Month: February 2013

Immune to Caring

Last month in Jacmel I got to relive the terror that is an army of overweight, East Asian UN soldiers swarming my Caucasian body for meaningless photos at the beach like a bunch of drunk frat boys on Spring Break.  I had spent an enjoyable afternoon chillin under the palm trees with my friends and had just gone to the other end of the beach to take a pee but I didn’t even make it before the security forces were upon me to snap selfies with me.  Roll my eyes, don’t crack a smile, and get it over with.  It’s not a secret that I don’t like these UN guys much, especially at the beach, but in general, in the country.  But this week the UN has given me reason to like them even less.

I know it’s not these goon’s on beach fault that over 8,000 of the Haitians that they’re supposed to be protecting died of cholera, but it is the fault of their Nepalese friends up in Mirebalais.  It’s been proven and widely accepted that it was those UN soldiers who were responsible for the contamination of the water source that led to the epidemic that caused all those deaths and infected hundreds of thousands more across the country.  It’s been widely accepted by almost absolutely everyone except the UN.  And yet these soldiers still get to show up at the beach and have a good time in their vehicles with the UN logo and their uniforms with the UN logo and their atrocious shiny speedos.  I understand that there’s not much a country or the population can do against an institution as powerful as the UN, but couldn’t we at least revoke their beach rites?  Maybe we can’t throw them all in prison, but couldn’t we at least prevent anyone bearing that logo from ever getting to enjoy themselves within the country?

This, however, is a distant dream in itself because this week Ban Ki-moon announced that Haiti will not even be receiving an apology, compensation, or even an acknowledgement from the UN for the act or accident that caused the cholera outbreak.  He let the world know that they accept no responsibility for the lives lost or the pain and illness caused all over the country.  Why?  Because they’re the UN dammit and they can do what they want.  A convention back in 1947 granted them immunity for the effects of any of their actions.   So they are apparently above the law or any sort of accountability for their actions whatsoever.  Or at least when the victims are just a bunch of poor Haitians.  Of course it’s not the UN’s fault for dumping their shit in the river, it’s the Haitian’s fault for not washing their hands enough.

If an institution was responsible for that many deaths anywhere else in the world, we would demand justice.  The world would be outraged.  But in Haiti, it seems like this defiant abuse of power by the UN will go unchallenged.  Haitians are always dying of something weird anyway, right?  If it wasn’t cholera, it would have been malaria, or typhoid, or AIDS, or infected paper cuts, so why make a big deal about it all?  The UN now gets to decide who’s disposable.  And they’ve chosen Haiti.

The people of Haiti, however, have felt this attitude from the world since long before the Cholera outbreak.  In the first days after the earthquake in January 2010, while aftershocks were still upsetting the ground at intervals throughout the days, and everyone was still unsure about what was actually going on, many Haitians were believing some theories that were being spread that they were actually under attack.  The claim was that the US or some other affluent war hungry country was testing some sort of super bombs in the ocean and they had to choose someone to sacrifice for the sake of their weapons testing, so they chose Haiti.  And that was the cause of the quake.  Now obviously, this seems far fetched from our perspective, but it showed what Haitians believed about what the rest of the world thought of them.  They have been convinced that they are disposable, expendable, and altogether worthless in the eyes of the more powerful countries in this world.  And although eventually education spread about earthquakes as unpredictable natural disasters, there are still some Haitians who believe it was all some sort of conspiracy.  But that feeling of exploitation, of being considered trash, less than human; that feeling remains.  And this week the UN proved that they plan to perpetuate that attitude toward the Haitian people.  The UN is god and Haitians are nothing but vermin under their feet.

Sure they keep making sure everyone knows just how committed they are to seeing cholera eradicated in Haiti, but they won’t admit that it’s their fault in the first place.  It’s not so noble to try to clean up a mess that you made in the first place, it’s your responsibility.  But this isn’t just a mess, it’s lives that have been lost.  And the UN may be immune, but they’re not fooling anyone by hiding behind that immunity.  Simply owning up to their mistake would be a huge gift to the Haitian people, but apparently even that is asking too much.

So yeah, maybe I can’t do anything about it, Ban Ki-moon, except write about how disgusted I am over it all.  But don’t expect me to take anymore photos with your soldiers next time I see them at the beach either.  So there.

