Month: June 2013

Clean Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, maybe my mission to Haiti should have been to simply clean up the messes that other NGO’s and mission teams left behind.  If anyone ever decided to form an organization with that precise mission they would quickly become one of the busiest and most needed organizations in the world.  Sure it would not be a very fun job, just ask any mother of a teenager or the hospitality staff of the hotel Justin Bieber stayed at last night, but someone’s gotta do it.  Unfortunately, anymore it seems that some organizations have taken on the Bieber mindset of “me and my monkey can do what we want with our good intentions, someone will clean up after us.” (Yes I know the Biebs doesn’t have a monkey anymore, so don’t leave comments telling me to check my facts.  It’s a metaphor to make a point.) And the point is, that some organizations have become too big to fail or too famous to do any wrong. They’re doing enough other “good” things to distract everyone with that when they really eff something up no one notices and they don’t have to be held accountable.

But the people who were supposed to benefit from their previously well intended failures sure notice. Those individuals have no voice to speak with, however, which is probably why they needed the organization’s help in the first place.  Yet, one thing I’ve found to be true is that the most marginalized groups in society, being the most experienced in getting screwed over, will fight harder than anybody to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated upon them even if they have to do it themselves. Even if it means giving the finger to big orgs and showing them where to shove their good intentions.

The truth is that many nonprofits will raise funds based on ideas that they promote as certainties even if they have no idea how it’s going to work out yet. Then when they give it a try and it doesn’t work out, or they find out that their idea wasn’t really the best in the first place, it’s no sweat off their backs because they can just use the money for something else “good” and no one cares. But with the expectations raised in communities that they had planned to help, they leave in their wake disappointment, feelings of betrayal, holes in communication, and foundations of projects that will never be finished. The community also loses faith in aid which makes it very difficult for other groups to find local support for their projects. Then someone else has to clean up their mess or their failures will just be interpreted by future humanitarian groups as problems of the culture that need to be fixed. They tell everyone that they are going to do great things with that 100 grand that they raised but now it’s going to take twice as much to fix all of the problems that they cause along the way.

Sound exaggerated? Let me tell you a little story…

Once upon a time an earthquake struck Haiti killing hundreds of thousands of people and leaving millions homeless. It also left many children orphaned and others sent to new areas of the country where they didn’t have schools available or their extended family that was now in charge of them couldn’t afford to send them to the schools that were available. At this time, the foreign leaders of an international organization (which shall remain nameless) decided that because of this situation they would build an orphanage. Of course, because there’s lots of orphans, why not? So they threw a dart at a map of Haiti and it landed in my community of Mizak. So they contacted their Haitian staff and told them that they’d decided to build an orphanage in Mizak due to the needs left after the earthquake. After the Haitian staff assessed the community and talked to many people who lived there, they decided that it wasn’t actually an orphanage that the community needed, but a school. Either way, they’re helping kids in need, right? So they went ahead and began making plans to start an elementary school. They registered over 150 children, hired a staff, and threw them all into a hellhole of a building and told them to start learning.

Orphanage? School? Who cares. Let's put it here. This looks perfect!

Orphanage? School? Who cares. Let’s put it here. This looks perfect!

After three months of classes, the teachers hadn’t been paid, the students didn’t have books, uniforms, or supplies, the benches were falling apart, and Christmas break was almost here. Turns out that the NGO refused to support the school because it wasn’t the orphanage that they wanted to build. The Haitian representatives spent months trying to convince them that a school was in the best interest of the community, but eventually they had to throw in the towel and admit defeat. They were ashamed to admit it however and left the school staff and students to believe that they were going to have a legitimate school. Eventually the staff figured out what was going on and had to start looking for a way to save the school year for these kids and clean up the mess that was made. So where did they look? The only other organization in their community that had anything to do with education.

When the staff members knocked on my door that day I knew what they were there for before they ever uttered a word. In my heart I cursed the circumstances that led them there. They were all students of mine from the other classes that I taught for young adults at Living Media and I knew that I’d have a hard time telling them no. But I did that first day, “My organization doesn’t do elementary schools.” I told them. By the second time they visited me I grew weaker, “Well maybe I can find some temporary help for you.”  By the end of the school year I was having meetings with my own Haitian staff and Board of Directors to explain to them whey I thought Living Media should adopt this school. After one year of non-committal support, we were making plans for the future including the construction of a new school.

And that’s where we are now. Taking on a project that we never thought would be part of our mission but doing it because we couldn’t allow such an unfortunate burden to be dumped on our community in the name of aid. Cleaning up someone else’s mess. And as someone who never came into the country to build schools for kids, because that’s what everyone does, and because there are already so many schools, some days I really hate that I have to deal with this responsibility. (There I said it.) But there are other days when I am truly thankful that it fell into my lap. Again, you can ask the mother of a teenager how much she hates picking up the dirty laundry, but in the end she counts it as a blessing every day.

