Month: July 2012

The M Word

Missionary.  The term sends chills down my spine.  In general, I dislike the term, but when it gets associated to me, I especially despise it.  That doesn’t mean that I hate missionaries.  I have a lot of good friends who proudly welcome the title and I respect the work that they do in this world with a high degree.  I personally, however, would prefer not to be put in that same category that they put themselves in.  And yet, it seems that others have a tendency to put me in that category over and over again.

I don’t know why, exactly.  I have never told anyone that I am a missionary.  I have never filled out the occupation line on any form with that word.  But because of where I come from, or what I am perceived to believe, or the people that happen to support what I do, that is the box that many people choose to put me into.  That mixed with the current situation that I choose to live and work in and people’s limited understanding of what that life and work encompasses, causes for a lot of false definitions to be applied to me.

It’s one of those terms that tends to draw unnecessary lines between Me and You.  The word itself implies that I’m doing something that You couldn’t do, that I have something to give that You need whether You asked for it or not.  For many the word conjures up images of the missionary hopping off the plane with a puffed out chest, hands on hips Superman -style, a cross necklace around his neck, and a cheesy smile on his face that says, “Everything’s going to be okay now, I’m here!”  Now, I know that the reality is that this is not how most missionaries operate these days.  Many missionaries have adapted to changing cultures and thus adapted their methods of serving those they’ve been sent to serve with a sense of humility and an effort towards learning to live in solidarity and communion with those who are culturally different than they are.  But whether it’s a missionary that fits the offensive cliché or one that has found new ways to make a respectable difference in people’s lives, it’s still not me.

Everyone comes into this country with intentions of “mission” “helping” “service” “ministry” “aid” and all of these mindsets keep drawing the dark, insurmountable lines that separate us from each other.  The ones providing the service and the ones being served are clearly not in the same category.  There are always “those less fortunate” and those with “something to offer”.

I try to be about something different   I’m not all about mission, or social justice, or aid or relief, or doing unto the least of these.  I’m just about living my life with other humans.  I happen to live that life in a place where the people around me have had much different opportunities than I have had from birth and face much different struggles from day to day.  As an artist this means that my artwork takes a much different route than most as we all search for beauty to communicate and a space to communicate it in.

I think that this world needs fewer missionaries and more humans living life with other humans.  Fewer humanitarians and more neighbors.  Fewer aid workers and more friends.  I know this seems like a point of view of someone who lives with rose colored glasses glued to his face, that we could ever actually exist in this world without looking so much at our cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, and other barriers.  But let’s be serious, isn’t it the only way we’ll ever make any progress together?  Help does not equal Progress.  Coexistence might equal Progress.  If you’re going to play the missionary game, and you want to help people find the Kingdom of God, that’s never going to happen by me showing/telling/giving you what I perceive you to need.  It’s going to happen by me walking alongside you as we both struggle to discover the beauty within life in this big old messed up world that we find ourselves in.

Some of my supporters in their churches back in the states who sometimes write out checks for mission purposes for me, who’ve heard me speak in their services after their pastors have introduced me as a missionary, like to say that I am one because God has clearly called me to do this work here in Haiti.  That makes their mission monies justifiably used on me.  And maybe it’s true, that God called me here, but I don’t feel that that makes me a missionary.  God called me to be an artist.  And that’s what I’m doing.  I’m just doing it in a place that has historically been a target for missionaries.  I’m an artist who bought a plane ticket but buying a plane ticket doesn’t make me a missionary either.  I don’t think that God put any of us on this earth to be missionaries, humanitarians, or aid workers.  He put people on this earth to be artists, and rappers, and fashion models, and actors, and doctors, and farmers, and pastors, and teachers, and secretaries, and engineers, and businessmen, and whatever else; it’s up to us to discover the environments where we can be those things in a way that makes the most use out of their potential.  For me, as an artist, at this moment, Haiti is that environment.  From there I can use my art to search for souls to invest in.  I think that’s the challenge that we each face no matter what we call ourselves or where we find ourselves geographically.  Discover what we were created to be and then be it, boldly, fearlessly, dangerously, to everyone we meet.  Invest in their souls and just live.  Just live, just be, and quit doing.  That’s my mission.

10 Mistakes I’ve Made (And Lessons I’ve Learned)

Traveling is already expensive enough, if I can save some readers from making some costly mistakes by sharing from my experience so that they don’t have to spend all of the time that I’ve spent working in cultures not my own to learn the lessons that I’ve learned, then we can all make progress together a little quicker.  Sure, anyone who decides to work internationally would probably eventually make many of the same mistakes that I’ve made and learn similar lessons on their own without me having to point them out, but reading my blog is cheaper than an airplane ticket to Haiti.  So if anyone reading can learn from my mistakes before traveling themselves, then it will save them time and money in the long run.  Time and money that can be spent on something more important.  So, here’s a list of 10 mistakes that I’ve made during my last 5 years here in Haiti and some of the lessons that they’ve taught me.

