From the first time I met him I was impressed by his toothless smile and humble spirit. He came to the Dominican from Haiti to find work. He has been in the Dominican Republic many years now and his 3 children were all born in Habanero. Ben Wai stands out as a man of integrity to me. You see Ben Wai is extremely poor, but over the 10 years I've known him he has never asked me for anything. Not one peso, not one grain of rice. Impressive.
I see Ben Wai every visit to Habanero. His family is usually a recipient of a bag of clothing. With each trip we take as many suitcases as possible. The suitcases are filled with school supplies, shoes and clothing. Sometimes towels and sheets if we have them. We have a list of all the homes and fill up a plastic bag for each home. We go as far as we can on the list and when we return we begin where we left off. I always think it really isn't so much WHAT we give to each family, it is that we REMEMBERED each family.
Ben Wai doesn't speak English and my Spanish is for survival only! ¿Dónde está el baño? lol But I know he is thankful for what we do in the community. In February I learned how important that small gesture is. A girl in the village, and my future daughter-in-law (thank you Jesus) has learned to speak English. Her name is Lucy and we were together every day this trip.
Wow! What an eye opener! We always have translators when we are working with a team, but when I'm there alone I usually wing it unless an emergency arises. I learned so much by having Lucy by my side and I appreciate her help so very much.
Lucy, Ben Wai and I sat and spoke for about an hour and I had many questions. I asked him about his children, his wife, all the general things you'd ask. He said they were all good, healthy and the children were in school. All said with that great big toothless grin.
Ben Wai is currently staying at a property Lucy's father owns in Habanero. Ben Wai stays there for free in exchange for "watching" the property since Lucy's father now lives in Barahona. It's 2 rooms with no bathroom but there is running water outside to bath. The water is not good, but they drink it anyway since they can't afford to buy water. There is one bed for 5 people and clothes are hung on nails pounded into the wall. They cook outside on an open fire. Life is simple he says they have everything they need.
I wanted to know more than just "how are you" so I asked if I could ask him some personal questions and he said yes. I learned that Ben Wai works 6 days a week on a plantation. He goes to the fields as soon as the sun comes up and while it is cool. He puts in 8 to 9 hours everyday 6 days a week. He plants, waters, weeds, etc. He has worked for the same man for 5 years now. He gets about 3,000 pesos per month or about $70 US. And he says that is Depending............ Depending on if the man pays him or not. What? I think, 48 hours a week and you get paid once a month, maybe.........
Ben Wai just smiles when he sees the shock on my face. He understands I come from a different world. I ask him what he does when he doesn't have enough money. He says sometimes if the plants are ripe, he asks the man if he can take some of the plantinos from the fields. Sometimes he will do an odd job for someone in the community and use that money to buy food. But mostly he gets credit at the local Colmado (store) in Habanero. When the man pays him he gives all of the money to the Colmado. He must or he will not get credit again.
I ask him why he doesn't find another job even though I already know the answer. There aren't many jobs in Habanero, there's about 70% unemployment rate and it's worse for Haitians. Ben Wai is in the country illegally and never goes outside of the safety of Habanero. To do so would subject him and his family to possible deportation. So he works the fields and stays off the main roads.
I tell him it seems like a very difficult life. He says it is a difficult life, but his children will have a better life. They are going to school. He tells me he never went to school and cannot read or write. But his children can! And there it is again that big toothy grin that shows a joy far beyond my understanding. He tells me he is thankful for the school in Habanero because his children eat there and he does not have to buy them uniforms to go to school. He is thankful for the bags of clothing we bring because he can use the money he earns to buy food for his family.
Ben Wai also tells me of the hope he has to get papers for his children one day. You see they were born in the Dominican and therefore are Dominicans. However, without papers they could still be sent back to Haiti. He is trying to save the money necessary to get the papers. Which will be about 10,000 pesos. He seems so hopeful, but I do the math in my own head and know he will never be able to save the money. It is 5 months worth of work for Ben Wai.
It's time for Ben Wai to leave so we say good bye. I understand now how much a small bag of clothing can mean for this family. My heart is heavy with the reality of his life. I vow to never complain about my life again. Oh, if only I could keep that vow.............