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Car Troubles

In Haiti I own quite possibly the most unreliable car on the planet.  It’s a 95 Nissan Pathfinder, green, extra crazy little yellow lights on the front bumper.  When I brought it home a year ago a good friend told me that it was exactly the car she would expect me to buy.  Since that day I have driven it maybe a total of 5 times without it breaking down on me.  I’ve had it repaired about 50 times, I tried to return it and resell it, I’ve even had mystics try to remove evil spirits from under the hood because it’s obviously cursed.  And yet, for a while when I was living in Haiti I would drive it quite frequently, knowing each time that I got in it that it undoubtedly would break down on me along the way and I would lose time out of my day having someone repair it.

In the US, I have an extremely reliable vehicle.  My parents’ old, white 98 Dodge Caravan minivan which is perfect for hauling around paintings or living out of like a bum.  It’s got approximately 3 trillion miles on the odometer and every day I put more on.  It’s never given me any serious trouble in all of my years of driving it, until last week when the alternator went out while I was driving north on I-95 through southern Georgia.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not much of a car guy, despite Dad’s best efforts in teaching me, I never was able to capture much about car care beyond filling up with gas and checking the oil.  And even on those things, I usually choose to test the gods rather than trust the gauges.  So last week when the minivan just sputtered to a stop on the busy interstate, I was really a fish out of water feeling quite lost.  Because not only am I an idiot under the hood, but I am also very inexperienced in having to deal with situations like that at all in this country of the United States.

So after having sat on the side of the road for a while racking my brain for what to do, I remembered that I had State Farm insurance on the vehicle, so I sang the song like they do in the commercials and waited for an agent to appear in a magical puff of smoke to solve all of my problems.  None appeared.  So then what did I do?  Well, I did the only thing that I know how to do in those situations, I called my best friends in Haiti.  I called Papi and Berthony, the two guys that I never leave home without in Haiti.  The two guys who are always there to solve my problems and help get me out of any messes that I make for myself.  I called them each one after the other but both conversations went about the same once I explained to them my predicament.

“Well if I was there with you I’d have fixed it already and we’d be on our way.”  They told me.

“Yes, I know.”  I would respond.  “I wish you were here.”

“Well what you doing driving by yourself anyway?  Didn’t you have anyone to go where you’re going with you?”

“No, that’s just what we do in the US.  We drive places, often by ourselves.  Sometimes very long distances, by ourselves.”

“I just don’t get your country.”

No, me either.  In our country you can put your faith in a machine and know that even if something goes wrong, we have systems that allow you to solve the problem all by yourself.  But in Haiti you can have an absolute piece of junk vehicle that you can’t trust at all, but you still drive it everyday because you have complete faith in the community that surrounds you and know that whatever problems you encounter, someone will be there to help you solve them or to solve them for you.  If my car dies in Haiti (when my car dies in Haiti) usually one of the other many people that I have with me in the car will be able to fix the problem by themselves so we can carry on.  It may be fixed with a tin can they find on the side of the road and a piece of string that they find on an abandoned kite, but it’ll work to get us at least to a repair shop.  And even if no one in my car can fix the problem, chances are that within a matter of minutes someone else that I know or even that I don’t know will pass by and stop to help and end up fixing it for us.  And even then if no one passes by, no matter where I may be in the country, someone in the car has a cousin who lives just down the road who knows how to fix cars.  When you live in a place like that, you never have anything to worry about no matter how crappy your car is.

It’s just not the same here.  I sat there on the side of I-95 for over 2 hours with the hood up, obviously needing some help, but with thousands of people passing by, I knew no one would stop to even ask if I needed help.  Not in this country.  And that’s such a lonely feeling.  But it’s a feeling that I feel frequently while in the USA that of being surrounded by people yet by yourself.  When you’re in need you know there are people within reach who could help you, yet you’re all on your own.  We work hard to get ahead, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we be all we can be.  But we never experience an authentic sense of community where survival is a group effort and one’s happiness and success cannot be determined without considering those around him.  It’s something that we actually seem to thrive on here in the states but in Haiti you would have to search like hell to find that feeling and once you did find it you would discover just how miserable of a place it really is.

I think this is why I enjoy working with Haitians in the environment of a nonprofit organization, because when there’s a problem in the road, when something breaks down, they understand that we’re all in this together.  There’s always someone in the car or someone on the road to help you fix it.  As Americans we like to place the blame somewhere and we like to identify the source of the problem.  Haitians will patch up the problem and keep moving down the road.  Living in Haiti there’s no proverb you’ll hear more often than, “Men anpil, chay pa lou.” Many hands make the load lighter.  And I know that even within the organization, if I break down on the road, they’re always there to help carry the load and keep on moving towards our destination.

