevitably, we're going to get some wrong. "Oops, I coulda sworn there were five innocent people stuck on that track and that the only way to save them was to throw Travis in front of the the trolley! How did I know it was just a repair crew and they were gonna move out of the way, or that Travis body would do nothing to slow the trolley?"

These mistakes could just as well happen with the switch throwing, you might argue. I have turned the five innocents into non-innocent repairmen. No fair. Well when I'm standing next to you and we're thinking about the best way to handle the trolley travesty, I don't want to be stuck in the situation of preemptively throwing you in front of a trolley. Herein lies the subtlety I want to introduce. Throwing Travis in front of the trolley may be the right thing to do, just like throwing the switch to kill Travis if he is stuck all alone on the tracks. The thing is, we are averse to this decision because it sanctions vigilantism.

Imagine a crowded street witnessing the trolley travesty take place. 50 people are watching the impending doom of five innocents. Travesty a) they all leap to throw the switch, it is thrown by the closest person, Travis dies, end of story. Travesty b) 25 people turn toward 25 other people, they grab each other, and throw each other in front of the trolley. 50 people die. This does not unfairly alter the scenario, it merely points out the different logical consequences applying subtly different principles.

Keeping the scenario the same, let's say Travis and I are alone to watch the trolley travesty. We both turn to each other and struggle to throw the other in front of the trolley. Perhaps we both die, or perhaps we fail and five people die. Suppose we do the noble thing and we both decide to jump in front of the trolley. We both die. Also, this calls for a lack of regard for ones own life, also an intolerable norm for social cooperation.

To sum this discussion up, to see an inconsistency in taking a different position in travesty 1 than in 2 is to fail to recognize that we subconsciously apply Kantian reasoning:"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." Nevertheless, this reasoning leads to the wrong decision. Throwing Travis in front of the trolley is the right thing to do, but we don't think in act-utilitarian calculations, we think in terms of social cooperation. More on that distinction later.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

West Wing Latin

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
I wish I learned this one back in PHIL202. After, therefore because of. Tangent: I can't stand misuse of therefore. People do it all the time here. Anyways, post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy. It makes me think of psychological egoism. Just because I feel good after I help someone doesn't mean I helped them to produce that good feeling. Same would go for ethical egoism. Ayn Rand is a real biatch. She's a good novelist, sure. Her writing was definitely empowering. At the same time, the level of indifference her heroes display for society (read people) goes beyond contemptuous. Disdain is more fitting. She even goes to length to describe how indifference is even crueler than disdain. She takes individualism to a sinful level, which brings me to...

Vox populi, vox dei
The voice of god is the voice of the people. Some of you may know I go to church about once a week... maybe three times every four weeks. I grew up a staunch atheist, started slipping into a more agnostic but still highly skeptical position around the age of 18, and became very entrenched in that position by the time I graduated college. So how can I go to church and stomach all the god and Jesus talk? I substitute dei for populi. The messages all come out quite empowering, actually. I think there's something to this. I'll definitely be writing more about it later.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


It's been years since any of us knew what the fuck was going on in Congress. We've heard our candidates dubbed cancer supporters when they voted down a bill budgeting $100 million dollars for cancer research, only to find out after the election that the same bill allotted $500 million dollars in tax cuts for oil companies. That is why I am proposing some full-time, non-partisan scribe or page or whatever, who is takin' notes on that 'dem bills and can post 'em up on C-SPAN's website (SOME website, ANY website). We need it in a format that doesn't take more than 5-10 minutes to digest (because that's how long I can pay attention for). At least this way, I can check it out if I want to. As is, you can tell me Nancy Pelosi votes for mandatory abortions and Joe Wilson voted for literacy tests at the voting booth, and I will never know any better.

On a Tuesday...

Ray (6 years old) told me this morning that Chris (12 years old) said he has AIDs. Ray told me that he told Chris that he is going to die if he has AIDs. Then Ray told me that Chris says he has AIDs and that's why he can drink rum. Smiling, I told Ray that Chris does not have AIDs, while Jen (mother of Ray, grandmother of Chris) told Ray to ask Chris where he got AIDs and who gave it to him. Chris once told me that he can't wait for me to leave Dominica so that he can drink rum again.

