Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Education in the Dominican Republic

By popular request and inspired by Chivirico starting at school, here is some information about the education system in the DR.
There are basically three different types of school. Free public schools which are attended by 80% of those who go to school, private Dominican colleges which can vary from only a few hundred pesos a month up to several thousand, and International schools which follow a different curriculum, are attended by Dominicans and expat children with the classes usually taught in English, although some teach in both languages.  They are by far the most expensive, with the average cost being US$5,000 to US$10,000 a year but some are excellent quality.

Library of one of the top international schools

I will concentrate on the public school sector as it is by far the biggest. The schools themselves are in varying states of repair, most are cooled by the wind, some by fans, but to the best of my knowledge there is no air conditioning.

One of the bigger public schools

All schools will have a parent committee and they work to try and ensure the buildings are kept in good condition and paint them etc. When my step children were at public school my husband would often get together a group of his friends and they, along with other parents would help to maintain the buildings and the gardens. The government also have a programme of school maintenance and construction.

Rural public school

School starts at 8am and the first round of classes finishes at noon. Those children have then finished for the day. Another lot come in the afternoon from 2pm until 6pm. The children either go in the morning or the afternoon. One of the ideas of our new President, Danilo Medina, is to require children to go to school all day, but this will mean building thousands of new classrooms so it is not likely to happen overnight. In addition he plans to feed them breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, which would be marvelous as many children go hungry. Many schools have a cafeteria or snack shop, and Chivirico yesterday told me about his, so I gave him 100 pesos and told him to give it to his grandmother, so she could give him 5 pesos a day to spend in the cafeteria. He brought me back 95 pesos and I had to re-explain that she should keep it and only give him a little each day so that he didn’t spend it all at once!

The children start school at age 5, or nearly 6, although there are kindergarten classes which some go to. The class sizes are between 15 and 40 pupils. They then keep going until Grade 8 which is the end of the first school when they should be around 14. However, every year there are exams and apart from in the first couple of years when there is pretty much automatic progression, if they fail them then they have to retake the year. According to Unicef, the repetition rate amongst the richest children is 2.3%, and amongst the poorest is 8.7%. If they make it to the 8th grade, they take national examinations known as the Pruebas Nacionales. There are four subjects: Spanish Language, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences and the pass rate is 65%.

Not everyone makes it to this grade. It is estimated that out of every 100 students who start school, only 53 finish 8th grade. They leave for a variety of reasons, even though I read that school is compulsory there are many who do not go. The main reason is money, as although the schools are more or less free (enrolment fee is around US1 and examination fees the same), the children have to buy their uniform, back pack for their books, notebooks and pencils, and shoes. In some areas they also have to pay for their books, and as the books double as workbooks they are not reusable and can add significant expense.

Apart from those who live close by, they have to pay for transport – usually a motorbike taxi, known as a motoconcho, although in some areas there are free school buses. Some will also drop out to work and it is estimated that 9% of children are involved in some form of child labour, although this tends to be mainly boys and more in the countryside than in the towns. Some of the girls will drop out as they become pregnant – teenage pregancies being a big problem in this country.

Following 8th grade then begins year 1-4 of high school ending with the exams for Bachiller which qualifies as university entrance. Not all schools offer high school education, so often the children must go to a different school much further away. The Bachiller consists of more exams than the Pruebas Nacionales and includes English, French, Civics, and Human Development. The exams tend to be multiple choice, which may be a reason why not many Dominicans can actually write very well. However, I know that they are not easy as I helped my husband with his when he did his Bachiller via distance learning with an organisation called Cenapec. Many adults did not have the chance to finish their schooling when younger, and so now they go back to school via nightschool, or distance learning to graduate. Of all the children who start school only 12% actually graduate from high school.

To be a teacher in the public system you have to have attended university and qualified as a teacher, although there are some teachers who manage to obtain work without being qualified due to connections.  In the international schools however, some of the teachers have no teaching qualification and the fact that they are native English speakers appears to be sufficient. The public school salary is between RD$8,000 and RD$12,000 a month which is between US$200 and US$300. According to trainee teachers I spoke to, things are beginning to improve at University level, and instead of just being taught the same material which had been recycled since the year dot, the lecturers are going to workshops, meetings and having more courses themselves which they can then pass on to their students to help them to then become better teachers. In several instances at the moment the teacher simply writes some problems on the board and then sits back and reads a book, or does her nails, while the children try and work out the problems.

