by Lee Rainboth
Crossposted at The Green Mango Blog
This post was a suggestion by a friend on Facebook in response to my first post about fashion. I'm not sure if this is what she meant. I was going to call it "Eleven Things You Should Never Say as a Foreigner in Haiti" but I decided to put the Judgy McJudger pants aside a bit and be upfront about the fact that these are my opinions of things that I'm tired of hearing people say in reference to Haiti and her people. If you want to say these things in Haiti, you have every right to. But before you do, please read my perspectives on them. Most of these statements are born out of good intentions and the purest of motives, but when spouted into a culture not your own, a culture that has already been so damaged by the world’s words, these statements can become offensive without you being aware.
1. Any phrase including the words "those less fortunate," "the least of these," or even "the poor"
I hate the use of any words that draw unnecessary lines between "us" and "them." Anyone who uses these types of phrases clearly has a point of view that says that the people being served and the ones providing the service could never exist within the same category. It is outright degrading to imply that the people you have come to help are somehow less than you. Some higher power that allegedly equals love has deemed you "greater than" somewhere along the way and now whether it is your own savior complex, or guilt, that drives you, you come with a disconnected sense of pity that leaves no lasting impression on Haiti or its people. It's typical to hear people use these phrases most often before they come to Haiti and are fundraising in the states, or after they have returned home and are talking about their trip. But I have heard foreign visitors use these phrases directly to the Haitians to describe why they've come here and it makes me ashamed to share the same skin color as them. I've even heard pastors come and preach messages in church to Haitians using these phrases. I wanted to throw rotten tomatoes at them. It’s just common sense, that for some reason we abandon in mission work, not to describe anyone as being lesser than you. I've always been mad at Jesus for saying what he said in Matthew 25:40. It’s been the source of so much cross cultural misunderstanding and walls being built, messing things up in the end. He should have known better.
2. We are so blessed in our country.
I guess it depends on how you define "blessed". But if the reason that you came to Haiti was to confirm how blessed you are in your country by witnessing the suffering of those in poverty first hand in this country, then you wasted your money. I could have told you that you have a lot more material possessions and modern conveniences in your country and then you could have just sent Living Media all of the money that you wasted on traveling here to see the deplorable conditions of people living in the "Western Hemisphere's poorest country." And the problem is that the Haitians you are interacting with can see this in the way you interact with them. The whole time that you are "helping" them, they are very well of the fact that you are more "blessed" than they are, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to pay for the plane ticket to come to their country or the guest house fees to eat better food than they do. When even the Haitians already know how blessed your country is, if you didn't already realize that before you came, then you’re really late to the party. And, even after you say this when returning to your country, you know darn well you're not going to change the way you live. So what's the point?
3. I received so much more than I gave.
Well than don't go home and tell everyone at your church that you went on a mission trip, let them know that you were on vacation, or a personal spiritual retreat to rediscover the meaning of life. Again, if that's what you got out of your trip, the fact that poor people can teach rich people valuable lessons, then you wasted your money again and you could have just stayed home and read The Prince and The Pauper and sent me the money that was intended to help the Haitians. We need people to come help carry out the work of developing this country by providing skills that the average Haitian cannot, but we do not need more people showing up just to learn the value of helping their fellow man while giving false hope to people who are in desperate need of something more.
4. They're so happy/beautiful/clean/welcoming.
Generalizations are dangerous even if they're positive ones. First of all, these statements can come off as offensive to the local people you are describing because they imply that you expected the opposite. Oh, just because I'm poor you thought that I'd be an angry, ugly, dirty, jerk? Obviously, I know that's not ever what you intend to say when you make one of these statements, but even a sincere complement can be taken the wrong way through translators and across cultural nuances. And secondly if you use any of these phrases when talking to someone outside of the culture to describe the entire culture, you've made a broad statement that doesn't describe the completeness of their humanity. There are lots of beautiful people in this country, but there are plenty of ugly ones too. They're human. And they also go through a range of emotions. At the moments that you encounter them they are most likely at their happiest, cleanest, most welcoming points. But every human goes through ups and down, so judging an entire population based on the momentary emotions of a few is unfair as well. And, in every society there will always be the angry, dirty, jerks too, but if you have a good host, they probably keep you away from those sorts of people anyway. Doesn't mean that they aren’t there. So, when you're describing the Haitians that you met on your trip, please try to steer away from generalizations and speak as specifically as possible. A personal story will always make a greater impact on those hearing your sharing anyway.
5. It's just like… (fill in name of another "3rd world" country)
Oye yoy yoy mezanmi! Yes, it's true, there are other countries that are materially poor and struggle with some of the same societal issues as Haiti. But comparing this country to any other country based on the problems that it faces is a tragic simplification of those issues. Looking at Haiti with this attitude will greatly reduce your effectiveness in serving the people here. Some of the symptoms of poverty in this country may resemble those of other countries, but the causes to the problems that this society faces are completely different than anywhere else in the world, and without understanding that, your generalizations will water down the depth and beauty of what this culture has to offer. I don't care if you have visited all 7 continents and you’ve been on more than 15 mission trips to countries all around the world, and you think that you’ve seen it all and dealt with people in situations like Haiti’s before, trust me, you have no idea. I recently heard a friend of mine, a Haitian-American who's lived in Jacmel for many years, say that you have to live here full time for at least 10 years just to understand a tiny bit of why this country's so screwed up before you can ever expect to make any kind of difference. If that's true, and you come in with your analysis after two days of it being just like wherever, than you’ve already failed at having a positive impact on the people.
