Walking In the Wilderness

Yesterday we did something that we have never done here together. We went for a walk, just for the sake of going for a walk, in our own neighborhood.

We haven’t ever done this for a lot of reasons. We don’t like the idea of walking in one direction from our house because a former employee lives down there. We know he was responsible for at least one attempted robbery at the mission in the past, and maybe the push behind others. He was in prison for a while but is now out. Funny, he was there because he stole from another former employee. We choose not to walk down past his family’s house because we’re not comfortable with that. We just want to avoid problems.

For the most part though, walking or doing anything in the area isn’t really that enjoyable. People here are not kind. Some are. Some are very kind. Others though, are not, and have no problem sharing that part of themselves with us. The whole being yelled at, being called blan, having people constantly asking you for things…it all gets old really fast.

Dr. Jen and I were talking when we met about our blogs and the things that we didn’t blog about. I sometimes have a hard time sharing stuff like this, not because I don’t want to tell you, but because some of the times that I have shared it I’ve been blasted by people for being honest. You know what? I’m done with that too.

People may not always like what I have to say about Haiti. They may not agree with it. That’s fine. The bottom line for me is that I live here, and these are my experiences, thoughts, feelings and observations. Not yours. If you don’t like them, then ask yourself why. It may be because you disagree with how I deal with something. Okay, but again, I’m the one in the middle of it and I don’t tell you how to deal with the stuff that comes up in your life.

I sometimes struggle with the way people look at underdeveloped countries. I feel like we get judged a lot through conversations with people about our approach to things. Again, that’s fine because it’s simply a matter of disagreeing. It’s okay to disagree. Disagreeing with each other is what causes us to challenge our belief systems and often leads to change. What I have the hardest time with is the sense that because I come from the first world I should be willing to overlook a lot, be taken advantage of a lot, and let basic injustice, rudeness and poor treatment of myself and others just pass. I sometimes feel that’s what people are telling me I should be doing/thinking, but then I look at how most North Americans look at their own countries, myself included. We think nothing of criticizing the government, getting angry when people mistreat others or go against social norms etc. It is allowable in our own culture, so why are we so quick to criticize others when they look at things through the same eyes in another culture?

I’ll be very honest. I hate it when people call me “blan”. Why? Because I think of how that translates. “Hey white!” Okay fine. But what would someone say if I said, “Hey black?” I know, I just stepped onto the thin ice with that one. I hate it when people call me, “Mwen blan”. My white. I know that it’s just an expression here, but it’s an expression that I don’t like because it’s one that shows possession, that there is a sense of obligation. That I, the white person can provide something for them and in turn they will be “there” for me. The people using it use it that way for the most part – and again I think of how well it would go over if I rephrased it and said, “My black”. Not so good, especially considering the fact that Haiti is a country that fought for it’s independence and outlawed slavery over 200 years ago. How can a country expect to get ahead if it’s people are still carrying that mentality around? The biggest reason that I hate those references to my skin color are that they totally bypass human courtesy. The reason that grinds on me is because that human courtesy is not lacking within the Haitian culture – they greet each other as people, not by their skin color. I know that there are a lot of issues around foreigners here. I know that Haiti has let me experience racism in a way that most people never will, but I think should. It would change the world I think if we all had a chance to be on the receiving end.

I know some of you are probably thinking, “Yes Leslie, but they don’t know any better.” Yes, actually they do. I know they do because Haitians don’t treat each other the way they treat foreigners, and I know because I see it in their faces when they shout “Blan” and tilt their chin up a bit. It’s a sign of pride and I know. The other thing that I know is that being here means that I have a small opportunity to let people know that what they do isn’t appropriate. When someone hisses at me for my attention I don’t even look their direction. I can hear it, and they do it to each other, but I think it’s disrespectful and rude to do it to anyone, not just me, and I refuse to encourage that. If someone, an adult, calls me “blan” I may or may not respond. Most often I don’t. I have the hardest time with children, because they really don’t know any better and are only following the example of their parents, siblings, and other people in the community. If a child calls me “blan” I simply ask them why they can’t say, “Bonju Madame?” At that point they often giggle and smile because they know that’s the right way to greet people, all people. The “Mwen blan” thing? I usually look at the person, and simply say, “I’m not your white.” They are all small easy ways to let people know that they aren’t being appropriate without making a big deal out of it.

So back to the walking thing. That’s why it’s not always that fun to go do something that at home is so easy. Consider your neighborhood. Chances are that if you went for a 30 minute walk you wouldn’t have anyone harassing you. In some places people won’t even make eye contact with you. If someone did say something offensive you would probably be shocked. Now, put yourself in Haiti. Anytime we go out that will happen at least once. That’s including driving in a vehicle. Simply because we are white and not from here. Not because anyone actually knows us and has been poorly treated by us. Now, going on a walk, chances are good that it’ll happen 10, 15, maybe 20 times in a 30 minute period. Thus, the not being fun or enjoyable or relaxing part.

