Exploring U-M’s Opportunities Around the World



The water boy

April 13, 2010
Written by

An LS&A alum’s story of lives changed in the Dominican Republic


In May 2004, LS&A student Adrienne Gilbert participated in the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) program, where her team worked with Dr. Nita Kumar conducting ethnographic anthropological research interviews in Varanasi, India. This four-week service experience sparked Adrienne’s interest in international development work. She applied for the Peace Corps and served as a public health extension volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 2006 to 2009.

I have been in a rural campo in southwest Dominican Republic for just over a year. My efforts thus far as a health extension volunteer have shown little statistical success, but now I understand our experiences are more about self-discovery through personal connections with people. One of my greatest successes is a relationship that has developed slowly and unexpectedly, one that has surprised me and infused me with a genuine curiosity to learn more about the way people think and feel about themselves Adrienne_and_Yiloand who they are in the world.

Yilo (pronounced Gee’-low) is stout and broad-faced with extremely dark skin. He is my campo’s water boy. He carries water from the river in a five-gallon bucket balanced on top of his head and two one-gallon jugs in each hand. He makes this journey back and forth to the houses in the campo about twelve times a day and only gets paid five pesos a trip. I meet him while living with my host family. His gravelly, low-toned, monotonous voice gives me a bit of a chill at first. He seems so odd always leaning up against the struts of doorways listening to families talk amongst themselves, all the while nibbling at the rope end he uses to secure the bucket to his head. He endures constant teasing from the local community because of his eccentric mannerisms and awkward voice. Yet, I always pay very close attention to every word he says and enjoy watching his peculiar and attentive facial expressions change as he pays very close attention to me, the ‘Americana.’ Yilo is born in the Dominican mountains to a single mother of eight children, who, for the most part, renounces him for figuring out a way to escape from the destitution in which they live. He fashions a job for himself as the local water boy in the more populated section of the campo. No one in my community appears to be more dedicated, less intrusive or more judicious about their work than Yilo. I have never seen him wear shoes and know he works around the clock during thunderstorms and even in the dark, always bearing the same hole-riddled turquoise polo-che (polo shirt) and worn jean shorts.

As time goes on, Yilo wins my full respect. I start a birth certificate project with community members shortly after I arrive and quickly come to learn more about Yilo’s blind, yet fierce determination. An important issue facing campos is the lack of consistent child documentation. For most village people, it is nearly impossible to gather the documents necessary to declare a family member, let alone sift through the red tape of the closest pueblo’s bureaucratic system. Therefore, if a birth certificate is not completed when a child is born in a clinic or hospital, the task becomes nearly impossible. Many people living in the village are simply unaware of the importance of a birth certificate; not knowing individuals without one could not attend school past the 8th grade, receive medical attention from the national public health care system (SESPAS) nor enroll in the government’s food assistance program (SOLIDARIDAD). Most importantly, their very existence is not recognized in the eyes of the Dominican government. Yilo immediately realizes the importance of getting his own birth certificate. Despite his neighbors’ mockery for wanting more for himself, he recognizes it as his only ticket to freedom.

groupAfter learning about birth certificate requirements, Yilo passes my house daily asking me how I can help him get his own. Soon community members begin openly discussing the absurdity of his desire to get a birth certificate. When I ask Yilo how old he is, the others throw out numbers without letting Yilo fend for himself: “19” or “26.” Yilo then turns to me with a blank face as if he hopes I can decipher his age. Through the bickering of his neighbors, I feel Yilo’s frustration rise and whittle away at his composure. To help ward off any possible disappointment, I warn Yilo not to hold his breath nor waste his energy.

Community members are surprised Yilo and I are such good friends, but he is a smart young man full of positive intention and genuine inquisitiveness. His pure innocence is bitterly and sweetly heartbreaking. He is a good and loyal friend. I am amazed, when I stop to think, how much distance there is between us. Yet this difference is the driving force in our curiosity of one another. He brings water to my house for five pesos a gallon and waits to eat my leftover oatmeal with raisins at six-thirty in the morning. He never asks for more than I offer and never expects it either. He simply patiently waits to hear what will come out of my mouth next. I begin awaiting his arrival each day, expecting to be satiated by the personal exchanges that will ensue.