I did eventually get my Caravan fixed.  I was able to find a tow truck and get to a repair shop where I paid lots of money to get it going.  And by the next day I was back in the driver’s seat, by myself again, headed across country.  Gave me a lot of time on the road over the following days to think about just how much I prefer to have an altogether unreliable machine but to be in a fully reliable community.  The journey may not be quite so smooth, but it is, in the end, more beautiful.

Freedom

Today on the event of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, I decide to share some song lyrics here.  These are the lyrics from a song that my rap group, Prophetie Squad, recorded last year.  It’s called Freedom and talks about modern day slavery and emancipation and things that have to do with Lincoln.  You can listen to the song for free on our Facebook page.  The group also has other music for sale on iTunes, mostly in Creole with a little French and a little English in the mix but all of the lyrics are very social in content and attempt to help us all understand one another better.  Okay, that’s enough advertising.  But I hope you like the lyrics and are able to spend some time today thinking about how we can all work for a freer existence for all humankind.  Although the type of slavery that Lincoln was working to eliminate may not be easily found in today’s world, there are still plenty of our brothers and sisters on this earth struggling to find some type of freedom.  Freedom from discrimination, misunderstanding, exploitation, societal injustices and more.  But the solution lies in searching to learn more about each other and understanding how we each depend on one another for survival of ourselves and our world.

 

There’s a man who lives on the top of the hill and they say that he looks like Jesus

I don’t know who he is, I don’t know where he’s from but they say he’s the one who can free us

I don’t know what I believe anyway so I think that I’ll go and I’ll see him

Ask him what he thinks of these modern day slaves and if he’s got a plan to release them

 

Release em from this bondage

These invisible chains

Release em from this prison

This inescapable pain

Release em from this fear

Freedom’s imperative

Emancipate em

Liberate em

And let em live

 

Exploited by the powers and forsaken ourselves

What else can we do but just burn here in hell

We see no way out, no light at the end

No saviors, no messiahs, not even any friends

We feel the isolation inside of our minds

We feel it in our hearts and we’re running out of time

If someone’s gonna come and set us free

Then please do it before we die in misery

 

Freedom, freedom

Break these shackles from my hands

Make these ropes come undone

Freedom, freedom

Take these chains from my feet

And let me run

Freedom, freedom

Bring me out of this death

And let me rise

Freedom, yeah freedom

No more modern day slavery

Just let me find life

 

I saw the man again in the road the other day, he was walking like a saint on water

I asked him where he’s going, he said I don’t know, but when I get there I’ll go no further

I’ll sit myself down on whatever rock I find and I’ll look off in the sky that I’m under

And after all I’ve seen and all that I’ve done I’ll reflect and I’ll think and I’ll wonder

 

Wonder why there’s so much hurt

And why there’s so much pain

Why’s there so much war

Feels like the world’s gone insane

Why’s there so much crying

From the kids in the street

Why this death

Why this torture

Why this slavery

 

We know there’s something better, we know there’s something more

We keep searching for however we still can’t find the hope

If someone’s gonna show us the way to Paradise

Then they gotta break these walls that keep us locked inside

 

Freedom, freedom

Break these shackles from my hands

Make these ropes come undone

Freedom, freedom

Take these chains from my feet

And let me run

Freedom, freedom

Bring me out of this death

And let me rise

Freedom, yeah freedom

No more modern day slavery

Just let me find life

 

Now he stands on a cliff and looks out at the world with a look in his eyes that scares me

What’s he gonna do will he fall or will he fly under the weight of this cross that he carries

If it were me with that choice to make I think I’d just take a step and I’d pray

For some higher power whatever it may be to just lift me up and take me away

 

Freedom, freedom

Break these shackles from my hands

Make these ropes come undone

Freedom, freedom

Take these chains from my feet

And let me run

Freedom, freedom

Bring me out of this death

And let me rise

Freedom, yeah freedom

No more modern day slavery

Just let me find life

Rules Rules Rules

I recently had a team visit my organization to collaborate with us for a week and one of the members of this team told me about an experience he had with a different organization in Haiti previously.  He was signed up to go on a mission trip with this other organization, which he ended up not participating in, but he did participate in some orientation with them ahead of time anyway.  Among many of the rules that they gave the mission trippers one of them was “Do not speak to any Haitians that you don’t know unless an American staff member says it’s okay.”  I. am. not. kidding.