Yesterday Chris and I decided that we needed, check that – HAD to – start getting more exercise. We know we need it for ourselves because it’s really easy to just sit at home and do nothing. To let the culture win. I’ve also been thinking about our family and what kind of example I want to set for my kids. I’ve had a struggle with my weight and exercise etc and I don’t want my kids to go through that, so part of that is setting an example right from the start of getting exercise and eating better. Chris and I also know that even a 20 minute walk goes a long way with improving your mental health and in turn the way we deal with things here. I also don’t want my kids to grow up here and feel like they aren’t comfortable going out into the community.

So, knowing that it might not be enjoyable we decided that we would push through and start doing what we know we need to for our own health. I pointed out the fact that a lot of times people here are just talking for the sake of talking or so that someone else might see them doing it and it boosts their pride a bit. Eventually, us walking through the area will get old. It will become old news. We will be boring.

I’m happy to say that we actually had fun last night. We walked a path just down from the main road that I had never taken further than a block from our house. Yes, I’ve lived here for two years and never done that. It was a cool evening, and we ended up getting caught in the rain on the way back. We weren’t harassed. I found myself smiling most of the way because it felt so good to get out together in what is now home. We saw some of our neighbors and staff taking advantage of the power and dancing a bit in the yard. We were passed on the path by a fisherman that offered to sell us fish. He had passed by our place on the beach the day before and the fact that he was wearing a pink ladies hat with a flower on didn’t seem to faze him. I had to stifle laughter because it was pretty funny. He was wearing the hat yesterday night too. I loved heading back to the house, in the middle of the rain, and passing a little boy running down the path with a banana leaf over his head acting like an umbrella. As we passed we looked at each other and giggled at the fact that we were both soaking wet. I loved having time with my husband, away from the house where we could just chat about random things.

It’s our goal to do this everyday – just take 30 minutes to stretch our legs. I know some days will be great and others will be no fun, but it’s worth it.

Another sweet thing from yesterday night was lying in bed and falling asleep watching a lightning bug flit around our room. I think he was just coming to say good night.

This entry was posted in thinking out loud, this is haiti, this is life by Leslie. Bookmark the permalink.

About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

13 thoughts on “Walking In the Wilderness

  1. that is a huge problem with MANY Christians, is the inability to deal with someone who might think otherwise than them because after all, well, they are CHRISTIANS and obviously they get it all don’t they? Don’t let others bully you into not being honest. If they cannot deal with what you actually feel, then as you sort of said, it is THEIR problem. until we can honestly state our anger with others, even God at times, how can we have really honest relationships? I live in a poor mixed race neighborhood and I receive similar treatment, though no one has called me “my white” yet. :) ANYONE who can’t deal with honest feeling and emotions in someone else is almost certainly not dealing with their own feelings honestly either. Leslie, it’s ok to go to the window and yell out that you’re mad as h…. and not going to take it anymore. You don’t do people favors by lying to them about their behavour. all you do is enable them to continue in it. if someone says you have to excuse it, they really are saying that the Haitians aren’t capable of better behavour. and THAT is really racist. If we as Christians should be accountable for our behavour why shouldn’t others? Hang in there both of you.

  2. I think you’re right on the money with the way Haitians treat the foreigners and if no one ever tells them that its not nice, well then when will it change? honesty in love is always best. Keep up the good work with the walking, its sooo hard. hugs Amy

  3. Hi Leslie,Thanks for your honesty and your willingness to take risks. I was just having a conversation the other night with a friend of mine over this very topic. It’s very easy for a person living in a safe sanitized environment to judge the opinions and choices of someone living in the middle of a culture such as Haiti. I have some reflections of my own in this regard and I’ll follow your example by taking the risk of sharing them.First of all, let me say that I totally get what you’re talking about (well, not totally because I’ve never actually lived in Haiti…only visited many times.) In the context of our ministry we have had people that we trusted take advantage of us and misuse or steal ministry resources. We have had to make difficult choices that were impossible to explain to people in the states. I know of many native Haitians who also struggle with similar things, not because they are blan but because they are well-off by Haitian standards (by our standards they are very poor.) It’s so easy to become discouraged and angry and isolated. I’ve thought about living in Haiti for an extended period of time at some point, and I’m pretty sure I would be feeling some of the exact things you’re expressing here. I have no judgment about any of it.At the same time, I want to encourage you to really guard your heart and your ability to regard your own perspective with some healthy skepticism. Remember your views and attitudes coming into the culture. You have been placed in an incredibly stressful circumstance and stress sometimes creates its own filters to the world. I have only known you very recently through your writing, but already I cherish your perspective and your tenderness. I’ve seen the quality of tenderness eaten away (quite understandably) by the hardships of living in Haiti, and I don’t want that to happen to you. Again, I’m not saying any of this to judge you in any way or to say that any of what I’ve read here leads me to believe you’re off at all. I’m saying it because that I know if I were in your place I would want and need the reminder.Then again, what do I know? I’m writing this in the comfort of my very nice home in America. Feel free to totally disregard anything that doesn’t fit for you, and know that this came from the deep affection I feel for you. Bless you abundantly sister.

