Back to fieldwork page
The Commonwealth of Dominica is a small, rural island nation located between Guadeloupe and Martinique (15ºN, 61ºW). The island is mountainous and relatively undeveloped. Dominica’s population (approximately 65,000) is of mixed African, European and Island-Carib descent. Most Dominicans are bilingual in English and French-Patois.
Bwa Mawego is one of the least developed villages on the remote Windward side of the island. There are about 700 full and part-time residents, occupying small (150 – 600 sq. ft.), mostly one or two room, houses; many have electricity, but only a few have rudimentary plumbing.
Average annual household income in Bwa Mawego was approximately $5,000 E.C. ($1,850 U.S.) in 1995. Economic activities include subsistence gardening, fishing, bay oil production, banana production, running a rum shop, and limited wage labor. Most adults are involved in subsistence horticulture. In addition, many families cultivate bay leaf, bananas, or fruits and vegetables for market.
Opportunities for education are limited. About 30% of villagers born between 1953 and 1986 have attended high school. Almost no older individuals attended high school. Girls are more than three times as likely to attend high school as are boys (OR [adjusted for age] = 3.32 95%CI: 1.94-5.67). Entrance into high school is very competitive, and for many families the costs of school supplies, uniforms and transportation are prohibitive.
Family, Kinship & Households
Kinship and family are the foundation of economic, social, and reproductive behavior in Bwa Mawego. Almost everyone in the village is related through blood or marriage. Kin ties provide a map for navigating social life, and they offer avenues for the flow of goods and services. Family members cooperate for their mutual benefit. Spouses and their children share gardening chores. Kin work together on construction and agricultural projects for their family. Related women share childcare duties. This does not mean that friendships are not important, but kin have priority in Bwa Mawego.
Family life in Bwa Mawego is strongly matrifocal. As elsewhere in the Caribbean (e.g. Stearns 1997) reciprocity between mothers and daughters often forms the core of stable family relations. Households in Bwa Mawego are usually linked through women. Villagers often recognize a man as the owner of a house (e.g. “... down past Roger’s house...”), but they identify households with women (e.g. “... she stays with Margaret and them...”). Female kin organize and carryout extended family economic enterprises. They also maintain important reciprocal childcare arrangements that may entail costs to reproduction (Quinlan 2001).
Family compounds and single-family dwellings and out-buildings are typically arranged around a yard where most daytime domestic activity takes place. Household composition varies. Matrifocal families, conjugal families, single-mother families and various permutations are common (Flinn & England 1995; Quinlan & Flinn 2003). Often several households of closely related kin are grouped together in a family compound.
Households without adult males are at particular risk of poverty. For the most part, men in long-term conjugal relationships are responsible for earning a living through temporary wage labor or the family’s agricultural enterprise. Single men attached to a household have much more leisure time than do “married” men: They garden and do odd jobs to help their families economically, but much of their effort is for their own benefit. In general, male contributions to household wellbeing are economic. For example, households with an adult male (including fathers, brothers, and husbands) have an average of twice as many luxury items and three times the house value of households without males (t = 3.1, 1-tailed p = .002 for luxury items, t = 3.6, 1-tailed p = .005 for house value).
Formal marriage in Bwa Mawego is an institution in decline, but many villagers still forge durable conjugal unions. In Bwa Mawego, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, a couple commonly has a child together before deciding to establish a conjugal household. Once established, conjugal households are often stable. Currently about 30% of mothers are in long-term unions. This compares to about 21% for rural Jamaica (1960), 41% for the Grenadines (M. Smith 1962:231-2), 36% for Antigua, 49% for Barbados, 55% for Jamaica (presently), 29% for St. Kitts, 45% for St. Lucia, and 38% for St. Vincent (Roopnarine, Singh, Bynoe & Simon 2005).
Women and their daughters do most of the family’s domestic chores, and women typically spend more time in productive activity (childcare, chores and subsistence labor) than do men (53% of daylight hours compared with 30% for men [Quinlan 1995]). Mothers are primarily responsible for childcare, but grandmothers, sisters and older daughters often help. When girls reach the age of 8-10 they frequently take up some responsibility for caring for younger siblings. Girls’ time spent in productive activity is a linear function of age (r=.80, between 1 & 16 years), and by about 15 years most girls have a fully adult time allocation pattern.
Men are responsible for more periodic tasks such as repairing buildings, collecting large amounts of firewood, hauling bay leaf. In general men spend 20% of their time in productivity activity until they enter a long-term conjugal union, when time allocation to "production" increases to about 40% (Quinlan 1995). Differences between married men’s and women’s time allocation to production may reflect greater energetic demands for men’s work. Boys, however, spend less time in productive activity and more time playing than do girls (Quinlan 1995), and their productive activity does not significantly increase with age (r=.12, between 1 & 16 years).