So, now that you’ve read all of that, you have to accept my plea for help, which I usually try to avoid on this blog, but I’m making an exception this time, because it wasn’t supposed to be my project in the first place. And maybe life’s just too short not to build a school. So, if you want to help us finish building this school, you can head over to our Indiegogo campaign that we have up right now. I’m asking the readers of The Green Mango Blog to donate not because “Education is the key to success,” (although true) or because “Children are the future,” (also true) or any of those other fundraisy things that I say in our promotional video, but because these kids are human beings and they don’t deserve to be treated like NGO lab rats, the victims of humanitarian experimentation gone wrong. Donate to send a message to the bigger organizations that their failures don’t define us. Help us build this school because you’ve probably got a few extra bucks in your pocket and you’re not going to do anything that important with it anyway. Might as well give it to our school, and get one of our awesome perks for your gift. If you’ve got more than a few bucks to give you could even receive dinner with me and the principal of the school, or a personal guided tour around our community and a stay at our guest house. And who wouldn’t want that?

Don’t make me post a picture of a sad, skinny, dirty child to make you donate. Thanks.

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17 Expats You’ll Find in Haiti

Before we all get our imported undies in a knot, this list is meant to be light-hearted and by no means offensive. We’ve all got our reasons for going to Haiti but usually they’re much more about ourselves than anything else (which isn’t always a bad thing, see my last post). Sometimes this results in creating a cast of foreigners in the country that more closely resembles the cast of a trashy reality tv show, which really just keeps things interesting. So before anyone gets their feelings hurt because they think I’m picking on them for fitting one of these descriptions, just know that I fit some of them myself, or have in the past, or probably will in the future. I’m friends with all of these characters and enjoy working with many of them.

At least you're not Mr. Fanny Pack (or maybe you are, in which case thanks for always having a pocketknife, sanitizer, and snacks on hand.)

At least you’re not Mr. Fanny Pack (or maybe you are, in which case thanks for always having a pocketknife, sanitizer, and snacks on hand.)

Actually, what I’m hoping that you can read in this is the fact that it takes us all together regardless of our quirks or motivations or eccentricities to work with each other with an understanding and acceptance of one another. And in fact, I’ve found that this is usually how Haitians who don’t know us well refer to us.  “Who?” “You know, the blan.” “Which blan? There’s so many of them anymore.” “You know, the old one that doesn’t do anything.” or “that crazy one that’s always drinking and dancing.” or “that one with all the kids that just keeps adding more.”  Of course, we all know that these aren’t the things that define us, but you gotta keep us apart somehow. The varying fashion faux pas help. Stereotypes do, after all, help us categorize to make things easier in our minds. We’re all just a bit nuts, those of us that actually choose to spend time in this country, so let’s embrace our nuttiness with a healthy dose of awareness. And if anyone wants to pitch that concept for a reality show to some networks, let me know. I think it could be a hit.

1. The Earnest Evangelist “Do you know Jesus? Oh you do? Oh. Well, let me tell you about him anyway. Maybe if you hear about my Jesus you’ll choose to follow him instead of your Jesus. What’s that you say? It’s all the same Jesus just different interpretations? Well, okay. I’ll pray for you so that you’re heart may see the light.” Always has the best worst t-shirts and continually sees things that are unremarkable everyday occurrences to Haitians as monumental advances of the Gospel.

2. The Laid Back Hippie “Yeah man, this helping people thing is hard work. But it’s all good. Let’s just get some of that pot, it’s cheap and easy enough, and we can all just chill, and maybe sing something together.” Adapts very well to the Haitian attitude towards time. Dirty dreadlocks, probably didn’t pack any deodorant.

3. The Mid-life Crisis Humanitarian Instead of a sports car or an affair, trying to save the world should do the trick to put off feeling so old. Gotta prove they can still do it just like all those young bucks out there making a difference. Probably burnt out with the corporate world and decide that the remedy to their monotony is helping the poor Haitians. A polo shirt tucked into their jeans and the clueless look on their face gives them away.

4. The Check-it-off-my-list Traveler “Just like that one time in Burundi, or Bangladesh, or El Salvador or…” This one’s been everywhere and really doesn’t care about Haiti but needs to spend some time there just to prove that they can. The last notch in their belt before making it to globetrotter heaven they can’t resist comparing it to everywhere else they’ve been and fail at finding anything unique about it. You’ll find them under the floppy hat to protect them from the sun (because it’s everywhere).

