Let Your Soul Poop Its Pants

We sat down to eat recently with my family here in Haiti as my roommate’s 2-year-old daughter, Bevycka ran in the room saying “M’ap priye, M’ap priye!” “You’re going to pray for us before we eat, Bevycka?” I confirmed. “Wi!” She said excitedly. It was clear that she was feeling moved by the Spirit on that night. She started off her prayer with the sign of the cross as her aunts had so carefully taught her, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… My soul… just pooped its pants.” Her dad yelled “Amen!” And all the rest of us echoed, “Amen!” before bursting into laughter. It was clear that Bevycka had every good intention of asking a blessing for our meal, but her train of thought changed course dramatically shortly after taking off and she felt she had a more important announcement to make. And yet, in her innocence, Bevycka had expressed a kind of beautifully gross perception of the human soul that I am discovering more and more to be apt in describing those moments in life where our soul is taken by surprise and all of the emotion and life that it was full of at the moment simply can’t be held in. It has no idea what it is experiencing and has no control over how it reacts. Poets may say it many ways. Our soul bursts. Our soul floods. Our soul tumbles into a euphoric elysium. But to Bevycka, our soul just poops its pants.

And ever since she said that, I’ve found extra joy in life as I search for these moments to acknowledge knowing that when they happen, remembering Bevycka’s words will bring a slightly wider smile to my face.

In fact, my soul has been quite incontinent lately due to some new friends made that my soul has known for a long time. I believe everyone has those moments where you encounter someone who is unknown to your physical self, but somewhere in your soul, you know that it’s not really the first time you’ve met, it’s as if you’ve always been close. And lately I’ve had a string of these encounters that each time they happen, my soul can’t help itself. My mouth says “Hi, I’m Lee. It’s great to meet you,” and extends a cordial handshake. But my soul freaks out and screams, “It’s YOU! I’ve been waiting for you for so long! Let’s go get a drink and catch up on old times,” and grabs the other soul ferociously embracing them like a prodigal son. My friends and I have been having this conversation a lot lately about how wonderful it is to have just met someone and feel like it was all just meant to be. Not in that silly romantic kind of we-were-born-to-be-together kind of way, but in that greater spiritual unity sort of way where two supposed strangers can realize that there’s something greater knitting them together beyond what their current physical experience suggests. And in those moments when you realize that, you just gotta admit shamelessly that your soul just pooped its pants. Although it almost comes as something existentially expected, it still overwhelms you and pushes your soul to it’s brink of fullness.

It’s a similar experience when Mother Nature takes me by surprise and slaps me in the face with her beauty. There’s a ridge of cliffs in my area here in Haiti, in a zone called Losier that sit well beyond the beaten path far enough away from the community’s main services that not many people live there and the ground is rocky enough that not much farming can be done. But every once in a while it’s worth taking the hike out to them to remind my soul why it still dwells here, in this body and this body in this place on the earth. Even though I’ve been there plenty of times, every new time I go and take that final step over the rocks and through the yucca plants and get hit by the extraordinary view and the steady, invigorating breeze, my soul still poops its pants. Straight ahead you can look out over the city of Jacmel and the turquoise blue bay that the city sits on fading out to a brilliant aquamarine as it expands into the Caribbean Sea. Down in the valley to the south lays Bassin Bleu with its delicate series of waterfalls and crystal clear pools. Underneath the sound of the breeze you can hear the waterfalls rushing and waves of the sea crashing. Running into the sea between Bassin Blue and the city coming from between the hills to the north is the Gooseline River snaking its way through the sandy earth and spotted palm trees. And off to the east beyond all of this are the many more mountains of the country, layered one behind another until they disappear into the distance, some reaching high up into the clouds where you can’t see their peaks. I’ve mentioned, somewhat jokingly, before about how I would love to build a spiritual retreat center up here on these cliffs as a place for people to come pray, meditate, re-center, rejuvenate, and be inspired. It would be perfect (and there’s even land for sale). And I think that this is exactly what the slogan of just a place should be: Losier Spiritual Retreat Center – Come Stay with Us and Let Your Soul Poop Its Pants. IMG_1787

And as I’ve been thinking of writing the blog post, I was thinking back to times that my soul has possibly pooped its pants in the past, before Bevycka ever pointed out that it was possible. One moment that immediately popped into my head, and my readers will have to excuse me for being an art nerd here, was at the Des Moines Art Center one day and it was the first time that I had come upon the painting by Jean Dubuffet entitled Villager with Close Cropped Hair. I’ve seen a lot of incredible art in my days, and there are plenty of pieces that have had an impact on me when seeing them in person for the first time, but this one made my soul erupt. I’d studied Dubuffet for a long time, seen his pieces in books and online, and even seen some of his other later works in person at other museums, but this one was so viscerally raw and powerful that it absolutely devoured me when I looked at it. My soul completely and shamelessly pooped its pants, and it felt good. Real good. I was going to include a link to the painting but it wouldn’t be the same. If you want to see what I’m talking about, call the Des Moines Arts Center and ask if they have it on display currently. If they do, drive there, from wherever you are, and go see it. Do your soul a favor.