Household composition is associated with children’s time allocation. Number of adults in the household and time spent with mother are negatively associated with children’s time spent roaming the village. Additionally, children living with their father spend significantly more time in productive activity than do father absent children (Quinlan & Flinn 2003).
Beyond households, larger kin groups are important. There are several large patrilineages and many more small lineages. One “lineage”, in fact, technically qualifies as a “clan” or “sib” with two lineages sharing an unknown common ancestor. Generally, only patrilineal surnames are inherited, but when fathers are completely uninvolved, a child may take her mother’s surname. Patrilineal descent provides individuals with access to ancestral family lands. This can be an advantage to individuals whose immediate family does not own land. In addition, distant kin generally look out for each other’s interests in situations where non-kin would mind their own business. For example, a man might escort a drunken distant cousin home when non-kin would most likely ignore him. Reckoning distant relationships in Bwa Mawego depends, largely, on surnames that track patrilineal links.
Health & Demography
Bwa Mawego (and the island in general) has a relatively healthy and well nourished population. Children’s mean height and weight for age in the village are near the 50th percentile of U.S. growth standards (Flinn, Leone & Quinlan 1999). The infant mortality rate is 17 per 1000 live births compared to 46 per 1000 for the Caribbean. Life expectancy for Dominicans is 74 years compared to 66 for the Caribbean region. (Data are from the U. S. Census Bureau available at www.census.gov/ipc/www/idbnew.html.) One infant and one young child died in Bwa Mawego during the course of this fieldwork.
Alcohol abuse is an important health and social problem in the village. About 38% of men over 30 years of age in Bwa Mawego are regularly intoxicated. Prevalence of “alcoholism” is considerably lower among women (15%).
Mean surviving offspring for a completed fertility sample (130 males and 124 females born between 1900 and 1955) equals 4.4 for men (95%CI: 3.8 – 5.1) and 5.0 for women (95%CI: 4.4 – 5.6), suggesting low-fertility, but a growing population. Analysis of multigenerational data show no difference in the number of grandchildren produced through sons or daughters. Additional demographic data indicate balanced adult sex-ratios for individuals born between 1900 and 1955 (Quinlan & Flinn 2005).
Many villagers have left Bwa Mawego either temporarily or permanently. Young people complain that there are too few jobs and educational opportunities in Dominica. Women say that jobless rural men are unattractive as mates, and men say that they cannot start a family without financial stability. Migration may be one means of improving educational, social and reproductive opportunities. 55% of villagers born between 1953 and 1986 have migrated. 33% left the island and 22% migrated to other locations on Dominica. Men are less likely to leave than are women—women have more than twice the odds of leaving the village.
Horticulture & Land
Many villagers are involved in some subsistence agriculture. Root crops make up the bulk of the rural Dominican diet. Family gardens primarily consist of one or more of several varieties of taro. Bitter manioc and yams are also important root crops. Gardens are usually cleared from the secondary forest at the periphery of the village. Larger gardens are sometimes further out in the bush. In the past horticulture in Bwa Mawego followed a typical "slash and burn" pattern with about three years of cultivation followed by several years of fallow. Plots now can be cultivated almost indefinitely because small-scale farmers have easy access to herbicide and fertilizer. New economic opportunities and herbicide may have reduced land pressure in the community in recent times.
Bay oil, from bay leaf or bwa den, is the most important source of cash for most people in Bwa Mawego. Bay oil is production is a labor intensive, multiphase process, and is often an extended family affair in which a single family owns the bay leaf and still (or “factory”) and provides the majority of the labor.
Land tenure in the village is complicated and sometimes contentious, and has a pattern similar to other Caribbean populations (e.g. Clarke 1957). Rights to use family land in Bwa Mawego are transferred over generations to many descendants. As the village founders died, each of their children had rights to cultivate a portion of their land. Current partrilineal descendants also have a right to use family land. Family land several generations removed from the grantee is referred to by the original owner’s surname (e.g. L’Homme land).
This custom of naming family land reflects a general patrilineal bias in calculating genealogical relationships. For example, an individual with uncontested paternity calls both his father’s and mother’s families “my people." But in cases where ego’s parents had a stable conjugal union following a neolocal or patrilocal residence pattern, then matrilineal kin may be relatively unimportant beyond second degree relatives. Hence, offspring of stable conjugal unions with parents from stable conjugal unions have a different model of kinship than do offspring of single mothers: One model of kinship is lineal while the other is cognatic (see Murdock 1968). These different models of kinship sometimes play a role in land disputes (Quinlan 2000, pp. 87-90).
Note: "Bwa Mawego" is a pseudonym to protect villagers' privacy.
Back to fieldwork page