  4. I am so glad that you & Chris got out for a walk – that was one of my favorite activities! It is so important to be able to get out when you are working & living in the same space and you never really leave the office. It is also great that you are able to blog honestly about your feelings. I have to agree with both you & Dan above – if a reader can’t deal with what <>YOU<> feel, then that is THEIR problem, not yours! There is no reason you should have to “censor” Haiti for us – for anyone reading your blog who has or is living in Haiti – we understand and for anyone else – why make it seem like something it isn’t. I look forward to hearing more <>honest<> posts from you as you share about your life in Haiti!

  5. Leslie,I couldn’t help but relate to your post a little bit (not the poverty, third world issues, of course, but) it just seems stressful to me. Prior to this house we lived next door to some very stressful neighbors. Every time I encountered them, my stomach flipped, my heart raced, etc. I struggled with my Christianity, etc. It’s got to be hard to have that experience daily where you feel that jolt of adrenaline and anxiety, no?It just makes me more in awe of you and Chris. You two and the other ‘blans’ living in Haiti, SERVING in Haiti are incredibe inspirations to me.I will think of you and pray (as I often do) while I’m walking in my safe little neighborhood every Tuesday and Thursday when I pick my son up from football.I hope I’m conveying the right message, I’m so proud of you and Chris and there is absolutely NO judgement here. I so enjoy reading your blog because it’s real and and honest picture of what living and working in Haiti is like. Hugs,Ericka

  6. I love those little lightning bugs, I think God gives us those to show he is there with us at night!!!love your honesty and I am so thankful your walk was good, I pray for many more for you.ange

  7. Great Blog Leslie. Good perspective and healthy I think. I “tagged” you over at my blog tachenys.blogspot.com. I am not sure you read mine, so I thought I would leave the msg here.-Kim

  8. maybe this helps, or maybe not, but people aren’t saying “mwen blan” they are saying “me blan”, which means “hey blan”… or “there’s a blan” the same way you would reply to someone asking “where are you” you’d say “me mwen”, “here i am”.If they were saying “my blan” they would say “blan mwen”…hang in there!

  9. Hi Everyone, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the encouragement too.Annonymous,They could very well be saying that on occasion but more often than not they are in fact saying “Mwen blan” and it has had the meaning that I described. It was a Haitian friend that explained this to me and I have heard the expression used many times in our area. Creole is not actually a “consistent” language so the Creole that you might be familiar with might have slight differences in our area. This happens all over the country. We live two hours away from Port and there are times where we get confused while talking to people simply because they use a slightly different dialect. Same is true for people from the north near Cap-Haitian and we notice the same thing with mountain people vs. people that live closer to bigger centers. The same is true for what you said about “Me mwen”. I have NEVER heard this expression here. Instead if you say hello to someone and ask how they are you will often hear “Mwen la” – I’m here.

