The Idealist

By Samantha Stainburn — April 01, 2001 9 min read
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When Smith arrived in his Dominican Republic host town, the computer center was locked. No one wanted to break the equipment.
— Samantha Stainburn

The first time David Smith rode the minibus from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, to Los Toros de Azua, the farming town three hours west where he was to live and teach for the next two years, he got into a shouting match with the driver. The then 26-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Guilford, Connecticut, was determined that he would not pay the so-called gringo tax—a higher fare for foreigners—but his seven weeks’ worth of Spanish lessons did him little good in arguing his case.

Then a Dominican sitting at the back of the bus asked Smith—in English—what the problem was and spoke gruffly to the driver. Magically, the price dropped. Smith stuck out his palm to shake the man’s hand. And as the good Samaritan unfolded his arms, Smith heard the clank of metal and saw handcuffs and chains. The man apologized and explained: He was being transported by police officers to a district prison for murder.

Smith, now a year into his assignment, tells this story to show that things aren’t always what they seem when you’re in a strange country. The American’s task in Los Toros—teaching computer skills—also may seem a bit odd. The town hasn’t had running water since Hurricane Georges blew through in 1998. It has no telephone lines, lies in a cellular dead zone, and lacks the tourism that provides jobs elsewhere. Students attend the local K-12 school in shifts because the six-room building can’t accommodate all 500 of them at once. When they graduate, most will leave the town for college, polytechnic programs, and jobs; few will return.

But in 1999, Los Toros acquired 13 Microsoft PCs and an Internet server that connects to the Web via satellite dish. The government sent similar high-tech goodies to more than 300 other towns as part of an initiative to bring poor communities into the computer age. Unfortunately, in Los Toros, as in many places, the tech center soon was locked up and mostly left alone: No one wanted to break the equipment. The promised government-issued computer teacher never materialized.

Smith, whose previous jobs include teaching English in South Korea and working the help desk of the technical support company C3I in New York City, was eager to step into the gap. The former University of Connecticut philosophy major gets fired up when he talks about the potential for technology to improve poor people’s lives. For many rural Dominicans, he says, information is difficult to get and often suspect when it arrives. If villagers can connect to the Internet, he believes, “they will know more about the world and be prepared to ask more questions about the world.”

Moreover, Smith likes to teach on the fly, to jump on the teachable moment whenever it arises. It’s a useful—maybe necessary—attitude for someone in his position, that of a noncertified teacher in a foreign country with no classroom and no clear mandate, who, nonetheless, is encouraged to go forth and educate.

Power to the people: Smith says the Internet can plug villagers into the wider world.
—Samantha Stainburn

In this, the 40th anniversary year of the Peace Corps, the U.S. agency boasts some 7,300 volunteers in more than 75 countries. Like all who sign up, Smith is charged with offering knowledge and promoting cross-cultural understanding both abroad and in the United States. An education volunteer, Smith is one of 160 Corps members in his host country; others work in agriculture, the environment, health, and community economic development. At bottom, though, “every volunteer is a teacher,” says Anita Friedman, the agency’s country director for the Dominican Republic.

Though the Corps has changed with the times, much about the Santo Domingo office resembles the 1960s stereotype: Fresh-scrubbed volunteers in modest cotton clothing and sandals collect their mail and earnestly discuss bouts of diarrhea and the difficulties of getting villagers to buy into their projects. And the work is as challenging as ever. About one-third of the agency’s volunteers worldwide return home before their stint is over.

In Los Toros, Smith has his hands full. Unlike his Peace Corps predecessor, who had the enviably straightforward task of helping build a library, Smith has the less clear-cut mission of helping the villagers make the most of their computer center. He also is the only foreigner in town, and the local woman with whom he is supposed to collaborate, while she does help him, is not terribly interested in computers.

What’s more, he is working in a country where, despite recent economic growth, the richest 10 percent earns 18 times more than the poorest 10 percent. In this Caribbean nation, people vividly remember dictators and coups, allegations of corruption are fairly common, and personal connections still wield significant power. The presidential election last May, though free, was tainted by a few instances of violence.

But Smith remains upbeat. He doesn’t mind roughing it some, and now he speaks Spanish like a native. And he’s excited about using technology to break down class divisions. “Online, no one knows if you’re fulano rico or fulano pobre,” he observes, referring to slang terms for rich and poor.

Smith’s vision fits well with the new high-tech focus for Peace Corps volunteers. Says Mark Schneider, until recently the agency’s director: “Information technology is a reality. It is changing the economy of countries—changing the way information is transferred, changing the way communities interact.” If the poor are left out of this revolution, he worries, the gap between economic classes will grow. That’s where volunteers like Smith come in. “They have knowledge; they have credibility, legitimacy,” says Schneider. They can be “human bridges over the digital divide.”