So there is this band, Lady Antebellum. I hear they are good. I thought the name was a red flag, so I looked 'em up. I think any Lady Antebellum fans should read this blog entry. I also think the band should change its name. Robert Wagner comes to mind.

In other news, this July 2nd, I will be celebrating Independence Day with my fellow PCVs. I was somewhat disappointed that we would not be celebrating on July 4th, until a friend pointed me to this article. I will be pretentiously celebrating Independence Day on July 2nd for the rest of my life. I'm not sure what we're gonna do for fire works, but I'm sure I'll figure out how to blow something up.

Yesterday I got word that a proposal I wrote for a community center and capacity building program was approved by the Basic Needs Trust Fund. This is quite exciting. The first floor will house a kitchen to be used by the Penville Society of St. Vincent de Paul to run a feeding program for the vulnerable (needy is no longer politically correct enough, gag with me). It will house office space and computers for other local groups, such as the Penville Women's Club, and the Penville Farmer's Association. There will also be a bar for the Village Council to sell food and drink from while running fundraisers out of the kitchen. The second floor will be a large open area to be used for community meetings and events (such as weddings) and as a classroom from which to conduct educational sessions.

Some Jehovah's Witness ladies stopped by today while I was hand washing some clothes. A year or so ago, I would have relished their visit more than I did today. Theological debate is a favorite pastime of mine. Jehovah's Witnesses are the ultimate indulgence. They come right to your house! Today, though, I have lost some of this enjoyment. One lady was blind and the other was old. They were very sweet. The thing is, they think what they are doing is a moral imperative. That defense could be used for the KKK, too, except that the Witnesses don't actually harm anyone, unless you consider door-to-door visits so annoying as to constitute harm. I don't think you would get to far with that in court. I'm sure people have tried. Anyway, they think its a moral imperative, and all they want to do is talk to me for a minute or so about god. This is tolerable when god ≠ lynching homosexuals, blowing up abortion clinics, or pushing obscene images of mutilated fetuses in my face, as it does where I come from. Here it usually just means live a better life, free from substance abuse. I generally encourage kids to go to church here. The impulse to tear proselytizers' minds apart and convert them to atheism kinda fades when they aren't so malevolent. It is still there though... I recently heard a rumor that a girl was discouraged from going to the hospital for some ailment because the real problem was that she was possessed. Reconciling that situation is on today's to-do list.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Touchdown, Blogosphere.

I suppose you don't touch down on the blogosphere, but rather enter into orbit within or around it. However, this precludes exclaiming "touchdown!" like an astronaut/football player, and is much less fun.

Disclaimer: I do not have any specific plans on how often I'm going to write. (I love when I write "I" after a colon 'cause I'm never sure if I'm supposed to capitalize. With "I," I'm right either way.)

Merambling seems like a good word for meandering and rambling, which are two things I love. If you have an idea for a title, I'd like to hear it.

I chose the most pretentious "template" available.

There is a little shop just 100 feet from my house that sells things like lentils, bread, eggs, boxed pasta, canned milk, sponges... about 15 or so standard items. Of course they also sell rum and beer. All these items are delivered by trucks that pass through the various villages daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the item. So I hang out there some times. It is run by a multigenerational family of 11... I may be missing someone... Cousins, grandparents and grandchildren all living under the same roof, no one over the age of 55. I have befriended all but the teenage daughter who "doesn't deal with white people."

"Bend Down for the Wood" is a song lyric from the popular band Triple Kay. Yes, three K's, like the nefarious American ethnic organization.

I'm sitting down outside the shop with Jen (grandmother, matriarch) and Carine (29 year old daughter of Jen, mother two) as we intermittently converse between texts they are sending and receiving to and from I don't know who. Ray, 6 years old, newly able to speak, starts walking up from the house holding the cat in his arms. "Ray, go home. Not to come up here," says Carine, his 29 year old sister, looking for some relaxation after a day's work. "If you come there I'll make you bend down for the wood for the cat," says Ray defiantly, as he turns and saunters home.