So what’s my point with all of these stories? It’s not good to hold it in. It’s not healthy. We need to search for those opportunities for release and we need to embrace them as an essential part of survival in this messy world that we live in. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the spiritual process that’s happening inside our souls at those moments because we try to control it, we try to resist. But we need accept the freedom that our soul searches for in those experiences and just let it go. Sometimes we need to become more like a child, and channel the inhibition that would allow a 2-year-old to thank God for the pants pooping experiences that our souls encounter in this day to day life.

So tell me, when was the last time your soul pooped its pants? Let’s share.

Riots in Jacmel and What’s Up with All the Violence

This is not a news report, the only facts I know are what I saw myself and heard from others talking about the news in town last night. It’s simply my own experience and personal perspective.

I first heard the news about the horrific car accident from my drawing students as they were showing up for class yesterday evening, some of them having driven past the scene of the accident only moments after it happened on their way to class. I still can’t confirm for sure if there was more than one fatality, but it sounds like just one. One insultingly tragic, unbelievably gruesome fatality of a young Jacmelien man, aged 29 who worked as a motorcycle taxi driver and was just crossing the street after buying some parts for his motorcycle when the vehicle came speeding towards him, and then through him. I will not go into the graphic nature of what some of my students were describing of what they had seen at the site of the accident out of reverence to the deceased who deserves to be remembered as more than body parts strewn on the pavement. The vehicle responsible for the accident belonged to a certain government authority, or perhaps even candidate in the upcoming elections. Again, I’ve already heard varied reports on that even from official sources, but it definitely was the vehicle of someone in public office. It occurred on the main road that goes through Jacmel in the area of St. Cyr which is near the airport on the way out of town. One after another I heard accounts as students came in to the class. “Bonswa,” someone would greet another. “There was an accident!” would be their response. So by the end of class everyone was aware of what was going on and searching for more information. We hear about traffic accidents here all of the time, even fatal ones, but because of the extreme nature of this one and the profile of the vehicle involved, it was suddenly becoming more interesting than all of the rest. It seemed much less like an honest accident and much more like a blatant disregard for human life.

After class I carried on and went on to eat dinner at a local restaurant with a friend and driver of mine, Kenson who had come with me from Mizak. As we ate, the next door neighbors had their radio tuned to the news of the event in which they interviewed a cousin of the victim’s who spoke of the young man with much respect and sorrow over his loss. But he also alluded to the justice that his family and friends would surely be seeking. And anytime Haitians decide to seek justice for themselves, we know what that means. It was later on our way home from dropping off a painting to a customer in Cyvadier that we encountered the first roadblock. As we approached there was a group of men shouting in the road as they piled more rocks on a pile already about two feet high stretching the width of the road so no one could make it past. A couple of the guys started putting tires on top. We sat there at the front of the traffic that had started piling up as most started turning around and heading the other direction. Kenson kept the motor running for a while seeming to expect to still find a way around the barricade. One tall man who was putting large rocks on the pile was yelling about the body of the victim of the car accident today and how the people of Jacmel were being treated like animals.  I told Kenson we could just go back and stay the night with my friends in Cyvadier but he stopped the motor and got off saying, “Just let me go talk to them. Explain to them that we’re not from around here and we need to get home to LaVallee.” I shook my head, thinking it absurd to try to reason with an angry mob, but he had made up his mind, so I waited. In situations like this I always like my friends’ belief that somehow my foreignness and their hillbilly nature will get us a free pass to safety. I always just think that the tall white guy in a crowd makes an easier target once the rocks start flying. And shortly after Kenson walked up and started to talk to the guys making the road block, everyone around heard the first rock fly and people scattered. He came running back towards me, holding his jeans as he ran so they wouldn’t fall down, as a man behind him came out from the side of the road with a bottle of alcohol lit on fire and he dropped it on the tires as others threw other junk on the pile to burn. As the flames spread across the street, Kenson jumped on the moto and grabbed a kid who was there and told him to lead us on a different route around the barricade. So the kid ran along side us taking us back on the tiny paths through the neighborhood until we could get back out on the main road on the other side of the barricade. We handed the kid 50 gourdes and headed on our way. We had to do this three more times along the road as we came upon more flaming roadblocks and had to search for interior paths around the danger. By the time we made it into the main part of the city, the road was clear the rest of the way and we were able to make it home. I hadn’t even noticed through it all that it had been raining and we were wet now as we drove out of town and up into the mountains.