1.  Being Impolite to the Red Hat Guys at the Airport

Even though it’s tempting to act like a jerk to all the guys wanting to grab your luggage at the PAP airport coming in because I’m an American and I can do things on my own, I’ve learned that it’s really not worth it.  We don’t tend to like people insisting on helping us without asking.  When I first learned Creole well enough to tell them off, I tried when I first came back into the country.   But even if we can really handle our luggage on our own, I’ve realized that if I can pay $5 for a smoothie in the Miami airport, I can pay a guy $5 to carry my bags for me from the belt out to the parking lot.  It’s worth it and that guy has a family to feed too.  But I only do it anymore if they have a conversation with me on the way out.  It’s a long walk from the luggage pick-up out to the parking lot, and during that time you can find out a lot about the guy in the red hat.  Where he’s from, if he has kids, if he likes his job hauling bags…  And that’s pretty valuable for these guys.  I’ve had my ride more than an hour and a half late before and the luggage porter has stayed with me the whole time.  I told one of them one time, “You know, you could go back and find more people to help and make more money and I’d pay you right now so you don’t have to wait with me.  My ride’s going to be a while, and either way I am still going to pay you the same $5.”  And he told me that he’d rather stay with me and chat because too many people treat them like dogs and then throw a couple crumpled dollar bills at them as they drive away before they have time to complain.  It was worth spending more time for the $5 as long as it come with a little dignity.  I don’t argue with them anymore.  I surrender my bags without a second thought.

2.  Letting Personal Relationships Interfere with Work

One of the worst forms of corruption here in Haiti is not financial greed, but it’s operating systems based on what the Haitians call “Moun Pa,”  meaning “Your People”.  People in positions of power or leadership here have the habit of making their family and friends benefit from everything they do rather than whoever is most qualified or most in need.  Being in a leadership position myself I’ve learned how difficult it is to not let “Moun Pa” direct my decision making.  Friendships mean so much within this culture, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t need the help, so it takes courage to be objective and fair in managing community projects.  I’ve learned that the real friends don’t care if they don’t benefit from my work, and the rest of the people will respect me more if I don’t let “Moun Pa” cloud my vision.

3.  Neglecting Personal Relationships for Work

There’s gotta be a balance, and I’ve made mistakes both ways.  Many people doing this kind of work in a culture not their own, seem to think that their work has to define their entire existence, but it’s important to have a social life too.  It’s important to have friends that have nothing to do with work.  And I’ve found that I need to invest just as much time and energy and even sometimes finances into cultivating those relationships as I have to invest in the work in the community.  It’s necessary to maintain sanity.  All of those individuals who are involved in the work of the organization will appreciate all of the programs and how they help their lives, but in order to survive I also have to have individuals who are friends outside of that community service realm and can just enjoy life with me.  I need some people to help me forget about all that work stuff.  This is common sense in our American culture, but for some reason, in situations such as mine, people find it hard to separate the two.  I’ve learned that I have to.

4.  Encouraging Team Projects Based on What the Team Wanted and Not What the Community Needed

I don’t need to tell any stories of failed team projects born out of good intentions.   But it’s worth repeating that we’re not saviors and we don’t have all the answers.  Hopefully if a reader has been a part of a team that has carried out projects like this, they realize it without me having to blow the whistle on them.  If a reader is planning a team in the future, please realize that the American/foreign leaders in the organization that you plan to work with may not be completely honest about the local validity of your project ideas, because we don’t want to offend you out of supporting us in other ways.  It’s worth it to go the extra mile to search out the opinions of other local people before deciding what you are going to do in their community.  If you read my recent post, 12 Things That Actually Work, you will see many of the larger lessons that I’ve learned from this mistake.

5.  Making Pity Purchases

OPINION ALERT:  The greatest reason that so many Haitian businesses fail is because they’re based on a marketing strategy of “buy this because the Haitian who sold it/made it is poor and needs the income,”  rather than, “buy this because it’s a quality product”.  As someone working with artists and craftspeople to help market their goods, but also as someone managing a public charity, this has been a tough, and sometimes costly, lesson to learn.  I’ve certainly bought my share of crap that never gets used because of the look in the eyes of the person selling it, but try anymore to make purchases based on the quality of the product and my need for it, or my business’s potential to profit from it, rather than the merchant’s need.  It’s difficult to block out the sad stories and sometimes have the courage to say, “I’m sorry but that necklace you’re trying to sell me is just ugly,” or “looks like it was made by your 4-year-old child.”  And it can seem purely mean as well, but when coupled with sincere advice of how to improve the product quality and sales methods, then it proves to be much more beneficial to the producer and vendor in the long run.

