Month: August 2012

6 Things Haitians Can Do

I want people to come to this country, I really do.  And I want them to travel to other countries too to serve alongside their brothers and sisters in this world while exploring the beauty that life has to offer together.  But I want them to come for a good reason.  I don’t want them to keep spending the time and money to travel to do things that the local citizens could do.  This is a list of 6 simple things that Haitians can do yet many, many foreigners continue to travel here to do them instead.  I hope that readers can begin to consider alternative activities if they are thinking of traveling to Haiti, but still give funds so that Haitians can do these things.

1.  Build Buildings

It’s true that Haiti needs lots of things built.  Homes, schools, community centers, churches, whatever.  But the reason that they have not been built, or even the reason that they were built but got destroyed in a hurricane or an earthquake is not because Haitians do not know how to build them.  It’s because they don’t have the funds that they need to build the buildings as well as they need to be built to withstand nature.  The reason that so many buildings toppled in the quake is not that the people building them didn’t know the correct methods, but because the best methods cost more money and so they cut corners to make something usable.  If they have the funds, any Haitian construction boss with any sort of decent training can build any size of structure needed that will survive whatever Mother Nature throws at it.  And they will still do it twice as fast and for a quarter of the cost as we would do with our newfangled construction methods that so many foreigners have tried to introduce to this country.  All it takes is a little extra rebar and a little extra cement to make a building stronger against the elements.  It does not take a bunch of foreigners coming in trying to show the Haitians a better way.  Trained engineers and architects might disagree with me on that point, but I’ve seen a lot of time and resources being wasted in this country by foreigners who thought they brought with them construction solutions, while Haitians shake their heads and patiently wait.

Whoa! Wait a minute! Who taught them how to do that?

2.  Paint Walls

They might drip  a little more on the floor than we would, but that’s not enough reason to think we need to do it for them.  And, house paint is one of the cheapest materials to buy to donate to a project, so even if it’s not possible to donate larger funds towards a more comprehensive construction project, I bet ya your garage sale brought in enough money to buy a few buckets of paint that local Haitians could slap on a wall.  And I’ll admit that I’ve encouraged plenty of teams to paint walls as projects when I run out of other ways to keep them busy.  If they finish their priority projects early and need something to do, and walls need painted, sure, go for it.  Because it is something that anyone can do.  Which is exactly why it should never be the main reason for leaving our homes elsewhere, and hopping on a plane, to come paint walls that anyone else could paint.

3.  VBS

For the non-Christianese speaking folks who may read my blog, this stands for Vacation Bible School.  It generally consists of a combination of puppets, felt boards, skits, snacks, songs, and balloons (water or otherwise) to teach children Bible story lessons and how to live like Jesus.  In the US it’s widely accepted by churches as a great way to get children excited about God while giving their parents a week off of having to haul them back and forth from the swimming pool.  And I wouldn’t disagree.  I have fond memories of VBS as a kid in Iowa.  But when it becomes the default mission for any Christian coming to Haiti who doesn’t know what else to do, it becomes a problem.  No one is better at telling Haitian children Bible stories and teaching them songs about God, than Haitian parents, Haitian teachers, and older Haitian siblings.  They are the ones who already know all the stories and all the songs in Creole, as well as the culturally appropriate and effective ways to encourage children to have fun while learning these lessons.  They do not need us to spend the money to make a trip down here to do it for them and they certainly don’t need us telling them who God is.  They’ve got that one covered.  If we want to send some money so they can buy the snacks and supplies that they need, then great, but this country is full of Haitian adults who can plan spiritual growth opportunities for kids that are full of fun and learning.

4.  Hand Things Out

This is a tricky one.  Because I have seen distribution activities for items such as rice, clothing, tarps, food supplies, etc, go absolutely haywire when organized and carried out by Haitians.  But I’ve seen them go just as terribly when organized and carried out by foreigners.  So the problem is not who is handing the things out, but how the distribution activity is planned out ahead of time.  So, if a foreign group is involved in providing the resources for such a distribution activity, I do highly recommend being involved in the preparation for the activity to ensure that measures are put in place to carry the distribution out with equality and dignity for all recipients, but then let local Haitian leaders actually be the ones to hand the items out to their neighbors.  Work with local organizations that have experience in doing such activities already and get the support from local authorities beforehand.  We don’t want the 80-year-old woman who hasn’t eaten in two days having to fight through an angry mob to get her bag of rice.  This is why it’s best to leave the actual handing out process in the hands of the local leaders because if any problems do come up, they will be the ones most able to deal with the problems appropriately and communicate with people involved.