  10. I know it’s not easy. It breaks my heart to think that this was your first walk around the neighbourhood…to be reciprocally honest, from a Haitian perspective, the fact that this is your first time walking around the community in the year (more?) that you’ve been there is considered hugely insulting from the Haitian view point. Please take what i want to share with you with lots of respect from a stranger that hopes for the best for you.Haitians are very social, visiting neighbours, sunday walk abouts, checking in, bringing eachother gifts “dibon” of watermelon or tomatoes randomly, chatting, even hissing at eachother to get eachother attention is a big part of social life. It sad that aspects are misunderstood, but this is a reality of cross cultural living. If you have not yet met your neighbours yet, if you are not yet welcomed into their lakou’s you a missing out on what should be a central aspect of your living there. I’m not talking about your employees either, this is another kind of relationship, i’m talking about your neighbours. I’m worried that you’ve misunderstood some of the harassment that your feeling, and please tande sa m pral di w ak anpil respe.people are calling you blan because they don’t necessarily know your name, and because, well my dear friend, you are blan! please hear the expression of interest, the desire to get your attention…tell them, “my name is leslie, when you call out to me, you can call me leslie” You will see what you felt as hostility melt into smiles! prove me wrong! :)“Mwen Blan” doesn’t translate to “my white”… people are likely calling out “me blan”, this means “hey blan”. “My white” would be said: “blan mwen” in kreyol which is not something people say. Please be open to remaining humble about the kreyol you are learning. It will take a lifetime to fully understand a new language, and your openness will is deeply appreciated by you neighbours! If you are not sure what someone is saying, ask them! I remember a white lady horrified that children we’re asking her for cigarettes, and she had a load of judgment about haitian culture on this, until she learned that they were saying “siret” which means candy! :)Hissing is frankly the way folks “politely” get each other attention in Haiti, sadly this has other association in other cultures! Notice how people flag a taptap? They hiss…certainly I’m sure they’re some young men who are hissing to get a particular kind of attention, and you’re right to call them on this. be firm, be light about, Haitians respect “communual discipline”! You are welcome to point out if someone is offending you, and i promise others will come to your defense! It’s quite funny actually. But please don’t assume every hiss is insulting. You probably don’t think twice when your point at something… pointing with the index finger is very rude in Haitian culture… that’s why people toss a pebble to indicate a direction or point with the hand. I remember deeply offending a collegue when i cross my legs and the sole of my shoe was facing him, in his culture this was very rude. I had no idea! It seemed ridiculous that he was offended by something so simple. These are opportunities to learn. Hurt feelings are sometimes the first step in learning, and you are intitled to struggle throught some of this!you question “whether people know any better”… i think with humility you can admit that there are thing “you don’t know either”… i hope people are also as bold to tell you when you are “not being appropriate” i hope you would welcome that, as it is a true form of respect. If people aren’t helping you with this, don’t assume it’s because you are “innocent” but rather people my not feel close enough to be that honest with you. i urge you to ask people how your behavours are recieve, be vulnerable and cultivate these relationship. it’s worth it. Did you know how important it is to greet people with bonjou, bonswa? when you are passing someone, i’m sure you have observed this in Haiti. You may be hurting feelings by trying to protect your space if you don’t greet someone. That is very rude to us. Haitians have so little to physically give each other. We give our “bonjou” we give our smiles. freely we have recieved, freely let us give.Notice who when people get up in a tap tap everyone makes room,even when there is NO room! :) People don’t roll their eyes and complain, they don’t get offended…in north america it’s almost an offense to sit next to someone on a bus. you have to ask “is this seat taken?”When you get on the tap tap you greet everyone, even though they are strangers. I think this is a beautiful aspect of the culture.I read your words and i want you to feel welcome in your community, not harrassed. you are among people who are no different from people in your home country, some are nice, some are tough, some are stuboorn, some are warm, but i hope you beleive as i do, that at the root of it, people are good. they expreses themselves in a myriad of ways, but at the heart, people are very good. It saddens me that you are struggling with this, when i feel like if you took the time to meet people and find out why they are interested in you you might be plesasntly surprised.please don’t view this as one culture winning over the other. If there is a winner, there is a loser, and that is not what you back, i don’t believe. Let your culture melt into the new culture you are living in, hold on to the truths of your culture, but let the assumptions and misunderstanding be replaced with questions and new answers. Do this, go for walks, for more than exercise. Do this for the Haitian child that is going to join your family. Become part of your haitian community, give your child a place of welcome. this is a gift to yourself, your neighbours and your child. no, it’s not too late to repair hurt feelings and to reconcile with estranged neighbours.Let this be hard, and you will come out stronger, and more fulfilled. This is my prayer for you my friend . She who you will be, you are now becoming. ann koze

  11. Hi Leslie,I just read your blog and the comments. I have to tell you from reading just the blog part, to me you sounded happy and lighthearted. You tell things like they are and I don’t see it as putting anyone down, just stating the facts. I was happy for you and Chris getting out and enjoying your walk and the rain and the little boy with the banana leaf and the fisherman with his pink hat :) I say keep enjoying your walks and next time take your camera. I would love to see the fisherman with his pink hat. Kelly

  12. Lou, (That is your name isn’t it?)Sorry but I was just directed to your blog today by a friend who pointed out that you had a thing about being referred to as Blan. That drives me to drink even after 21 years. A while back I began to address anybody else who called me blan by saying “I’m not a blan. I’m pink.” Actually they don’t often get it but at least they quit the blan thing. I even have some areas when I’m driving through they’ll point their finger at me and just say “Wroz!” I do want you to know that I do feel your frustration of living as another kind of being. The kids do bug me with that but occasionally I’ll have an antique little old lady patient who will greet me with blan that I know they are saying it with great, almost Godlike respect. Then, I just suck it in and say thanks. Not a lot of people respect us for our skin color around here and when I find someone who does I just enjoy it. I hope you don’t think that’s too bad of me.John

  13. Hi John,It’s actually Leslie, but Lou is a nickname that I seem to get tagged with from people that have no connection to each other. I like it though so it’s all good.I like your response to the ‘blan’ thing. I heard a response from someone that said they would tell people, “Mwen pa blan, mwen yon ayisyan ki te tombe nan klorox!” I’m not white, I’m a Haitian who fell in bleach. :) I think the little old men and women are super sweet too :)

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