Okay, I know Mom always taught us not to talk to strangers, and there are certainly a few parts of Port-au-Prince that I wouldn’t advise first time visitors to the country to just walk out in the street and try to start a conversation with just anybody, but this guy’s group was not going to those parts of Port-au-Prince.  This is so remarkably absurd that I truly find it difficult to find the words to describe my disbelief.  This is how an organization is training their short term volunteers to be prepared for the new culture that they are entering?  I understand that some time short-termers can seem like small children in need of meticulous babysitting, but trying to protect them from the culture is only enabling them to remain oblivious to the truth, blind to the humanity, and setting them up to draw very wrong conclusions about the people that they are wanting to help.

Like I said, even as this guy was telling us about this I was altogether unable to form a serious response.  So I responded in joking by telling him and his other team members there with him that they sure better be careful to follow all of the very stringent rules that I had set out for them as Living Media short-termers (I hadn’t given them any rules).  My faithful readers know my perspective on not doing mission but simply trying to live life with other human beings.  Mission comes with lots of rules.  Life doesn’t.  But, some of these visitors, who were on a mission trip through their own vocabulary, wanted to know the rules.

“You have rules here?”  One of them asked me.

“My rules for you here are simple,” I told them.  “Number one: Don’t be a moron.  Number two: Don’t get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant.  Number three: Don’t die.  Number four: Don’t be a moron.  That’s all.”

I know, Executive Director of the Year Award, right?  I knew that with this group I could joke around with them and they would know I wasn’t serious.  Although we have accepted a couple short-term teams before with my organization, we are just now starting to actually create a little more structure to how we accept those teams and in the future will have a list of guidelines to provide visitors.  But my guidelines will be more like “Feel free to explore.  Make new friends.  Get to know the community.  Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.  You want to hear a good story, talk to a voodoo priest or an ex-tonton macoute or a prostitute.”  Okay, so I might not suggest that last one to newbies, but you get my point.  How does anyone expect to discover anything new about oneself or the world we live in on these trips if we don’t venture out a little bit and escape the bubble that so many mission organizations try to create for their volunteers?

Preventing visitors from getting to know the real Haiti isn’t protecting them from anything except for knowledge.  But maybe that’s the most dangerous thing of all.  An enlightened mission teamer who begins to see the world for what it is beyond their own good intentions might just do something crazy like break all of the rules and go rogue to create their own organization that goes on to help hundreds of people find a more creative and fulfilling existence while seeing them as fellow human beings.  And that, my friends, would be downright terrifying.

The Big Blurry Picture

I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.  I do however like to believe that almost any problem can be solved with enough creativity, especially when it’s a problem that you’ve caused yourself.  So I will always wait until the absolute last minute to admit failure when I see absolutely no other options.  I bring this up because I know that I am very critical of the methods of others working in similar positions as me on this blog and through that, or other reasons, I have been accused of being a little arrogant (gasp!).  But I want to be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I by no means claim to be perfect or an expert on anything, that’s the essence of being a green mango.  Many of the things I write about on this blog are born out of my own mistakes that I’ve made in trying to forge through this savage wilderness known as international nonprofit work.  I may seem to be very good at pointing out the speck in my brother’s eye but it’s with the acknowledgement that no organization is perfect, including my own.  When deciding to do this work we enter into an imperfect system where we are stuck working against cultural, societal, and historical issues that make it very difficult to maintain our own principles sometimes and anything organized for the greater good can start to seem unattainable.

At the same time, I can’t deny that my confidence comes across as arrogant sometimes because I am aware that I have accomplished a lot of pretty incredible things that very few other 28-year-old artists from small town Iowa can claim to have accomplished.  I’ve done a lot of things that most human beings can never claim to have done.  And I have to remain confident in the value of those things in order to maintain the strength that I need to lead my organization through the frustrating times when we do make mistakes and have to bear the scars of those lessons learned.  I bring this up because I just returned back to the states after spending a little more than a month back in Haiti and much of my time was spent re-centering with my staff there.  Re-centering because last fall it was decided that I would move back to the US to focus on fundraising and promotion for the organization and after I returned and spent some time with them analyzing everything it seems that maybe that was the wrong decision.  Maybe I wasn’t ready and maybe the organization wasn’t ready for that.  It might have been a little premature or not done in the right way.   It was something that we tried, but turned out to be a mistake and that mistake led to some other problems in our programs.  It goes back to something that I wrote about a few weeks ago with my NGO Doodles that the sun just seems to shine a bit brighter and the path a bit clearer when cooperative leadership occurs through the desired presence of all involved.

