Señor Wallace asks us to meet him at the school (where we hold the clinic) at 8:00 a.m. so that we can travel to the government office. He asks us to prepare a report of our work over the past seven years so that we can make clear to the officials that we are committed to improving health in Paraiso; that we are serious about long-term and sustainable change. (These are my words, not his. He says more simply: Write about the work you’ve done here so the officials will know.) It’s a short turnaround: pull together a summary of seven years of work with limited access to internet (and, thus, to files and data) and no immediate access to a printer. We believe that this could be a watershed moment and dive in willingly.
By Wednesday night at 10:00, we have a printed report, complete with data on the cañada, a Google Earth map with marked coordinates showing data points, and a concise summary of our project goals and strategies. We are eager to meet with government representatives even though we have seen before the limited impact that such meetings can have. Three years ago, a small contingent of SOMOS representatives accompanied Señor Wallace to the Mayor’s Office to express our concern about a bridge crossing the cañada. A resident of Paraiso had fallen when the bridge collapsed, and he was hurt seriously. We hoped to reinforce Señor Wallace’s plea for government repair. The meeting included high drama as the mayor insisted with various department heads that the repairs be made immediately. Months passed without result.
We are uncertain of our destination or our mode of transportation. We are told simply to be ready to travel from the school at 8:00 a.m. Concerned that we might not arrive by 8:00 a.m. (our bus transport is not entirely predictable), we called Wallace to get more details. He tells us that it will be fine; we should come to the school as soon as possible. We arrived at 8:30 to find Señor Pinto waiting. At 9:30 we call Wallace to check on details; there is no answer. At 10:30, we agree with Señor Pinto that we should walk from the school to the nearest bus stop and take a public bus from there to the meeting. We have walked perhaps a block when Pinto receives a call from Wallace: He will be there soon. He has arranged a police pickup truck to transport us. The truck arrived at 11:15; it’s a double cab with two officers occupying the front seats and enough room for three small people in the back seat. There are six of us representing SOMOS, Señors Pinto and Wallace, and a representative from a nearby junta who has come to express her support of our efforts. Señor Pinto, four students, our embedded photo journalist, and I climb into the pickup bed for a rough and sometimes unnerving ride to uptown Santo Domingo. There are curious looks from those we pass, seeming sometimes to say “Why are all those gringos going to jail?”
We had imagined that we were going to the Mayor’s office or to some executive branch related to that office. We were wrong. We arrive at about noon and unfold ourselves from the pickup bed in front of the Instituto Nacional De Recursos Hidráulicos—roughly, the national water resources institute. We didn’t have an appointment, but we wished to see the director. It was clear from the outset that Señor Pinto has been here before. It also was clear that we were not going to meet with the director. There were exchanges between the front door receptionist and Señor Wallace; armed security officers stood close and attentively by. We were asked to move back, ideally outside, while discussions continued. A friendly middle-aged man appeared and took charge of the discussions—and ultimately led us outside to talk on the walkway. There were ambiguous references to his office – “too small to accommodate such a large group” – and we found ourselves gathered in a circle some 20 yards from the entrance to the building.
The man is an engineer, perhaps a project director for the Institute, and he knows already what we want. He is polite, somewhat solicitous, but no, we cannot simply get equipment to dredge—even if Pinto knows how to use the equipment and has dredged before. Señor Julio understands the problems and concerns, but the equipment is in “the exterior” working on other projects. He will arrange for an Institute engineer to come to the community next week. If this engineer agrees that dredging would provide a reasonable short-term solution, the community will be able to use the equipment when it returns from the exterior. Clearly, Señor Pinto is not satisfied and we try to community off-stage with him to see if there are other efforts to make. I ask Kevin to say to the Señor Julio that we have been working in the community for seven years and that our clinical efforts will not succeed if people continue to become infected by the flood waters. We deliver our written report with some attempted ceremony, and Julio regards it briefly (earnestly?) for a short time.
It appears that we’ve had our audience, taken our shot, whatever its value may be—but Kevin discerns that Pinto is not quite done. Through a quick and hushed conversation among SOMOS team members, we decide to explore another effort to see the director before we leave. Kevin asks Pinto if we should return to the office to ask again to see the director. Señor Wallace, seasoned veteran of Dominican politics, thinks better of it and, in short order, becomes insistent that we’ve done what can be done. He says that he believes that Julio will send the engineer; with somewhat less enthusiasm, Pinto agrees.
Again, stay tuned.