Feathers Aren’t Wings

I was sitting on my stairs outside my house with my roommates who had just finished up their cow’s blood stew that they had cooked up with other honorary BAZ members. They’re not vampires, really, it’s just one of the manly bukson sort of things they like to do when they’re all free on a market day when there’s plenty of blood available. As they were cleaning up their bowls my CEO of Poor Isn’t a Dog roommate started telling the others of his plans, “You know, it’s because of all those blans that come in for a week and get to know us and act like our friends but then forget about us as soon as they go back to their lives. We drive them around on our motorcycles (and you know they’re not that light like Haitians) and we go with them to the beach and to the internet and to Bassin Bleu and to the store in Jacmel to buy wine and into the countryside to pray for people. But afterwards they never think about us again but they’ll send money to send some kid to school that they’ve never met or build a building that we’ll never go into or buy medicine for some old sick person that’s just going to die anyway. But where’s the future in that? What about our future?” One of my other roommates interrupted his tirade, laughing, “And what are you going to call this organization again?”

“Malere Pa Chyen” he proudly responded, “Poor Isn’t a Dog”

“Oh yeah?” replied Roomie #2 with a smile on his face, “Well I’m starting an organization too. Mine’s going to be called ‘Feathers Aren’t Wings”, “Plim Pa Zel” for all those people who like to get our hopes up by giving us something little, a feather, but not doing enough to help us fly.” Then he plucked a few leaves off of the almond tree next to him and held them in his hands and flapped his arms while hopping like a lead turkey trying to fly. All of the guys burst out laughing and Roomie #1 cried, “That’s great! It can be a branch of Poor Isn’t a Dog International!” Great, I thought to myself, my roommate’s already becoming a nonprofit politician trying to create a monopoly with his pretend organization to control all the rest. But it was all in good fun and I always enjoy hearing my roommate’s opinions on these things (makes good blog material). They’re a bunch of guys who have about as much interaction with foreigners as any Haitians without actually working with them in any sort of official capacity. And they’re a bunch of guys who know their own white guy well enough that they’ll say anything in front of me (knowing full well that it will probably end up on the internet sometime).

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

So whenever they begin to go off about the blans I always take note but also maintain a keen sensitivity as to how to take a joke. When they say these things I know that they’re not saying them out of a vindictive, hateful place, but from a place of real sincerity where they wish for more of a relationship with the visitors who come through their community rather than just the momentary use of their services. They wish for a more concrete and long-term effect of those visitors time beyond friendly good intentions. They realize the fact that there is more potential for growth on both sides if we remain connected and continue to search for ways to support one another. No one likes to feel used and then discarded. No one likes to be reminded that they don’t have what it takes to fly and never will. Hope, after all, can be a very dangerous thing if it never turns into anything more.

This isn’t to say that everyone that comes into the country for a week or so should become BFFs with every motorcycle driver they ride behind and every interpreter that translates for them and every Haitian that they encounter, but we should be careful about where we suggest authentic relationships may exist when in our American mindset we may just be trying to be friendly. If you get to know someone well enough when you’re in Haiti to at least accept their friend request on Facebook (because they will send you a friend request) then at least write them a message every once in a while to see how they’re doing to show them you remember them and appreciated the short time that you spent with them. If you want to go one step further, on their birthday, send them $20. Whether it’s to repair their motorcycle, feed their child, pay a school fee, or just to go to the beach and have some fun because it’s their birthday, I promise you that they could use it and would really appreciate it.

Or if nothing else, at least keep those individual’s in mind when you’re thinking about making a donation to some program in Haiti. Think about those people that made your time in the country a little easier and a little more enjoyable and consider what programs might actually have an impact on their future that they might actually benefit from. You’ve already helped support their life on the ground by paying them for certain services while you were there, now think about how you can help them make it higher in life. What programs are going to give them wings? Or if you’re really crazy, you could actually write them a note on Facebook to ask them their opinion on what a good program would be to support with your donation. I know it seems a little upside down to ask the advice of the people whose lives would actually be impacted by the contribution of your money (they’re not the ones who worked hard to earn it after all), but you might be surprised how it changes your perspective. But please, don’t suggest anything if you don’t intend on following through. It may seem like a polite way to let someone down easy by saying “I’m thinking about,” or “it’d be nice if,” but it actually becomes the quickest way to set up unrealistic expectations and break hearts. It’s the quickest way to make someone feel like a dog or to see the feathers that they’re clutching will never help them fly. Consciously considering our intentions to follow through on interactions cross culturally is where solidarity can begin and dependence never gets a chance to take seed.

