Face to Face in Milot
Shared Experiences from our trips.
An Essay: Identity and Essence in Haiti by Andrew Bowen, Spring 2015
Foreign places can be so radically different that it takes all your effort just to keep your eyes open and take everything in. No time or space in the mind remains to categorize and contrast what you see with what you know from home. Then, just as you start to get your bearings, you return home, and everything is immediately how you left it. It feels like you have awakened from a dream, with memories that are fantastic and otherworldly and alien to real life. Over time, your memories of travel drift into irrelevance as you fail to see the similarities anchoring them to your daily experience. Or, you fight to find the common threads between the foreign land and your own, nurturing the memories for long enough to figure out what the other land can teach you about how you (and your family, and your community) can live better.
I went to Milot, Haiti in May with a group from my church. For two years, Avondale Presbyterian has sponsored food deliveries to a group of indigent residents in Milot, Haiti. These people are bedridden, aged, pigeon-toed, without family, alone with 13 kids, suffering from illness unidentified, or otherwise unable to take care of themselves. They only eat by our donations. It's true that our charity has a short-term emphasis. We aren't funding sustainable businesses. We aren't making “investments in Haiti's future.” The thirty people in Milot are, by definition, unproductive, and even though the food helps to support the people who cook the food and tend to their households, it isn't part of a long-term development plan. Certainly, development aid is necessary; Haiti and all developing countries need to stand on their own, and no doubt Haitians want every opportunity to work for their own livelihoods. But the immediate needs of these thirty people in Milot are undeniable. On what grounds can we say their needs are subordinate? How can we claim to know the “right way” to be charitable when we know so little of how Haitians live, of their suffering, and of what they value? Part of our mission in May was to gain some of this knowledge from the source. If we can figure out the needs of the neighbors, perhaps we can find ways to help them better. Further, reporting back and humanizing the people we are helping is necessary to strengthening their bond with our congregation. So, when we went around for deliveries, I asked the food recipients some questions about their lives. But the answers were sparse and unsatisfying.
“What did you do for work when you were young?” “I tended a garden, and I sold things in town.”
“Do you have any family?” “Yes, I have several kids.”
“Where did you grow up?” “I grew up in the hills above Milot, then I moved here.” (this statement every single of the Milot neighbors we asked.)
“What makes you happy?” “You being here makes me happy.”
I expected these people to open up and say things that were unique, endearing, entertaining. I wanted something I could take with me, like some sense of their essence or character that would make them more than names and faces. The first time I went to Haiti, the Haitians I met impressed me with their openness and sincerity. I thought the recipients would be happy to talk about themselves. But they seemed confused by why we were asking these questions at all. In America, we are constantly thinking about our identity: that which makes us unique. So if someone asks you your favorite food, or about the music you like, or your profession, you can tell them. But this is Haiti, not the U.S. Can you have a favorite food when you barely have enough to eat? How can you be defined by your career when the majority of the population is unemployed? Might that account for why so many of the answers were the same? In a land of abundance, you can choose what you want your life to be like. In a land of poverty, you try to get by.
I think my difficulties were testament to how connections between people can't be artificially made. That it was difficult to connect, however, is precisely why I think we should keep trying to anchor our memories in friendship. When you make a friend in a foreign land, one of the masses of strange people becomes an individual you can understand and empathize with. But just wanting to be friends won’t make it happen. With the Haitian neighbors, and even with our host, Jacquelin, and his family and friends, I feel like I still have so much to learn and experience before we can truly be called friends It took some time after my return to find common threads with my time in Haiti. If you look at the horizon, above the well-paved streets, green yards and houses of America and lift your eyes so that you only see the space where the trees and sky meet, it's looks the same as it does in Haiti. On the road below, people are driving to where they need to go, just like the Tap-Taps and motorcycles do in Haiti. On weekend evenings, people come out of their houses to hang out with each other. Every evening, the neighbors of Jacquelin were lined up on their porches. They didn't have to be doing anything to find an excuse to be together. Their socialization isn't reduced to something distracting and minimal, but remains full and satisfying. Food is good, not a source of shame or temptation like it is in our world of excess. In Haiti, the main components of life are the same as in America. People spend time with their families and friends; people work to get by; people have joys and suffering. In fact, it's much easier to see the important parts when they’re stripped down to their essence.
Our work is built on the idea of a sharing a sacred covenant with our partners in Milot. We give to each other and end up richer for the experience. This takes time, and part of what we sacrifice is the time spent struggling to connect to a foreign people and culture. It is unrealistic to expect relationships to be made overnight. But underneath the differences is the common ground we share. All people need food and shelter, all people need friends and a sense of belonging, all people need faith in a better tomorrow. This is what my visits to Haiti have taught me. When we search out the bare, essential things in our lives and make them the focus, we become our fullest selves.