When I am in Haiti, I don’t walk. I don’t take the tap-tap either, because of security reasons. I’m used to hopping in an SUV with a driver and crisscrossing the city, my windows rolled-up and dusty. In the morning, I pass shop stands, markets, Haitians waiting for tap-taps, on the backs of motorcycles, or walking in the sweltering heat. I look at the baskets of mangoes nestling next to vats of freshly decapitated chickens, feathers still quivering. I’ve sat in traffic for so long I’ve held meetings in the car on speakerphone.
I was prompted to write on the subject of Haiti for my first post because of the brilliant article Nora Schenkel wrote in the New York Times, where she describes her eight-month stint in Port-au-Prince. It’s a disarmingly honest, stripped down and courageous look at her experience.
As a development worker, I wanted to add my point of view on the matter. It is true: Haiti is considered a “hardship post,” and many development workers enjoy comforts (and pay) that should compensate this “hardship.” Some expats have nice houses, cooks, drivers, housemaids. But it isn’t all a life of comfort. From what I have observed over the five years I’ve been in and out of the country, the people in the country offices – well, they work incredibly hard. Many of them make personal sacrifices to be in Haiti; their families are in the Dominican Republic, in Canada, or in Miami. Some are even in DC. I don’t know a single person who leaves work early. In fact, most are workaholics who have far longer days than their colleagues who are not in the field. They deal with a gamut of problems common to many Haitians, such as power outages, fuel shortages, bad roads, and torrential rains.
What Ms. Schenkel is getting at, I believe, is the vast difference between the expats’ level of comfort and that of the majority of Haitians’. It’s not just the power outages; it’s the fact that the expats have power at all. It’s that expats do not live like a lot of poor Haitians and aren’t faced with the same constraints every day. Every time I come back, I feel it too: guilt, creeping up on me. The first time I felt it, I was in Gonaives, after the hurricane season of 2008. We went to visit a small community that had been completely flooded. The children were hungry; they followed us, asked us for food. I was there with a team to talk about the kind of large-scale project that would undoubtedly take months to accomplish, and wouldn’t put any food in these kids’ mouths for a long time. I’d never felt more irrelevant.
Working in a poor country is humbling. I wonder how the poor get by on their own, every day. I always leave wondering if I am making a difference. But I don’t think of what I or any of us do as “help”: I come to Haiti to work with Haitians. We do things together, we agree on what a project might look like, we design it together. Maybe some people are living in Haiti for career advancement, and a year or two there earns you career “brownie points.” But if you have nothing to show for it when you come home, people in your next interview will see through your CV pretty quickly.
The last time I was in Haiti, I stayed one night working late. I remember passing the darkened shacks and alleys branching off the main road on the way home. I wondered where the Haitians I’d seen earlier that day slept. My hotel, which that morning faced the bright, newly painted Jalousie community, now overlooked a dark mass against the mountain, yellow dots of light flickering here and there. The song “Mercy” by Dave Matthews began to run through my head.
So lift up your eyes, lift up your heart
Singing, mercy will we overcome this?
One by one, could we turn it around?
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I’ll try to give you what you need.
You don’t have to live in poverty to help the poor. But I think it is a shame if you never step out of that SUV. I’m glad Ms. Schenkel did. Next year, I too will get out of my car to walk through the real Haiti, up close and in person.