4% for education is not an expense, it is an investment

There is no question that the standard of education in this country is a major problem and it appears there has been little effort on the part of the government to improve it. According to the Law, 4% of the budget should be spent on education, but over the last several years it has not even come close, and sometimes has not even reached 2%. This has resulted in campaigns and marches with people demanding the 4% and the protesters have adopted the colour yellow as the symbol.

The new President has promised to ensure the level of funding for education will increase to the 4% laid down, and in the meantime the children will continue to receive a less than optimal education and hence opportunity. At least there are signs that things might improve, and there are also people and groups who are currently trying to help.

Children having lunch at the Joan Rose Foundation

One of these is the Joan Rose foundation, which provides lunch, education, clothing and medicine to 93 of the poorest children after their morning session at the public school. They do a fabulous job, ensuring the kids are well nourished, and have adequate clothing as well as receiving more education and training in the afternoons.  You can see their website here.

So, fingers crossed that things improve with education. Dominican children deserve a chance and education is the way to give them the opportunities that children in other countries have.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Chivirico has gone to school!

Judging by the number of emails I get, many people are following the story of Chivirico. Last night, as we were having dinner, he came by to tell me that his Dad had bought his school uniform. He stopped for a while, and ate his first fajita, which he loved. He said that today he would have his hair cut, as Dominican schools are very strict on length of hair for boys and that he would be starting school on Tuesday. Imagine my surprise when he turned up  at 7.30 this morning, all ready to go to school.

He looked very smart in his uniform together with his back pack and newly cut hair and was very excited to be going. I am a little concerned that they might send him home, as he is wearing his trainers rather than black shoes, and some schools would send him home for that, but maybe the school here is less strict. The shoes are the most expensive part of the uniform.

I am really pleased that his dad managed to get the cash to pay for his uniform and will be keeping a watchful eye on his progress.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Damage by Isaac

Just a couple of photos. This one is of a bridge on the main highway from Santo Domingo, the capital, to the south west of the island, Azua, Barahona and one of the main border crossings to Haiti. No idea how long it will take them to fix it, but until they do the south west is effectively cut off.

And this is Santo Domingo. It is always bad when it rains but this is a little more than a big puddle.

Stay safe all of you in the southern part of the USA and hope Isaac treats you kindly.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Isaac arrived - eventually

We waited for Isaac who so far hasn't made it into a hurricane and is still a tropical storm. Everyone seemed to think he would arrive on Friday and the whole country was ready. Airports shut on Thursday at midnight, schools were closed on Friday, people living near rivers were told to take shelter. Nothing happened as Isaac took an unexpected turn to the south and went parallel to the south coast of the Dominican Republic rather than hitting it.

All morning I had been seeing on line that the expat community was totally organised and ready for the storm, if it ever arrived. Many were sitting in their homes, glued to the computer checking the storm's progress. Generators were full with diesel, mobile phones charged, candles bought and the freezers stocked with food for a month. Hurricane shutters were all in place and all outdoor furniture brought inside. People were anxiously looking for a sign that Isaac was arriving. As all was calm, I went into the nearest town to go and pick up a package.

I drove up onto the main street and couldn't believe my eyes. I had driven right into the middle of a party. Whilst the expats were hunkered down preparing for the storm, the Dominicans were out in the streets, drinking and having fun. The roads, which I expected to be empty, were full of cars driving erratically. The bars were jam packed and music was blaring out from everywhere. The difference was amazing. I shouted out to someone to ask what was going on, and the reply was,"Hoy se bebe!" which means today is a time for drinking, and it was explained to me that that was what you should do before a hurricane. Now I know for the next one.

Having returned home, I bumped into Chivirico, my bodyguard who was looking after a chihuahua for a neighbour. He told me he was hoping to start school on Monday, if his Dad buys him his uniform which so far he hasn't. He warned me not to go out in the rain, or I would catch a cold!

