I received a comment on yesterday’s post from an anonymous commenter that basically called me childish for how I responded to Peeing Man in Port. I’m not going to post the comment for several reasons, but mostly because I don’t want it to become this big back and forth argument over who’s right and who’s wrong because I don’t think anyone is. It’s all a matter of understanding and knowledge. To “Anonymous” I would like to say thank you for having the guts to post your thoughts freely. I just wish that you wouldn’t have done it under an anonymous heading so we might have been able to have a conversation about it.
I knew that posting that part of the day and my response to it was going to offend some people. I can’t and won’t defend myself, because people can be offended at many things that I will never be able to control or anticipate. My role is to just do the best I can in the circumstances and hope for the best.
I can elaborate a bit more on the situation and explain some of the cultural things that I have learned in the last couple years that might make people understand a bit more of the reaction that I had. If they don’t though and still don’t like the way I addressed the situation, that’s fine. It’s all a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to one.
Haitians often (I say often to avoid a generalization) have a lot of pride. In a country full of poverty where there is little education or work there are few things that people can be or are proud of themselves for. Any little thing that can separate you from the other millions of people that are living like you are is a good thing, whether it’s a new shirt, a badge identifying you as part of some group or organization, or that you were the one that won the argument. The things that give people a sense of importance are small by North American standards, but they are there and they are very much a part of the culture. We’ve had to learn about those things and how to deal with them when we see them. Having an understanding of how people function and what is important to them helps us continue our work here and in most cases helps keep us safe.
I can’t tell you how many times we have encountered situations like yesterday because they happen all the time. For example, one of our neighbors came over and started yelling at Chris over some work we had started between our two properties one day. Chris had gone to the family two weeks before, had a good visit, explained what he wanted to do, asked their thoughts and they all agreed that what he was planning on was best. She stood there yelling, without wanting to have a conversation, for over an hour. My guess is that word had gotten out that we were planning on doing some work and people in the community started sharing their thoughts with her and she was feeling the pressure to save face because she had a relationship with us, so standing in our yard yelling gave everyone the impression that she had done something about the situation. She later told me that she felt so bad about what she had done. As hurtful as the situation was, I understand some of the cultural stuff behind it now and I get why. We are learning to develop a back bone from all the times we have been yelled at, told to go back to our own country, sworn at, gestured at etc from people that don’t know us and don’t know any different.
It’s easy to look at a place like Haiti and get stuck at the poverty. You have to move past the conditions that people live in though, and see the people. You have to see how they interact with each other and with you. You have to learn how they function. You need to do this if you ever want to make any difference with the work you are doing. Not doing this means you just end up trying to put a bandaid on how they live instead of working with people to help change ingrained beliefs and ways of doing things that are not doing anything beneficial for them or the development of their country. If we didn’t do this all we would be doing is installing filters in homes here and hoping for the best. Instead we have learned how a lack of education affects filter use, how we need to teach filter users about the filters, how often we need to visit the homes, and that we need to teach preventative sanitation and hygiene education so that one day the country might not have contaminated water sources from things that people do that no one has ever taught them not to do. Assuming or thinking that this culture should be like mine would be assuming that people have the basic understanding that they shouldn’t use the streams or the streets as a toilet because that goes into their water, or that drinking that same gutter water won’t make you sick.
We have several friends, some are upper class Haitians that have the house and the cars and have owned businesses and some are employees that live in small block huts with 10 of their closest family members, who have taken the time to explain to us how their people think and act and what we need to do to interact with them so we can actually get somewhere. They are also the people that know that there are many things that people do here that are not appropriate and not acceptable and find embarasing because they don’t want Haiti to be seen like that.
Yesterday, the Peeing Man started a conversation with me, part of which involved asking me for something, or to buy something. I didn’t want to buy anything so I politely said no and returned to my conversation. No here is never taken as no is in Canada or the US. It is the starting point for a negotiation. This young man (I say young, but he was probably mid 30’s) and his friends were bored because it was raining and they didn’t have any work for the day. The young man didn’t like the fact that I didn’t want to chat or buy anything so he kept trying to talk to me. Consider that we were two women standing on the street with 6 guys sitting on a wall above us. There was little traffic and street activity because of the rain. My Creole also isn’t that strong yet and I was having a hard time understanding what he was saying. I didn’t want to get into a conversation that would eventually lead to an argument over something that I said I would do when I didn’t say that, just because of miscommunication, or put our safety at risk. Here, you have to give people the impression that you know what’s going on or that you won’t stand for it, even if you’re shaking in your boots or they’re going to take advantage of the situation.
