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Dios Te Bendiga

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad (left) with Doña Columbina"

Porque no veine mas mujeres a mis charlas? "Why don't more women come to my meetings?" I complained to Doña Columbina after returning from yet another sparsely attended community forestry gathering in the rural mountain village I had been placed in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was fresh out of training and ready to change the world. It was the spring of 1991 and having survived the first few months of culture shock in the Dominican Republic, I was ready to get to work.

“They are busy mi hija,” she said. “It isn’t that they don’t want to plant trees, but where will they find the time?  Perhaps you should ask a few women who I know are interested in planting trees what times are good for them to meet,” she suggested. “You know women are much busier than men!” she said with a wink.  

This was the beginning of an abundance of advice that Doña Columbina shared with me over the next two years.  She was a petite woman, but a larger than life community leader, who was loved and respected by both the men and women in her village, and the scores of development workers who had collaborated with her over the years. 

This humble woman, with one of the biggest hearts around, died on January 1, 2018.  I found out about her death that morning from a Facebook post from her son, Eduardo.  While I haven’t been back to the Dominican Republic or seen Doña Columbina since 1995, I consider her to be my Dominican mother.  In those two short years, I learned a lot from her. 

Let me share a couple of those lessons with you. 

  1. BE KIND.  Doña Columbina practiced kindness to a fault.  One of my most vivid memories is of her almost daily mid-morning routine, when Chepa, a homeless woman who lived up the road, would stop by with her bowl for some café con leche and left over arroz con habichuelas. Chepa smelled, to put it mildly, and she would wear all of her clothes – and I mean all of them – despite the often crippling heat.   I think many people today would call her a hoarder or and perhaps diagnose her with some form of mental illness.  But this didn’t matter to Doña Columbina who always made sure to save some coffee and left over dinner so that the poorest of the poor wouldn’t go hungry.  “We don’t have much,” she would say, “but we have more than many.” 
  2. COFFEE IS MEANT TO BE SAVORED.  It was only after I helped out with my first coffee harvest, that I understood this.  Picking the bright red cherries left my arms covered with ant bites, because ants like the sweet, pulpy fruit surrounding the coffee bean.  Then comes the sorting and drying which can take several weeks depending on the humidity.  Next you have to removal of the paper-like pulp from the hull before you roast them over a charcoal fire.  Finally after the beans are roasted there’s the grinding with a hand grinder.  Fill the grecca full with the most delicious smelling coffee grounds, add fresh water, and place on top of the charcoal stove.  The whole process can take months.  Slow down and taste the coffee.  Say thanks to all those who helped bring it to your lips.   
  3. IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT REALLY MATTER.  Sometimes we let the big moments in life define us.  Family betrayal, that publication in a prestigious journal, loss of a job or a promotion - good or bad, these moments are few and far between.  It is the little things that fill in the time between the mountains of sorrow and joy that are the most constant.  That cup of coffee first thing in the morning, the snoring spouse next to you, the bickering of children followed by laughter, the snuggle of a warm pup next to you on the couch, a hug, and knowing that you are loved.

Thanks for the lessons and the coffee Doña Columbina.  Dios te bendiga.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.