Haiti, First Impressions
“I’ve seen poverty before,” I told myself as my eyes followed the coastline outside the plane’s window. My goal was to address the inevitable culture shock as rapidly as possible and move past it. I had it in my mind that I wanted to show more than "just poverty."
I knew that within moments the hazy and distant land would be fully visible, and that the barren landscape would change as Port Au Prince came into view. I did not know that Cite Soleil, one of the most populous and impoverished slums in the Western Hemisphere, was the first part of the country of Haiti I would fly over.
When I first saw shore, the shock crashed into my chest and spread through my body. For the first time in years I completely forgot to take pictures. Cite Soleil is home to several hundred thousand people, and even from thousands of feet in the air I could see the effects that number of people had on an area devoid of sewers, electricity or public utilities. Trash fills the canals. Homes, rubble, and tents are wall-to-wall and become indistinguishable from each other. As soon as I identified a structure as too damaged, too full of holes to possibly be inhabited, a person walked out.
I saw a man jogging down one of the streets in long, loping, unhurried strides, and something about the normalcy of his motion broke my fixation on the conditions. I pulled myself together to snap one photo before Cite Soleil disappeared, but it wouldn’t come close to representing the mental turmoil I had just opened a door to.
As the plane landed, I fought a debilitating pity that began to replace the shock. I hated it, but it still came. Pity feels like an insurmountable barrier to respect; how can I honor someone if I’m unable to see beyond their poverty? As we left the airport and got into Vaudy’s* car, I closed the first door in the face of someone asking for help. At the hotel, I was spared the internal conflict of shutting door number two - it was one Haitian’s sole job to heave the massive iron gate closed for me, presumably (my then reeling mind felt) before anybody that looked like him snuck in behind us.
I think it was at that point that the absurdity of words I used to take comfort in began to hit me.
“If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.” - Eugene V. Debs
I have already risen, by the simple metric that I have food, housing, healthcare, and have never been truly afraid for my future. My distaste for the extravagance I’d left behind in the United States and those who reveled in it became absurd. To try to separate myself from “those people” who lived seemingly without any understanding or care of poverty was nothing more than a selfish effort to identify with these people. Holding that perspective required me to minimize my own education, bank accounts, and unearned advantages. Benefitting from these but imagining I could still hope for acceptance from Haitians seemed insulting to them; I’ve never been more ashamed of my shoes, camera, education, house, car, and computer. This conflict rose anew every time I repeated “mwen pa kapab, mwen dezolet” (I can’t, I’m sorry) to the people asking for money. What I spent on my camera could provide a year’s worth of income to more than one family, and here I was using a handful of Creole phrases to lie. I’d learned these phrases, laughably, in an effort to connect.
*Vaudy Jean Baptiste is the Program Director at "The Crosby Fund for Haitian Education."
The Crosby Fund brought me to Haiti to show some of the work they do and put together a project that would drive donations. Haiti does not have government-funded education, so nearly every school is a private business struggling to stay afloat. Walking into classrooms resulted in students leaping to their feet and singing to me, and administrators treated me with savior-like reverence. I was given access to photograph anywhere I asked, and my affiliation with the Crosby Fund was often used by parents to tell me about their children who had to stay at home because they could not pay for school. My frustration mounted as the phrase "I'm sorry, these photos won't help your son/daughter, but I hope they bring more donations" seemed increasingly vapid. What sounded passably reasonable before I left the United States quickly became ridiculous when I was actually confronted by the problems - every time another solemn, learned administrator lavished me with praise and gifts just for gracing their school with my presence I felt more and more like an imposter. What would they think of me in a year when their situation remained essentially unchanged?
At "Institution Mixte Claude St. Louis De Pont Paraymond Bas Verettes," this frustration reached a peak when I was told they were unable to afford chalk. Students were attending despite being unable to pay tuition, and teachers hadn't received their weekly $20 paycheck* for the last three months.
*Teachers at "Institution Mixte Claude St. Louis De Pont Paraymond Bas Verettes" make 700 Haitian dollars per month, or the equivalent of about 960 US dollars per year.