5. The Retreating Retiree Felt guilty about spending retirement playing golf and antique shopping and always wanted to do something like this but never had the time with the work and family and everything. They try to do some good but realize soon that it takes more than good intentions and just spend most of their time relaxing on the beach and tell everyone back home that they’re “investing in the community” or “cultivating meaningful relationships” at least with their security guard or cleaning lady. Maintain the retiree uniform of Hawaiian print shirts.

6. The Starry Eyed Recent Grad So much hope and determination to change the world. So little basis for their idealism. Probably wears TOMS.

7. The Lovestruck Lifer Came for some very noble purpose, but would never stick around if they weren’t getting any on the side with some hot Haitian, or maybe many hot Haitians. Fall in love with the country, fall in love with someone in the country, and the good work outside of the relationship becomes a justification of the relationship. Inescapable, sometimes beautiful, sometimes dangerous. Eventually wearing maternity clothes or a “#1 Papa” t-shirt.

8. The Sad Storyteller Makes sure you know the tragedy that they’ve had to endure simply because they got involved in this wondrously wretched place called Haiti which they love but has torn their heart out and ruined their life. But there’s no other place they’d rather be. But they’ll make sure to tell you everything that’s gone wrong for them as they wear their greys and beiges with a bottle of Barbancourt in their hand  to wash away their sorrows.

9. The Confident Businessman Has the most successful organization around, at least judging by their financial statements. Runs their programs with meticulous efficiency thanks to their smartphone, ipad, and very well labeled folders of paperwork, not to mention their address book sans competition. Ask any Haitian about them though, no one can tell you who they are or what they do. Haven’t even heard of em. Doesn’t own one piece of clothing purchased in Haiti.

10. The Burnt-out Cynic Would have given up on this “helping Haiti bullshit” a long time ago if they had anything to go back to. So they stick around just to make sure to tell all the others that they’re wasting their time. Also gave up on shaving or putting any effort into their appearance a long time ago, cuz really what’s the point when nothing ever changes anyway? Prestige is their best friend.

11. The Identity Seeker “I don’t know who I am anymore. Maybe I can find out in an exotic location full of people that I can help.” Probably not. Does yoga and hums a lot. Fashion changes every week depending on what they see being worn around them trying to figure out what they feel right in.

12. The Party Animal “Beach? Hell ya! Rum? Hell ya? Beer? Hell ya! Dirty Dancing? Woooooo! Bring it on! Loud music? Wiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Helping marginalized children? Oh, well, we can do that tomorrow as long as I’m not hungover.” Stress relief is necessary to a point but to some it becomes a lifestyle. Something that looks good under black lights if anything at all.

13. The Fugitive Would be in prison if they weren’t in Haiti. Here they can do drugs with the police and if they want to deal just give em their cut. Hang out, stay high, but keep a low profile. Don’t make friends with any of the other expats because they’ll ask too many questions about “what you do here” but have some sort of story always prepared just in case. The only expat in XXL Fubu.

14. The Scholar Looking for reasons to everything and spend their time trying to explain the unexplainable with words that have been spoken or written by hundreds of intelligent scholars before them. But it all ends up making less sense to them in the end then it did before. When they were getting their PhD’s they learned formulas for why the world is the way it is and they believe they can find the reasons why Haiti doesn’t fit those formulas. They made sure to get the transition lenses in their glasses before coming to Haiti.

15. The Family Raiser Wants to make sure their kids grow up being able to understand other cultures and rejoice in the earth-shattering moments when their kids make innocently beautiful realizations about race and ethnicity. Probably works for an orphanage or school. Dress their kids up way more ethnically than their Haitian neighbors dress their kids.

16. The Open-minded Voodoo Disciple The anti-missionary. They’re there just to prove that voodoo has value and is a really vital part of Haitian culture. They really don’t believe it all, at least not the same as the Haitians, but it’s trendy, so they jump in with all the lwa possession they can muster, mostly because there are too many Christians already in Haiti. “Faux mambo” the Haitians say and watch em gyrate and offer and summon with smirks on their faces. Can be seen wearing a colorful moomoo or a shirt 2 sizes too big and a wild look in their eyes.

17. The Superhero Came here because they saw an ad or heard some speaker or read some facebook status that told them that they could “Save a life, change a life, make a difference in a life, or even give life” Now they constantly update their own status to let everyone know how they are changing lives on a daily basis. Their liberal arts bachelor’s degree didn’t do squat for them in the US but as soon as they land in Haiti they’re a teacher, rock-star, doctor, agronomist, expert on everything. They have a tattoo somewhere on their body of a quote from Mother Theresa or Mahatma Ghandi and wear t-shirts that are better designed than the Evangelist but twice as cliche.