You can still support the education sponsorship and the construction projects and the health initiatives; they all need to happen too. And we certainly can’t start to believe that we can help everyone. But in the process let’s be careful not to step on the toes of those who are right next to us the whole time helping us along the way to make those things happen. Let’s remember that they have ideas and needs and dreams as well that won’t be fulfilled with the feathers we hand them while we focus on everyone else. Sometimes the ones who seem on the outside like they need the help the least may just be the ones who could do the most good with the help that we’re willing to provide if we’re willing to include them in the process as fellow human beings. The sexiest path to benevolence may often exclude the ones that helped us get there so let us be wary about taking it. Instead, let’s seek to take a path whose destination is unsure but is full of people that we can lift up with our presence as we are lifted by theirs.

Tell me your story. What feathers do we allow to go to waste in this world? Which ones do we need to stop giving out? Are there any feathers that you’ve been clinging to in hopes that they would become wings?

Poor Isn’t A Dog

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.

1656264_10151843224136688_1607643907_nAnd 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.

The First Date

I frequently speak with groups of people in the planning stages of mission trips to Haiti and there’s always at least one person in the group who doesn’t know me and has never read the blog, who will ask the question, “What about clothes? What should we wear in Haiti?” And no, in such situations I do not rattle off my Top 10 Mistakes, but do try to give reasonable, easy-to-follow suggestions on what they should pack to wear that will be appropriate for their specific mission. “Just be yourself,” I usually say, “Wear things that make you feel good about yourself and the Haitians around you will respond positively to your presence as well.” But I still usually feel like my point hasn’t really gotten across and get the impression that the questioners are looking for a utilitarian list of dos and don’ts. So after several of these interactions during my recent trip to the States, I found a new way to illustrate my advice.

Think about yourself as going on a first date with Haiti. You’ve heard about Haiti maybe through the internet, or through shared acquaintences that introduced the two of you, and you’ve decided that you wanted to get to know him better. You’re able to land a date with him and are really excited but you want to make the right impression. No matter how much your heart has feelings for Haiti, you know that you can’t show up in just any outfit. You want to impress him but you don’t want to look overzealous and overdo it either. You want to look your absolute best but you also want to keep it casual because you don’t want him thinking that you’re trying too hard. You have no idea what his intentions are but you simply want him to see you as attractive enough to want to get to know you better and possibly pursue a relationship. But you remain confident that if he is interested in a relationship it will be based on who you truly are so you want to be authentic in your clothing choice. Just be yourself, but the best version of yourself. You are really interested in Haiti and you would be so thrilled if he gave you a great compliment on your style that first date, but you’d be crushed if you found out from your friend later that he really liked you but thought your shoes were ugly. So you remain very conscious of your style choices, but don’t worry to the point of it creating a false impression.

You know enough about Haiti to know that he won’t be taking you out anywhere fancy, probably just a casual dinner at a chain restaurant and maybe a walk in the park afterwards. So you wear sensible shoes, but not the dirty tennies that you wear for your morning jog. A nice shirt that’s not overly embellished, but not something as casual as a t-shirt which would make you look sloppy. Your favorite pair of jeans or pants, or a skirt to show off your legs, but not anything with too many pockets that might make it look like you’re stashing away leftovers from dinner for your camping trip over the weekend. You do your hair and put on a little make-up, just enough that you don’t look like you just rolled out of bed, but not so much that you look like a drag queen on her way home from the rave. You know that Haiti sees enough of them in his everyday life and you would like him to see that you’re a bit classier and more modest, someone with an education and interesting views.

If you make a good enough first impression, you’ll get the chance to get to know each other better, with each encounter getting more and more comfortable with the each other to where you don’t have to worry about what you wear at all. But if you make a bad first impression, Haiti’s not going to be interested in seeing you more or getting to know who you really are. If you don’t peak his interest from the first time he sees you, he’s never going to get to know your heart or all of the good intentions that lie within in. He’s never going to care about all of your good ideas or your interesting talents or how your relationship with him could actually help him improve himself just as he could help you improve yourself as well. You know that Haiti is a guy that sees a fun personality, caring heart, and strong spirit as important, but you also know that he’s not blind. You’ve got to show him that you’ve got the whole package from the start and care enough about yourself and respect him enough that you put some thought into your appearance. Not because you’re vain, but because you know he enjoys it and because you feel better when you look good. And when you feel better about yourself and appear approachable to others, you will be more effective at building that relationship that you’re after.

So, I know it might sound silly, but next time you’re packing for a trip to Haiti, or any other place where you intend to be in service to a different community or culture, think of yourself as preparing for a first date with them and see how it changes what you might pack. If you do it well enough you might just end up starting a relationship in which you end up growing old together despite all of your fashion hits and misses and can even laugh at each other in your underwear knowing so much about one another that none of it matters.