Yesterday I had the joy of a gorgeous boat ride on the Caribbean with Disciples’ Village staff a little before the sun set over the island of La Gonave for the evening. It’s amazing how much larger and magnificent the mountains of Haiti look from a few miles out on the ocean. While we can see the mountains from our campus and drive around at the base of them daily, this new perspective brings a larger picture of just how majestic they are—adding a new dimension of beauty to the place I get to call home.
The first time my feet touched this mountainous ground of Haiti was five years ago to this day. And just like a boat ride brought the size of the mountains into perspective, five years of questions, research, experiences, and the wisdom of those who have gone before has given me a drastically larger view not only of Haiti but of poverty, differing cultures, communication, economies, relationships, etc., my place in this world, and the interconnectedness of it all. While time has slowly revealed a greater understanding of these things and has brought a higher level of learning, leading, living, and thinking, I also recognize that if I’ve had my eyes and mind opened this much in five years, I cannot fathom how different my perspective will be in the decades to come.
The deeper into the waters I go the more of the island I see, but I know that if I keep moving away from the island it will eventually become a small spec in the distance. I wonder if life is like that. Each day you see more, learn more, experience more, and one day you realize just how small everything is in the grand scheme of it all. It’s an intriguing thought.
Anyways… here is a compilation of five lessons I’ve learned during a five year fixation on Haiti as told by Haitian proverbs and sayings.
- Figi ou se paspo ou…Your smile is your passport. This was the first proverb I came across when preparing for my first trip to Haiti, meaning a kind smile paired with an attempt to communicate in Creole will get you many places that you need to go. While Haitian and American cultures, communication contexts, economic statuses and a plethora of other things differ, we share the meaning of a smile and it goes to show how body language and actions often speak far louder than words. I also like to say that love knows no language…whether my Creole is working that day or not, I can love people regardless of what language they speak, their geographical origin, ethnic background, and many other things that often divide people are simply different from each other.
- Dye mon, gen mon… Beyond mountains, there are mountains. This little phrase packs quite a punch. Not only is this the meaning of the name Haiti (or so I’ve been told), the title of an insightful book by Tracy Kidder and Paul Farmer about their experiences working in Haiti, and an accurate description of the geography of Haiti—it is a kind reminder that after you face and conquer one problem or mountain, there is often another one waiting for you to traverse not too far in the distance. It would be hard for me to find a more accurate depiction of much of my time in Haiti thus far, one problem rolling right after the other. Yet while there are many literal and figurative mountains to climb here, the beauty that surrounds us and the richness found in the hike—though tiring at times—far surpass the momentary struggles and sticking points.
3. Piti, piti, zwazo fe nich li…Little by little the bird finishes its nest. I first heard this proverb in the context of learning to speak and understand Haitian Creole, and mezanmi (my goodness), this could not be more true! While we do not always know or see what the bird is doing while collecting and carrying twigs, threads, dirt, etc. off to an unknown location, piece by piece the bird crafts a safe haven for its babies and a foundation for a solid life. Little by little, piece by piece, a word here or there each day…and before you know it you are on your way to communicating in Kreyol—it just might take five years before you can put much of anything together! I’m finding this is also true of working in Haiti and of life in general. Each day I need to keep picking up twigs of information, threads of truth, the occasional ugly dirt of reality mixed in with the love of the process and maybe one day something beautiful and unexpected will be created from which to work from.
- Naje pou soti…Swim to get out. This is a friend’s description of the Haitian economy. The funny thing is that I have observed and been told that many Haitians have never learned to swim. Maybe if someone taught them to swim, or taught business/job/finance skills, and provided the initial resources to float in the sea, Haiti would be a different place in a few decades. It’s exciting to hear of ‘swimming lessons’ taking place all around and to get to play a small part in the big sea. Now the challenge is to teach people to swim, and then convince those who know to stay and teach the person behind them that they all might rise up together to create the infrastructure and systems necessary to float and not have to fight for survival in a rough ocean all of the time.
- Blanc! Blanc! Blanc! This term for foreigners in Haiti is loaded with meaning and weighted down with the history of the western side of the island of Hispaniola and the people who have officially and unofficially controlled it. While not a proverb in the definition of the word, understanding the implications of being a ‘blanc’ has been a game changer in my time working, living, and loving in Haiti. The most common uses of this title of sorts include it coming from the mouths of sweet, innocent children trying to get my attention as I walk by and from not-so-naive adults who have observed the past and sometimes current reality of many foreigners giving hand outs. They are angry because I am not interacting with them in a way they perceive I should, i.e. I’m not giving them the money they think I have in abundance at my house that I’m not forking over.
