Month: November 2012

Jacmel’s Cry for Justice

Fires burning in the streets, roads being blockaded, and citizens assembling together in protest.  Schools and businesses closed and parents afraid to let their children leave their home.  This is the situation in Jacmel the last couple of days and depending on where you’re looking from, things can seem pretty bleak.  A story from a news source that I generally respect, Haitilibre.com, starts off by describing the scene at hand in the city as “Desolation, sadness, fear, revolt”.  The article goes on to give an accurate account of the reasons behind the protests, but it paints a pretty hopeless picture of justice in Jacmel.  When the news broke and I started hearing about what was going on in the streets my first thought was, “Oh great, just when I’ve been trying to convince people just how safe Haiti is, they’ve gotta go and do something like this and prove me wrong.  Thanks a lot, Haiti.”

But as I’ve talked to friends of mine down there the last couple days and read more about the source of the problems, I’ve realized that my beloved Jacmeliennes have not, in fact proved me wrong, but are rather fighting to defend their right to be viewed as a safe and just society that will not surrender to the dangerous stereotypes that plague their country.  While hearing the accounts from the area the words that come to my mind to describe the situation are “Courageous, strength, community, and change.”

It all started when a local Agronomist was killed while trying to defend his 3-year-old nephew from kidnappers that had broken into their house.  The kidnappers escaped with the child and are now demanding ransom for his return.  The people of Jacmel, however are demanding justice calling on the national police to take action and rescue the child and make the criminals pay for the murder of the agronomist.  The entire city, whether they knew the victim or not, are standing up and making it known that they will not stand by idly while their community falls victim to crime and violence.  This is the Haiti that I know.  There may be a handful of wild ones who see kidnapping and crime as the only way to survive, but the other 9 million-plus citizens of the  country will do whatever they have to do to defend their dignity and protect their children against the deterioration of their society’s values.  This is not a population living in fear, this is a population that is fearless beyond belief.  This is a population that still has the same blood running through their veins as that of their slave ancestors who rose up to take their country away from the European colonists and claim control of their own futures.  The same ancestors who demanded to be treated as humans, as equals, and even as conquerors.  Now they’ve proven that they won’t stand for injustice, even if it comes from within their own culture.

I don’t believe, however, that this occurrence in Jacmel right now is completely the result of this one crime that was carried out early yesterday morning.  It seems like this kidnapping and murder may have just been the last straw to break the camel’s back, or mango to break the donkey’s back, as it may be.  There have been several crimes committed over the last few months in the Jacmel area that have gone unaddressed by the authorities, and I think that with this most recent one the people probably just reached the tipping point where they collectively, organically, decided that they would take it no more.

This is not a culture that passively waits for justice to appear from somewhere, it’s a culture of action.  And their devotion to their values is undeniable.  Even last week, in my home community of LaVallee, the people collectively protested the inaction of the government in repairing the bridge over the river that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy.  They refuse to be ignored when those in power prefer to focus on other things.  They blocked roads and interrupted transportation to shed light on this essential intervention that their community depended on.

Whether it’s crying out for security against the threat of violence and crime or demanding attention to bring vital infrastructure, Haiti will not let her voice go unheard.  At a time when I could be ashamed, afraid, or concerned for my friends in Jacmel, I find myself with a sense of pride for their bravery instead.  For the families of the victims of the crimes, and for the community as a whole, I hope that they get the results they are searching for.  I will continue to follow their fight for peace knowing that a brighter future is inevitable as long as they continue to stand together.

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Some Refreshing Videos

So I know that I often get very critical of things here on my blog, but every once in a while a breath of fresh air comes along from somewhere in the aid world from a group of people working to change perceptions.  I recently came across some videos that are worth sharing from an organization called Mama Hope from their campaign titled, “Stop the Pity.  Unlock the Potential.”  If you look at the actual projects that they carry out, they are not that earth-shatteringly unique, but their approach to marketing and awareness within a humanitarian structure is fresh and encouraging.  It gives me hope that the current is shifting  little by little in how we portray people of developing nations.  I don’t have the actual ability to embed these videos in my blog, but please visit the links.  You’ll be glad you did.  They will bring a smile to your face and hopefully inspire you to look at our world in a new light.