Despite the huge array of problems facing people living in the Artibonite, there are many things present that we do not have. While it's a little uncomfortable identifying positives while walking around fully fed, vaccinated, educated, and carrying a plane ticket out of there, I nonetheless felt that Haiti has much more positivity, simplicity, and community than we do. It would be a mistake to be too prescriptive in our help (and this contributed to my unease at being there in the first place). It really seemed to me that if there was only enough food, medicine, and opportunity, it would be perfect. I found myself conflicted - is everything America brings to the "third world" really better? Our donated clothing makes it impossible for local tailors to make a living and bolsters sweatshops. Our imported beverages vacuum money out of the economy, providing little value in return. Our advertising and marketing makes having "things" a measure of success rather than what we contribute to our communities. And our jobs become more important than anything else - we hide in our homes, get into our cars to go to work, and then come back to hide again. When I watched people working and socializing outside in the fresh air and eating food that was grown by families next door, hoping Haiti could be more like the US seemed less like granting them a democratic utopia and more like sentencing the majority to work at Walmart.
Even funerals in Haiti are full of life and community. They are not the solemn affairs we have in the US where attendees compete with each other to show just how sad they are, where a woman's role is to wail and a man's is to be a model of stoicism. Stumbling across a procession carrying a coffin up to the mountains was the highlight of my day, while so much as driving past a funeral home in the US starts me obsessively imagining the best ways to convey my utter devastation to the media should my whole family be tragically killed in a car crash.
The coffin often must be carried for hours from the morgue to the graveyard. It's supported on two men's heads, and they switch every couple of minutes to avoid heat exhaustion. The entire group sings and stomps their feet the entire way, in an effort to keep the family in good spirits. It attracts complete strangers who join to sing and dance along the way to the river to do laundry, to their jobs, or to the market. My worries that my presence would be offensive to anyone were completely unfounded - no explanation of my camera was needed because the moment it was seen I was pulled into the middle of the group and met with smiles and gesticulations making it clear I was to take close-ups of those carrying the coffin.
Journal Entry: November 20, 2013
Tomorrow I’m going to interview Estime and ask how often he goes without food. And then I have to go back to the hotel for lunch.
In griping about the inequality and unfairness to a friend of mine during the trip, he asked "What were you expecting?" I was expecting to be shocked by poverty, and I was right. While I didn't get there expecting to be unchallenged by what I saw, it still rocked the foundations of the life I'm used to. Rather than separating it from my life here, I will use it to inform the things I do. The United States has an unfavorable history with Haiti, and our economy exists in conflict with theirs. Our corporations work to keep minimum wage down to keep their own profits up. Our government's alliance with France kept the Haitian economy fettered for more than a century, and we close our doors to immigrants who could bring our wealth back with them. Perhaps most noticeably, our churches spread divisiveness there through proselytization, sometimes blatantly, sometimes under the guise of bringing aid, and sometimes (most creepily) accidentally. The result is a deeply ingrained racial inequality that is at the heart of my distaste for the way we approach Haiti. I have never felt such attention as a minority before, but the attention was entirely unlike what has been inflicted upon blacks for centuries. No, we have taught a whole nation that white people eat better, live better, and travel luxuriously. We go and we pat ourselves on the back for the charity we provide, and if the results aren't as positive as expected because proper research was not done we concede, say "our hearts were in the right place," and fly home. I saw people trying to carry my things, hold doors for me, and refuse to disagree with anything that came out of my mouth, and I shouldn't have been surprised. I was driven around the country while most travel on motorcycles or packed into pickup trucks. I stayed in a hotel with running water and electricity when the majority have neither.
These are unanswerable issues, because benefits like safe transportation, sustaining meals, and electricity are basic requirements to get work done. But they also help reinforce inequality and racism. Being there, I felt a strong urge to reject inequality and just BE equal, but it is not ultimately a choice I got to make - the people who came before me made it already. Just as I began to despise their actions, I felt a pang of hypocrisy as I realized my own fortified it.