Way back in the Green Mango’s infancy, one of my first posts quickly became one of my most controversial with some people getting seriously offended, even cutting their ties to me because of it, while others applauded it and shared it at national church conferences and on organizations’ websites. It was titled 11 Things I’m Tired of Hearing You Say in Haiti, and it was actually the result of a suggestion by a reader that led me to come up with the list. Now, almost 2 years later, I received another email from a new reader of mine asking for a follow up to that post with some things that visitors to Haiti should be saying. So here it is. Maybe I’m wading into controversial territory again with some of this, but I liked the suggestion. I want to apologize to my readers who have been with me from the beginning for not having written this post sooner, like right after the first one, because I think it’s actually very important to think about. So please, please, say these things instead. They are music to my ears and need to be expressed as often as possible by those who come into this country from a foreign land. You’ll notice that most of them are questions because we have a lot to learn and our ethnicity doesn’t mean that we have all the answers or the best ideas. (Note: When I use first person pronouns in the explanations in this post I am considering myself as part of the receiving group which includes expat community development workers and missionaries as well as local beneficiaries of visitors’ services, although I’ve certainly been part of the group on both sides.)
1. How can I help?
Maybe I’m silly for thinking that this would be the common sense first question for any person or group who comes to Haiti to ask of their hosting organization. Instead of coming in with a list of thing you want to do, simply ask how you can help. What would be most helpful? Is coming even the best way that you can help in the first place? Are your skills of use and are they filling a gap that needs filled? If you email me asking how you can help, I guarantee you I already have a list of ways and you can probably fit into that list somehow and I will be excited to share with you. But if you email me with suggestions of what you would like to do, my response will probably be something along the lines of, “Well that depends, how much money are you bringing?”
2. How can my money be most useful to you?
Most groups that come in to Haiti have raised a specific amount of project funds for the organization that they are working with but they also come with a detailed list of where they want that money to go. I can tell you that the dream teams come in with a certain amount of money and then give the local leadership the say in where it should go. They ask and they listen to what the priorities are and they are willing to consider them even if they’re not the sexiest options. Even if they don’t provide the most compelling photos for the slide shows that they’re going to show to their church when they get home. I can tell you that the organization’s priorities are seldom the same as visiting teams. Usually teams prefer to spend their money on things that are a long ways down the priority list because they provide more opportunity for them to get actively involved in working and sweating and taking those good actions shots. Meanwhile the top priorities are left unaddressed and the organization continues to struggle to find the support that they need for them.
3. Here’s some money.
Even better, don’t even ask, just hand the money over and trust that we will use it the way that it needs to be used in order to do everything that we need to do. And yes, sometimes that will mean buying a beer for those doing the work because the work is stressful and requires some sort of stress relief. And sometimes that will mean taking a trip to the beach because one of the number one reasons behind organizations and projects failing is burnout of their leaders who have to deal with unrealistic expectations and insufficient support. And the beach is the best medicine for burnout. And sometimes it will mean taking care of debt that has been the result of other broken promises and failed good intentions from other teams and donors and mistakes that the staff has made themselves. I know, that’s super uncompelling for the slide shows, but it’s the reality of development and nonprofit work. But sometimes the best thing you can do is just give over money and let the leadership use it to get back on track to where they need to be to keep doing the good work that they’ve always done. Just adding one more extra project on top of everything can make things worse.
4. Where do you find the presence of God here?
Rather than assuming that you can introduce anyone to God on your trip, take the opportunity to discover him for yourself in new ways, in a new environment and culture, alongside many new people who have had their own experiences in finding him.
5. Can you teach me?
My goals in having groups and foreigners visit us in Haiti is always a cross cultural exchange that benefits both sides. If you’re coming in to teach, be ready to learn just as much. If you’re offering seminars, be prepared to sit through some too. Just because the new people that you’ll be meeting and working with may not have as much education as you or as much work experience as you, that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have acquired knowledge that can enhance your life in some way. Search for the chances to draw that knowledge out and apply it to what you are doing. The truth is, no matter how much you think you know, if you come in with the attitude that you don’t know jack, and you let the Haitians see that, they’ll be a lot more impressed by your humility and willing to listen to what you have to say later.
6. What do you think?
Just asking the opinion of the local leadership and the people who will be benefiting from whatever you’re offering will make a big difference in the way that you and your services are received. Chances are that even if you are an expert at whatever you’re doing here, without the advice and ideas of local people, you’ll be setting yourself up for cultural mistakes and embarrassing missteps. Ask what they think. Even if your head was educated at a US university and has multiple degrees worth of information inside of it, two heads are always better than one.
7. Can you help me?
I know that you came here to help. So do exactly that, help. Don’t try to do it all on your own, or show the Haitians “how it’s done.” Whatever you’re doing, ask for their help, welcome their help, expect their help. Even if you don’t like the way that they want to do it. Maybe they can teach you how to build a whole shelf without even using your fancy multi-tool that you carry in your fanny pack.
8. We really appreciate all that you do.
We don’t hear this enough. Maybe we have fragile egos, but the truth is that we work our asses off to make visitors happy and it’s nice to have that acknowledged. They never see it, but most of the time we work so hard that we’re sick for days after they leave or so exhausted that we can’t do other work. And that’s always in addition to juggling a million other things that have nothing to do with their presence but still need done. A little gratitude goes a long way. And if we go out of our way to get grapes in a country where grapes are impossible to find, or almond extract in a country where no one uses almond extract despite almonds being everywhere, or a voodoo candle in a country where people only sell those things in secret, then a little thank you at the least is nice. And if it really is appreciated, then refer back to #3. But when all we get are more questions and more complaints and we still find a way to do everything that we do do, out of the goodness of our own heart, then just having one person say that our work is appreciated and worth it all can keep us going for a while. (And yes, I know, we don’t express our gratitude enough in the reverse either, but we do appreciate you. No matter what this blog says.)
9. It’s okay.
Things won’t go as you expect. There will be disappointments. Plans will fall through. People will be late. Excuses will be made and promises will be broken. The more you can roll with the punches and accept the things that you can’t change, the better things will turn out in the end. The more that you complain and try to assert some sort of entitlement because of the money that you gave or the time that you’ve sacrificed or the distance that you traveled that makes you think that you deserve to have everything to work out perfectly, the more it will just complicate things. Say “It’s okay,” and be at peace with the process of life.
I cannot emphasize the importance of this one enough. It was even part of the original post just stated in the opposite way, but it bears repeating. Everyone has good intentions and they want to do everything that they can to help. They want to be optimistic about their ability to follow through on those intentions and their capacity to provide that help. But if you cannot guarantee 100% that you will be able to follow through, we would much rather just hear you say, “No.” “I can’t.” If it’s not likely that you’ll be able to donate the money that we’ve requested, just tell us no. If you won’t be able to raise the support for the project we’ve introduced you to, just tell us no. If you won’t be able to help us with the task we need assistance on, JUST TELL US NO. We would much rather hear “No,” than be given false hope. Because as soon as you give us hope, we’re already making plans for the affirmative. There’s just that much that needs done. So when whatever we’ve been counting on you for falls through we’re left as the ones breaking promises to the local people who were counting on us. Don’t tell us “maybe,” “I’ll try,” “It would be nice if.” Just tell us no. Or at the very least, “probably not.” Then if it does happen to be possible, we will be pleasantly surprised and it will be a bonus rather than a broken promise. And please, please, please, tell us something. We would always rather hear “No,” than silence.