6.  Assuming that Local is Always Better

This goes along with #5 a little because I always encourage investing in local business when possible, but not when it means sacrificing on quality.  I learned this lesson the hard way the first time that I bought a motorcycle in this country.  I went shopping for the bike with a trusted chauffeur who had experience buying multiple motorcycles knowing that I could trust his opinion.  When we got to the city of Jacmel, we looked at several different brands of motos, but there was one particular brand (I won’t mention the name) that was made locally.  When I learned this and heard how many local people were employed by the company, and realized that this meant I could get original parts locally if I ever needed, and could even meet directly with the CEO of the company, not to mention that it was about $200 cheaper than any of the other brands, I was sold.  Besides, the bikes were really pretty.  It was only later after everything was signed and paid for that I learned that all of those “original parts” were all imported from Asia and were of very cheap quality and the CEO of the company was a greedy businessman who exploited his workers while he got richer and richer.  The motorcycle didn’t last 8 months before it was in too poor of shape to drive anymore.  I have friends of mine who bought motos of other brands around that same time more than 3 years ago, and theirs are still going strong.  Now I try to do my homework before making big purchases.

7.  Not Learning How to Drive a Manual Transmission Sooner

This goes back to me being American and thinking I can do anything.  I’ve been driving since I was 14 for crying out loud, there’s no reason why I can’t drive any vehicle anywhere I want.  And I’d driven a manual before, but driving years ago on Iowa’s flat, straight, paved, roads is a different story than driving on the goat paths in the mountains of Mizak.  It took a good dose of humility,  a lot of asking for help from people without licenses, and a couple near death experiences, but I’m doing alright anymore.

8.  Believing White Rice and Red Sauce is All There Is

It took a long time to figure out that even in food preparation, a little creativity can go a long way here.  It’s easy to assume that because they don’t have a plethora of fast food restaurants on every corner here, that there really must not be much variety available in food choices.  But believing this is doing ourselves a great disservice.  Even if you have the best cooks in Haiti where you’re staying on your trip here, they are still attached to a system that never encourages creativity, so the fact that they give you the same rice and beans everyday, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options.  I’m not even a good cook, but I am creative and pretty good at making things with minimal resources, so through working with my Haitian friends and other creative volunteers who are good cooks, we’ve been able to come up with ways to create almost anything to eat that we can make in the states.  Lasagna, chicken alfredo, french toast, apple cobbler, even pizza, just to name a few favorites that we frequently make.  Again, this may seem like a simple, inconsequential lesson, but the “rice and beans only” lie that foreigners are led to believe is just one more little detail that adds to the negative stigma of poverty that threatens development for this country.  If we can erase that, it’s a step.

9.  Taking Vacations to Port-au-Prince

When I first came here I thought it’d be nice to just get away every once in a while and spend some time in the capitol, so I went there over Thanksgiving and then Christmas.  Worst idea ever.  Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad.  I was able to get a holiday meal with turkey at the guest house I was staying at and it was early enough in my time here that I really wasn’t that good of friends with anyone yet to miss them too terribly.  But by Christmas things had changed.  I was the only one in the huge guest house that I was staying at and I fell asleep at night to gunshots.  Merry Christmas.  I’ve since learned that the gunshots weren’t due to any violence, but just Haitians way of celebrating sometimes, shooting into the air.  But I digress.  Anymore I spend as little time in Port-au-Prince as possible and realized the joys of spending the holidays in Mizak.  Now, even if I was living in the states I would want to come back to Mizak for Christmas because of all the fun that they have.  I’ve also learned that if I ever do need to get away there are plenty of other wonderful options without having to go to PAP.  And, if I have to get away, I’ve learned that it’s more enjoyable doing it with a few Haitian friends because they need the chance to escape from time to time also and life’s just more fun when lived with other humans.

10.  Too Few Chairs

Maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned in Haiti.  No matter how well you plan, or how many times you do it, there will ALWAYS be more people than chairs.  (Translated: There will always be more mouths than there is food, more need than there is money, more ideas than there is paint…)  Some mistakes can be corrected and the problem can be solved next time by adjusting our methods.  Others we just have to learn to accept.  The fact is, some people are just going to have to stand.

Dangerous Words

I recently read the newest book by Haitian American author, Edwidge Danticat, entitled Create Dangerously (Vintage, September 20, 2011).  I read it before I ever started this blog.  It’s a book recounting multiple stories of immigrant artists (writers, musicians, journalists, painters, photographers, etc.) who risked their lives and the lives of others because of the work that they created.  It was one of the most profoundly inspirational books that I’ve ever read.  I wish that I could quote the whole thing on here to give a little perspective, but I can’t (there are laws).  So I would like to quote part of it:

This is where these writers placed their bets, striking a dangerous balance between silence and art.

How do writers and readers find each other under such dangerous circumstances?  Reading, like writing, under these conditions is disobedience to a directive in which the reader, our Eve, already knows the possible consequences of eating that apple but takes a bold bite anyway.

