Back around the time that I got too busy to regularly stop, reflect, and write, I came across a thoughtful post on aid work in Haiti by Quinn Zimmerman called “The Aid Bitchslap.” I cross-posted it, and then, coincidentally, I stopped blogging due to time constraints. So Quinn’s post has been on my homepage for a very long time. I’m trying to find the time and energy to blog again, but in the meantime, Quinn emailed to let me know he’d written a follow-up to that first post. He’s put some space between himself and his Haiti experience, and it’s a good reflection. Here’s a taste. You can read the rest on Quinn’s blog.
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Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”
Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman
(cross-posted with his permission)
“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.
Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.
I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.
I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.
“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.
We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.
We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.
“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.
Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:
1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.
I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.
I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.
If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.
Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.
Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.
Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.
It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.
Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.
See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.