Today, on the 3 year anniversary of the earthquake, I’m going to share with the readers of my blog an excerpt from my book, The Grinder. I usually keep this work pretty tightly protected, as it is yet to be published, but today, I want to share this part with those of you who read The Green Mango. The book is a collection of stories of Haitian survivors of the catastrophe woven into my own experience as we all search for meaning and hope during such an uncertain time. But this particular part is from a chapter entitled “Alphabet Soup” which is directly written about the relief efforts that have occurred in the country after the quake and I think it fits in with many of the themes I touch on in my blog. Note that this was actually written over a year ago. Enjoy.
There are certain countries that instill in their citizens a belief that, when they see a messy situation, their nationality has bought them the right to go get involved in making it messier. The single scariest thing in these situations is a bunch of people with good hearts wanting to help but absolutely no cultural knowledge or experience. Good intentions without an understanding of shared humanity are the cause of so many millions and even billions of dollars in aid going to waste as the victims’ dignity gets trampled along the way. The swoopers come in, spend a week, they sweat and they serve doing jobs that the Haitians could have done, then they take their photos back home to show everyone that donated how much “help” they provided. But the Haitians’ lives remain the same.
As they leave, those of us who live here frequently find ourselves shaking our heads and telling our Haitian friends, “Well their hearts were in the right place,” in an attempt to justify their ignorance and encourage the Haitians not to judge our whole country based on their misguided actions. We say their hearts were in the right place because we’re ashamed to admit that their minds are still unknowingly lost in ethnocentric perceptions of poverty.
The religious ones come in on a pretext of “helping the least of these” as if their intention is to degrade those who are implied to be less than they. Some higher power that allegedly equals love deemed these people “greater than” somewhere along the way and now whether it is their own savior complexes, or guilt, that drives them they come with a disconnected sense of pity that leaves no lasting impression on Haiti or its people. The non-religious ones come to prove that you don’t have to be religious to help the poor dirty brown folks. They come for the cheap sweet rum, the cheap sweet sex, or the cheap sweet beaches. They come because they’re disenchanted with life where they come from and end up here searching for some sort of meaning. The Haitians involuntarily become the extras in the movies that these people are writing in their minds about themselves. […]
[…]Even now, long after the quake, mouths continue to spout unnecessary assessments at the little country to try to quantify what all went wrong in the relief effort. They think they’re words are going to help turn things around but no matter what they say, it just seems to make things worse. Words like “mismanagement of funds,” “corrupt leaders,” “organizational mess,” and “wasted resources,” all try to define with language a situation that any Haitian can tell you defies language’s limits.
My friend Choumimi, who works as a police officer in Port-au-Prince, was very closely involved with all of these relief efforts, both national and external, because of his position. When I talked to him almost two years after the quake, his attitude towards everyone’s opinions on the failures of relief was basically, “Why can’t they just shut up and let us live? We were better off before and we know what we need.” He told me that all of these outsiders trying to fix things or trying to determine why things can’t be fixed were acting like doctors trying to treat a patient without ever asking the patient what’s wrong. “They’ve screwed up every chance that we had to ever recover.” He told me.
Choumimi gave me a clear example. He said that I could walk into his house and see him sitting at his table with all of the parts to a telephone sitting on the table in front of him. I could see that he clearly needs a telephone, and as chance would have it, I know exactly how to put a phone together from all of those pieces sitting in front of him. But, instead of showing him how to put the phone together, I just go out and buy him a new telephone instead. “What good does that do me?” Choumimi asked emphatically.
The cliché, “Give a man a fish…” may be used in any other situation but Choumimi’s parable was purely Haitian and spoke volumes to the current struggles that his country was experiencing. Well-meaning humanitarians who know thoroughly the trappings of creating dependency with top-down charity systems seem to lose their good sense in such a catastrophic emergency. They forget to practice everything that they preach and throw all the rules of sustainable development out the window as they kick into hero mode and bulldoze over a population’s right to creating their own solutions.
Haiti had all the resources that it needed at its fingertips to recover on its own. They could have rebuilt their own country. They may have appreciated some advice on how to put all of the pieces together but now they’ll never know how. A new country cannot be bought in the street, it must be rebuilt. But because of all of the promises of what billions of dollars could buy, they’ve lost faith in those resources that they had and been shown that they have no value. And that destruction of faith in one’s own self-worth, or collective worth as a country, is much more impossible to rebuild than buildings made of cement.
This isn’t all to say that foreigners shouldn’t come try to do good things in the country of Haiti. There is a lot to be done and as fellow human beings we all need to carry the load of our brothers and sisters together. We just need to be aware of how we do it as to not make the load heavier. Haiti’s back could easily break from the unbearable load of tents, tarps, clothes, and food dumped upon her. But those who come in with understanding, open minds and effective organizational planning, truly do have the potential to help relieve some of the stress that’s been put upon this abused little country.