How does that reader find the courage to take this bite, open that book?  After an arrest, an execution?  Of course he or she may find it in the power of the hushed chorus of other readers, but she can also find it in the writer’s courage in having stepped forward, in having written, or rewritten, in the first place.

Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously.  This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.  Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.

In her book Danticat also quotes a poem by Osip Mandelstam,

Maybe this is the beginning of madness…

Forgive me for what I am saying.

Read it…quietly, quietly.

Sure, I may not be risking my life for the things that I’ve written in this blog.  I don’t have to fear any evil dictators sending their assassins after me because of a negative word or two that I spoke.  So far, I don’t have to worry about losing my life.  But after a measly 5 posts, I have lost friends, lost financial support, and possibly lost some respect from a few people that I thought knew me well enough to understand where I was coming from.

Is it worth it?  I have had people tell me that it’s not worth it, that I’ve gone too far, that I’m causing more damage than good.  At the same time I’ve had even more people telling me that they’re relieved to see me writing what I have.  “Keep it up!”  They say, “The world needs to hear this!  Write what needs to be said!”

There will always be two sides (if not more).  My job as an artist is to not listen to either of them but to simply keep creating what I believe needs to be read, viewed, heard, understood.  To create boldly, fearlessly, dangerously.  My job as an artist is to challenge people’s worldviews and everything that they thought they knew to be true.  My job is not to reinforce their comfortable beliefs and encourage them to keep living their lives and interacting with their world the same old way that they always have.

I don’t ask everyone to like everything I say and I don’t expect everyone to agree with it all.  If we all agreed on everything I suspect the world would cease its spinning.  I do hope that anyone that reads my blog can do so with a clear understanding of who I’m writing it to represent.  I am not writing anything to represent missionaries, mission team members, expatriates in the developing world, donors, or anyone besides myself that isn’t from the country of Haiti.  If you fall into one of those categories, this isn’t about YOU.  It is for you to read so that hopefully you can understand my point-of-view and possibly that of some Haitians that have confided in me.  There are at least one bagillion other blogs you can read that talk about all the happy good things the people in those categories do.  I don’t need to make another one.  Even if I support the importance of many of those good things, I may disagree with the methods of some.  An artist doesn’t exist to regurgitate, he exists to create, so I’m not making another one of those blogs.  I also am not writing to represent the organization that I work for.  I hope that everyone can keep that separate.  The essence of an organization is that it’s made up of many different people all with different beliefs but a common mission.  It can never, or at least should never, be defined by the opinions of one single person.

Who I do write to represent, #1 Myself.  #2 Many Haitians who have shared their frustrations with me.  They are the ones who inspired me to start saying some of the things I’ve said because of conversations that they’ve had with me.  They don’t have a platform to share their opinions like I do with this blog and yet they’d like outsiders to their country to understand how they are perceived by some of their seemingly innocent actions and choices.  These Haitians want change too because they’re tired of the same old same old attempts by foreigners to improve things.  I’ve had a lot of feedback on my blog so far, but have yet to have any negative responses from Haitians.  Readers won’t see that because the Haitians send me private messages with their support of my opinions.  Because they are the ones reading quietly…quietly.  They recognize the danger that lies in the truth of some of the things that I’m saying.

So, for that reason, I will continue to write, and some of what I write will probably continue to offend some people although I may be more careful about the way I say some things.  I hope you will continue to follow along with me on this journey because I am still learning.  This week I think I’ve learned a lot.  But I am still not ripe.  Don’t throw a rock at me yet.

12 Things That Actually Work

1.  Building Relationships

This is the most important thing to do if you’re going to work in a different culture.  There’s a medical team that comes into my area that I think are a great example of this.  They have been coming for 5 years and when they first started they did their medical mission the same as most teams that come in.  They set up a week long clinic and spent the entire time handing out Tylenol and Tums to people whose health concerns were minor and just wanted to stock up on medicines for the next time they might get sick.  There were a few emergency cases that they saw, but for the most part nothing that would have been a serious issue had they not been there.  Now 5 years later the focus of their mission has drastically changed.  They still do their medical work but spend much more time actually fostering relationships with the patients that have become important to them in the past years.  Now they visit their homes, they get to know their family’s most pressing needs and work together to address them.  They laugh together, they cry together, they talk about the future together.  It’s become much more than checking temperature and blood pressure and handing out pills.  It’s become a serious investment in the holistic health of several families.  It’s become much more than just treating a few physical symptoms of Haitians that they’ll never see again with faces they’ll never remember.  At the same time this team builds relationships with their translators, their motorcycle drivers, and their cooks much more than other teams.  More than 20 teams come through here each year, but this is one of the few teams that people all over the community continually ask about by name.  That represents significant cross cultural barriers being broken.