African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes

Alex Presents: Commando

Call Me Hope

I’m jealous that I don’t have the technical abilities within my organization right now to make videos like this because I think they’ve definitely got the right ideas.  Mama Hope works exclusively in Africa, with their videos identifiably African, but they expose a reality within the charity world in general of how people are portrayed for the sake of fundraising, or even for entertainment, as discussed in some of my past posts in relation to Haiti.  It’s a discussion that needs to be had, which is why I have my blog, to hopefully pull more people into the discussion and present all sides to some very complex stories.  The side represented in these videos needs emphasized more and I will continue to share examples of beauty like this as I find them.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Thoughts on Dangerous Grounds

I’ve come to expect irrelevant concerns from the US State Department about the safety issues that exist in Haiti.  They haven’t updated their information since the Tonton Macoutes and for some reason just don’t want people to travel to Haiti at all.  So they pretty much guarantee that any foreigner traveling there will get kidnapped, mugged, deathly ill, or killed.  That’s just how it is and you just come to hope that people wanting to come won’t read that website and will draw their own conclusions based on their experience.  However, I expected more from the Travel Channel.

Last week they debuted their new series entitled “Dangerous Grounds” which follows coffee tycoon Todd Carmichael as he travels to “some of the most dangerous places on the planet” to discover the best coffee on the planet.  So of course, where do they have their season premier?  In the most dangerous place of them all, Haiti.

First of all, what I like about this is that it gets the word out about Haiti’s incredible coffee.  Haiti does have the best coffee on the planet and it has gone far too unrecognized for far too long.  So, thanks Todd Carmichael for that.  However, the host and producers of the show seem to think that it’s necessary to sacrifice cultural accuracy at the expense of the people’s dignity in order to get that message out about the delicious coffee.  I understand that the premise of the show is to show the swashbuckling adventure that is the coffee business and in order to make the show as thrilling as possible they have to make the situations seem as threatening as possible.  Otherwise they’d have to just title the show “Exotic Grounds” or  “Tasty Grounds” or “Really Far Away Grounds”.  Not quite as intriguing, I suppose.

In the show’s introduction you feel like Carmichael is actually reading straight from the State Department website about all of the dangers that lurk all around in the Haitian streets.  In the first 5 minutes while riding in the back of a truck through Port-au-Prince he describes Haiti as a “category 5” country, the most dangerous.  “This is Afghanistan.  This is Somalia.” he says.  “This is anarchy.  It doesn’t get any worse than this.”  Hectic, confused, crowded, I could accept.  But anarchy?  C’mon.  And I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Somalia, but last I heard there was a war going on in Afghanistan, so just because there’s lots of people, noise, and trash around you doesn’t mean you’re in the middle of a war.  Let’s search for a more accurate comparison if we’re going to broadcast this on television.

But then, he goes and talks to a wealthy Haitian friend of his who is involved in the coffee trade who warns him to wear a bulletproof vest because he actually is “going into war”.  “So I’m gonna get shot at?” Carmichael asked nervously.  And the camera shot leaves the implication that there is simply no way you can find good coffee in the country without getting shot at.  Spoiler alert:  He never gets shot at.

As they head off on their mission for the best coffee, they stop by a market in Port-au-Prince where Carmichael purchases 2 pounds of coffee which he pointed out was clearly rotten but bought because he didn’t want to offend the vendor.  After he’s got the coffee, he and his one cameraman have to hightail it out of the market to escape an impending riot.  The only evidence of this riot however is the words of Carmichael as they run out of the market and seek safety next to a UN vehicle.  How did they know that a riot was going to break out?  Because more and more Haitians were quickly crowding around them and their fancy equipment.  It couldn’t possibly be because that markets in Haiti are just that busy and crowded?  I can understand that they were uncomfortable, but probably not in danger.  The biggest problem is that Carmichael and his crew didn’t have any local Haitians to guide and translate for them through their experience who would be able to interpret such situations in a cultural light to show the real level of danger or safety involved.