These decisions come under a lot of scrutiny from those who support and are involved in the organization in different ways.  And as the Executive Director of such an organization, I should be scrutinized.  Those of us entrusted to carry such a large responsibility need to be held to the highest standard possible because so many other people’s well-being depend on the decisions we make.  In my case, many children’s educations, university students’ futures, and artists’ and musicians’ creative work, depend on my and my staff’s decisions.  At the same time, the integrity of volunteers’ heart felt service and effectiveness of donor’s dollars also depend on those decisions.  Sometimes the decisions seem trivial like whether to buy the grey tile or the green tile for the floor and sometimes they are huge like moving to a different country.  But all of these decisions have a lot of factors weighing on them to make them usually very difficult to make.  My job as a nonprofit manager is to always see the big picture in making those decisions, the big picture that the children, the students, the artists, the musicians, the volunteers, and the donors don’t ever see.  This is one of the things that I’m constantly telling my staff to do, try to look at the big picture.

So, although one of my goals with what I write on here is to keep organizations, aid workers, and missionaries accountable for their actions in other cultures, the truth is that no one is perfect.  As a donor or volunteer the trick is to find those groups whose imperfections might result in some unfortunate logistical annoyances, but don’t actually have a negative impact on the ones they are created to serve.  If you followed all of my advice on this blog you would never donate to anyone and you would never sign up to help out and you would never travel.  And if everyone did that it would be a sad world to live in.

The writer of the Green Mango Blog really is not the same person as the Executive Director of Living Media International.  Although each role that I take on certainly influence the other, this blog represents my individual opinions on a variety of issues whereas my work with Living Media is always dependent on a whole community of other people and decisions have to be made cooperatively based on all sorts of factors beyond my own personal views.

I experienced a great inner conflict between these two “people” that I am the other day while traveling back from Haiti.  I was in the Passport Control line in Miami and it was the longest line I’ve ever had to wait in in the airport.  The line was so long that I felt I got to know the people in front of me intimately while we waited for over an hour and a half to get our passports stamped.  There were three people in front of me from the state of Washington, real hippie types – t-shirts about saving the whales and no bras.  They had just returned from Haiti as well having spent a week working with an organization that had an orphanage and some feeding programs.  One of them was a journalist who was there to actually write a story on the organization for NPR and she was sharing how she was supposed to do a human interest story about all the good things the group was doing but while doing her interviews and research she really uncovered some things that made her question the organization’s integrity and mistrust the leaders of the group.  The word “corrupt” was used a few times, not as an accusation, but more as a hesitant question of whether it was possible that she was the only person to see it.

While listening and thinking about how I would respond to her story she was telling me, I felt the Green Mango in me want to encourage her to write the story exposing all of the injustices that were being carried out especially towards the children in the orphanage and other children in the community.  I wanted her to keep them accountable for their actions because some of the things she was describing certainly were inexcusable although not too uncommon for orphanages in Haiti.   “Hell ya!  Go get em!”  I wanted to say.  Yet the other part of me, the Executive Director part of found myself feeling a little sympathetic towards the orphanage director in question.  “It’s not always that easy.”  I wanted to say.  Maybe she has a perfectly good reason for some of those decisions that are easy to label corrupt if you don’t see the whole picture.  She probably has 15 different people whose opinions she’s supposed to respect because they’ve all given money or given time or been hired to do their jobs and they’re all probably telling her different things and none of them are telling her what she really feels is truly best for the kids.  Ultimately I couldn’t make either judgement without actually seeing the operation myself and talking to the manager of the orphanage and others in the organization, which is the conclusion that I came to with my fellow waiter-in-line.  I told her that if she had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, then she was probably right, but to be careful about blaming the manager or calling her corrupt because there were so many factors contributing to the way things are operated that maybe she herself hasn’t even had time to step back and get a good look at what things have become.  She probably never even set out to be an orphanage manager from the start and got stuck in that position because of some foreign donor’s idea that that’s what was needed and now she’s trying to fight to maintain that vision which was wrong from the start.

The big picture is never easy to see in these situations because there are always stories and perspectives that never get told.  For the fear of offending someone, for the fear of exposing something unnecessarily fragile,  for the fear of being called arrogant, for the fear of providing unrealistic hope, words get kept from being said.  So even if the whole picture can never truly be clarified, the big picture must be attempted.  I think if we keep that in mind, then even bad decisions and costly mistakes can be remedied because the realization of goals lies in the big picture even if day to day actions must be carried out in detail.  Anyone who doesn’t agree with me can just give up when they make a mistake next time, but the rest of us are going to keep looking towards a future that’s more beautiful.