As I rode back up home in the light rain and cold air, I thought about a conversation I had had just a couple days before with a young college aged man from New York who was visiting for the week. We were walking along the same main road in Cyvadier that would be blocked and burning a couple days later when something in our conversation led him to ask, “Haiti, so what’s up with all the violence, really?” My friend Kara was with us as well who is an experienced nonprofit manager here and long time member of the Jacmel community. She and I both gave our views on the history of Haitians being a group of people that doesn’t put up with injustice and is always ready to fight back against authority figures and power structures that try to keep them down. They’re a group of people that are always ready to rise up. Yet at the same time it is sad to see them get to a place where they also all too often use that revolutionary spirit that’s inside them to act out against one another and cause violence to the Haitian brothers and sisters. Kara and I both shared stories of close friends of ours that have been injured by flying rocks and even brutally murdered, often in situations that simply get so out of control and descend into violence because that’s the response that’s been culturally demonstrated to them.

This is the typical Jacmel that we know and love.

This is the typical Jacmel that we know and love.

But I’m not a guy who likes to share these sorts of stories. They are the type of stories that give those damn State Department travel warnings fodder to continue to paint this country as savage and uncivilized. They’re the type of stories that support the stereotypes. But at the same time, the stories are true. But they don’t change just how much I love our otherwise quiet, peaceful, little region here in Jacmel or how much I fully appreciate the sometime silly warmth with which the people here normally receive people into their community and into their lives. Those stories don’t change the fact that I live in a place where I always feel safe, even last night. Those stories don’t change the fact that the vast majority of people in this community are not committing those violent acts. Those roadblocks and burning tires that I encountered last night really didn’t take many people to set up, just a few really angry (and probably slightly inebriated) ones. There were far more people trying to get away from the danger, trying to help people find ways around the crisis. There were far more people lifting their voices to advocate a better solution, and discourage the rioters from taking things so far. And yet, underneath it all, I think absolutely everyone understood those putting the rocks in the streets to some extent and saw the greater systematic injustices that were the real source of such unrest. Although all of us who were searching for safe roads might have preferred that the few others hadn’t set those tires aflame and blocked our way, it was difficult for any of us to really blame them either. And in this lies the paradox of what is Haiti. A beautiful, hospitable, passionate culture that fights for peace and justice, but fighting is the only way they see peace and justice possible sometimes.

I couldn’t help but imagine what position I would be in if the 29-year old victim of this tragedy was one of my roommates that was viewed as not even important enough to slow down for, even tap the breaks or try to swerve. What fury would burn inside this peace-loving hippie if I was wanting to care for the body of a loved one but couldn’t because the callousness of the accident caused the body to be so broken that they couldn’t even find all of the pieces and some store manager had to scoop them up and hide them to prevent further violence? Would I be the one with the torch in my hand, yelling at anyone that could hear about my anger, and trying to do something, anything, to demand justice, no matter how nonsensical and in vain it might seem? If there’s one thing that the history of Haiti (and the world) has shown us, it’s that justice doesn’t happen on its own. It takes the action of human beings to perpetrate injustice and without the action of others to block injustice from speeding down its path, it will just continue unchallenged.

I’m a guy that likes simple solutions, usually ones that involve painting pretty pictures. But when it comes to a situation like this all that I can do is grieve the circumstances that led to a community feeling like its only logical course of action is what I encountered last night. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still reminded of the words of Colonel that I mentioned last week in my post, “You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.”

What do you think? If the victim was a neighbor or friend of yours would you be searching for an exit or grabbing rocks and fanning the flames?

Poor Isn’t A Dog

One of my roommates likes to say that he’s going to start an organization named “Malere Pa Chen” meaning “Poor Isn’t A Dog” or “Poor People Aren’t Dogs”. He usually will make this comment after an interaction with an American or after I mention an idea that an American friend or acquaintance of mine has for Haiti. “Ah, you know, poor people aren’t dogs, you hear me, Lee?” He’ll point out. “Tell them all, I’m starting my own organization, Malere Pa Chen Entenasyonal. If they want to donate, they can.” And although I always know he’s joking, there’s always a lot of truth in the feelings of degradation and exploitation that would inspire such a joke that is sometimes difficult to face yet necessary to remind myself of. This roommate of mine isn’t even 20 years old yet and he’s already been shown that many people think it’s okay to treat poor people like dogs, or at least symbolically suggest with their actions that poor people are a lower species of animal than they are. And he’s even my nice roommate! The one that everyone likes. And almost all of the white folks that he’s come in contact with are really good people. I typically don’t invite jerks to my house or to spend time with my roommates. Which demonstrates that his proclamation of not being a dog is not proof of the goodness of the person who he meets or authenticity of their intentions but rather a greater cultural divide that we have to be aware of and sensitive to if we presume to work cross culturally in a place so accustomed to exploitation and disappointment.