5.  Throw Parties

If there was only one thing that Haitians knew how to do, it would be party!  This is why when I see a foreign group come in and think that they need to plan and throw a big party for the community, it seems as if they have no clue who Haitians really are.  Haitians are much greater experts at partying than any other nation of people I’ve ever met, so it’s silly to think that we need to provide a party for them with our foreign concepts of what’s fun and enjoyable.  If there is a celebration to be made, even if it has to do with your group’s specific mission in the country, leave the planning and leading up to the Haitians.  Believe me, everyone will end up having more fun.  Probably even you.  If you don’t believe me, come to Kanaval, or May Day in Jacmel, or a Futbol Final.  If you still don’t believe me, do a little research on who the Haitians have chosen as their president.  That man knows how to party!

6.  Plant Things

I’ve seen multiple agricultural projects introduced my foreigners to this country fail because the foreigners implementing the projects didn’t research local growing methods beforehand or do their homework to know the reasons behind different local agricultural trends.  It’s unfair to the country to assume that just because they get described as “impoverished” or “underdeveloped” that they don’t know how to plant things.  This country is full of agronomists and farmers who know how to plant things and are able to plant things.  If there was a better way to do it that was locally plausible, they probably would have figured it out already.  And, even if you aren’t trying to introduce any new methods, or maybe even more  so, but just want more trees planted or more gardens planted, don’t think that you need to come here to dig a hole in the dirt yourself.  Haitians are plenty capable of that.  If possible, just provide the funds to purchase the seeds or saplings locally so that the Haitians can cultivate the pride that comes from making their community more beautiful.  And, once again, if it’s not your primary activity, but you want to accompany some of the locals that you’ve been supporting as they plant some trees some afternoon, then by all means, jump in and get your hands dirty.  But as with the other things on this list, planting things alone does not warrant the purchase of a plane ticket.

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The One Fashion Sin by Foreigners In Haiti That Trumps All Fashion Sins

Head to toe blue tint camouflage, big black army boots, bright blue helmets, imitation designer sunglasses from the 90’s, and the ultimate fashion accessory to top it all off – automatic rifles.

It’s true that missionaries, aid workers, and short term visitors to Haiti make some silly and even sometimes offensive choices in what they wear and how they interact with this culture, but what’s the one thing that they’ve always got going for them? At least they’re not UN soldiers. Mission teamers might look tragically out of place in their safari gear, their peasant skirts, and their tie-dye, but they don’t stick out nearly as much as a truckload full of east Asian MINUSTAH driving through the streets in their full blown army gear looking like they’re ready for a battle to break out at any moment.

Good intentions covered in unfortunate fashion results in nonverbal communication that represents subtle cultural misunderstandings, but nothing’s near as offensive as an outfit that screams, “Hey, all you unruly savages – yeah, you, the ones carrying mangoes on your heads, and driving your mopeds around – if you all can’t get along with each other (which you’re obviously incapable of, that’s why we’re here) we’re gonna shoot ya! That’s right, we’re gonna shoot ya, and then you’re gonna like each other, like we do in Asia.”

I took this photo at the beach.

The UN Peacekeeping forces (MINUSTAH) have been here since 2004, a time after a tumultuous decade of political problems when such a presence might have seemed necessary. 8 years later, they’re still here. And if you run into them and happen to ask why they’re here, they’ll answer, “security reasons.”

I usually run into them at the beach, the place most in need of security. And when I get their response to what they’re doing in the country I usually think to myself, “Thank God you’re here! I’m pretty sure Big Mama over there grilling the fish under the palm tree was about to start some guerrilla warfare with the guy selling the ugly wooden sculptures. And these pre-adolescent boys who were just here trying to sell me seashells are actually child soldiers who have been coerced into their anti-governmental underground army. I feel so much safer with you here.” But they’re holding guns, big ones, so I just keep my mouth shut and give them a slow nod, trying desperately not to let my face show them how disgusted I am that they are even there soaking up any of my Caribbean sunlight. Then they ask to take a photo with me, not with actual sentences but the same way the mission teamers ask to take photos with Haitian children, by holding up the camera and raising their eyebrows as high as they can while chirping, “Foto? Foto?” Because as long as Big Mama fish vendor hasn’t engaged in violent action yet, then they might as well take a photo with an American. I consider what kind of lecture I would give them on how culturally inappropriate their photo request is if they actually understood enough English for it to be effective, but alas, they don’t. And they still have big guns. So I just force an uncomfortable grin, the same kind I force when I eat rancid Haitian cow intestine and the cook asks me if I like it, and let them take the photo.

