December 8, 2003 — it was my second full day of my first trip to Haiti — we had spent a powerful and draining morning being briefed by ordinary Haitians, women and men, about the atrocities of the 1991-94 coup in Haiti. There were six of us. I had nothing to say. I was there to listen and to learn.
Our group leader had arranged for lunch for the entire group, and before we left we went around the circle of perhaps 20-25 people, simply to shake hands and thank the group for their hospitality. About two-thirds of the way around I extended my hand to a man, and he refused the handshake.
Experiences like that tend to stick with me. I have no idea why he singled me out (I was the only one of the group of four men and two women so treated). Perhaps I reminded him of someone, some white American, some terrible experience. I’ll never know.
Similarly, I remember a poolside luncheon later the next day at one of those fancy hotels in Petion-ville. We were being briefed by a supporter of then-President Aristide, who later took us around to a school and to a television station to meet other people. At the hotel, I noticed a solitary white man sitting quietly in a deck chair reading a book. I wondered who he was and why he was there. I didn’t ask and I’ll never know. I gather, though, that a white face in Haiti is a suspect face, with good reason.
So it is.
Years have now passed, and I’m far better informed than I was then, and I happen to be at the intersection of lots of electronic communication about what is happening in post-January 12 Haiti. I’m also ice-bound in the middle of the U.S., trying to help as best I can from here.
I know lots of people with lots of points of view, from total ignorance of Haiti (as was true with me seven years ago) to Haitians who are trying to find ways to work together within whatever system exists in the U.S., to others who, like that guy who refused to shake my hand that December day, just want US the hell out.
I wish there were simple “one-size fits all” solutions. There aren’t.
A short while ago I started one of these blog posts with a sentence that we had raped, looted and pillaged Haiti for its whole 206 year history. Pretty harsh indictment, but not at all unreasonable. Someone I know responded and seemed miffed with my indictment of US (as in U.S, and we Americans): he really didn’t know any of the back story, apparently. I tried to inform him.
On the other side of the equation, I expressed “disappointment” about something sent by a prominent Haitian leader with a large list, and was told that I “insulted” the person (who I respect.) The rage is palpable and we probably deserve the rage. (My work career found me frequently in the position of being yelled at by one side or another, so I’m used to harsh comments. But do bitter and angry comments help anything, any more than willful ignorance and misplaced trust? I don’t think so.)
The voiceless ones, represented by that guy who wouldn’t shake my hand, have desperate needs, and the needs will be very long-term.
Somehow we need to accept the fact that the U.S. is key to solutions to this catastrophe, and that there will be all manner of well-meaning and malicious attempts to help (or “help”, as in profiteering from the crisis.)
I think “boots on the ground” folks like Dr. Paul Farmer are in an excellent position to do some good, and know the political system very well. To me, Dr. Farmer has earned his credibility.
The guy in the circle that day in 2003 has also earned his credibility with me.
We need to listen to both sides, and to do what we can to make for a better Haiti, one that is founded on justice, not dependent on charity (there is a big difference.)