I am knocking on wood here. Because Haiti is a place that destroys people. The majority of outsiders that come here don’t last long and the ones that do last a while are broken by the time that they leave. It’s why Haitians themselves are frequently described with the detestable label of “resilient” because they find ways to survive and find joy in life despite all of the odds against it. When we say “Haitians are so resilient” what we really mean is, “I just don’t understand how they live in such a hellhole!” Those who come in from the outside come with a privilege that makes them much less resilient, because when things get tough, they can always choose to leave. And most do. I, for some reason, however, have not. After ten years, I am still here. It is certainly not because I am any stronger than others who have tried, but it seems that fate has simply aligned in such a way that I have managed to avoid many of the circumstances that often lead others to be broken. This does not at all mean that I haven’t experienced my fair share of trauma here (um, hello, earthquake) but my certain combination of Haitian traumas have never been enough to break me to the point of no return, and that has to do much with the way that I have chosen to live and the community that I live with. But also, because I have never had to deal with the following ten things that many, many people have encountered and each one chips away at resolve and the chance for resilience.
- I’ve Never Felt Unsafe
There are, indeed, reasons why Haiti is still under a travel advisory from the US for security reasons. Even though I personally have never been a victim of those reasons, there are plenty of others who have been. I live in a rural area where crime is low and everyone looks out for one another, even those who aren’t from around here. There are places in this country where the sound of gunshots can be as common as the sound of donkeys braying here at my home. I’m one of the rare white people in this country that doesn’t live in a large walled in compound with an armed guard at the gate 24/7. I don’t even lock my doors at night or when I leave. And I’ve never once thought twice about it. My vicious guard dog, Buttons, has to keep herself busy by harassing school children and old market ladies because she has nothing to actually guard me from. A lot of people say that I should be more careful, but Haiti has yet to give me a reason to be.
- I’ve Never Gotten Anything Valuable Stolen from Me
After ten years, of course, I’ve had a few inconsequential things stolen from me: a telephone and some cash in the middle of the carnival crowd, an inverter that was a hand-me-down to start with, and one of my favorite t-shirts (right off of the laundry line). But that’s about it. We had two solar batteries stolen from Living Media once, which was expensive to replace, but not all that devastating. So after ten years, I count myself very lucky on this front. It also is worth stating that I have never had anything stolen from me from someone that I trusted, which is a very frequent story that I hear from other expats. But it’s also hard to have your stuff stolen when you live with an attitude of sharing absolutely everything anyway. My roommates and I have no boundaries when it comes to sharing. Underwear? When laundry days don’t line up, sure. Toothbrush? When we’re away from home and in a bind, yep. So when nothing’s really for me anyway, it’s hard to ever really consider anything stolen.
- I’ve Never Gotten the Worst Diseases or had Traumatic Hospital Experiences
There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t have had malaria, or dengue, or chikungunya by now. I take no precautions, I don’t use bug spray, I don’t sleep under a net, nothing. I have been daring mosquitoes to upset my health for years, and what do they do, give me a little zika for a day or two? C’mon! Even beyond mosquitoes, I’ve gotten off easy. The one time I had TB, it remained inactive and I got it treated before it ever gave me any symptoms. I’ve never once had to be hospitalized for anything here, and thank God. The horror stories of trying to get treatment here alone are enough to make someone give up on everything. Among expats who live like I do, it’s usually a sort of badge of honor to be able to compare who’s survived the most exotic diseases, and all I can say is, “I had some bad lobster once that made me puke a lot”.
- I’ve Never Been in an Abusive or Destabilizing Romantic Relationship
This one, people. Many of the other things on this list are purely fate that I have been able to avoid them and have come despite all of my efforts contrary to what is considered prudent, however, this one. This one right here, I get to say is because I make good choices. I have seen way too many good people get destroyed here because they give their heart to the wrong person, they get in bed with the wrong person, and they sacrifice their trust for the wrong person. Haitians are beautiful, passionate, sexy people that make you want to fall in love with them. And some of them are worth falling in love with. But this culture makes legitimate love and healthy relationships almost impossible no matter who it’s with (just ask the ones who have been able to make it work). But far too many foreigners here have gently laid their hearts in the hands of a Haitian only to have it ripped apart because of cultural differences and that choice carries consequences on every other part of their life, often destroying the other good work they are trying to do.
- I’ve Never Gotten in a Serious Moto Accident
I don’t need a lecture about wearing a helmet, thank you. It’s certainly not because I haven’t seen the gruesome results of tragic moto accidents though. Close friends of mine have been victims and others have fully positive experiences in this country until they’re thrown to the pavement and the pain and injury of the collision breaks not only skin and bones, but also their devotion to the country. It becomes such a more attractive option to return to where the streets actually have rules and cars have airbags and streetlights actually work.
