What do we hope for? (reflections on a visit to Haiti)

After cooking breakfast at a homeless shelter recently, I left knowing what I hoped for those women and men: good shoes, dental care, and a warm, dry place to sleep that night. After talking to a client about her pending retirement, I hung up the phone knowing what I hoped for her: a sense of satisfaction with her well-done work and a sense of adventure for her years ahead.

But in late November as I was leaving the village of Ma, in rural Southeastern Haiti, I didn’t have a clue what to hope for its people.

By “rural,” I mean really rural. Our two-hour drive from Jacmel up (pretty much straight up) drought-parched, rutted, rocky roads ended at a small group of houses and businesses, where our 11-person travel group from Faith and Money Network was met by a gracious group of people from Ma who had walked to meet us. They mercifully carried our luggage up (again, “up” means seriously up) a loose-rock path that took us to the village, where each of us was greeted with a fresh coconut to restore our energy and celebrate our arrival.

What a stunningly beautiful place. My home in Kentucky is also gorgeous—rolling hills, wide rivers, and the world’s largest cave systems—but it is an ancient, quiet beauty. Southern Haiti is more dramatic. Layers of mountains ripple up and down between coasts on the sparkling, turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s the quintessential postcard image.

The people of Ma were charming hosts. Usually sleeping four or five people to a room in tiny block houses, somehow they felt they had sufficient space to share with strangers from the USA. They prepared lovely food, put an elegant hand-tatted pillowcase on my pillow, and someone had even trekked in a can of milk so we could have the rich Haitian coffee American style.

The Faith and Money Network trip to Haiti was not a mission trip. We didn’t build, paint, or preach a thing. Rather, we participated in our hosts’ days and listened. Our group was accompanied in every way by people who not only translated Kreyol for us, but also interpreted the rich and complex culture, the religious hybrid of vodou and Catholicism, and the historical context of enslavement, US intervention (sometimes benevolent, often not), and decades of corrupt and violent leadership. I learned a deep appreciation for the remarkable people of Haiti—farmers, musicians, businesspeople, survivors of earthquakes.

People in Ma have no electricity without borrowing a generator from the community church, and, consequently, no air conditioning to help deal with the near-equatorial heat. To get water, you take the burro 20 minutes down a steep slope to fill jugs for the burro to haul back up—a time-consuming and difficult affair. There is no indoor plumbing (but with a view of the Caribbean Sea from your outhouse, there is a certain luxury in the scenery). With open windows in house and vehicles, and well into Haiti’s third year of drought, the thick dust coats your hair and throat. In these ways and more, life in Ma would be considered arduous by US American standards.

Yet it’s not clear what to hope for them.

Perhaps I might hope they would have more choices. Subsistence agriculture is the primary occupation in Ma, with a few teachers added to the mix. People looking for other types of work head to the cities of Jacmel or Port-au-Prince. But this is the standard rural/urban divide, well known in small towns across the USA, as well as in Haiti. Would more choice improve their lives? Yes, of course, for some. But instead of choices, the people of Ma have deep community and mutual interdependence, values we yearn for here in the US, having traded them for choice.

I would hope for the people of Ma an easier life. Imagine being responsible for a clean home, dishes, and children without running water, appliances, or trash collection. But many of us in the US have taken the physically easy life to an extreme, obvious in our obesity, chronic illnesses, and depression. It is not a model to be emulated.

I hope the people of Haiti might benefit from economic development, no doubt needed in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. But how much and toward what end? US AID has clearly been there; their stenciled tarps cover roofs and create room dividers. International aid after the 2010 earthquake was crucial for the first few days, but ongoing aid subverted local food distribution systems, which have never fully recovered. It is the perpetual dilemma of good hearts and good economists: How do we support development without unanticipated consequences?

At a micro level—for the people of Ma, for example—what would it mean to wish for them a more affluent standard of living? Regular food is a great place to start, along with easier access to health care.  I would wish for them enough money to school all of their children. Education is prized in Haiti, but the $60 it costs to send a child to school for a year is beyond many families’ reach. Some desperate parents send their children to stay with other families, in the tiniest hope the children will be fed and educated. Instead, many of those children who “stay away” become domestic—and sometimes sex—slaves.

But beyond the basics, what might it mean to wish them an average US standard of living? A larger, “nicer” home, with conveniences, entertainment, and the latest styles? To what end? Our psyches and our planet cannot support the way we live. I can’t help feeling that the real hope lies in us living more like the people of Ma, rather than the other way around.

See “The Healing Power of Haiti” and other compelling posts by one of our interpreters, Fee, at
https://feeinhaiti.wordpress.com

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Natural Investments News

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Jim Cummings

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