I have been greeted with statements from both children and adults alike such as, “Blanc, ou visye!” “Blanc, ou shish!” Meaning White/foreigner, you are greedy/wicked! White/foreigner, you are cheap! These statements and accusations are so much deeper than the words being shrieked as I casually walk by. They stem from Haiti’s detrimental history of foreigners coming in and throwing money and supplies at people, destroying the local economies and putting many farmers and people in ‘ti commerce’ or small market stands out of business, because why would someone with little money want to spend it on food, clothes, and other needs when they are being given away for free or even dropped from the sky?
Decades of corruption of international aid organizations and the Haitian government have led to this point, leading to people perceiving me as greedy, stingy, cheap, or even wicked as I walk by simply because I am not giving them what they think I should. But who can blame them? All they know or want to remember of foreigners is the temporary handouts and money being thrown at projects that rarely follow through or live up to expectations.
While this is the reality that many who work and live in Haiti, I can either choose to let the locals’ perception of my purpose for working here derail my progress or I can take it into consideration and learn to move past it to accomplish what I came to Haiti to do. In the eyes of a few we foreigners might be greedy and cheap, but in the eyes of many we have come to shine light in the darkness together.
(Side note- not all or even a majority of the people I interact with on a regular basis think or act this way. Many understand that the United States does not in fact have money trees and value what we can bring to the table other than cash. These scenarios and themes just seem to be the common threads that keep me from easily accomplishing what I want to do in our communities.)
Through these proverbs and sayings I’m beginning to see that it is all about perspective. I can see my inability to communicate at times or choose to do what I know how and smile at everyone I pass. I can see the inevitable mountains ahead as discouraging or attack them ‘with enthusiasm unknown to mankind’ (Brian Cain via Belmont softball’s Coach Brian Levin), grow stronger from the challenge, and enjoy the beauty along the way. And on and on the proverbs impart their wisdom.
To change up the conversation (however one-sided—although I would love to make it more two-sided if you are to comment with your thoughts) towards an update and in a more succinct fashion, November has been a month of coming to the end of myself, my plans, and my ideas. I’m realizing that I need to dial it back several notches and train up the business leaders in our communities with the hope that I come across a few who are investing in the people around them financially or even in more of a mentorship format. It is evident that being on the front lines of microfinance as a foreign woman in Haiti simply will not work in an honorable and sustainable way. My next step is finding local people of high integrity to ‘fight’ the battles in front with me supporting with all I have unseen in the back. It will take some doing and many long hours of grueling work digging out the trenches, but I’m willing to put in whatever it takes to create healthy and sustainable change in the economic climate of Disciples’ Villages’ partnering communities and maybe one day all over Haiti.
Other things that happened in November include the continuation of the chicken coop adventure, working on the small business our Alex’s House kiddos work with (drink sales and a souvenir store), and a variety of exciting and crazy times that spontaneously occur in the madness of this glorious life in Haiti. Our chicken coop employee is doing a marvelous job taking care of the chickens, selling eggs, and having someone help keep record of egg sales/revenue. Just yesterday she told me we need to buy more layer chickens because the demand for eggs in Trouforban is too high to keep up with our current amount. What a great problem to have, and I look forward to getting more chickens in the coop soon! I also spent more time talking with leaders in our communities about economic development and job creation possibilities. Possibly one ‘highlight’ of the month was a day spent in Port au Prince driving around and sitting at the car insurance place watching other people run around like chickens with their heads cut off (not my chickens) trying to transfer papers and purchase insurance, ending the day heading back home in a car purchased by a couple also working with Disciples’ Village. It was a taste of freedom through another car and driver and a glimpse into the chaos of dealing with government agencies.
Life is grand, and the simple joys and small victories make passing through the mountains 100% worth it. Similarly to “ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough…”, there ‘ain’t no’ problem complex enough to keep me from choosing a positive perspective...sometimes I just need to find a different location to view it from. As always, God’s grace sustains me and the love of Christ compels me forward. With joy I run into December ready to keep climbing the mountains beyond mountains of Haiti.