- I’ve Never been Touched by a Death that I couldn’t Grieve Healthily
Death has crossed my path plenty of times in Haiti. It is one thing that you have to get used to. You become a professional at attending funerals. Some of those deaths have even been violent or unexpected. But through it all, Death has stayed out of my most intimate inner circle. In my entire time here, I have not lost any of my closest friends, my Haitian family, my staff or co-workers that I’ve come to depend on. That is a rare, rare gift in this place. I try to never take it for granted because I know how much harder those deaths can hit in this context. The culture of grief here is so different that for those of us who must straddle cultures, a death like that can topple everything that holds us together. I know that none of us are immune, however, so I’d be perfectly happy for all of those closest to me to outlive me and those who don’t, to die comfortably of old age. But I know Haiti doesn’t give that gift to anybody forever. Besides, if I ever lost one of my roommates, I don’t know whose underwear I’d borrow when I forget to plan ahead.
- I’ve Never Been Betrayed by Staff
I know a lot of expats will read that and think, “He’s lying. He can’t be serious. That’s not possible in this country. What kind of magic does he possess?” I’m going to tell you the truth, without trying to sound arrogant. I honestly don’t think it’s because I have always worked with or chosen staff in my organizations that are any more pure and trustworthy than any other Haitians. I have always had incredible staff, but they have always still been susceptible to the constraints that this culture puts on them, and sometimes, in other cases, that leads local staff to make decisions for the sake of their survival or their own integrity that makes expat staff feel betrayed. I think I have never been on the receiving end of this because I’m a very good listener and I have always made space for my local staff to feel like their voices are heard and I always let them guide as much decision making as possible. This isn’t always possible in all situations in other organizations, but because I’ve been able to do that, I’ve never had a staff member feel like they’ve had to do something behind my back or betray my trust. I’ve always been ready to accept and adapt to the culture where others would simply see betrayal because they are looking at things through the lens of the culture that they come from. This results in certain situations where, if others were in my shoes, they might feel like a line had been crossed, but my lines are always blurrier than anyone else’s. What’s black and what’s white, what’s betrayal and what’s fidelity, is always more fluid with me.
- I’ve Never Felt Taken Advantage of
This is closely related to the previous one, but even outside of work situations, as a white person, it’s easy, even common to be taken advantage of here. From beggars in the street, from vendors in the market, from participants in your programs, it seems Haitians are always looking for ways to exploit you as a person from a place of means or exploit their relationship to you for access to those means. But whether they are or aren’t actually taking advantage of me, I’ve never felt taken advantage of. Because here’s the thing, Haitians, as a whole, come from an entire history of being taken advantage of and exploited by the rest of the world. And to many of them, I represent the rest of the world and its history of exploitation. My skin color does, my language does, my passport does, and my privilege does. So I’m usually prepared to understand where they’re coming from. This doesn’t mean that I make myself a doormat, a healthy sense of sarcasm and measured use of Creole profanities helps with that, but I never fault a Haitian for trying to benefit off of my foreignness because it’s usually more of a survival tactic than it is malice.
- I’ve Never Felt like a Failure
Sure, I’ve had plenty of small failures along the way on specific projects but I, myself, have never felt like a failure in the bigger picture. Have I been disappointed? Plenty of times. But I learned early on to temper my expectations so that the successes, when they do happen, can shine brighter and have more power in defining my experience. In those times when I have failed in smaller ways and I lament those failures to my friends, they usually remind me that no one asked me to do what I was trying to do anyway. They remind me that the success of the community as a whole does not and never did depend on the success or the failure of my projects. They point out that they, personally, don’t care one way or the other. They’re just glad I’m here. As an American who grew up in a society that measures everything by results, it’s taken some time to adjust to such a mindset, but it has helped me keep a clear head about my reasons for being here and avoid breaking down when things don’t go as planned.
10. I’ve Never Felt Alone.
After the earthquake, as an American in the situation, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world with no one from my home culture who could really understand what I was going through, I experienced one of the most immersive senses of loneliness possible. Yet it was at that same time that I was woven into the most intimate and indescribable sense of community and unconditional support from the local Haitians that were going through the situation with me. That is why I can say that I’ve never felt alone. No feeling of loneliness could ever compare to what I felt at those moments and yet it was the least alone that I ever felt because of those around me who were all going through the same thing, or even worse. And because nothing could ever compare to that, I know that as long I am here with this same community, I will never feel alone because I will never be alone.
That fact by itself is what has kept this country from breaking me. I’m not alone. I’ve got people. A lot of people, actually. The best people. And they’re all there no matter what happens. Even if I do get in a terrible moto accident or I lose control and fall in love with the worst person or I get everything that I value stolen from me. They are there and I know they will continue to be. To make me laugh, to make me believe in my purpose, to loan me underwear, and to hold me together when I’m in danger of breaking under the pressure of this country.