2.  Supporting Sustainable Programming

If the programs that you are involved in will only exist as long as you are there or another foreign team, then they’re not sustainable.  Imagine if the government of Haiti made it as difficult for foreigners to enter their country as the United States makes it.  Then the Haitians would just have to do things for themselves.  Serve in such a way that that very thing could happen at any moment.  Serve as if the Haitian government could suddenly pass a law that forbids all foreigners from visiting their country.  Make sure that whatever you’re working on while you’re there and what you continue to support once you leave will be continued.  Also make sure that a plan is in place so that it is not always dependent solely on your donations either.  Help them get it started, then let them run with it.  Also, it’s good to do the math to see if you are donating more money to local programs than you are spending on living and travel expenses to visit the place where you are hoping to help.  If not, then you probably need to rethink why you’re going there.

3.  Doing No Harm

In everything you do, analyze whether it has the potential to carry any unintended negative effects.  Ask yourself, could it encourage dependency or entitlement?  Could it damage the dignity of those I’m trying to serve?  Could it imply that any of their local products, customs, or beliefs are any less valuable than what I’m offering?  Is it being done because the receiver truly needs the thing or the service or just to make yourself feel good about helping someone?  Are you giving out charity that cheapens the sincerity of the gift or are you contributing to development strategies that will continue to grow beyond what you can see?

4.  Investing in Local Economies

Do your research ahead of time to make sure that you’re not bringing in items to be given away that could be purchased locally, or that would have a suitable alternative locally available.  But if you search out ways in which all of your activities on the ground can also be channeling money to local vendors and producers, then you’re making a difference not just to the people receiving your services but also to other local families who will benefit from your business.  But also, abstractly, it represents a much deeper concept of you demonstrating that you believe the things of their community and their culture have value.  In this way you avoid the possibility of the “mine is better than yours” implication.

5.  Creativity

If you’re going to come into a different culture hoping to do some good, do something new, or do something old in a completely new way!  Don’t try to do the same old mission-y things that have been done for years, because they obviously haven’t changed things all that much.  If we want to make a difference, then we have to do things differently, and that takes creativity.  A great example of this is how a good friend and a Living Media volunteer decided to deal with the issue of handing out used clothes to the people of Haiti.  Mission teams do it all the time, right, leave your clothes for the local people who could use an extra shirt or pair of pants.  Sure, but doing it with dignity and equality is difficult.  So, this volunteer, after noticing that Haitians also have a lot of interesting t-shirts that visitors would love to have such as political campaign shirts and carnival shirts advertising Haitian brands, set up a clothing exchange where Haitians can come in and shop for slightly used clothes that teams have left behind in exchange for their unique Haitian t-shirts.  The Haitians get to pick out what they want and have fun doing it, while the visitors also get to invest in the local economy as they come eat a meal at the local Haitian restaurant located in the same building as the clothing exchange.  Then they drop off their used clothes to make their luggage lighter on the way home and take back a Haitian t-shirt that will be a conversation starter when they return.  That’s a creative solution to an old problem!  Whatever you’re doing it, look for innovative ways to do it without following the same old formulas.  It may take a little more work of the bat to get it going, but it will have a greater impact in the long run.

6.  Creating Jobs

Are the projects that you’re working on employing more local people than there are members to your team?  If so, then your presence is making a big difference for those individuals and their families even if it’s just for a week that they find work.  They may not have had that chance otherwise.  Just make sure to do your research ahead of time to make sure that you are paying them fairly by local standards.  Nothing will ruin your team’s local reputation faster than being stingy when it comes to paying those who are helping you carry out your work (except for maybe fluorescent team t-shirts of course).  They’ll remember that when you come back next year.  Just this morning I visited a motorcycle chauffeur who was employed for a week by a visiting team recently and is now putting a new roof on his family’s home because of the income that he made that week.  And that was just one driver.  If your team searches out ways to employ as many local people as possible, then it can have a widespread effect on the community.

7.  Learning

Anyone perceived to think they have all the answers and are here to provide them to everybody won’t be received well.  For those who have been offended by my previous posts because I seemed to have this attitude, then this proves how the Haitians feel whenever anyone comes in and tells them everything that they need to know.  This is why I’ve called my blog The Green Mango blog, because Haitians say “You don’t throw a rock at a green mango.”  You must be a green mango in this culture, with a willingness to learn, to grow, to develop – to ripen.  I’m not ripe yet.  Yes, I’m giving a lot of opinions in this blog, but I don’t claim to have all the answers.  I am learning every day and I’ve made a lot of mistakes.  I admit that.  I think that’s why most Haitians respond positively to my methods here, because I’m always willing to learn and never in a hurry to think I understand anything.  I’ve been here for 5 years and I’ve learned a lot, but if I was still writing this in another 5 years, I know things would be completely different.  Because I continue to search for ways to keep learning.  I never accept what the first person tells me, keep asking questions and discover more truths buried deep.  I’m sharing some things that I think I’ve discovered.  Doesn’t mean that I’m right.  Tomorrow I will learn something else that could change everything.  Come in learning and don’t stop.