Having thought the storm had passed, I was surprised when at around 7pm the winds started to pick up and checking the weather forecast it looked like at last we would get at least the edge of it. The winds became stronger and stronger during the night and I woke up several times, and this morning there were downed trees and flooded roads and gullies.

As I write this I am wrapped up in sweaters as it is very cold, well cold for here, and is still windy and pouring with rain.

So Isaac arrived, although later than expected and not exactly where he was supposed to be. I have a horrible feeling, looking at the weather charts that the rain will go on for a while and many crops will be damaged and people flooded out of their homes. 

Isaac now sitting right on top of the DR and Haiti

Stay safe and dry everyone out there in the DR.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hurricane Isaac

This month for my Expat Focus column I wrote about hurricanes. You can read the full article here. In the article I mentioned that so far this year we have had no hurricanes - yes you have guessed it, I should have kept my mouth shut, as Tropical Storm Isaac has formed and is projected to be Hurricane Isaac by the time it reaches us on Friday.

Today's picture of Tropical Storm Isaac

It is projected to pass very near to the south coast of the island and the whole of the south coast is now under a hurricane warning. The north coast is under a tropical storm warning and as I am in the middle no doubt we will get something between the two. It looks at the minute as if Isaac will make landfall to the west of the capital and pass straight over Haiti, which is the last thing Haiti needs.

Meanwhile the expats are running around, stocking up, making sure the car has fuel, candles are at the ready and they have plenty of food and drink, and tourists planning to come to the island on holiday are rapidly changing their plans.

However, I mention it in the local colmado and the Dominicans are very laid back and seem to be taking no notice of it at all and I see no evidence of all the zinc roofs being battened down, so hopefully they won't go flying through the air.

You can see Isaac and soon to be named Joyce right behind him

It also appears that hurricanes are like buses. None at all and then they all come at once, as behind Isaac is soon to be named Joyce. We could be in for a double whammy and the only advantage seems to be that some areas of the country will have some much needed rain, and the mosquitoes will disappear at least temporarily as one of the things they dislike is wind, and there will be plenty of that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Which to catch? Cholera or Dengue?

One of the things I love about Dominicans is that if they are not happy about something they do something about it. Where I live, we are in the middle of an outbreak of dengue fever, with over 100 people in hospital so far. The local population descended on the town hall and demanded something be done about it.

Dengue fever is also known as breakbone fever as you ache all over. Other symptoms include fever, headache and a measles like rash. In a very few cases it develops into dengue hemorrhagic fever which is when you bleed from your blood vessels leading to low blood pressure and occasionally death.  Not nice at all, and the incidence has increased dramatically since the 1960s when the first cases were seen, with 50 -100 million people infected worldwide each year.

Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes, and mainly one called aedes aegypti which is called white legs or white paws here – pata blanca, due to the white stripes on its legs. Dengue cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Treatment is by rehydration and is usually successful although the severe cases need blood transfusions. I had dengue fever aged 9 when I lived in Singapore, and just remember it being like a bad case of flu.

There is no vaccine, but the easiest way to prevent becoming infected is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito, which is easier said than done. You can use sprays and cover yourself in long trousers and long sleeved shirts, live somewhere with screens and air conditioning, and use mosquito nets and mosquito coils by the bed at night, which are supposed to deter them.

My husband says they don’t like the fan either so we have that on at night, and he insists on having it on full blast, so it is like sleeping in a hurricane. Personally I think if the little buggers want to get you they will, although if you keep your wits about you you can spot the dengue ones coming by their stripey legs.

The best way to avoid getting dengue is to ensure there are no mosquito breeding grounds around. They like fresh water, so rainwater tubs, dog water bowls, flower vases, and and buckets or containers with still water should be covered and cleaned at least once a week.

Following the outbreak here, and the demands of the local people, we have had visits from Public Health telling us not to store water in buckets, and issuing helpful leaflets with advice. It is nice to see they take it seriously. We have also been fumigated, which involves a truck driving round spraying the roads with something. You have no warning they are coming, and though the truck drivers have masks on, they don’t issue them to us, so we get drenched with whatever it is they are spraying. I could not swear it was insecticide, as that night there were more mosquitoes than I have ever seen in the house and garden. Maybe the mozzies were just leaving the road where the spraying was going on and had come into the house for safety. Whatever, I was not impressed.

As well as dengue, the neighbouring town has had a cholera outbreak. This is another nasty disease, and I would rather have dengue than cholera if I had a choice, especially seeing pictures of cholera wards in hospitals, which give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The symptoms of cholera are profuse diarrhea and vomiting, which quickly leads to dehyration and in some cases, death. The main treatment is quick and effective oral rehydration, followed by intravenous rehydration if needed. The important thing with cholera is to get treatment quickly. Worldwide cholera affects 3-5 million people and causes 100,000 – 130,000 deaths, and unlike dengue has been around for hundreds of years although I am not sure they knew exactly what caused it then.

Cholera is present in water which is contaminated by fecal matter – people using the water sources as a toilet, or the water from the toilets discharging into rivers where people bathe and wash. It is often present in shellfish from infected rivers as well, which has meant that this is not just a disease of the poor who live in unsanitary conditions. The better off who can afford to eat lobster and prawns are also at risk.

Those most susceptible are children and those with O type blood. Luckily I am type A although my husband and the children are type O. Cholera is rarely spread from person to person, although if one person in a household has it, then others are likely to catch it due to poor sanitation control measures.
As we are in the situation of having a cholera outbreak close by, intelligently, the local water board have turned off our water and are cleaning out the massive storage tanks. Last time they did this we had no mains water for a month. We usually have mains water for a few hours or a day, a couple of times a week, and this fills a tinaco or storage tank on the roof. We ensure the storage tank has a bleach tablet put in it periodically to kill any nasties, which has the side effect of turning bleached blonde hair a little green, a small price to pay I suppose.

As they are cleaning out the massive storage tanks, no one has had water for a week, hence most people now have to go and get water from a truck which drives around periodically. I have a storage tank known as a cisterna underground in the garden, so luckily I do not have to do this. Having collected their water from the truck, my neighbours carry it back to their house in whatever containers they can find. So all the gardens and patios are full of containers of fresh water, just when the pesky dengue mosquito is looking for somewhere to lay its eggs, and we are not supposed to have any water standing anywhere!

Hey ho! Welcome to paradise.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Climbing Pico Duarte, highest mountain in the Caribbean

My Canadian visitors are here on honeymoon. Most people think of beaches, romance, luxury and relaxing when they think of a honeymoon. However, these two, Heather and Ian, are raving nutters. Their honeymoon so far has consisted of barrio visiting, firstly on the south coast, and then with me in the middle of nowhere. When they were travelling from the south coast to come and stay with me, they took a break – and climbed Pico Duarte.

Pico Duarte, meaning the Duarte peak, is the highest mountain in the Caribbean at 3,074 metres above sea level. I have always thought it would be lovely to climb it, but having heard what it was like, I have decided that knowing someone who has climbed it will have to suffice.

They were supposed to have their honeymoon and climb Pico Duarte last year, but due to a vicious attack of food poisoning they had to cut their trip short and fly home. Kudos to the company they booked the climb through,  Iguana Mama, who gave them a full refund when they cancelled last time, and organized the trip this time in a very professional manner. 

In order to climb Pico Duarte you need a guide, and they had two, both of whom were excellent they told me. I had heard you had mules to carry the bags and equipment, however I did not realise that the guides actually ride the mules, and the tourists walk! Apparently to say you have climbed Pico Duarte you actually need to do it on foot!

The trails are well organised, with charts and maps showing you where you are and how long it would take the average person to walk the distance. However, once again the DR excels itself as you can see when you look at this sign. Ian and Heather had just completed the 3.8 kilometres distance from Los Tablones in one hour rather than the two it said on the sign,so they expected the next bit to La Laguna, which said 2.8 kilometres in one and a half hours to take under an hour. The information was totally wrong and it was in fact 6 kilometres and took nearly 3 hours.

The total trip is 48 kilometres – 24 there and 24 back and they completed it in 2 days. The walking is however not easy. Sometimes it is on shale which can be very slippery, so good boots are essential, as are walking sticks, especially on the way down. They also had to trek through deep gullies caused by erosion, which would have been very hard if it had been raining, wading through streams.