Interacting with him becomes effortless, a pure joy.

We come to the conclusion Yilo is twenty-six years old after finding his birth date scribbled on a tattered old sheet of paper tucked away in his mother’s house. With visible excitement, Yilo arrives at my house on the arranged day, at the appointed time, and with a freshly shaven head. The wrinkles on his head from the pressure of bucket-carrying are now more pronounced, and I notice he is wearing a clean polo-shirt with stone-washed jeans and tennis shoes. I have never seen Yilo in tennis shoes.

We proudly cruise down the mountain en route to the pueblo on two motorcycles, one trailing after the other. I can feel the grin on my face as I watch Yilo brace himself for the trip. Is it fear or excitement? This is after all something he has anticipated for a long time. Following the commotion of paying the motorcycle drivers and fending off the hum of the traffic, Yilo mumbles to me under his breath, “Adrianna…Adrianna, I have never been here before.” I am distracted a bit, “What Yilo?” He repeats himself, “I have never been here before.” In that moment, I feel his innocence. I feel his excitement. He looks at me wide-eyed and grinning, a little nervous. “Really, Yilo, you have never been here before?” He says honestly, frankly, without shame, “No Adrianna, this is my first time in the pueblo.” Time stands still for a moment. My energy focuses on him, and I realize he hasn’t left the campo in twenty-six years. Imagine that. Today is the day.

After all of the work involved in getting him here, I wonder why the campo isn’t making a bigger deal about Yilo’s trip to the pueblo. Why hasn’t anyone told me? Why hasn’t anyone else in the community ever offered to bring Yilo to the pueblo? Was it for lack of resources or are the others so focused on their own needs and desires that no one stops to think about Yilo? During those first moments of our day in the pueblo, I sat thinking: What have I done in the past twenty-five years of my own life? What have I learned? Where have I been? Placing myself in his shoes, in that instant, blows my mind. This is what he has been waiting for — something new, something different.

Yilo_with_new_idIt is amazing to discover the streets of the pueblo, for the very first time, through Yilo. “Today is a very proud day”, I tell him. I am beside myself. Yilo is too. He is attentive to every moment, alive and alert. We go to the photographer’s studio to get head shots for the official birth certificate. When the photographer asks Yilo to look in the mirror and fix his hair, not noticing he is bald, Yilo poses as if the mirror is going to take his photo. He goes through the motions enjoying the newness of the experience. I revel in self-discovery with him…

So, what can we do to ensure our efforts are productive? First, we must be true to ourselves as humans with hearts open to true connection and understanding. To me, Yilo has made real yet one more voice that needs to be heard. Our job as a volunteer is not to save villages of malnourished children. We are only catalysts for change, intermediaries. When we work to create opportunity for others, the true joy and responsibility of our service comes to life. Yilo came alive the morning he recognized he had moved beyond a world too stagnant for him. The impact of our friendship reverberates within those community members who witnessed our interactions despite our differences — the color of our skin, our gender, our economic disparity, the sounds of our voices. Yilo’s dignity and self-value continues to grow amongst the members of his community every time a child learns to respect him for his work. His hope renews every time he moves one step closer to being declared a fully documented Dominican citizen. Perhaps this is what will drive him the rest of his life, whether or not he ever moves beyond the boundaries of the small campo from which he came.

Yilo still does not have his birth certificate, but I am certain his dreams for his future are now stronger than they were before. Maybe he will never stop carrying water. Years from now he may still go bare-foot, walking the muddy streets with a bucket on his head, proudly determined. It is now my job to guarantee his story lives on to inspire others to work harder, laugh harder, dream bigger and love deeper.

Gilbert finished her Peace Corps service in June of 2009 and will begin work on a masters degree in public health at Emory University in the fall of 2010. This article originally appeared in the winter/fall 2010 edition of the GIEU newsletter, Beyond Borders.

Yilo received his birth certificate and Dominican I.D. Card in 2008.

Browse news by region: