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.

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17 comments

  1. So true, true, true. These are among the phrases that drive me crazy when I hear them from groups “visiting” or “on mission” here in Honduras.

    There is another one: “This changed my life; I’ll never be the same/I’ll never forget the people here.” This doesn’t happen that often – though it does with some people who make connections with real people and get to know José or Gloria.

    Thank you. I’ll have to share this.

  2. This is something we all needed to read BEFORE the first mission trip. Thanks for keeping us aware.

  3. And, kudos from a non-missionary. Even here — a resort town in middle class Mexico — one hears this sort of thing, and the presumption that “we” are doing a favor to “them” just by being here. While I suppose it’s human nature to presume my beliefs are superior to your beliefs (or those of a Texas evangelist superior to those of a Haitian Catholic… or whatever), before we take up preaching (in the largest sense of the word) we need to ask if we really and truly believe our whole culture package (our economic system, our way of dealing with neighbors) is better, and if we honestly expect others to live as we do… or even that others want to.

  4. Hmmmm. we all create “OUR TERRITORY” which you just did as well. It almost sounds like you are the all knowing missionary that does nothing wrong. I don’t care what people say…it comes from their heart! We are not all perfect as you nor have the arrogance to tell the rest of us how stupid we are. Sorry for being rude but I am tired of people saying things I am tired of. I just like people to help, whatever they say is fine with me as long as they are not swearing at anyone. This is a lesson in tolerance. People who plan on coming to Haiti would feel unwelcome if they read your blog. If it comes from the heart accept it

    1. “I just like people to help, whatever they say is fine with me as long as they are not swearing at anyone.”

      Wrong. What they say is just as important as what they do. If you’re a physician, would you say that it doesn’t matter what you say to the patient, as long as you don’t swear? Does listening have anything to do with making a correct diagnosis?

      “This is a lesson in tolerance.”

      And it’s also a lesson in arrogance. Given the weight of decades of U.S. involvement in Haiti, these are critically important lessons for us to learn. Take a deep breath.

      “People who plan on coming to Haiti would feel unwelcome if they read your blog.”

      Perhaps people need to rethink why they’re coming to Haiti before they come. Some would be better off staying home.

  5. Just for the record, I will repeat what I say in my profile, I claim to be neither a missionary nor an expert on anything. What I share in this blog are simply my opinions based on my experience living in Haiti and my conversations with Haitians. If the majority of Haitians that I know didn’t share these opinions, I wouldn’t share them either.

  6. the point that I took from this is as missionaries “we” could be more aware and educated about the people and areas that we are going to. It isn’t about Lee being tolerant of the rest of us, it is about giving respect to the people and the lands that we are visiting. Something I say may come from the heart but it also could be very offensive, and I would like to know that sort of thing, especially before i say it. If we can’t respect Haiti and it’s people, than i would think THEY would feel that we were more unwelcomed too. I know for a fact that Lee isn’t perfect! But I think the honesty and humor, plus the insight that he has, is great, and although i may never be able to travel to Haiti, I would like to think that these posts help me to be a little more cultered and a little more realistic about the things that i may do or say. And for the record, Lee, if your posts offend me, I will simply not read them any futher.

  7. Although I see where you are coming from and I appreciate that you are annoyed and needed to vent (don’t we all?)I think you are going to discourage people from helping more than encourage them to help. Some people are naive and say things that don’t convey how they acutally feel or think. Also, a lot of people don’t realize how rich America is compared to the rest of the world. The whole premise of your blog post makes it seem like you think people should only go help 3rd world countires if they have the intention of making big changes (like completely overhauling the whole infrastructure) but even if people help or make a postive impact in one person’s life, that’s important too (at least they are putting good out there and not using their resources for bad). Yes, not everyone will be changed or make lifestyle changes after their trips to 3rd world countries but I’m sure that their trip impacted them in some way and could lead them to make even bigger changes.

  8. Thank you, Lee! Excellent, smart, thought-provoking blog. I thank God that my salvation is not dependent on works!

  9. Your entry really resonated with me and so here’s a more detailed response:

    1. Many of the people I work with here in Honduras do identify themselves as poor and so I’m not so upset with that term. But I think it is better say “the marginalized” or “the impoverished” and so recognized the many social and political causes of poverty.
    I do cringe, though, when I hear “those less fortunate” as if poverty were the result of chance and “fortune.” It also indicates a sense of one’s superiority.
    It’s also un-biblical. The word translated as blessed – as in “Blessed are the poor…” (Luke 4:21) – can also be translated as “happy” or “fortunate.” How’s that for turning everything upside down.

    2. This is truly one of the phrases that most annoys me: “We are so blessed in our country.” Blessing is so often restricted to material wealth and well-being and to conveniences. Is this just a subtle form of the “gospel of wealth”?

    3. “We received so much more than we gave.” I’m not sure I’m as upset as you are with this one, partly because I see the visits as building relationships of solidarity. Also, this may be a moment when the visitor recognizes the worth, the dignity, and the capabilities of the people she or he visits.

    4. The generalizations often are a sign of insufficient reflection. For this I often give visitors an article by Fr. Albert Nolan, “Spiritual Growth and the Option for the Poor.” http://www.maryknollvocations.com/nolan.pdf or in Albert Nolan’s book Hope in an Age of Despair – and other talks and writings.

    5. “It’s just like…” has its counterpart. “It’s so unlike Spain.” DUH!

    6. You’re right that many people hear these phrases as promises – but they’ve often been promised so much – especially by politicians – that such phrases either further cynicism and fatalism or set up expectations that will be frustrated.

    7. As someone mentioned this has some variants. “Is this a Honduran thing?” “Is this an Indian thing?” The failure of culture sensitivity and knowledge are really problematic.

    8. “A God moment.” You’re right on with this.

    9. Good thoughts here, again, but a cautionary word. I feel that God called me here to Honduras, but it had to be affirmed in many ways, including the willingness of the local bishop to accept my offer as well as other signs. I owe much to the Jesuit model of discernment in saying this. Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola really has helped me in this process of discernment that I’m still going through.
    Honduras didn’t choose me – but I think, in all humility, that God called me here. (And I’m here until God calls me somewhere else.)

    10. Good point. It’s cultural but I also think the remark comes from the lack of physical labor in the lives of many North-Americans.

    11. “It’s probably the first time they’ve seen…” This often indicates that there is something that WE must teach “them.” It’s not just cameras. One of the more difficult situations I encountered was the desire to teach kids how to use toothbrushes. Luckily I caught this before they did their first demonstration and had them ask for children who knew how to brush their teeth to show the other kids.

    As I previously noted, I have a twelfth:
    “This changed my life; I’ll never be the same and I’ll never forget the people here.” This doesn’t happen that often – though it does with some people who make connections with real people and get to know José or Gloria. I don’t think that the effects of short-term “missions” are not regularly manifested in changes of life-style or moving out of the upward-mobility cycle of Western capitalist culture. Sometimes there is an addiction to “mission trips” because of the “high” that comes from thinking that we are helping those “poor unfortunate people”.

  10. Working off John Donaghy’s last point, I think the heart of many of these items lies in the concept of “generosity.”
    The definition of generosity includes a quality of “more than” or “excess” as in “giving more than one can afford” or “giving an excess of time”. By definition, I don’t think most people are very generous at all. I think they give what makes them feel good, which doesn’t necessarily benefit the recipient nor is it to a point that the giver has given more than is good for his own well being.
    Too often, our western sense of giving is to give what we don’t want (we never needed it) to someone who we think needs it (and truthfully doesn’t want it). That isn’t generosity. I’m not even sure its kindness.
    Without a doubt, Lee, you’re treading on dangerous ground…. first, living the life that you advocate here, and second, giving your thoughts in a manner that may, possibly, cause you harm in the end (see comments of your detractors). Perhaps that’s the most generous act of all!

  11. I appreciate what you have shared. I am trying to get this message out and have met with some of the same reactions.
    I would encourage you and your readers to read When Helping Hurts. Also, check out the Chalmers Center. These folks get what we have been doing wrong and are teaching a better way.

  12. Thanks for this great blogpost!

    For all those, who don’t agree with what Lee is saying: a documentary movie about aid will come out very soon where Haitians say very similar things.

    And if you even hear a Haitian say that, do you still think it isn’t true or not so important?

    “helping”, “saving”, “fixing” never works. Only “supporting” existing real initiatives does. If you come to Haiti to save Haitians, you are doing more harm than anything else. And yes you will have an impact on a person: you will make him/her dependent, nothing else.

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