8.  Having Fun

But not too much.  Have as much fun as possible with the Haitians, and allow yourself to experience what they believe to be fun.  Don’t come in with your outside perceptions of fun and expect them to laugh along with you.  But if you let loose, experience their forms of entertainment, and invite them into yours and your teams, they will see you much more as a brother or sister on this planet rather than someone attempting to save them.  And as I’ve said before, the number one thing for you to pack is a sense of humor.

9.  Collaboration

Don’t do anything if you have to do it yourself.  Don’t do anything if there isn’t at least 5 Haitians beside you wanting to keep doing it once your gone.  Don’t do anything that they didn’t already think of doing before you got there, but were not able to do on their own.  Collaborate.  Walk alongside the Haitians in whatever they are doing, have been doing, or hope to do.  Before doing anything, ask them what needs to be done.  Tell them what you are able to do and ask them if it’s even needed.  Tell them what you planned to do and ask how they would do it.  Ask them what their dreams are.  Collaborate to make life more beautiful.

10.  Doing What Few Others Can

If you are coming in offering skills that can’t be found locally, then with the right plan with a local organization, you can do a lot in a short time here and your presence will be appreciated.  But always check whether what you’re doing could be done by a local Haitian and whether or not your doing it results in the replacing of a potential job for a local.  If you don’t have the specialized skills to do what the Haitians can’t do, then I suggest doing what the Haitians don’t want to do.  I recently had a team here that spent the majority of their week here carrying cement blocks around on a construction site.  Could a Haitian do that?  Of course they could, but the Haitians actually really appreciated these Americans doing this job that they viewed as minimal because it freed them up to spend their time doing the specialized construction work that they’re trained to do without having to run all over the work site looking for blocks.  At the same time, this team also donated almost 3 times as much funds to the project as they spent on travel and living expenses to be here to carry those blocks.  That’s the kind of team that I love to see come here.  Willing to do anything and seeing the big picture to make good use of their funds.

11.  Training

Be an inspiration.  Even if it’s for a short moment.  I encourage visitors to consider things like workshops and training seminars much more often than physical work projects.  Their effects can reach much farther.  There was one particularly large group that came into the area to work on a construction project.  They spent the week slinging cement and sifting sand.  But there was a pastor/artist on the team that I talked into coming down to our center and giving a day long workshop on Creating Something Out of Nothing.  We had over 40 young adults from various programs of ours attend, and afterwords, within two days I had one participant tell me that he had started a community garden because of what she had motivated them to do and another that had started an art class for children at a local school.  What were the effects of the rest of her team?  Some masonry work that could have been done by any of a large number of qualified local Haitians.  But because of her few hours of creative training, a sustainable community garden and an ongoing art class for children were established that would never have happened without her spending that little time encouraging them to start something new for their community.  And I could share dozens of other stories just like this where trainings held had large ripple effects as opposed to momentary physical actions that end as soon as the visitors leave.  I know that people back home want to see photos of you sweating and playing with smiling children too, so  a photo standing speaking in front of a group of adults isn’t so glamorous, but think about making a lasting impression on the minds of young leaders at the same time that your doing your other projects.

12.  Being Flexible

No matter what you think you are going to do before arriving, I guarantee you it’s going to change.  It’s going to change and it’s going to change frequently.  You have to go with the flow.  That’s how Haitians have survived everything that the world has slung at them.  Take a lesson from them in flexibility.  Allow your rules to be malleable.  Allow your plans to be editable.  Allow your expectations to be debatable.  The Haitian proverb says “The sea breeze blows the pelican where he wants to go.”  Let the sea breeze blow you and you’ll be pleasantly surprised where you end up.

Eleven Things I’m Tired of Hearing You Say in Haiti

This post was a suggestion by a friend on Facebook in response to my first post about fashion.  I’m not sure if this is what she meant.  I was going to call it “Eleven Things You Should Never Say as a Foreigner in Haiti” but I decided to put the Judgy McJudger pants aside a bit and be upfront about the fact that these are my opinions of things that I’m tired of hearing people say in reference to Haiti and her people.  If you want to say these things in Haiti, you have every right to.  But before you do, please read my perspectives on them.  Most of these statements are born out of good intentions and the purest of motives, but when spouted into a culture not your own, a culture that has already been so damaged by the world’s words, these statements can become offensive without you being aware.