When he got down to pee on the truck he did it for two reasons. One was that he was trying to have the upper hand with me and show me that me saying no wasn’t going to give me control of the conversation. Fine. The other reason was that a white woman saying yes to anything is reason to gloat to your friends. A white woman rejecting anything you’re trying to sell or a conversation in front of your friends is a reason to try and reclaim some of your pride. By peeing on our truck he was looking for me to react with anger and start a fight so that he could have a fight with me on the street for all his friends and other people to see. I knew that and wasn’t going to play because I don’t believe that’s a healthy way to interact.
Haitians, when they talk to each other, often joke around and poke fun at each other as well as point out the obvious. This is part of their communication and they often don’t know how to interact with foreigners because we don’t converse that way. For example, our staff are always pointing fun at each other, but everyone does it so it is not offensive or hurtful, but expected. I have a friend who was on a tap tap when a heavy set Haitian woman poked her or said something that could have been thought of as rude, but Barb just looked at her and said, “Yes, but you’re fat!” The woman broke out into hysterical laughter, partly because Barb had spoken the truth and she was happy Barb had noticed (being bigger here tells people you have enough to eat) and partly because a white woman had spoken to her the way a Haitian would.
When I was talking to the Peeing Man yesterday I wanted to avoid the argument (partially because I don’t see the point in arguing pointlessly and partly because I was still thinking about the safety of the situation) and still let him know that he was being inappropriate. When I asked him if he had respect I was asking him if he had respect not just for my truck, but also for himself and for me. Him saying no made me sad because I see so much of that here. Not having enough respect for yourself, your fellow man or your country that you urinate wherever makes me sad. But I know that most people walking around in this country come from families with too many children to feed where the mother is left to fend for herself. Often values like respect and politeness are not passed on because there is no time to think about those things when you are trying to figure out how to feed everyone or just survive. But, that is a whole other post. When I told him he was acting like a child it was with the intention that he might think about the whole situation and realize that he was in fact doing something a young boy would do. A young boy who didn’t know any better. The reality is that this young man did know better and that was why he was doing it. He knew that it would be the type of thing that would or could cause a reaction from a foreigner that could lead to a big fight. By telling him that he was acting like a child in front of his friends he would have to think about his actions, and his friends would be left with that too. Maybe someday in the future they’ll all think about that conversation and realize that there might be a better way to interact with people. They were all talking about it because it was the most excitement they’d probably seen in days and because it resonated with them.
The conversation that I had with him could have been the same conversation that any other Haitian would have had with him, but with a lot less yelling. Haitians who have pride in their country and respect for themselves and others want to see others with that same pride and respect and would not have gone for that either. It would have made them angry and they probably wouldn’t have been as calm and polite as I was.
You can pour all the aide into a place like Haiti that you want, but if we, as foreigners don’t get past seeing people here as “poor Haitians” we are simply just spending money. In any country where there has been positive development and progress it has been because people have started to stop seeing themselves as “poor” and have learned self respect. Self respect leads to respect for your fellow man and looking for opportunities to positively contribute to your society. Haiti can be heartbreaking, but the thing that keeps me going is seeing people like our staff, who two years ago didn’t know what it even meant to have a full time job or how to function in that setting, turn into people that have learned about taking responsibility for themselves and their actions, how to work, how to contribute their thoughts and ideas to see change and progress, and to become people that no longer just see working here as a job, but as an opportunity to help their own people. They are proud of the work they are doing because they know that it saves lives. They treat us as people now and not just “the white man”. We can joke and have fun and yet work together for a common purpose, a purpose that we all understand. Most of all they have learned to have respect for themselves and each other and are willing to defend that to others who haven’t yet learned that. I know that they also have a great opportunity to be examples to their community and I know that’s already happening. That, makes me very, very happy.
PS-I’ve been reading “African Friends and Money Matters” recently. Because Haitians are of African decent and the development has been so slow here there are many cultural things that are still practiced here today. The book has been invaluable in helping me understand what I see and experience everyday. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is working in either country or planning on doing so, even if it’s for a short term project.