Haiti: Reflections of a Recovering Development Worker
I arrive in Haiti under the early summer glare. It is hot. Hotter than I imagined it would be, but certainly not as hot as some of the other places I’ve been. My skin doesn’t threaten to peel off my muscles in search of cool air as in northern Burkina Faso. It doesn’t feel like the desert wind will suck the last drop of moisture from my struggling lungs with each gust as it did in Egypt. Nonetheless, it is hot. Hotter than I expect it to be, and hotter than I am comfortable with.
On the flight down I am seated next to a missionary from Indiana who tells me that this is the first time he’s been on a plane. He doesn’t know what to do with his customs and immigration forms. He’s unsure how to answer some of the questions. The missionary asks me for help, and a vindictive elf on my shoulder smiles smugly: the American asking the African for help. A rational elfin counterpart is alarmed – why is this man even here?
I quickly disembark and rush into the airport. I am one of a handful of black faces on the plane, and to my knowledge, the only one not returning home after a long stay lotbo – “over there” – in the United States. I have condensed over 2 months of life into a single suitcase. Normally, I would only take a backpack, but because I am here for work, I must pack many accoutrements of the modern female existence. “Pack sanitary towels,” they advise me “they don’t really sell the good ones in Haiti.” “You’ll need a pair of heels. Haitian women dress up for work.” But where do they get their shoes?
(Side bar: when did being a woman get so complicated? Does the nature of the work change at all the way men pack? I wonder.)
My suitcase is heavy and bursting at the seams. The many men who gather around the airport entrance, looking for les blancs – white people – are seemingly are eager to help. They speak to me in Kreyol, and I have to confess, I like it. If I remain silent, I can “pass”. I smile dismissively – enough to feign comprehension and communicate that I’m fine. I don’t need help carrying my bag. I am a feminist. And I am cheap.
To the car. Through the streets. Up into the mountains for an intensive class in Haitian kreyol. I get goosebumps when I learn that there remain palpable remnants of African identity in Haitian culture. The use of proverbs to hand down accumulated wisdom. The word “gangan” to mean witchdoctor sounds almost exactly the same as the word “mganga” which is Swahili for the same. Are the Haitian people Bantu like me? Have time, space and place failed to erase that common thread that binds us together? Am I being too essentialist?
My teacher knows more about Haitian history than anyone I’ve ever met. He speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, Kreyol and French. He is about the same age as me – maybe a little bit older. I should feel inadequate when I am in his classroom but instead I feel a certain amount of pride. No, I am not Haitian. But as he stands in that classroom, teaching passionately about this country he loves, I can’t help feeling better about the future of Haiti. Haiti is – can be – in good hands.
It saddens me when I see people speaking to him as a child. It’s not out and out yelling or abuse. It’s just a little micro-aggression here. A snide remark there. A wagged finger in the face. I’m not privy to the complexities of the relationships but I feel… uneasy. He is one of the best teachers that I have ever had – easily. But he is disrespected – because? He doesn’t pay the bills? He doesn’t own a car? He works so hard and so well. He deserves more respect, I think.
To be a man in the world’s first black republic to me seems like an exercise in subservience. Bending and adapting to the will of the many NGO’s who come to Haiti to “help”. At first blush, it seems disruptive. I sense the patriarchy that isn’t so much being dissolved as it is being shifted downwards. Men on top; women at the bottom replaced by foreigner on top, men further down, and women still at the bottom, holding the whole thing up.
We come to help. Still, as soon as we turn up, we do something to the water. And I don’t just mean the cholera. We say: “I am an advocate,” and thus claim power. We change the way people related to each other. Houses are built on sacred hills and in protected forests to guard against the danger that apparently accompanies white skin in poor black or brown places. Our money brings in imports that the locals can’t afford to eat and cars we won’t let them drive. Should I be guiltier about my large box of American cookies? What about the box of herbal tea? Is this all okay because we came to help?
Travel has a way of throwing everything into stark relief. When I travel, I am more aware of my blackness, my womanhood, my age, my Africanness, the dense, impenetrable curl of my natural hair. I see more to criticise but feel less prone to criticising. I am no better than those I would criticise. In Haiti, I take pictures that I probably shouldn’t take. I am afraid of the water coming from my tap.
Yet the food tastes familiar. The sounds resonate somewhere indescribable. No one asks if they can touch my hair. I take offence for Haiti when people call her “backwards”. My blackness – visible, indelible, undeniable, constructed and laced with imputed meaning – is somehow staking a claim for me in Haiti, with or without my help.
I have no answers. Just many questions, and an odd sense of kinship and relief. Haiti isn’t awful. It’s a living, breathing monument to the power of resilience. I am living a cliché – I came to help change Haiti, but I already feel it changing me.