Month: May 2013

Becoming the Beggar

When I came into this country 6 years ago, I came in expecting to give.  Not necessarily to give money because I had just graduated college and chose to volunteer rather than get a job and a paycheck.  But I knew that to some extent, my life would be defined by giving whether it was money or just my time, my skills, and my all-too-important fashion advice.  Because I was coming from a culture that teaches, “Tis better to give than to receive.”  I also came from a culture that teaches two very contradictory theories about poor people: first, that it’s the right thing to do to contribute to charity and help those that are poor; and second, that all poor people are lazy bums looking for a handout to live off the system while others do all the work.  Either way, my native culture creates a very divisive hierarchy of nobility between the Givers and the Takers.  At the same time the media resources and history lessons from my culture teach that Haiti is full of poor people.  So from the beginning I was set up to expect to be a Giver in a land of Takers.

But it didn’t take long after arriving and living and melting that I learned just how much all of that “Tis better…” malarky is all really just part of the hierarchy we build for ourselves to feed our savior complexes that so often lead us to try to help people.  If I’d have asked the Haitians from the start they would have told me so.  They would have told me, “Receiving’s good when you have something you need and giving’s good when you’ve got plenty to share.  Neither is better or worse, they just are.”

Although most people that visit Haiti seldom leave the country with a perception of Haitians as either beggars wanting handouts or lazy freeloaders.  Most people come away with an impression of Haitians being “giving, generous, hospitable, hardworking, resilient” people instead.  But most of these impressions are the result of gifts received by the visitors with unspoken expectations from the Haitian givers or as the result of services afforded the visitors that the Haitian hosts were paid for.  The truth is you have no idea how generous some Haitians can be until you literally have to depend on their kindness for your own survival.  You have no idea until the tables are turned and you become the beggar wishing to some foreign god that a Haitian will save your ass.

Obviously, I’m speaking from experience here.  I’ve been in the situation more times than I can count where I’ve had to depend on another member of my community here to help me out of a difficult situation.  Those moments come with much humility and gratitude but sometimes I feel that those moments become much too familiar for me.  The truth is, although I might hide it well, I spend 90% of my time here absolutely broke and 100% of my time in debt to someone.  I spend 100% of my time in debt to someone that people looking in from the outside think is who I’m here to “help”.  Yet they’re the ones loaning me money when I’ve already given away everything I have and need a few bucks to pay a taxi, or buy some soap, or eat a hot dog.

Today, I was able to come to the gas station to use internet to post this blog because I found a friend at the moto repair shop who loaned me 100 gourdes.  Some people may say that it’s not a sustainable model of development to be borrowing money from those you are meant to serve in order to support your existence.  I would argue that if the local members of the community aren’t willing to put up a few bucks in order to support your presence, then you have no right being there in the first place.  If the only way that you can enter a community to work on behalf of that community is by resting on your own resources, personal or otherwise foreign, then your presence is already a perception of external priorities.  But if the people in that community are willing to sacrifice some of their own resources in order to keep you there and providing you with what you need to continue your day to day life and work, then you have proof that that life and work is seen as valuable to them.  You can be confident that what you’re doing needs done.  Otherwise you’re just on a strange vacation where your good intentions to help people sucks up all of your money.

If you’re uncomfortable or unwilling to ask a neighbor for some help when you’re down on your luck because they’ve been stuck with the “poor” label and you’ve been stuck with some other more affluent label, then you’ll never be able to truly traverse those lines that separate you as humans and melt into any sort of cultural transcendence. But if you reach a point where you’ve given absolutely all of yourself, and you can humble yourself to become the beggar and reach out your hand for some charity, while keeping your ego intact, you can experience remarkable encounters with next door saints you never imagined were even watching.  It’s in those moments when I can imagine how great nations and civilizations were formed and my own ideas of development are always changed.  It’s in those moments when I forget about development strategies and simply absorb the life that evolves from authentic community.  Then I imagine that if we allowed that to happen more often, then maybe development would take care of itself and our strategies would fossilize in the forgotten history of good intentions.