The first day was walking up to the overnight camp, some 11 kilometres short of the summit. It was a very comfortable hut, with a kitchen, and decent bathroom. There you eat and sleep and then get up at 5 ish in the morning to get to the summit and watch the sun rise.

Unfortunately the sun is rising very early at the moment so although they saw it rise over the neighbouring mountains, by the time they got to the top of Pico Duarte it was already higher in the sky.

On the top is Mr Duarte, Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic and widely considered to be the architect of the country and its independence from Haitian rule in 1844. There is also the Dominican flag and a cross. The views, as you would imagine are awesome (as my Canadian friends would say), and it was also freezing cold.

Having posed for pictures taken by the guide, including the obligatory honeymoon kiss, they made their way back to the bottom of the mountain.

It was even more difficult walking down, and Heather, having knee problems, did a few spells on the mule, as she can say she walked to the top of Pico Duarte, even though she rode a little bit of the way on the way down! The guide looks a little miffed at having to walk!

A day or so before they started the climb, a Dominican had also done the climb with a guide. When they got to the top the Dominican decided to go and explore. It is said that the guide was fed up with waiting for him and left, and by the time Ian and Heather started their climb the Dominican had been missing for 4 days. Helicopters were buzzing around looking for him, and Heather and Ian came across a group of Dominican military rushing past them, guns at the ready. They assumed the lost gentleman had been found, but a few minutes later they realised that the soldiers were just rushing as it was lunch time. 

Amazingly shortly after the man was found alive and well, and was airlifted to safety.

Ian and Heather told me that they are very pleased they did it, but, like the market at Dajabon, they would not do it again. They said you need to be exceedingly fit, which counts me out, and ensure that you have an excellent guide, not one who decides to leave you if you go off for a little wander. Check the weather forecast as it would be horrid in the rain. They were so lucky to have a clear view from the top as well, as it is often cloudy. You also need the right equipment.  Hats off to them for doing it, and enabling me to learn more about this amazing country I live in.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The market in Dajabon (never again)

I have friends from Canada staying with me at the moment, just for a few days. One of the great advantages of having visitors is that it makes you get out and do things. They wanted to visit the market at Dajabon, which is the border crossing from Haiti in the north of the country. Checked Google maps and it said it was 76.4 kilometres and would take 1 hour and 14 minutes. Fine I thought. Unfortunately I did not realise that in the same way that a Dominican minute is not the same as an English minute, a Dominican kilometre is much longer than an English kilometre.

As you remember I had been having problems with my jeep, with a clunking noise from the front off side wheel and the jeep was also very bouncy. It went back to the mechanic again, and another 5,000 pesos later, around US$125 he declared it perfect, and announced that he had tightenened everything up.

Off we set. In a comment on my last post, fellow blogger Steph said that things would get better. They  didn't. The first thing I noticed was that the steering wheel was now sideways. This meant it was hard to hold in my normal driving position, and impossible to see the gauges when driving. I had no idea how it had managed to become sideways either. Undeterred we set off.

I then had to turn right. That was also near impossible. For some reason everything was now so tight that the wheels would turn left with no problems, but would not turn right, well only a little, so that every time I needed to make a right turn, I had to do a three point turn, well more like an 11 point turn. This was somewhat disconcerting, and caused great amusement amongst other road users, laughing and pointing at the ‘stupid gringa’.

We continued, and only 30 minutes into the journey, bouncing and clonking along the road, the front offside tyre exploded. I have no jack – I know, stupid woman – but this being the Dominican Republic it doesn’t matter at all as within seconds a man driving a bleach truck stopped. You can buy bleach from a tank on the back of his truck. We then discovered what ‘I have tightened everything up’ means. There was no way the wheel nuts were budging. Eventually a motocyclist stopped too, and with lots of banging and smashing with rocks, the tyre was off and the new one on. Paid the guys an US$7 tip between them and continued on our way, still bouncing and juddering.

We were then ready to continue on our journey, but the bleach man's truck wouldn't start. I had jump leads so we tried that, but to no avail. In the end he said to push his truck and he would jump start it. We were on a hill so we ended up pushing him backwards. Luckily it worked straight away and off we went again towards Dajabon.