After that they head off into the mountains where the James Bond of Coffee claims the best stuff is found in the highest altitudes.  Along the way Carmichael will stop along the road and pick coffee fruit off of trees right from his driver seat and go onto farmer’s property to taste the fruit right off the branch.  Haiti is not, in general, a dangerous place, but I can tell you that one good way to put yourself in danger is by stealing and trespassing.  But that’s true anywhere.  When the crew winds up in the middle of nowhere one night they end up sleeping underneath their truck to prevent it from being stolen or stripped, which they claimed would be inevitable.  Again, had they had a trustworthy guide who spoke the language and knew the culture, they could have easily found a decent place to sleep and park the vehicle overnight no matter where they were.

But part of what makes the show entertaining is actually watching Carmichael fumble through communication with the Haitian merchants and farmers and people walking through the streets with his very Frenchy-French.  The type of French that only government employees, NGO representatives, and professors ever use in the country.  They type of French that only brings blank looks to the faces of merchants, farmers, and people in the streets because it’s the language of the elite, not the language of the people.  Towards the end of the hour-long show Carmichael does find the coffee that he’s looking for, but of course their lives are in danger when approaching the farmer about his coffee because he was holding a machete.  And the only thing that machetes are ever used for is apparently killing people.  Every farmer that I know in Haiti is carrying a machete with them 90% of the time.  And they’re some of the least dangerous people on the planet, despite this show’s allegations.  Least dangerous.  They are in fact the ones growing some of the best coffee on the planet.  And I think that the Travel Channel would do well to do its homework and portray the populations that they enter with more authenticity and accuracy, for the sake of the people there but also for travelers and coffee lovers everywhere.

10 Things that will SAVE Haiti (Not Really)

As soon as we get a good idea of how to help people we tend to really exaggerate exactly how much good our idea will do.  In that spirit, here is a list of 10 things that may not be intrinsically bad ideas, but can become absurd really quick when we pretend that they are going to single-handedly fix everything that’s wrong with a country.You know things like a quality President, a strong infrastructure, or an effective education system are important, but what we really need is…

1.  Soccer Balls

This is why I chose to make this list, because of an article that I recently read about a new type of soccer ball that has been developed out of hard foam for use in underdeveloped nations and how it was being toted as a “lifesaver”.  I love soccer and do believe in it’s value in building community, but let’s not get dramatic over the potential of a single style of soccer ball to save the world.  I devote a good amount of my time in Haiti to soccer and surrounding myself with people who like to talk about soccer and how to make it better in our community.  And not once has anyone said, “Man, if we just had a different ball, I don’t think children would ever cry in our community again.”  The article that I read by Tate Watkins on the issue also illuminated something that frustrates me which is the exploitation of celebrity status for the sake of good doing, which is something that I will discuss further at the end of this list.  But the fact that this whole new soccer ball has been glorified much because of a chance encounter with Sting, makes my eyes roll even farther back in my head.  The old soccer balls are not that expensive, and do not pop every day, so let’s just stick with them and focus our innovation elsewhere for now.  On the list of most immediate needs facing Haitian society, unsatisfactory soccer balls is at the bottom, if it makes the list at all.

2.  New Cook Stoves

During my time living and working in Haiti, I’ve come across different charities promoting any number of different clean cook stoves for the people of Haiti to use as an alternative to charcoal cooking or the three stone open fires that so many use.  There are solar ovens, there are rocket stoves, there are lots of different ideas to address this problem, and I always applaud innovative problem solving.  But we have to put ourselves in the shoes of those people that we expect to receive and use these things.  And they think something like this, “Why don’t you help us to get electricity in our home so that we can use a real stove instead?  Why don’t you help us make some income so that we can purchase a real stove on our own?  You know, like the one you use in your home, because you would never use one of these things unless you were camping, which is apparently a thing in your culture, camping.”  I think these questions are reasonable.  Why aren’t we thinking towards those sorts of results instead of trying to sell them the idea of some sad imposter of a stove, is that all that they deserve?

