by Magdalena Malinowska, KF11 Dominican Republic

What shape does the World Cup fever take in the Dominican Republic? No shape or form – is the answer! There is very little (to none) interest in this baseball-dominated country in the events that have been captivating the people of numerous countries all over the globe for the past several weeks.

Although the country holds many cultural and historical ties with the rest of Latin America, the continent which spawned several of all-time czars of world soccer (Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo), baseball is king here. With basketball as the court’s lady in waiting, soccer would occupy the place of a jester in this royal analogy given the inconsequence it suffers here. So, what activity assumes the throne of the queen? Chatting with the local fishermen in a crowded “carro público” (a beat up minivan or truck serving as a local bus), I got my answer: “dominós”. Certainly not “fútbol”.

Soccer is often referred to as the poor-man’s sport given that it doesn’t require any specialized gear and infrastructure – this accessibility to all levels of any society lies at the base of its ubiquitous popularity. However, its absence in this part of the Caribbean is not owed to the country’s wealth. The Dominican Republic is a developing nation, despite the fame of the four and five-star all-inclusive resorts which line its pristine beaches. Although jobs flourish when tourist areas are developed, the profits from such projects only marginally benefit those living in them. The average annual income per capita here is under one sixth of USA’s (CIA World Factbook). A large percentage of the country’s citizens struggle to make ends meet, while living out their lifetimes in simple structures with erratic access to electricity, canalization and potable water.

Since the work of a Kiva Fellow is not contained to the country’s numerous tourist havens, finding places to watch the matches, beyond these soccer-watching enclaves, has been a challenge. Thus, it was quite a shocker to discover its omnipresence on the island’s poorer part, Haiti. The discovery of Brazilian and Argentinean flags hoisted on rooftops, motorcycles, and even painted on houses, on a recent trip to Trou-du-Nord where the Dominican micro-finance institution supported by Kiva, Esperanza International, has its Haitian branch, was somewhat of a perplexing discovery given the Dominican dismissal.

No kids swinging bats on seashore baseball fields here, no “motoconcho” driver (Dominican motorcycle taxi) knows the standing of the Red Sox in the playoffs; instead, plenty of neighborhood shops and households keeping doors opened to make TVs available to passers-by and those who do not own one. When asked in my guide-book level Creole fortified by high-school level French, everyone knew the score of the latest match.

So, what’s the reason for such dissonance on the same island? Is soccer popular in Haiti because it’s a poorer nation than its eastern neighbor? Not really, or it would not be popular in Holland, Spain or Germany. Is it than because of its French historical links vs. DR’s American-dependent economy? Who knows? Maybe it’s just how the ball rolls, how the bat swings.

Brought to the fore by the World Cup 2010 fever, there are many differences between the two nations which inhabit Hispaniola Island. The face-off is multifarious and goes beyond sports: French, Creole vs. Dominican Spanish, compas music vs. merengue and bachata, African ethnicity vs. criollo (mix of African and Spanish), failed economy exacerbated by the January earthquake (80% of population under poverty line and 54% in abject poverty) vs. booming tourism industry and trade free zone, average per capita GDP (PPP) $1300 vs. $8,300.

However, it’s not all opposition. There are many similarities, starting with the queen of social activities – dominoes take the throne next to the king of sports. In both countries people spend time with their neighbors, family members or friends engaging in friendly matches under mango trees or on their patios.

There is much more to this cultural overlap – to be explored in the next blog entry, focused on Esperanza’s branch in northern Haiti. In the meantime, check out pictures below and consider lending to Esperanza Internacional Dominican Republic. By doing so you are supporting micro-entrepreneurs in both countries since 40% of their borrowers are of Haitian origin or descent.

Argentine Soccer fan in a Haitian bus Kids practicing baseball in a public park in Samana, Dominican Republic. Domino players in Las Galeras, Dominican Republic Domino players in Sans Souci, Haiti (each loss of a "chien" (dog; i.e. loser) is marked with a clothes pin. Ouch!

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