1.  Any phrase including the words “those less fortunate,” “the least of these,” or even “the poor”

I hate the use of any words that draw unnecessary lines between “us” and “them”.  Anyone who uses these types of phrases clearly has a point of view that says that the people being served and the ones providing the service could never exist within the same category.  It is outright degrading to imply that the people you have come to help are somehow less than you.  Some higher power that allegedly equals love has deemed you “greater than” somewhere along the way and now whether it is your own savior complex, or guilt, that drives you, you come with a disconnected sense of pity that leaves no lasting impression on Haiti or its people.  It’s typical to hear people use these phrases most often before they come to Haiti and are fundraising in the states, or after they have returned home and are talking about their trip.  But I have heard foreign visitors use these phrases directly to the Haitians to describe why they’ve come here and it makes me ashamed to share the same skin color as them.  I’ve even heard pastors come and preach messages in church to Haitians using these phrases.  I wanted to throw rotten tomatoes at them.  It’s just common sense, that for some reason we abandon in mission work, not to describe anyone as being lesser than you.  I’ve always been mad at Jesus for saying what he said in Matthew 25:40.  It’s been the source of so much cross cultural misunderstanding and walls being built, messing things up in the end.   He should have known better.

2.  We are so blessed in our country.

I guess it depends on how you define “blessed”.  But if the reason that you came to Haiti was to confirm how blessed you are in your country by witnessing the suffering of those in poverty first hand in this country, then you wasted your money.  I could have told you that you have a lot more material possessions and modern conveniences in your country and then you could have just sent Living Media all of the money that you wasted on traveling here to see the deplorable conditions of people living in the “Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.”  And the problem is that the Haitians you are interacting with can see this in the way you interact with them.  The whole time that you are “helping” them, they are very well of the fact that you are more “blessed” than they are, otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to pay for the plane ticket to come to their country or the guest house fees to eat better food than they do.  When even the Haitians already know how blessed your country is, if you didn’t already realize that before you came, then you’re really late to the party.  And, even after you say this when returning to your country, you know darn well you’re not going to change the way you live.  So what’s the point?

3.  I received so much more than I gave.

Well than don’t go home and tell everyone at your church that you went on a mission trip, let them know that you were on vacation, or a personal spiritual retreat to rediscover the meaning of life.  Again, if that’s what you got out of your trip, the fact that poor people can teach rich people valuable lessons, then you wasted your money again and you could have just stayed home and read The Prince and The Pauper and sent me the money that was intended to help the Haitians.  We need people to come help carry out the work of developing this country by providing skills that the average Haitian cannot, but we do not need more people showing up just to learn the value of helping their fellow man while giving false hope to people who are in desperate need of something more.

4.  They’re so happy/beautiful/clean/welcoming.

Generalizations are dangerous even if they’re positive ones.  First of all, these statements can come off as offensive to the local people you are describing because they imply that you expected the opposite.  Oh, just because I’m poor you thought that I’d be an angry, ugly, dirty, jerk?  Obviously, I know that’s not ever what you intend to say when you make one of these statements, but even a sincere complement can be taken the wrong way through translators and across cultural nuances.  And secondly if you use any of these phrases when talking to someone outside of the culture to describe the entire culture, you’ve made a broad statement that doesn’t describe the completeness of their humanity.  There are lots of beautiful people in this country, but there are plenty of ugly ones too.  They’re human.  And they also go through a range of emotions.  At the moments that you encounter them they are most likely at their happiest, cleanest, most welcoming points.  But every human goes through ups and down, so judging an entire population based on the momentary emotions of a few is unfair as well.  And, in every society there will always be the angry, dirty, jerks too, but if you have a good host, they probably keep you away from those sorts of people anyway.  Doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.  So, when you’re describing the Haitians that you met on your trip, please try to steer away from generalizations and speak as specifically as possible.  A personal story will always make a greater impact on those hearing your sharing anyway.

5.  It’s just like… (fill in name of another “3rd world” country)

Oye yoy yoy mezanmi!  Yes, it’s true, there are other countries that are materially poor and struggle with some of the same societal issues as Haiti.  But comparing this country to any other country based on the problems that it faces is a tragic simplification of those issues.  Looking at Haiti with this attitude will greatly reduce your effectiveness in serving the people here.  Some of the symptoms of poverty in this country may resemble those of other countries, but the causes to the problems that this society faces are completely different than anywhere else in the world, and without understanding that, your generalizations will water down the depth and beauty of what this culture has to offer.  I don’t care if you have visited all 7 continents and you’ve been on more than 15 mission trips to countries all around the world,  and you think that you’ve seen it all and dealt with people in situations like Haiti’s before, trust me, you have no idea.  I recently heard a friend of mine, a Haitian-American who’s lived in Jacmel for many years, say that you have to live here full time for at least 10 years just to understand a tiny bit of why this country’s so screwed up before you can ever expect to make any kind of difference.  If that’s true, and you come in with your analysis after two days of it being just like wherever, than you’ve already failed at having a positive impact on the people.