I’ve discussed the idea before on this blog that our good intentions are not enough to overcome decades and even centuries of exploitation, slavery, colonization, racism, imperialism, demeaning charity, and so much more. Of course my young roommate hasn’t experienced all of that in his life but it’s all ingrained into his cultural DNA and if we’re coming in from an outside culture we have to be aware that those influences exist and admit from the start that we cannot undo all of what has been done to Haitians historically. We can’t undo it with orphanages. We can’t undo it with schools. We can’t undo it with clinics or art galleries or microfinance or water filters or churches. It can’t be undone. But that also means that we can’t pretend like it never happened, and is still happening in some cases. We can’t pretend like our privilege isn’t already on display further accentuating our differences simply by being able to travel, being able to pay to stay at guest houses, being able to choose to do “helpful” things with our money. It’s already on display like a drag queen at kanaval. It can’t not be seen. At that point Haitians are already starting from a place of feeling less than from the moment they meet because they know they don’t possess that privilege. But Poor isn’t a dog.

1656264_10151843224136688_1607643907_nAnd this is why when my roommate says this, I don’t argue with him or try to defend the actions of those who inspired the comment because I can understand where he’s coming from. There are so many people who function in this world with the mentality that money = power that it automatically creates an opposing assumption that the lack of money = weakness. So anytime that money is used by an outside culture on behalf of a local culture, no matter how well intentioned the motives of the expense, it only further emphasizes the divide between the powerful and the weak unless somehow the cultures become interconnected through the expense and ownership of the money (power) becomes shared. But words also carry a lot of power and sometimes that’s the only place Haitians can find some sense of strength when they feel their rights to make their own decisions, their right to enjoy their own humanity, is betrayed by someone that they trusted in the name of help. So they use them to speak, “Poor isn’t a dog.” A vivid picture of the relationship between the powerful and the weak, a dog and it’s master, especially in Haiti where dogs aren’t treated as beloved pets, but just as creatures that are useful for security or chasing chickens, but not companionship. A dog, a creature that is unable to make its own decisions, must be cared for and is helpless to do much of anything on its own. A creature that doesn’t make any money but must have money spent on its behalf. Also a creature that can be beautiful, fun, hard-working, and a loyal friend, but none of that matters much without any dignity.

And yet this is where many poor people feel they are left after an encounter with a wealthier person who obliviously offends their sense of dignity through a well intended act of charity. It is not because they don’t appreciate the charity but it is because they don’t appreciate the way the charity was given or they don’t appreciate the conditions or words that come with it. Or maybe they simply don’t like your idea of charity from the start. I’m not talking about the allegedly well intentioned visitors who blatantly treat Haitians like dogs without remorse.  The ones who throw pills at patient after patient at clinics to get them out of their way. Or the ones who yell at crowds of Haitians wanting jobs on their work project to get lost and go beg somewhere else. No, there are plenty of those blans that somehow still are allowed in their country, but they’re not the ones that push my roommate to make such a comment. They’re the ones who are intentionally forgotten before Haitians even have a chance to gossip about them. The ones I’m talking about are a much more subtle breed of offensive.

Let me  give an example of something that I’ve seen happen frequently in Haiti. An American who would be considered poor by American standards will come to Haiti to do some very honorable work within their specialized field and will even plan to do so in a very respectable way with humble collaboration with local groups. Wonderful. But when a Haitian who has formed some sort of relationship with them, however trivial it may seem to the American, feels close enough to that visitor to share with them a personal need that they have in hopes that they will be able to help, I often will hear the American respond (and I’m not innocent of this) something along the lines of “Well I’m a volunteer / artist / musician / teacher / missionary / work with nonprofit / or some other profession that doesn’t make much money, so I don’t have any money to help you with.” Some version of “I’d love to but I can’t”. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable response coming from the context that we do. Trust me, I know how often the artist/nonprofit excuse can get a person out of having to pay sometimes. But when we import that reasoning into a context where we are talking to people who view us as rich no matter what job we have, where our very ethnicity and birthplace automatically makes us rich in the world’s eyes, then statements like that simply become offensive. They are offensive because Haitians know that airline companies don’t just give away tickets to ride their planes across the ocean. You may qualify for food stamps in the US, if you can afford to leave your home and make it to a different country somehow, you give up your right to claim poverty. We insult the intelligence of the listener when we try to claim that we don’t have money. Poor isn’t a dog but it can smell bullsh*t when its in front of its nose.

I am currently reading the novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah, which is set in Sierra Leonne, and in it a character named Colonel is an ex-child-soldier who becomes his village’s new vigilante against the powers of money, modernization, and exploitation. At one of the few points where Colonel speaks he shares something that he learned during the war, “You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.” Colonel represents a generation who won’t stand by and let someone else treat them like less than they are while defending his cultural integrity. It’s a story that exists a hemisphere away and in a completely different historical context, but there are many parallels that I’m finding as the characters fight against injustices committed in the name of development and progress. At one point Colonel catches four of the men responsible for these injustices and strings them up by their penises to a tree before covering them in sugar and leaving them for killer ants to devour in the nighttime. While I’m sure that’s not on my roommate’s agenda for Poor Isn’t a Dog International (PIDI), we do need to adjust our attitudes to realize that our actions, no matter how good their intentions, do carry consequences. Our helpful ideals may be stepping on already injured toes without us even realizing it. And while there may be no way to ever completely avoid things that we do unknowingly, I always believe that a different direction begins with awareness of our errors.