3.  Styrofoam Houses

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is no more vile substance on the face of the earth than Styrofoam.  I have always believed it to be the most evil invention since cavemen began chiseling away at the wheel.  Aside from my personal repulsion for the stuff, however, I still cannot understand the trend that is gaining popularity in the charity in Haiti world to build homes out of the same stuff that they put take out in to send home to your refrigerator.  I do understand that from an engineering standpoint, the method of using what is called Nudura block, is a sound construction method, however, my distaste for this intervention in Haiti is for similar reasons as the cook stoves.  Haitians never asked for new construction methods, and certainly not ones that cost more and take more time, as this method does.  If you read my post on 6 Things Haitians Can Do you know how I feel about this subject.  If we want to create better construction solutions for the people of Haiti, why do we think we need to invent completely new technologies when their existing methods just need some minor tweaking to produce the same results?  We need to look at what’s available locally first and foremost and decide how we can encourage local innovation, local materials, and local skills.  And whatever we decide to do, we should never ever do it with Styrofoam, no matter where we are in the world or what we’re trying to accomplish.

4.  TOMS Shoes

Recently named by New York Magazine as one of the 50 Ugliest Shoes in History, they were described as looking like “a bandage stitched to an eraser”.  If their ugliness wasn’t reason enough that they should never be given to anyone for any reason, they also have been given to people in poverty all over the globe under the guise of charity but have been proven to actually have a negative impact on local economies.  With a “get one, give one” philosophy, for every pair that is bought by a hipster or a hippie in a developed country, they give one pair to a poor person in an underdeveloped country.  But they don’t just give, they “dump”.  I think I speak for most humans when I say that I don’t ever want anything to be dumped on me unless it’s cold, hard cash.  It’s demeaning enough that you think I’m poor enough that I need your ugly charity shoes, but you emphasize that you view me as lower than you by dumping them upon me.  Also, I’ve seen these shoes be distributed in Haiti and it was a frustrating process to watch because, as long as they get to a poor country, they don’t seem to care who gets them.  Because as long as you’re in a poor country like Haiti, you must need some TOMS shoes.  I even got offered a pair but they didn’t send any big enough for my feet.

5.  Rubber Bracelets

How do people still think these are a good idea?  No surprise that the guys from 1Dollar Poverty are using them as their primary tool in their misguided awareness campaign.  Ask Lance Armstrong, The people behind Kony 2012, and Evangelical Christians how well bracelets went for them.  There’s still cancer, child soldiers in central Africa, and no one knows yet what Jesus would really do.  And any progress that’s been made on any of these fronts can’t be accredited to the thousands and millions of bracelets that money has gone into producing.  The progress can be accredited to science, effective national and political intervention for peace, and ordinary human beings deciding to live lives of love and justice.  Don’t get me wrong, I sell bracelets when I’m promoting work being done in Haiti, but I sell locally made bracelets without any pretense of them turning the buyer into a superhero.  I sell them because they look cool and the artists in Haiti that made them need to make some money.  Awareness bracelets, on the other hand, are not answers for anything.

6.  Solar Gadgets

Again, refer to #2.  Why don’t they just deserve electricity?  The more we try to provide them with things that can work without electricity, the more we are prolonging the urgency to actually get them electricity.  Haiti doesn’t need more solar gadgets, it needs extensive investment in infrastructure that will provide the basic services such as energy to the whole country.  I know this is not as easy.  I know that it’s something that none of us can do on our own, but we can buy a solar flashlight, or solar phone charger, or solar shower, or solar oven to donate to a Haitian.  But the most sustainable solution never is the easiest or the one that makes us, the donors, feel the best about ourselves.

7.  Bibles

I actually think Bibles are great ideas to give to Haitians because most Haitians are Christian and would love a Bible in their own language but can never find one to buy locally.  If you’re looking for a nice gift to give to a Haitian friend, a Creole Bible is a great idea.  But it’s just that, a nice gift.  It’s not a solution to any greater societal problem.  Most of the people in Haiti already know more of the Bible by heart than you ever will, so it’s really not going to change the way that they live all that much.  If you want to get theological, God will take care of the way they live, with or without your gift of a Bible, because that’s what he’s been doing for centuries of Haitian Christians without Bibles already.  So, that’s why Bibles makes this list.  It’s a nice gift, but it’s not going to save the country.  And for that reason, you should probably not ever fill your suitcase with them if you’re packing to come to Haiti.  Besides, the overweight chargers would be killer.

