Student - 10 november 2016

‘I have never felt so white’

Who? Els van Coeverden, MSc Health and Society
What? Internship at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
Where? Sint Eustasius, Leeward Islands

‘Although Sint Eustasius is a Dutch municipality, I experienced a huge cultural difference. It felt like stepping back in time. Power cuts happened regularly and we even had a day with neither electricity nor water.

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The traces of colonialism are still very tangible. I actually went to a conference on racism; I have never felt so white. Racial separation is still happening there, consciously and unconsciously. For example, most government communication is in Dutch, while Dutch is the mother tongue of only a small proportion of the people there. Despite all this, the people are unbelievably friendly. When they pass by you in the car, they wind down their window and have a chat.

Together with a fellow student, I studied the level of support among the local population for various methods of mosquito control. The island has a lot of mosquitoes that can spread diseases such as dengue fever and zika. It is very difficult to change things on Sint Eustasius, because as well as the mosquitoes there are so many other problems. To change something, you would actually need to involve the entire island. The enormous quantities of refuse, including abandoned cars and water wells, provide plentiful breeding grounds for mosquitoes. What's more, a large part of the population has little confidence in the government. I found that disheartening.

There were indeed lots of mosquitoes; it is really irritating. Even DEET and long trousers did not help; they pierced through everything. The only thing that helps keep the mosquitoes out is to put the air conditioning on really high. But in the student house where we were staying, we didn't have any air conditioning.

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I enjoyed being there and doing the research with someone else. We were able to share our experiences and put things into perspective together, like that conference on racism. We shared a room, but that only made it more fun.

I thought there would be lots of fresh fruit and vegetables on the island, but I was disappointed. You could buy a broccoli, for instance, for 12 dollars and the fruit was also expensive. All the food is imported because virtually nothing is grown on the island. I really like fruit, so eventually I got over the price and bought it.’