I asked my roommates what a blan could do to treat poor people better than dogs. Their response was if you go by a poor person’s house and you see them boiling a sweet potato, instead of trying to give them something in addition to their potato, just take a bite of their potato. Enjoy their potato. It shows that what they have has value, it shows them that they are worth something. That’s a pretty simple solution but one that’s hard for us to accept because eating someone’s potato doesn’t seem like help to us. But perhaps this is why we need to quit trying to help in the first place and just eat their potatoes.

And for anyone that wants to make a donation to PIDI, I’ll make sure to let you know how to in the future. Until next time, peace and potatoes.

A Letter to a Pre-Missionary Googler

To the innocent wanderer who happened upon my blog after Googling “I want to go to Haiti to be a missionary”: I’m sorry. I hope that your original search did not provide any answers and you Google it again to be directed back to this post. I remember days of searching things like that on the internet myself only my search was for Mali, not Haiti, and I never used the M-Word for myself, but I would have probably been worried to death if my first search led me to some of the posts here on this blog. If you have been trying to discern your path in this world, probably even with lots of prayer and guidance from respected mentors of yours, and you finally felt this week like you received a calling to be a missionary in Haiti, and your next step in trying to make that possible led you here, then I’m sorry. Please disregard whatever you read and come back in a year or two to continue reading again. (Unless all that you read were the fashion rules, then please, print them out and read them every morning after waking up in this beautiful country.)

There's plenty of hope and brightness on the horizon in Haiti. Focus on that for now.

There’s plenty of hope and brightness on the horizon in Haiti. Focus on that for now.

I’ve said it before that my intention with this blog is certainly not to discourage those who are seeking for their own place in this crazy world of mission work. It takes time for everyone who chooses to embark on that path to find out the appropriate way for themselves to make it work. Too many people enter into it recklessly and with the wrong motivations for their seemingly good intentions, which is one of the many reasons why I write, to try to avoid the messes that those situations make. But for you, I feel an authenticity in your Google search term that suggests you’re already trudging through those tough decisions and have made the very noble choice to commit long term to a life here. If so, then many of the things that I write about you’ll learn yourself with time, but they are certainly not things that you need to be worrying about as you start out your journey. You deserve to start out this journey with a fresh optimism towards all that awaits you as you delve into service with the people of Haiti. Keep your heart in the right place, but keep asking your head the tough questions too so that you will grow along that journey. Down the road you may come to experience things that would make you read this blog with an understanding that will allow you to engage in discussions on such topics with passion and concrete reasoning. You may not ever come to agree with everything that is written on this blog. I hope that you don’t because differences of opinion will keep the conversation going and that’s what the future of foreign intervention needs to improve here, dialog. But whether you come to agree with some of what is said or whether you just are able to provide more real life examples contrary to the opinions expressed here, you’ll be able to contribute to that dialog. And in that case, I look forward to welcoming you into the circle that involves truly all types, and that’s when the conversation is the most effective tool at leading us into new levels of understanding each individually and as a community.

But that is not what you need now. You need an introduction to this country that allows you to develop your own sincere desire to follow through on a long-term relationship. Haiti needs you to believe in your potential to help it right now. Haiti does not need you reading a thousand reasons why helping here usually ends up causing more problems than solutions. If you start off on that foot in your experience in Haiti, then it will only make you seem like an arrogant bitter jerk to the Haitians that you need to like you in order to effectively collaborate with you and an obnoxious little punk to the expats who have already been here for years and will have to help you learn the ropes. You don’t want to be that newbie missionary, trust me. You want to be the newbie missionary with the humble attitude that makes all of the Haitians want to get to know you and willing to work with you as well as the open-mindedness that makes all of the other expats believe that you are ready to learn and adapt to whatever you encounter.

The truth is that you don’t want to come in thinking you have all of the answers, you want to come in asking the right questions. I know that the way I write on this blog sometimes come off as if I’m pompously spouting all of the answers from a place of perfect humanitarian sovereignty, but the truth is that I write about all of these things because I still have many questions about them myself and am searching for more ways to open up the dialog on the issues. Those who are looking at the issues from comparable levels of experience as I are able to see the uncertainty within the writing because it sometimes breeches territory that many are afraid to step into. We have to start making statements on these issues if we are ever to truly find the best way about them and the truth that’s underneath the questions. No one would have ever given a crap when Plato said the earth was round if someone else hadn’t first stated “The earth is clearly flat!” There would have been no dialog for Plato to enter into. I may be stating that the earth is flat with some of the things that I state on this blog, but the truth is that in the world of aid and mission too many people have just been watching the sun come up and go down each day thinking that it revolves around them without ever questioning what shape the earth beneath them is in the first place.