8. Coffee

In the next couple days I’m going to be posting a whole post specifically about this because there’s a new TV show that’s got me a little hot.  But for the sake of this list, suffice it to say that I think coffee could play a great role in the economic growth of Haiti.  Two hundred years ago Haiti was the #2 largest producer of coffee in the world.  It’s the only place in the world where I’ll actually drink coffee.  I hate it anywhere else, but it’s so good in Haiti that I can’t make it through the day without some.  However, it’s still coffee.  And the problems facing Haiti’s economy are going to take a lot more than some magic beans to be resolved.  Stay tuned for more on this in the next couple days.

9.  Crazy Crops

Foreigners are always trying to introduce new wonderful crops to Haiti such as moringa (the miracle tree) and amaranth, but find very little success.  Primarily because, as with most things, Haitians never asked for these new crops.  And why would Haitians ever ask for new crops like this when they already have some of the greatest variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains that they grow, and have grown for generations in their soil?  Trying to show them these new crops will never make up for us screwing over their rice production years ago.  And everyone knows that these things we try to convince them to grow are known worldwide as poor people plants.  If they were actually a good idea farmers in Iowa and Nebraska would be growing hundreds of acres of amaranth and moringa.  So when the soil in Haiti can grow almost any crop known to man, why would we try to make them grown these poverty crops?  Because our ideas are always better?  Because our ideas are always better.  They don’t need new crops, just like they don’t need different soccer balls,  just like they don’t need new cooking technologies, just like they don’t need new construction methods.

10.  Sean Penn

This is actually the one thing on the list that might potentially work.  But I hate that  it might actually work.  I give Sean Penn a ton of credit for everything that he’s done in Haiti, and agree with a lot, not all, of his methods.  If it wasn’t for his group, after all, the National Palace would still be in a huge depressing pile of rubble.  What I hate is that it takes Sean Penn to exploit his celebrity to actually get this amount of work done in helping Haiti to recover.  I hate that we live in a world where that is the only way to make any progress.  It’s not that Penn is any more knowledgeable in development or economics or anything.  On the contrary, there are plenty of people much more qualified and experienced in these areas who would love to have the connections and the resources that Penn has to work with, but can’t throw their names around like an Oscar winner to bring sustainable development to a country.   But at the same time, Penn is not the only celebrity that’s claimed to want to help Haiti, he’s just the only one that’s actually followed through on his claims.  There are plenty of other celebrities whose good intentions have gone terribly bad and their famous interventions have met with infamous failure (I’m looking at you, Wyclef).  If nothing else, if it takes someone like Sean Penn to keep Haiti in the news, then I’m thankful.  At least people pay attention then.

Melt II

I was going to take a little time before revisiting the issue of race, but then “that black man” won re-election and it stirred up a lot of race -based talk on social media, which has stirred up a lot more motivation for me to write.  A lot of people trying to declare what is and is not racism and who is and is not racist and what the relevance of it all is in our “modern” society.  And as I’ve thought about what my reaction to all this discourse is, I keep thinking about an interaction that I had with a Haitian family here in Savannah last week.

I was thrilled when I heard that there was actually a Haitian restaurant here in Savannah and I got the chance last week to go check it out.  I went in the middle of the afternoon to try to avoid their busy times so that I could hopefully talk to the owners some.  When they found out that I had lived in Haiti and spoke Creole, the owner and head cook brought out my meal of goat and rice and then proceeded to sit down in the booth across from me to chat while I ate my meal.  He and his wife ran the restaurant with their adult daughter working there with them also.