6.  “It’d sure be nice if…” “I wish we could…” “Maybe someday…”

You say these phrases and a Haitian hears, “It’ll be great when…” “I promise that I will…” and “Tomorrow…”  They’ve been so used to a complete lack of hope in their lives that if they sense even the smallest glimmer of hope in an innocent suggestion by a foreigner, it can quickly become interpreted as an absolute guarantee.  So be very careful when suggesting that you would like to help them with something.  In our culture it is just the polite way to let someone down easy, but if you’re speaking with a Haitian, if it is unlikely that the thing in question will happen, don’t try to be polite, be very clear.  It is better to tell them no, and then later if it does work out, it can be a very pleasant surprise.  But don’t indicate even a desire to help if you know that it probably won’t be possible.  It just leads to confusion and disappointment.

7.  Is that a voodoo thing?

Just because you don’t understand it or it doesn’t fit into your religious box, doesn’t mean that it’s voodoo.  There are very few things in this culture that any Haitian would actually attach the “voodoo” label to, and even any of those things are very unlikely for you to see if you are spending a short time here or don’t speak the language or have trusted relationships with insiders in the voodoo culture.  You may come across some unusual things in Haiti that are hard to explain, but most Haitians would not call them voodoo, although they might go as far as to call them mystical.  But really, to Haitians, most of those things that you see as unusual are just things and if you try to attach a voodoo label to them, it will show your cultural ignorance more blatantly than your pasty white skin.  Just saying that word has the potential to make the Haitians you are with uncomfortable, and even embarrassed.  If you are interested in the voodoo culture of Haiti, I fully encourage making an effort to learn about it, but it must happen in the right context.  Do not ask questions about it casually while in public to your Haitian hosts or translators.  I recommend having an experienced expat or trusted local (not a pastor or priest) set up a meeting with a voodoo priest or priestess where they can explain their beliefs and practices to you or your group in person.  Most of them are very open about their beliefs and would be happy to talk to you about them.  They are the best ones to answer any questions you might have as long as you too go into it with an open mind and a desire to learn.

8.  It was such a God moment.

This seems innocent enough right?  Even kind of inspirational?  But the reason that I include it on this list is not necessarily because it’s offensive or annoying, but because I’ve heard a lot of mission teamers say this about wonderful incidences that they’ve experienced in Haiti and while I’ve tried to translate the phrase to Haitians involved in the moment, the Haitians always look at me like I’m crazy.  “A God moment?”  What the hell’s that supposed to mean?  Isn’t God present in every moment?  That’s what the Haitian’s eyes say to me as I’m trying to translate this very American phrase.  I know you feel like God hand crafted a certain special experience that touched your heart in Haiti and you want to give him credit for that moment, but it seems like a strange thing to say to a Haitian.  You have to realize that one of the moments where every Haitian felt God’s presence more powerfully than ever was in the earthquake that killed over 300,000 of their neighbors, friends, and family members.  They understand God’s presence as being at work in not only the pleasant coincidences, but also in the unfortunate tragedies.  God, to them permeates every single moment of their existence, so for you to point out one single moment blessed by God’s design just seems a little silly to them.

9. I didn’t choose Haiti, Haiti chose me.

In response to the question often asked to foreigners by other foreigners, “So, what made you choose to ever come to Haiti in the first place?”  I’ve heard many people use this scapegoat of an answer, but one time that I heard it, that it particularly made me want to vomit all over the person saying it, was in the Port-au-Prince airport.  I was on my way out of the country on my way back to the states and was sitting at the gate waiting for my plane.  In the row of chairs behind me was a man talking very boldly to a group of attentive mission teamers who had struck up a conversation with him.  He was a televangelist from Texas who worked for one of the big Christian TV networks and had spent the last two weeks apparently doing nothing in Haiti but working on his TV tan.  He had the ridiculous silver gray slicked back hair that I would expect from a televangelist and the prominent voice that doesn’t have to necessarily speak loudly to assure that everyone will hear.  When one of the eager mission teamers asked him the question, that was his “humble” response.  “Oh, I didn’t choose Haiti, Haiti chose me.”  And I thought to myself, I don’t remember the people of this country ever convoking a special election to decide whether your slimy crispy religious self should come take up space in their land.  And if they had, I can guarantee that they would have voted for your butt to stay in Texas.  Now you’re going to take your video and your photos back to put on the air of all of “the least of these” that you helped just by being there, but none of them ever volunteered to be extras in a movie where you’re the star.  The fact is, if you want to come to Haiti, come to Haiti, but don’t pretend like it’s some geographic or cultural destiny that supernaturally summoned you here.  You made a decision to come because of some other reason, likely self-serving, but Haiti didn’t choose you.

10.  I just don’t understand how they carry those buckets on their heads!

And they don’t understand how you type so fast!  It doesn’t seem physically possible.  But people in every culture have adapted physically to be able to carry out the tasks that their culture demands of them.  It’s really not that big of a deal.

11. It’s probably the first time some of them have ever seen a camera.

It’s not.