After 5 years here and not witnessing any positive concrete results of the UN’s presence here, this is what I’ve decided their purpose is here: to ride around in their oversized, air-conditioned vehicles (always at least two vehicles at a time because if something would break out, gotta have back up), and go to the beach to take pictures with Caucasians that happen to be there.

As I write this and look out the window of the Texaco where I’m typing, I see a young girl, maybe 4-years-old, in a white dress with pink flowers, struggling to get up into the pick-up where her father is. The gas station attendant, left his post, put down the large bag that he keeps his money in on the ground, and walked over to lift her up into the pick-up. Before he walks back to the pump, the little girl extended her arm to exchange a fist bump with the attendant, what Haitians call “kore”. It’s a symbol of support, appreciation, and friendship. The attendant smiles with the kore and returns to work. How on earth would this wild country ever survive without the UN peacekeepers?

What’s the appropriate alternative to prevent the country from falling into mass chaos? Tan khaki uniforms, no helmets, modern aviator sunglasses, a small handgun, and a Haitian flag patch on the shoulder. Sure, the Haitian police force may have its weak spots and obstacles to overcome, but with the right resources and training, they’re the ones that need to be responsible for their country’s peace. Currently the national police’s duties seem to amount to confiscating motorcycles without license plates and making sure the crowd stays off the soccer fields during matches. But if the UN quit claiming to be here to do the job that the Haitian police are supposed to do, then maybe security in the country wouldn’t be such a joke and would actually become something for Haitians to be proud of.

For further information on this issue, you can read this article. They are trying to work towards something different for the country. I hope that it happens sooner than later. I’d much rather take a photo on the beach with a Haitian police officer. At least then I’d feel like they were there to relax after having worked hard for their own country for real reasons all week long.

Things I’ve Heard Said Since the Dominican Fecal Salami Drama

Haitians are used to getting dumped on.  But lately there’s been drama in the country because of the news of salami coming from the Dominican Republic being contaminated with fecal matter.  I heard on the radio that 97% of all salami products from the DR were found to have a higher concentration of fecal matter than allowed, which is funny that there’s even an amount allowed.  I would suggest an actual news article for you to read on the issue but I can’t find any in English (go figure).  Here’s one in French if anyone wants to google translate: here.    But as with anything negative that gets thrown Haitians’ way, they deal with it with their usual sense of humor.  So, this is a list of some things that I’ve heard said the last few days since the news broke, in the street, on the radio, at the soccer field, from my own cooks.  A little different from the usual commentary that I present in this blog, but still I think that it shows a general theme of how Haitians believe themselves to be perceived by the rest of the world.  I admit that most of these comments are way over the top and exaggerated, that’s Haiti for ya.  That’s why I also encourage you to read the actual news reports on the issue.  Also, you’ll have to excuse the language used because when talking about feces, there’s really only one good way to translate the Creole word, “Kaka”.  There aren’t many euphemisms, any gentler, nicer ways to say things it Creole.

These are meant solely for a little laugh.  I hope readers find them as entertaining as the Haitians do.  It’s funny because it’s salami.  Anyone looking for advice for a mission trip probably doesn’t need to waste their time reading this.  Anyone that wants to read a good Dominican poop joke or two, read on.

“Domican poop is tasty!  If Haitian poop tasted this good we’d make tons of money off of it!”

“Oh just give me the salami.  I can make even shit taste good.  I’ll fry it enough it won’t kill ya.”

“Isn’t there some sort of law allowing us to arrest the entire country of Dominican Republic for something like this?  I think I’ll write Martelly to see.”

“First there were hurricanes, then the earthquake, then cholera.  Now there’s shit in our salami.  They’ll try anything to kill us off!”

“You know they just kept all the good stuff for themselves and shoved all the shit that they were supposed to dispose of into whatever they were sending to Haiti.  We always get the garbage that should have been thrown away.”

“See, the Asian UN soldiers weren’t the only ones trying to kill us with feces!”

“Are you sure that salami didn’t come from the US instead and the CIA just told them to tell everyone that it was from the Dominican?”

“Should’ve known those Dominicans would be too lazy to clean out an intestine before selling it to us Haitians.”

“You’re telling me that I’ve been eating this stuff for years and they’ve just now found out that it’s contaminated?  If I’d have known I would have started selling my own turds in the street a long time ago!”

“That guy’s gotten uglier since the last time I saw him.  He must be eating more salami.”

And, just for the record, they are considering lifting the recall because the validity of the reports has been questioned.  For more on that, here’s an actual English here.  But, for the time being, it’s resulted in some entertaining reactions from the Haitians that prove that they’re not going to take kaka from anybody!