One of my roommates likes to say that he’s going to start an organization named “Malere Pa Chen” meaning “Poor Isn’t A Dog” or “Poor People Aren’t Dogs”. He usually will make this comment after an interaction with an American or after I mention an idea that an American friend or acquaintance of mine has for Haiti. “Ah, you know, poor people aren’t dogs, you hear me, Lee?” He’ll point out. “Tell them all, I’m starting my own organization, Malere Pa Chen Entenasyonal. If they want to donate, they can.” And although I always know he’s joking, there’s always a lot of truth in the feelings of degradation and exploitation that would inspire such a joke that is sometimes difficult to face yet necessary to remind myself of. This roommate of mine isn’t even 20 years old yet and he’s already been shown that many people think it’s okay to treat poor people like dogs, or at least symbolically suggest with their actions that poor people are a lower species of animal than they are. And he’s even my nice roommate! The one that everyone likes. And almost all of the white folks that he’s come in contact with are really good people. I typically don’t invite jerks to my house or to spend time with my roommates. Which demonstrates that his proclamation of not being a dog is not proof of the goodness of the person who he meets or authenticity of their intentions but rather a greater cultural divide that we have to be aware of and sensitive to if we presume to work cross culturally in a place so accustomed to exploitation and disappointment.
I’ve discussed the idea before on this blog that our good intentions are not enough to overcome decades and even centuries of exploitation, slavery, colonization, racism, imperialism, demeaning charity, and so much more. Of course my young roommate hasn’t experienced all of that in his life but it’s all ingrained into his cultural DNA and if we’re coming in from an outside culture we have to be aware that those influences exist and admit from the start that we cannot undo all of what has been done to Haitians historically. We can’t undo it with orphanages. We can’t undo it with schools. We can’t undo it with clinics or art galleries or microfinance or water filters or churches. It can’t be undone. But that also means that we can’t pretend like it never happened, and is still happening in some cases. We can’t pretend like our privilege isn’t already on display further accentuating our differences simply by being able to travel, being able to pay to stay at guest houses, being able to choose to do “helpful” things with our money. It’s already on display like a drag queen at kanaval. It can’t not be seen. At that point Haitians are already starting from a place of feeling less than from the moment they meet because they know they don’t possess that privilege. But Poor isn’t a dog.
And this is why when my roommate says this, I don’t argue with him or try to defend the actions of those who inspired the comment because I can understand where he’s coming from. There are so many people who function in this world with the mentality that money = power that it automatically creates an opposing assumption that the lack of money = weakness. So anytime that money is used by an outside culture on behalf of a local culture, no matter how well intentioned the motives of the expense, it only further emphasizes the divide between the powerful and the weak unless somehow the cultures become interconnected through the expense and ownership of the money (power) becomes shared. But words also carry a lot of power and sometimes that’s the only place Haitians can find some sense of strength when they feel their rights to make their own decisions, their right to enjoy their own humanity, is betrayed by someone that they trusted in the name of help. So they use them to speak, “Poor isn’t a dog.” A vivid picture of the relationship between the powerful and the weak, a dog and it’s master, especially in Haiti where dogs aren’t treated as beloved pets, but just as creatures that are useful for security or chasing chickens, but not companionship. A dog, a creature that is unable to make its own decisions, must be cared for and is helpless to do much of anything on its own. A creature that doesn’t make any money but must have money spent on its behalf. Also a creature that can be beautiful, fun, hard-working, and a loyal friend, but none of that matters much without any dignity.
And yet this is where many poor people feel they are left after an encounter with a wealthier person who obliviously offends their sense of dignity through a well intended act of charity. It is not because they don’t appreciate the charity but it is because they don’t appreciate the way the charity was given or they don’t appreciate the conditions or words that come with it. Or maybe they simply don’t like your idea of charity from the start. I’m not talking about the allegedly well intentioned visitors who blatantly treat Haitians like dogs without remorse. The ones who throw pills at patient after patient at clinics to get them out of their way. Or the ones who yell at crowds of Haitians wanting jobs on their work project to get lost and go beg somewhere else. No, there are plenty of those blans that somehow still are allowed in their country, but they’re not the ones that push my roommate to make such a comment. They’re the ones who are intentionally forgotten before Haitians even have a chance to gossip about them. The ones I’m talking about are a much more subtle breed of offensive.
Let me give an example of something that I’ve seen happen frequently in Haiti. An American who would be considered poor by American standards will come to Haiti to do some very honorable work within their specialized field and will even plan to do so in a very respectable way with humble collaboration with local groups. Wonderful. But when a Haitian who has formed some sort of relationship with them, however trivial it may seem to the American, feels close enough to that visitor to share with them a personal need that they have in hopes that they will be able to help, I often will hear the American respond (and I’m not innocent of this) something along the lines of “Well I’m a volunteer / artist / musician / teacher / missionary / work with nonprofit / or some other profession that doesn’t make much money, so I don’t have any money to help you with.” Some version of “I’d love to but I can’t”. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable response coming from the context that we do. Trust me, I know how often the artist/nonprofit excuse can get a person out of having to pay sometimes. But when we import that reasoning into a context where we are talking to people who view us as rich no matter what job we have, where our very ethnicity and birthplace automatically makes us rich in the world’s eyes, then statements like that simply become offensive. They are offensive because Haitians know that airline companies don’t just give away tickets to ride their planes across the ocean. You may qualify for food stamps in the US, if you can afford to leave your home and make it to a different country somehow, you give up your right to claim poverty. We insult the intelligence of the listener when we try to claim that we don’t have money. Poor isn’t a dog but it can smell bullsh*t when its in front of its nose.
I am currently reading the novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah, which is set in Sierra Leonne, and in it a character named Colonel is an ex-child-soldier who becomes his village’s new vigilante against the powers of money, modernization, and exploitation. At one of the few points where Colonel speaks he shares something that he learned during the war, “You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.” Colonel represents a generation who won’t stand by and let someone else treat them like less than they are while defending his cultural integrity. It’s a story that exists a hemisphere away and in a completely different historical context, but there are many parallels that I’m finding as the characters fight against injustices committed in the name of development and progress. At one point Colonel catches four of the men responsible for these injustices and strings them up by their penises to a tree before covering them in sugar and leaving them for killer ants to devour in the nighttime. While I’m sure that’s not on my roommate’s agenda for Poor Isn’t a Dog International (PIDI), we do need to adjust our attitudes to realize that our actions, no matter how good their intentions, do carry consequences. Our helpful ideals may be stepping on already injured toes without us even realizing it. And while there may be no way to ever completely avoid things that we do unknowingly, I always believe that a different direction begins with awareness of our errors.
I asked my roommates what a blan could do to treat poor people better than dogs. Their response was if you go by a poor person’s house and you see them boiling a sweet potato, instead of trying to give them something in addition to their potato, just take a bite of their potato. Enjoy their potato. It shows that what they have has value, it shows them that they are worth something. That’s a pretty simple solution but one that’s hard for us to accept because eating someone’s potato doesn’t seem like help to us. But perhaps this is why we need to quit trying to help in the first place and just eat their potatoes.
And for anyone that wants to make a donation to PIDI, I’ll make sure to let you know how to in the future. Until next time, peace and potatoes.