The first thing that I noticed about the place was that there was nothing to identify it as uniquely “Haitian”.  The name was Best Caribbean Cuisine and everything on the menu was described either as Caribbean or Creole, but the word Haitian never appeared.  Even the art on the walls was the typical touristy island crap that you’d find while going on any cheap cruise.  I asked the owner about this and he said that people view anything from Haiti as being lower quality, because it’s hard to believe anything can be good coming from a place where everyone is so poor.  But the Caribbean is seen as exotic and exiting so it’s much better for business if they market their food in that way.  This, in itself, is a sad commentary on our society, but it’s not the point of this particular post.

I continued speaking with him and asked if there was much of a Caribbean population here in Savannah that they were integrated into.  That’s when his wife chimed in from over behind the cash register.  What she had to say really blew my mind.  She said that they had a lot of trouble finding respect within any group here in Savannah because the other Caribbean immigrants looked down on them because they were from Haiti, the “ghetto” of the Caribbean.  Other black Americans hated them because they were from an impoverished country, which they perceive to bring them preferential treatment from Caucasians who have a tendency to coddle immigrants from poor countries, and yet those same Caucasians can’t afford their black neighbors who have been in the country for generations with equal consideration.  But the wife said that the Caucasians just throw them into that stereotyped “poor immigrant basket” without ever trying to understand where they actually come from  or caring about what they are trying to do currently as members of their own community.

I didn’t even know how to respond to all of this.  “So you’re pretty much just screwed all around?”  I said.  They looked at each other shaking their heads in agreement and then the husband told me that they felt really all they could do was focus on running their business well and loving each other because there was no one else to really understand them.  There are just so many layers influencing the way that we allow race to affect our interactions that none of us could ever really fully put ourselves in the other one’s shoes to know how if feels.  Yet at the same time, I think we all need to be aware of how complex racism can be to those who experience it.

So what does this all have to do with yesterday’s election and some of the comments coming out of it?  Maybe nothing specifically, I’ve just heard some people being accused of being racist because they were so angry that Obama won and I’ve heard some of those same people, and some others defending themselves as not being racist for some pretty absurd reasons.  I’m not saying that any of these people are or aren’t racist, but I do think that my experience with the family in the restaurant proves a couple of things that are worth pointing out.  First of all, it’s not only white people that discriminate based on race.  It’s not near as simple as just a black vs. white issue.  Not only because this country’s much more than just black and white, but because race is so much more than just the color of one’s skin.  I’ll confess that I sometimes have very negative thoughts about white people with no other evidence than their whiteness (probably not hard to believe if you’ve read some of my other posts) and I’m white.  This also means that you can’t denounce a group’s accused racism just because there are people of different races in the group.  Race is skin deep but racism exists in the minds of mankind and it can coax any of us into drawing those dangerous lines that argue “you” are not “me”.

Secondly, just because you’re nice to someone with a different color skin than you doesn’t mean you’re not a racist.  It might actually be the most condescending thing possible if you presume that someone needs your help because of their skin color.  Some of the most racist-minded people in contemporary society are the ones who give money to missions at their church or donate to aid campaigns as ways to prove that they care for the poor dirty brown folks.  Sorry to put it this way, but that’s how it comes off sometimes, and how it is interpreted by the beneficiaries no matter how good-hearted the intentions were.  If you think that you’re not racist because of the various charities, community programs, or global ministries that you’re involved in, then you’re probably involved in them for the wrong reasons to start with because it should have nothing to do with race.  Even preferential treatment based on race is a form of racism.  Reaching out to our brothers and sisters and children on this planet should be about seeking justice for those whose souls are naturally connected to our own.  If we’re trying to fix problems of others that we’ve defined from our own contextualized worldview because we’ve deemed them not just different, but less fortunate, then we’ve got it all wrong.  And all too often race seems to be the easiest defining factor that those decisions are based on.

I don’t want to go too far down this path because I could write forever on these things.  It’s far too complex for even a couple of blog posts to adequately illuminate.  But for now I’ll let these observations stand to represent my current feelings on these current issues.  And if you’re ever in the Savannah, GA, area, make sure to go eat at  Best Caribbean Cuisine on Hodgson Memorial Drive.  Tell em Lee sent ya.