So, if you are just now starting to take steps to enter into this world of good-doing, then know that it is an exciting time to be a part of it because people are starting to ask more questions about the way we do things and the tides of how things are done are really starting to change. There is a movement of better practices being preached and more and more of the old methods are being ditched in favor of more dignified solutions. And we need new fresh thinkers to be a part of that movement. So welcome. But step in with an excitement for what is to come and don’t worry about being frustrated with what is past. Hopefully you won’t have to experience much of that old way, much of which I spend my time criticizing on this blog. Hopefully you will have the chance to be a part of something better. Much of that will, of course, depend on what else your Google search led you too. What other blogs did you read? What organizations will you contact to see if they are accepting new missionaries to Haiti? What individuals will you seek out for advice and direction as you make this decision? I pray that you are able to find an organization that will truly realize your value and be able to utilize your gifts to the greatest extent possible to guide you towards becoming a very effective missionary in this place. I pray that the links you click on show you the Haiti that waits for you, not to save it, not to love on it, not to solve its problems or show it who God is, but to share with it, live with it, and journey with it as you struggle alongside it to discover God in the sacred moments of everyday life with it.

And know that The Green Mango will still be here struggling, journeying, and living the whole time too. In the meantime, if you feel that your Googling was unsuccessful and are looking for more ideas, feel free to email me directly and I could provide you with some suggestions of organizations to contact as well as a couple to avoid. And then, when your experiences are ready for more dialog, come on back to the blog and read on. We’ll be waiting for you to join the discussion. Until then, good luck, God bless. Kenbe la.

6 Myths about Water Filters in Haiti

I’ve been thinking a lot about the water problem in Haiti and specifically water filters, mostly because I’ve had several mission teamers ask me my opinion about them lately. And I wanted to address the issue here on my blog because Haiti’s water problem is something that I care about deeply and actually have some experience with here. I’ve researched multiple different approaches to addressing getting my community better water because if you ask anyone here what the number 1 problem in their community is, they will say “water”. In Living Media we did several projects addressing the issue and they continue to do so, including water filters. However, from my experience, I’ve come to have many opinions on this issue and I wanted to do so here by pointing out these 6 myths about water in Haiti. Before going into them, I do want to point out that these come from my very specific experience within my community. You could ask 10 different people from around the country their opinions on the water problem, and they would all give you different responses because that’s how diverse this problem is in this little land. That is exactly why I think anyone wanting to come to the country to work on helping with the problem needs to realize that it is so diverse and no solution is a one size fits all sort of silver bullet.

1) Clean Drinking Water is the #1 problem in Haiti.
It is important for us to differentiate between water potability and water accessibility, because both are large problems in Haiti but both cannot be addressed in the same way. Water filters only address the potability issue which does affect many people in the country, but for the rest, accessibility is the much greater issue. And yet, water filters are the much more common form of intervention provided while people continue to ignore the larger picture of water access. Much of this attitude from outside helpers comes from the knowledge of the cholera epidemic that Haiti has struggled with, which is a very real problem, but anymore it is reckless to paint the whole country with the “cholera victim” brush and think that giving out filters is going to solve the problem. We need to be aware of the specific causes of the epidemic and the way that it spreads as well as the current status of the illness before intervening. Cholera comes from unclean drinking water, but for the people of my community and many others in today’s Haiti, it’s much more important that they can find water in the first place than it is that they have a filter for that water. Filters are no good if you don’t have any water to put in them.

2) All water in Haiti is contaminated and unsafe to drink.
Once again, hearing about a problem that affects Haiti and then applying it to the entire population, is unfair to those individuals that we as foreigners hope to help when we arrive here. We need to do our research first, especially when it comes to water, because everyone in this country gets their water from different sources. Haiti 594Before we think of giving filters out in Haiti, or any other sort of water project, we first need to take the responsibility to do the research on our particular location of work to see whether or not the sources where they get their water locally are, indeed, unsafe or not. In many places the problem is not that their sources are unsafe, but that they are too few and far between. They are too inaccessible. In Mizak, for example, the population is around 20,000 people. For all of those 20,000 people, there are only 7 natural water sources and a handful of wells. Of the natural sources, at this exact time after months of no rain, only 3 of them haven’t dried up. Most of the wells that have been drilled are on school grounds or private property. The ones on school grounds can only be open when school’s not in session and the ones on private grounds are used as tools to exploit the population to make money off of their need for water by making them pay in order to use them. So for these 20,000 people who are all spread throughout a large physical area of the mountains, some more than an hour’s walk away from one of these available sources, which will probably be dry, or closed, or overrun with people when they get there, what are they supposed to do with the fancy filter that they just received from a bunch of foreigners? Probably use it for storage.