Why Go At All?

If you plan to criticize the good intended efforts of others attempting to bring help to the world, then you have to be prepared to also answer this question which gets asked time and again.  The logic being, “Well if everyone going there just seems to screw things up more, then why should anyone go at all?”  It’s a question that I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, including right here on this blog, and it came up again this past week while attending the Indy Convergence in Indianapolis while one of the artists, a good friend of mine, gave a presentation on his experiences in Haiti and how he saw artists being able to contribute positively to community development there.  That meant, however, also demonstrating how he saw many others contributing negatively, from food aid to orphanages, from churches to politics, and more.  He gave very clear examples from what he witnessed himself and from history to illuminate the downfalls of some of these systems intended to help Haiti, but then the inevitable question was raised, “Then why go at all?”  The question tripped up the presenter a bit as he struggled to find a really appropriate response.  He admitted knowing people who had gone to Haiti and spent years trying to help only to give up in the end with the same defeated attitude of not seeing the reason to have even tried in the first place.  I know those people too and have even been in danger of becoming one myself in the past.

And yet, I’ve chosen to stay.  And this fact has helped me know how to answer the question, for myself at least.  And my conclusion is this, if your reason for traveling to Haiti involves “helping” then you probably shouldn’t go at all.  Helping should never be a reason for traveling or going to work with any specific group of people.  Helping should simply be something that you do in the process of living because you’re a human being and we all need each other no matter where we find ourselves at any moment.  People should go to Haiti, but go because you want to go.  Go because you want to experience everything beautiful, unique, and exciting that the place and the culture has to offer.  Then, if in the process you encounter the opportunity to lend someone a helping hand with your personal skills, then do it just because you have a heart that’s not finished beating.  But don’t make help your reason for going.  If helping was the only reason to go, then no one should go at all because that’s worked out so miserably historically.  The fact is that if Haiti suddenly closed its borders to anyone who’s not a Haitian citizen, the country would not cease to exist.  It wouldn’t disintegrate into the Caribbean leaving the Dominican Republic as a lonely island, although the DR might prefer it that way.  Foreigners are not the glue holding Haiti together.  In fact, the ones that are successful at their involvement in Haiti are the ones that either get woven completely into the fabric of Haiti or experience Haiti without trying to attach at all.  The in-between ones are the ones who make things messy.  The ones who try to stick their beliefs, and ideas, and perceived solutions to Haiti with wads of chewed up humanitarian, missionary, do-gooder bubble gum.

I want as many people as possible to come to Haiti because it’s worth experiencing and once you experience it you might just want to stick around or keep coming back, and that’s great because it broadens our understanding of each other.  But if you are coming to help, the fact is that you can go absolutely anywhere in the world and find a way to help humanity move forward if you want.  So don’t make Haiti your experiment in aid just because you heard how poor they were, or read how oppressed they were, or saw how black they were.  Please, don’t come to Haiti to help.  Come to Haiti, then help.

This might sound strange coming from the director of a nonprofit that ultimately does what it can to help Haitians.  And yes, it’s even a nonprofit that accepts outside volunteers to come help us help the Haitians.  But I’m always careful not to use this kind of rhetoric when describing what we do because I know the consequences of that word.  And truthfully, my perception on the issue has changed a lot over the last few years since starting the organization.  I would not have written this blog when I first started Living Media.  But I have reached a point now where I can look at my work and my life here and see that the conviction for it all has to come from outside of a notion of helping.  It has to be something more raw, more specific, less inflated,and maybe just a little more selfish.  It has to be something that you absolutely cannot resist and wouldn’t want to if you tried.  The helping one another just comes as a side affect.

My friend at Indy Convergence may not have been able to verbalize his feelings at the moment that he was presented with that question, “Why go at all?”  But the answer is something that cannot be easily described.  The answer must be felt.  It must be lived.  He ended up presenting the answer quite eloquently through a artistic sensory performance later in the week entitled, “Doctors, Nurses, Lawyers, Clowns, Musicians, and the previously Inconsolable -Helping Hopeful Haitian Hands Hold Happy Homes Without Borders (Because We Care)”  A piece of art that didn’t spend it’s time showing what Haiti needs, but showing what Haiti is.  This is what the world needs more of it it wants to know why to go to Haiti at all.  Part of the piece featured a motorcycle ride under the stars, which if you’ve ever experienced this for yourself in Haiti, you know why to go.  Not because they need your help, but because you need to understand the universe from that perspective in order to more fully live life.  A life that demands you interact with other humans, collaborate with other humans, and yes, sometimes even help other humans.

From Robert Negron's sensory performance piece on Haiti

From Robert Negron’s sensory performance piece on Haiti