Melt

It’s been little over a month since I’ve moved back to this country that many like to refer to as “The Melting Pot”.  There’s a fondue restaurant down the street from me here in Savannah called The Melting Pot, but the racial dimensions defining our interactions in this country certainly haven’t melted as well as fondue.  Others have called this good old US of A a toss salad or a mosaic instead suggesting that there are all of these cultures in the same place but not melted together.  These terms try to express the reality that assimilation really can never take place when immigration happens and people maintain many facets of their original cultures.  I like the idea of remembering where you came from and adding to our collective culture as a nation, but I still don’t feel like this adequately describes where we are as a population.  I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the lines that separate us all racially here in the USA as I try to get used to living here once again as a member of the ethnic majority.

But before I go forward discussing this country, let me go back for a moment to where I just came from.  In my community in Haiti I was clearly the minority.  In a community of over 17,000 people, most of the time I was the only white person that lived there.  There have been a few more that have moved in, but there’s never been more than 5 Caucasians stable there at any time.  I was clearly in the smallest minority group present, but that didn’t necessarily mean that I was part of the weakest group.  By showing up there with my skin color and nationality, I was automatically afforded with a sense of power, not because of my own actions, but because of the history of the culture I was entering.  This is a power that many foreigners unknowingly abuse when entering Haiti which results in some of the effects that I’ve discussed in previous posts in how we view those living in poverty.  This is why, for myself I still had to work hard to gain respect in my community in Haiti, and to prove that I  could work with the majority despite my race that would historically suggest exploitation and misunderstanding.  When a minority enters the US, however, the opposite happens where ethnic minorities coming into this country get neglected, marginalized, and pushed aside to a place where they feel they have no value in the society and they have to struggle endlessly to get their voice heard.

“Yeah, but we have a black president,” you might say.  That proves our country’s not racist, right?  We’ve got a black man in the highest position of power possible, so we don’t really need to debate race anymore, right?  Well let me tell you a little story…

I was in my hometown in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and went out to eat at the local bar with my parents.  It just so happened to be one of the nights of the presidential debates and that was playing on the television in the bar when we walked in.  There was only one other man in the bar besides the two women who worked there so we sat at a booth where I thought I’d be able to hear the debate while we ate.  After we’d been there a while and one of the bartenders came over to give us refills my Mom said to her, “You know, I think we should have the next presidential debate right here in your bar.”  The bartender’s sincere response was, “Vickie, I’d sure be happy to host them here, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think that black man would make it through my front door without getting shot by someone.”

Now I love where I come from in small town Iowa, but unfortunately I knew that bartender wasn’t joking.  And I know that my hometown isn’t the only place like that, nor the worst, in the country.  My point, however, is not that racism still exists in this country.  I’m not the one to speak on that.  There are plenty of other people who can share personal experiences to prove that reality.  But what I’m having trouble adjusting to is the fact that yes, technically, we don’t discriminate based on race on things like jobs or education or whatnot.  On paper, we provide all the same official opportunities to people of all races here, but for some reason, we can’t get to a point where we rise above allowing racial identity to determine the way we think about and interact with each other.

I am living now in a place that is truly quite racially diverse.  Yet I walk down the street and everyone is still grouped by races.  I walk into a restaurant, same thing.  Every part of our lives are still stereotypically marketed to different racial groups based on style – music, religion, fashion, even food is all divided into different types that are deemed appropriate for a certain ethnic group over the next.  We may not have official discrimination anymore, and we may share restrooms with each other, but we certainly haven’t been able to overcome social segregation.  We are a nation addicted to maintaining our lines that define “us” from “them”.  We are not truly interested in melting.

This is by far the most difficult thing to get used to here.  But it’s something that I’m not sure I want to or even should get used to.  Sure, in Haiti anyone that didn’t know me would yell “Blan, Blan!” at me in the street, usually followed by some racist comment about money or khaki pants.  But there I just yell an insult back at them and then moments later we’re best friends.  I honestly have never felt that racist comments in Haiti are usually mean spirited they’re simply a test to see if you’re willing to understand them and where they’re coming from.  Because the racist negativity in Haiti comes from a very painful past, but once you acknowledge that, melting happens much quicker.  In the US however, everyone is aware of our racial issues from the past but we still seem incapable of ever truly melting into authentic relationships with people who are seen as different as we are.  It’s because we’ve made race a thing here.  I just wish it wasn’t a thing.