When daytime arrives in Los Toros, it’s as if someone has flipped a light switch. At 6:50 a.m., the sky is pitch black—10 minutes later, it displays the streaky, garish colors of a tropical-scene T-shirt. Almost in unison, roosters crow, motorcycles sputter to life, and neighbors begin clattering pots and pans.

The carpenter who rents Smith a room is throwing water on the dirt floor of the kitchen to tame the dust as the American slips in to boil eggs. While Smith’s eating, 18-year-old Carolina Mendez shows up. She wants to print out something at the computer center—could Smith go to the school and open the room for her? “I’m a teacher 24 hours a day,” he laughs. This is nearly true: Later today, when he drops by the school to promote his computer class for teachers, he’ll agree to read to 2nd graders. Even in the evenings, he often holds discussions on politics and culture with folks who pass by his front porch.

Smith’s neighbors see him as serious—not a muchacho, or young man about town. In fact, Dominicans often ask him if he’s one of the straight-laced Mormon missionaries roaming the country. Smith does have a playful side; when he reads to the kids, he can’t resist asking questions that make them squirm with delight. “Do you think there are dragons?” he asks. “No-o-o-o,” a chorus of voices responds. (“Si,” a little boy in the back says.) But there is something of a religious devotion to his computer crusade.

Around 9 a.m. on this Thursday, Smith kicks off a meeting of the technology club he created—a group of about 10 teenagers who practice with computers for a couple of hours each week. They get down to the task at hand: taking apart a broken laptop to figure out why it stopped working. Smith has the students lead the exercise; he mostly asks questions to prompt ideas. After two hours, they haven’t determined what’s wrong, but they have devised some strategies for finding out. Consult a computer manual. Look for information online. Ask others.

This last suggestion meshes with one of Smith’s basic lessons: Work together. Earlier in the meeting, he repeated his mantra, “It’s important that you guys share information, so that everyone knows what everyone else knows.” But he’s discovered that this is not an easily swallowed concept in a country that bears the cultural legacies of political corruption and instability. People guard their knowledge jealously in the Dominican Republic, says Smith, fearing they’ll lose the advantage it offers or wanting to trade it for favors.

When Smith arrived in Los Toros, the townspeople assumed he would anoint them with knowledge during formal classes. But Smith rejected that approach: Instead, he’s been trying to teach different people different skills, with the understanding that each student will teach others. He’s still trying to build this learning pyramid, and the town’s teens, viewing computer skills as their ticket out, often are interested. But the adults resist. “They say it’s too late for them; it’s for their kids,” he sighs. Undaunted, he still spends much of his time going door-to-door to drum up interest in the center.

Smith teaches computer skills, but he’s really in the business of empowering people through knowledge. Sometimes, like today, he comes face to face with just how difficult that can be.

At 5 p.m., he’s in the local library, preparing for a meeting, when Rafael Mendez Lemos, the town’s 23-year-old computer whiz, appears. “They’ve shut down the computer center!” he whispers urgently. It seems the provincial minister closed the center because Dominican officials had not yet assigned their own teacher. Smith and Lemos hurry over to the building, but the principal is adamant about not reopening without permission. “It’s because of me,” Lemos laments. “My political party is not in power. They don’t want the center to succeed because of me. They don’t want my university scholarship to come through.”

Smith is worried about the center, but it’s Lemos’ reaction that really distresses him. Lemos knows more about computers than anyone else in Los Toros; he’s become Smith’s de facto local counterpart, creating a Web page for the town and teaching a computer class at the school. But computer skills are not enough to chase away his insecurity.

Eventually, Los Toros’ computer center will reopen, after Smith visits the Ministry of Education in Santo Domingo and the Peace Corps country director talks to the appropriate government officials. And despite his concerns, Lemos will go to college as planned in early spring.

But tonight, a few hours after the center’s closure, the future is a question mark, and Smith is looking to distract himself. He strolls over to visit Carolina Mendez’s father, Ezequiel.

Ezequiel’s wife serves a delicious, slushy drink made from shaved ice and papaya, and the conversation meanders to a phenomenon that occurs in the town several times a day—power outages.

Smith, ever the philosophy student, can’t resist turning the topic into a metaphysical discussion. “What’s real and what’s the illusion?” he asks. “Are the lights here all the time, and we just lose them now and then? Or, is the world really in darkness, and the lights are an illusion?”

Ezequiel considers this for a long time. “Perhaps it depends how you look at it,” he says, finally. “For some people, pessimists, the lights are not real. For optimists, the lights are real.”

“How do you look at it?” Smith asks.

“I believe the lights are real.”

Smith nods his head. That’s what he thinks, too.


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