Gaps and reciprocity

It’s 4:50 in the morning, but thoughts just wanted out. Again and again, in the last six months, I’ve ran into people who have been completely exhausted by Haiti. Haiti has this tendency to just plow through good people. It saddens me because these are people that I like and care about. It scares me because I can easily envision it for myself.

Part of it stems from the sheer immensity of the project at hand. The problems of Haiti are so deeply rooted in its culture that it is hard to know where to begin or that if anything you are doing is making any sort of difference. This is a people who have grown so beaten down and desperate that it is hard for them to envision any other way of life — much less to know how to try for that other way of life. Desperation and hopelessness inspires compassion, but this hopelessness manifests itself daily as just a kind of laziness. And this laziness simply frustrates.

It is easy to stand from the side and talk grand themes of empowerment and how that will lead to Haiti’s eventual revival. But when you are caught in the dailiness of it all, that is not how it happens. One cannot always keep perspective.

Haiti is a place where our familiar concept of reciprocity simply does not apply. I want to clarify here, that by reciprocity, I don’t mean a lack of material reciprocity — which, I think, everyone has an easier time understanding. But here in this NGO republic, it’s more a wish for another kind of reciprocity — whether it be some form of recognition or just meeting half way in effort. It’s more often just ban mwen kob la (give me money), ban mwen telefone ou (give me your phone), ban mwen manje (give me food). Always just give me, give me, give me. It isn’t fair to say this is everyone in Haiti, but it is also not uncommon.

Between here and developed nations, there is an obvious gap of material means, but I think people more easily forget how great destitution also leads to gaps in more intrinsic qualities. It is much easier to understand the gap in material means, but harder to forgive certain things like work ethic or just simple morality. It’s hard to see people who are at times, just so unwilling to make the minimal effort to help themselves. I remember one of the first few words said to me when I was here last time was “poverty makes good people do bad things.” I think of those few words often, but when you are concerned for your own safety simply because you are a blanc (which is what they call me as well) — it becomes a little harder to remember and comprehend.

What is inspiring this post is actually just being around a friend of mine here, who works on biosand filters. I met him during my last two weeks in Haiti. The project is on a scale far different from it was last summer, but he has also paid a price as a result of it. He has grown more shut down, more uninterested in people in general. I think, it’s in attempt to preserve some bit of himself from the daily ugliness of it all.

I wish there is a better way of ending this post, but all I can leave you with is that — I am scared. I’m scared shitless about what this will do to me as well.


6 thoughts on “Gaps and reciprocity

  1. Darlin it is still very important you take mental health breaks every once in a while. That burn out will hack you up really badly if you don’t. Your compassion is a beautiful part of you please oh please don’t let things get to where you feel that well run dry. You are not the source of the discontent there nor is it on your shoulders to solve the situation. I remember the constant “give me” of Haiti and it can very easily lead you to a bad place inside. I remember eventually feeling hostility around it, it was then time to take a break. Reach out to other long timers that have done relief work there, there might be internal some tools to work with that those folks could show you.

  2. No worries, I am far from burning out! Just got here. As to talking to old-timers — not really possible when you’re the only blanc in town. Kind of homesick as a result, but everything also runs on my (or more like a Haitian) schedule, so everything is slow. Sometimes, frustratingly so, but not overwhelming.

  3. Fascinating! Since poverty “makes” people do “bad things” we really cannot blame the Haitians individually or collectively for their criminality–ANY criminality. Like a pit bull that has been beaten, they are dangerous. Sad, perhaps. Piitiable, certainly, but dangerous.

    I have tried to explain this to my neighbors who are trying to sponsor 50-100 Haitians to move to our small town as refugees. I have explained that it is not “racism”, but a simple recognition of their potential. Unfortunately, she doesn’t understand the difference between racism and reality.

    • The Dude,

      You have completely misunderstood me. Desperation that comes with certain situations can make good people do very bad things — this includes you. This means you, when you’re starving and your family is starving, may choose to steal, but it may not necessarily mean you are a bad person. In other situations, the same people can afford to be good (again, think of yourself). Your neighbors are actively trying to remove people from situations where they have to do “bad things” to survive. It’s worth applauding. It doesn’t mean Haitians will be dangerous in your small town. Actually, to be honest, most Haitians I have met in Haiti are good people and do not do bad things. They are incredibly kind and generous — as people everywhere can be — even in their situations. But I think crime rates are higher there because of the situation, not the people — does that make sense?


    • Just found this blog and post and it reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this week. I live in a small Caribbean Island with a large proportion of Caribbean, North American and European expats including a Haitian community that is not made to feel particularly welcome. I was talking about Haiti and Haitians with a friend who works in the courts. He pointed out that though the public perception of Haitians here is that they are opportunistic, violent and dangerous, Haitians are actually very underrepresented in crime statistics in the territory. You could probably relax a bit…

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