3) A high tech filter is cost effective.
If the water that you can get from your local water source is already potable, then the 5 gallon bucket that the filter is attached to becomes more valuable then the filter itself. Some of these filters that I’ve seen teams bring in cost $60 or more but most of them get handed out to families who have never actually had major health problems from unclean drinking water so they just keep using the bucket as a vessel to carry and store the water from the source without ever filtering it. So if we’re able to find out that local sources, including wells, are already potable, then we really need to do the math before handing out expensive filters to see if that money wouldn’t have been better spent either drilling more wells or rehabilitating natural sources. In Mizak, this week alone, I know that over 140 filters have been handed out to families in the area by two different teams. Now, I do not know the exact type of filter that those teams handed out, but if they were costing $60 apiece, then that’s $8400 just on filters this week. In my community, a local water source can be rehabilitated for $4,000 – $6,000 and a well can be drilled for $6,000 to $8,000. And a bucket can be purchased for $2.50. Those estimates would vary depending on different locations in the country. Wells are cheaper to drill at lower elevations and nearer to population centers and the cost of rehabilitating a natural source depends largely on its proximity to a road. But the math suggests, that in almost any case, its worth at least considering using those funds on longer term sustainable efforts to bring greater access to water than just handing out filters. But again, this requires prior research on your specific area of involvement to determine which is more important.

IMG_60574) Local technologies are not available to treat water.
When we decided to distribute water filters while I was working for Living Media we looked at a lot of different options but ended up going with a local option called Filter Pure which is made locally, a relatively simple technology that requires minimal maintenance, employs local Haitians to fabricate them, and has been proven just as effective as imported filters at removing contaminants from the water. It was also about $27 only for each filter. So, although it was still debatable about the real need for filters in our specific area, at least we were supporting a group that employed Haitians and were giving out as many buckets as possible for the money. And most of those filters still got used at least at first, because they were simple to use and still effective. They didn’t require any tricky maintenance with new tools. Even though most teams that bring in their foreign filters train the recipients on how to keep them in good condition, I know that the majority of them still never try to change the carbon, flush out the tubes, or any of the other kinds of things they’re supposed to do. They abandon the filter long before it ever needs upkeep. But if it is something made locally, with local materials and technologies, by a company full of people that speak their language that they can ask questions to if they have problems, then they trust it a lot more from the start.

5) All Haitians need water filters.
If not for #2, this might have been true about 4 years ago before the cholera outbreak. But since then, there has been such a flood of filters into this country by different organizations that it’s hard to find a household that doesn’t have one, if not several, in their house already. This might not be true in some more remote areas that are less touched by NGO activity, but I know in my area it’s definitely true. One of the teams that I recently spoke to who was handing out filters remarked how many homes they noticed that already had filters in them from other groups. When we did our distribution with Living Media, we at least consulted with the other stable organization in the area that we knew had done filters to make sure not to double up on the list that they’d already given to, but that still didn’t account for all of the orgs that have swooped through with filters and given them out without consulting anyone else. Buckets are a valuable commodity here so whenever someone gets a chance to get their hand on one, they’ll take it, regardless of whether or not they already have 7 filters at home that they’ve never used. The family that I eat with here in Haiti has at least 3 filters themselves, none of which have ever been used for more than a week or two at a time. But none of us ever get sick when we don’t use the filters, so why would we waste our time with them?

6) Wells are for Africa, filters are for Haiti.
Although I’ve never heard anyone say this outright, I get the unusual sense that a lot of mission agencies hold on to this strange idea. I’ve met plenty of groups here in Haiti who have told me about the wells that they’ve drilled in Africa before and now in Haiti are doing something completely different, not even considering wells as an option. It’s just part of their water resume. Haiti 1372Part of this comes from the faulty assumption that wells can’t be drilled in more mountainous areas and part of it still comes from the whole stereotypes derived from a defining cholera epidemic. And I’ll admit that I used to not be a well fan myself until I started living the benefits of two wells drilled nearby my home here in Haiti by UNICEF and Save the Children. I had bought into the myth of them being too expensive and too difficult to drill in the mountains until I came in contact with the local company that was responsible for drilling these two and heard the nuts and bolts of what it takes, realizing that they really are quite practical and efficient. They have even been tested for potability and, although it seems to vary slightly throughout the year, presumably from the level of water based on rainfall, they have been shown to be safe for drinking. I’ve been drinking the water and never had problems as well as enjoying the well’s accessibility for bathing and other uses when my cistern is dry. I, however, am fortunate that these two wells were both dug very nearby my house, cutting down the distance we’d have to go for water greatly. There are still thousands of people in our area who haven’t been as lucky and still are hours away from a source.