Nice to see his knickers match his truck

Once we reached the town of Sabaneta we stopped again and bought a spare tyre, another 1600 pesos and asked how much further it was to Dajabon. One chap said 40 minutes, but only 30 if you drove slowly (?), to an hour and a half from someone else.

How many people does it take to change a tyre?

Maybe it would have been a little quicker if the road only had cars on it, but we were obviously in the middle of cattle country and kept getting stuck in the middle of herds of beautiful floppy eared cows.

Eventually we hit Dajabon after three and a half hours and 150 kilometres according to the jeep's instrument panel. The priority was lunch and a loo, and then we went to find the market. Firstly however we stopped at the border and looked over the river Massacre into Haiti. It was a most peculiar feeling knowing you were looking at another country. There was nothing there, just a sort of market and the river was full of naked men bathing, and women washing clothes.

A small boy was on the bank of the river begging for 5 pesos, and I once again thought there but for the Grace of God I was in my body and not in one of theirs. I  had a feeling of desolation looking across at the barren landscape knowing if I wanted to I could go there, but they could not come here. I decided not to complain about anything over the next week, as my troubles seemed totally insignificant.

We checked out the border control on the Dominican side and then made our way to the market, ending up stuck in long lines of cars, trucks, motorbikes and people before managing to find somewhere to park.

I have quite simply never seen anything like this market. It was enormous, part outside and then a massive blue building with stalls inside, upstairs and down. The first thing to hit you is the smell of sweaty bodies. The stink was appalling, and clung to our clothes all the way home. It was hot, very crowded, dusty and crazy.  People were rushing everywhere. Women with bags and containers on their heads yelling what they were selling. Men rushing hither and thither with wheelbarrows, empty and full.

I asked my Canadian friends how long they wanted to stay there, praying they would not say hours. Luckily they suggested 10 minutes. It seemed like an awfully long way to go for 10 minutes, but I was in total agreement. We went into the inside market where it was a little cooler and a little less pungent and I bought a bag of hot chillies for 20 pesos, and that was all we bought.

There were clothes, shoes, bags, electrical goods, food of all descriptions, household goods, cleaning materials, and apparently all at good prices, although we didn't pause to check. We just wanted to get out of there.
People were eating, sleeping, lying on piles of rugs, sheets, and blankets. It was an experience I will not forget, but nor will I repeat it.

We came home a different route. It took 2 hours, and was a much better road and was 165 kilometres via Monte Cristi on the north coast. There were no cows, no pot holes and the landscape was flat, barren and desolate compared to the way there which was green, lush and mountainous. It always amazes me that this country has such a wide variety of landscape and micro climates.

The milk man

As we were on one of the main routes from Haiti into the DR it was full of military checkpoints. They are looking for illegal Haitians, illegal guns and drugs. We were stopped at two out of the ten. When they wave you down you have no choice but to stop as they have a long plank of wood with nails in, and if you don’t look like you are stopping they put it on the road and you say good bye to a tyre or two. The first guy who stopped us was nice and after a couple of questions let us continue, but the second was very threatening and suspicious of the fact we did not have passports on us. I handed over my Dominican identity card (cedula), but he wanted to see my residency which I did not have with me. I suggested he read this blog then he could confirm that I went to the capital to get my residency renewed. I think he decided I was crazy and in the end he too let us go.

We eventually arrived home, and Chivirico, my bodyguard, came running down the road to open the gate. I was relieved to be back, hot, smelly and sweaty, with a burned right arm from having the car window open as it has no air conditioning.

I arrived home and pondered on the fact that I was the proud owner of a bag of chillies. To buy these chillies had taken 8 hours in total, 1500 pesos in petrol, 300 pesos in tips for changing the wheel, 1600 pesos for a new tyre, 60 pesos in bottles of water, 450 pesos for lunch, and 25 pesos to people with ropes across the street asking for money for a street party, leading to a grand total of 3635 pesos or not far off US$100. Plus the 20 pesos for the chillies themselves. 

I cooked an Indian curry last night with the chillies. They were the hottest I have ever eaten. The market at Dajabon had its revenge.