6. "It’d sure be nice if…" "I wish we could…" "Maybe someday…"
You say these phrases and a Haitian hears, "It'll be great when…" "I promise that I will…" and "Tomorrow…" They've been so used to a complete lack of hope in their lives that if they sense even the smallest glimmer of hope in an innocent suggestion by a foreigner, it can quickly become interpreted as an absolute guarantee. So be very careful when suggesting that you would like to help them with something. In our culture it is just the polite way to let someone down easy, but if you’re speaking with a Haitian, if it is unlikely that the thing in question will happen, don’t try to be polite, be very clear. It is better to tell them no, and then later if it does work out, it can be a very pleasant surprise. But don't indicate even a desire to help if you know that it probably won't be possible. It just leads to confusion and disappointment.
7. Is that a voodoo thing?
Just because you don't understand it or it doesn't fit into your religious box, doesn't mean that it's voodoo. There are very few things in this culture that any Haitian would actually attach the "voodoo" label to, and even any of those things are very unlikely for you to see if you are spending a short time here or don’t speak the language or have trusted relationships with insiders in the voodoo culture. You may come across some unusual things in Haiti that are hard to explain, but most Haitians would not call them voodoo, although they might go as far as to call them mystical. But really, to Haitians, most of those things that you see as unusual are just things and if you try to attach a voodoo label to them, it will show your cultural ignorance more blatantly than your pasty white skin. Just saying that word has the potential to make the Haitians you are with uncomfortable, and even embarrassed. If you are interested in the voodoo culture of Haiti, I fully encourage making an effort to learn about it, but it must happen in the right context. Do not ask questions about it casually while in public to your Haitian hosts or translators. I recommend having an experienced expat or trusted local (not a pastor or priest) set up a meeting with a voodoo priest or priestess where they can explain their beliefs and practices to you or your group in person. Most of them are very open about their beliefs and would be happy to talk to you about them. They are the best ones to answer any questions you might have as long as you too go into it with an open mind and a desire to learn.
8. It was such a God moment.
This seems innocent enough right? Even kind of inspirational? But the reason that I include it on this list is not necessarily because it's offensive or annoying, but because I've heard a lot of mission teamers say this about wonderful incidences that they've experienced in Haiti and while I've tried to translate the phrase to Haitians involved in the moment, the Haitians always look at me like I'm crazy. "A God moment?" What the hell's that supposed to mean? Isn't God present in every moment? That's what the Haitian's eyes say to me as I'm trying to translate this very American phrase. I know you feel like God hand crafted a certain special experience that touched your heart in Haiti and you want to give him credit for that moment, but it seems like a strange thing to say to a Haitian. You have to realize that one of the moments where every Haitian felt God's presence more powerfully than ever was in the earthquake that killed over 300,000 of their neighbors, friends, and family members. They understand God's presence as being at work in not only the pleasant coincidences, but also in the unfortunate tragedies. God, to them permeates every single moment of their existence, so for you to point out one single moment blessed by God's design just seems a little silly to them.
9. I didn't choose Haiti, Haiti chose me.
In response to the question often asked to foreigners by other foreigners, "So, what made you choose to ever come to Haiti in the first place?" I've heard many people use this scapegoat of an answer, but one time that I heard it, that it particularly made me want to vomit all over the person saying it, was in the Port-au-Prince airport. I was on my way out of the country on my way back to the states and was sitting at the gate waiting for my plane. In the row of chairs behind me was a man talking very boldly to a group of attentive mission teamers who had struck up a conversation with him. He was a televangelist from Texas who worked for one of the big Christian TV networks and had spent the last two weeks apparently doing nothing in Haiti but working on his TV tan. He had the ridiculous silver gray slicked back hair that I would expect from a televangelist and the prominent voice that doesn’t have to necessarily speak loudly to assure that everyone will hear. When one of the eager mission teamers asked him the question, that was his "humble" response. "Oh, I didn't choose Haiti, Haiti chose me." And I thought to myself, I don't remember the people of this country ever convoking a special election to decide whether your slimy crispy religious self should come take up space in their land. And if they had, I can guarantee that they would have voted for your butt to stay in Texas. Now you're going to take your video and your photos back to put on the air of all of "the least of these" that you helped just by being there, but none of them ever volunteered to be extras in a movie where you're the star. The fact is, if you want to come to Haiti, come to Haiti, but don't pretend like it's some geographic or cultural destiny that supernaturally summoned you here. You made a decision to come because of some other reason, likely self-serving, but Haiti didn't choose you.
10. I just don't understand how they carry those buckets on their heads!
And they don't understand how you type so fast! It doesn't seem physically possible. But people in every culture have adapted physically to be able to carry out the tasks that their culture demands of them. It's really not that big of a deal.
11. It's probably the first time some of them have ever seen a camera.
Lee Rainboth is an artist, writer, and musician originally from Marcus, Iowa, who has lived in Mizak, Haiti, for the last 5 years. He originally went down to Haiti as an United Methodist Individual Volunteer in Mission to volunteer with a fair trade women's artisan cooperative. He know works as the Executive Director of Living Media International, an organization that he founded with 4 young Haitian adults to provide more creative education opportunities to the people of their rural Haitian community and to pursue new ways to discover the arts and use them for social development.