Okay, so this has been a long post, but I want to wrap it up with a few suggestions for anyone thinking about providing water filters to a community in Haiti:

  • Do the research ahead of time to determine whether or not local sources are actually unsafe.
  • Do the math to see if for the cost of filters it wouldn’t be better to either rehabilitate a natural source or drill a well with a local drilling company.
  • If you do decide to give filters, please consider local companies and filters made with local methods and technologies.
  • If you give filters, survey the population first to determine who hasn’t received filters before and what type have been given.
  • No matter what, sit with community leaders to discuss long term sustainable solutions to their water problems in their community.

I know that this requires more work than just dropping off some filters and then patting ourselves on the back and going home. Sorry but we all know that the easy way isn’t always the best way. I do believe that it is important for groups to get involved with the water issue here in Haiti and want to encourage it through informed intervention. No matter what issue we are trying to address, generalized aid is always dangerous and often leads to wasted resources and disappointed communities. Let’s be committed to smarter involvement. Life really can be more beautiful with clean water and better access to water. But it can just as easily turn ugly with reckless charity. Let’s work towards the prior.

Baby Birds and Other Thoughts on Nonprofit Management

A couple weeks before my time as executive director expired I had to sit my local staff down and have a big kid talk with them. I say it this way not to diminish their intelligence but because change is scary and it can sometimes make us doubt our own capacity making us act more like children. And the moment that we had to directly address my eminent absence was one of those times for my staff. For the last four years I’ve been working with them to empower them as leaders and help them figure out how to run an organization like this themselves, and even for the last few months we’ve known this was coming and have been preparing together for the transition. However, when I pointed out to them that I only had one more meeting left with them, all of a sudden the reality hit and they started acting like their daddy was abandoning them.

“But there’s gotta be a reason you’re quitting.” One of them said, “what’s the problem? You hate us, don’t you?”

I looked right back at him and responded, “Yes, clearly I hate you. Now shut up and put on your big boy britches cuz that’s life.” Then I took a breath and had to explain to them very gently how when you give birth to a baby and watch it grow in this world, there always comes a time when you have to let it go and let it live on its own. You can’t hold its hand forever. Then there were some relieved nods from the staff. I even threw in the little birdie metaphor that they’ve got to be pushed out of the nest in order to fly. Although I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure if that was the right metaphor because there have certainly been days that I’ve been tempted to push them off of a cliff rather than out of the nest, but I guess you’ll always have that with coworkers, so I kept the mood positive.

But I’ve since been thinking that I didn’t really push them out of the nest either, I’ve flown away and left the nest in their hands to do with it what they want. But I guess that’s what I get for using little birdie metaphors, they’ll never be exactly right.

This system can only last so long.

This system can only last so long.

The point is I was trying to get them to understand that they don’t need me anymore. But that’s hard to do here because dependency is such a normal part of life but I have to be careful of what I say because Haitians never want to hear that they’re dependent. No one would want to, really. It’s not a compliment. I’ve broken up other groups in Haiti before for even suggesting the idea that they’re too dependent on people from the outside. There are people in this community who refuse to work with me anymore because I told them that they couldn’t depend on me for anything beyond any advice I could give and a general positive attitude. But that always strikes a nerve because the expectations have become that foreigners just give give give to help the poor Haitians whether or not that’s really what will help the Haitians in the long run. It feels good for the Giver and takes care of the Receiver’s temporary need, but for those like me who have made their life here, it is a constant struggle to try to encourage different systems of aid that don’t involve so much dependency. It seems to work in the moments, but causes more problems in the long run. But sometimes you have to be here for the long run in order to see that.

And if seven years counts as the long run, then I’ve seen those problems be created in a number of organizations, and they can actually be created very quickly. The gestation period for dependency isn’t that long. All it has to take is one promise or one gift or even one misinterpreted good hearted suggestion. But it can also happen unknowingly through weeks and months and years of working towards a completely different independent goal. This country is full of projects that have found themselves in that situation whether they realize it or not, staying alive only as long as the person in charge stays in charge and keeps things afloat by making more and more sacrifices each day. This only leads to burn out and bitterness on the one side and disappointment and a feeling of betrayal on the other.

This is why helping people can be such a dangerous business. I can’t say that I did it all completely right in my 4 years of being a nonprofit executive director. I certainly made plenty of mistakes that I learned from along the way. And even now only time will tell if I made the right choice to step down at this point, bit it’s really the only way to find out. So I’ve flown out of the nest, passed the torch, cut the umbilical cord, and pushed them off a cliff. I’ll still be watching to make sure they land on their feet. And when they do then at least they’ll be able to say they did it their own way. And maybe in the nonprofit business that’s how we should define success: that when the organization succeeds, as a leader you’ve done things in such a way that you don’t get any credit for it. Let the little birdies get the credit. Besides, we’ve all got other eggs to hatch and other nests to build.