I’ve got more I’d like to write about this issue, but I’ll leave it for another post another day.  For now I’ll just keep walking through these streets, walking along these lines we draw.

Thoughts on 1 Dollar Poverty

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about this statistic that over 60% of Haitians live on less than $1 a day, and how misleading that figure is in describing the way that Haitians live.  Well since then I’ve learned about a group of young American men who want to help Haiti and not only site this statistic when giving background on Haiti, but they’ve built their entire movement upon the statistic.  They’ve founded an organization, produced a short documentary, and began an awareness campaign because of this statistic.  You can view the YouTube video here.  But go read my recent post first if you haven’t yet.  I share their video with hesitation because I hate to play a role in even perpetrating the narrow perspective that they encourage.  After learning about Haiti and seeing the images after the earthquake, the filmmakers decided to “live like the Haitian people, on 1 US dollar a day.”  The four young men spend 28 days living in a tent in Port-au-Prince following 6 absurd self imposed rules that any Haitian would laugh at such as “no toiletries” and “only two sets of clothing”.  The result is a cliche, highly inaccurate look at poverty that paints the American young men as heroes for their sacrifice.

Anyone who doesn’t like the things I write in my blog, will probably love this video.  Haitians, however, seem to hate it just about as much as I do.  I learned about the video through a blog by Tate Watkins who talked to several Haitians who had watched the video and criticized it pretty harshly, calling it “well-meaning but stupid,” “egocentric,” and “insulting.”  Tate wrote a really good review of the video on his blog, and I don’t need to repeat what he said, but you can read his post here.

I do want to point out a few specific things from the video that particularly struck me as going against everything that I know about Haitians.  First off, with no toiletries they remark multiple times in the video how disgusting they felt, the insinuation being that Haitians must feel like that everyday.  They noted how crappy they smelt, and how nasty their teeth were with a think film on them.  Every Haitian that I know bathes at least once a day with soap and puts on deodorant and cologne or perfume afterwords.  They take smelling good very seriously.  My roommates, for example, in Haiti, during certain times of the year when they are working in the fields in the morning, going to school or work during the day, and playing soccer in the evening, will bathe at least 3 times a day.  This also means wearing at least 3 or 4 different sets of clothing each day, each set (except for the field work clothes) being clean, fashionable, and well fitting.  Which proves how silly the American’s in this video 2 sets of clothing rule is.  Which, if you watch the video, you’ll also notice that the guys hardly ever even wear their shirts during the span of the entire 28-minute video.  Even though they are always in the middle of a large group of Haitians who are always clothed head to toe, they think that living in 1 dollar poverty means that they don’t have to wear shirts.  Do they really not notice that they are the only ones without their shirts on?  At the end of the video they use their shirtlessness as a way to show how much weight they each lost in 28 days.  There’s no Haitian that I know that would ever let a guest in their country lose that much weight that quickly.  Of course, since these guys had a rule not to accept any free food, they just became the martyrs in the story.  As I watched the video I could imagine what the Haitians were saying about them, because I’ve heard what they’ve said to other Americans with similar attitudes.  And that made me smile.  If nothing else these guys gave the Haitians in their neighborhood a lot of good jokes to tell to each other.

Once they returned to the US, these four young men established an organization which has done some seemingly good projects in Haiti like build a school and support an orphanage, but it begs me to ask the question, “Why do we feel like we have to misrepresent the reality of poverty in order to improve it?”  Just as much good can be done, and I’d argue far more, by being authentic to the way that Haitians view themselves.  When the awareness is born out of a local perspective, the scope of the intended aid can be multiplied by maintaining the dignity of those involved.

With all of that being said, on a slightly different note, but same subject, I have a few more photos that I want to share.  After writing that last post on the people who live on less than a dollar a day, then living here in this land obsessed with our pop culture, I decided to modify my photos of Haitians a little.  So here are three new images for your enjoyment: