Sorry about that small hiatus! It was unplanned and had to do with a lot of things going on and me battling a stomach bug. I will be honest too, I’ve been hesitating about writing this post because it’s one of the harder ones. But, here we go…
Question: What are some of the hardest things about living in Haiti and doing what you do?
Answer: Oh man, this is a big one. Several answers for this one. Chris and I discussed this because we both have our own perspectives.
Being suspicious. Before I explain this one more in depth I want you to know that another long term friend of ours just said the exact. same. thing the other day so I know we’re not alone on this one.
In North America it’s very normal to trust someone right away, until they give you a reason not to. In Haiti it pretty much works in reverse in the sense that you don’t really trust anyone or anything that people are saying until they’ve proven to you that you should, and even then, it comes in increments. I know it sounds crazy, but it plays out over and over on a daily basis, and the truth of the matter is that most Haitians have a limited trust for each other. I’ve had Haitians tell me they don’t have friends in the same way that we do back home because they can’t really have confidence in people in their circle of influence, or even in their families in many cases. If you go back in Haiti’s history it makes sense. Often warring tribes of slaves were put together, so there wasn’t a basis for trust. Also, when people are essentially living in survival mode most of the time they are generally always looking out for ways to meet their needs, and that will come before anything else.
It is very normal to have someone tell you what they think you want to hear, especially if they feel they have something to gain from the conversation. Sometimes this comes out in ambiguity. “How far to deliver the filter to your house?” “Not far.” 45 minutes later you finally arrive at the house. It often takes a good deal of conversation, and often a lot of frustration to get down to the root of things. In situations where you are reliant on someone to do something for you, it may or may not happen, and it may or may not happen in the manner or time that they have told you it would. Often it does not. In situations where money is involved it’s common knowledge that you don’t give someone money to do something until they’ve completed the task. The exception to this would be giving them some money to buy materials for the project.
This makes life challenging here because relationships on any level are so much more work. You are constantly testing the waters to see where things are at. It’s a hard shift to make from the way we are used to functioning in our own culture.
Being singled out. When the majority of the population has a different skin color, you stand out. And in Haiti people don’t hesitate to talk about you, right in front of your face. Someone will always feel the need to say, “blan” and in many cases point. You should see the fuss that Alex stirs up when we go places because a lot of people have never seen a white baby before. I try to engage people in conversation where possible, but sometimes it’s just draining and I pretend I can’t hear them or don’t understand what’s being said.
In the same token, the Haitian grapevine works really fast and we know that no matter what we do people will always know about it. Go out for the day? The neighborhood knows we’re not here. Have a class? Everyone knows. That kind of thing. Word spreads like wildfire. I’ve come to appreciate a bit of how I imagine celebrities feel. So has Chris. To the point where when he was eating lunch in a gas station restaurant last year after the earthquake he was pretty much the only white person who didn’t drop a business card on Sean Penn’s table.
Living and working in the same place. Our office is in our living room. Yeah, that means we spend way more time than needed on our computers. And, because we live on site, it can be hard to get away from work some days. But, I will say that we’ve gotten better at having boundaries. When I first arrived in 2005 we had workers here from sun up to sun down. Because the workers were here Chris felt like we should be working too. We also had women coming in to cook and clean every day, often not leaving until about 7 pm at night. It was helpful, but it also meant there was very little down time in the mission house. After we got married we set an 8 hour work day and started doing our own cooking, and cut the housekeeping down to a couple days a week. I can’t tell you how much of a difference that made. Occasionally now we have workers coming in on Saturdays to weld or catch up on filter pours for the week, but it’s not regular. We know that when the workers go home in the afternoon we have off time. Chris still tends to gravitate towards work stuff after that, but I also have no problem telling him that whatever it is can wait until tomorrow and I write it down on a list. It’s much better than it used to be!
Being judged. This is the hard one to write about. And yet I think it needs to be said.
I feel like this is the hardest one to deal with because it hits on so many levels. Visitors. Board members. Other missionaries. People in the community. Often it comes from people not having a good knowledge base, and not necessarily having the insight to take a step back and put themselves in our shoes. Or to ask questions.
It’s hard to pick up from life as you know it, and move to another country and culture, and try to navigate in that. A friend that was just here, who has been in the country for just over a year said it this way, “It’s constantly a process of having to check your ideals with the reality around you.” In most cases, our ideals don’t line up with the reality around us. The judgement comes in when people who don’t live this every day think that it’s easy for the ideals to line up with reality, or to change reality to line up with ideals. That battle, my friends, is one that gets waged every single day here.
An example of this is that Chris used to be a pacifist. We now have guards with guns in the yard 24/7. His ideals collided with the reality of Haiti. Haiti is not safe. We would love for it to be that way, but it is not. No amount of smiling and being nice to people is going to change that particular reality right now. We lived for 7 years without armed security. In that time the mission was robbed many times. A Haitian employee of the founders was shot three times with a 12 gauge shotgun on the other side of our fence. One of our volunteers was held up at gunpoint, in the house, at night. We had a vehicle lit on fire and were sent death threats. Only after all that did we get armed security. And that, was at the recommendation of the Canadian Embassy. We are not the only mission/organization to have issues on this scale in our area. We are one of the few that are still here after encountering those types of issues.
We get judged every day for the things we say and do. People have ideas in their minds about what missionaries should do/say/think. We’re just normal people who are trying to be obedient to the calling Christ has given us. We are not super heroes. We are not perfect. We are trying. We make mistakes. We learn. And I think that’s what God wants from us.
I’ve seen many people come here, and really struggle with things. The things they see. The things they hear. The ways they see long termers like us navigate life here. But, they forget that they are making judgements based on their frame of reference. They are mentally trying to force us into a mold that they understand, rather that learning the reality around them and trying to understand why we do things the way we do. They forget that we have spent years trying to figure things out. We’ve made mistakes and we’ve had to learn how to work in certain situations. And, in many cases they don’t actually take the time to get to know us as people. They don’t know the things that are hard for us. The things that break our hearts. The things that bring us joy. The battles we’ve had to wage personally between our ideals and the reality around us.
Something that is interesting to me is the double standards that people often have for us and themselves. For example, we’ve had people tell us that they thought we should be attending a church close to the mission, in the community, rather than the one we go to up in the mountains. We have tried going to churches in the community, and when we do we often sit there not understanding the message and service because it’s in French, and have people staring at us the whole time. We weren’t part of that church community. Just bystanders. At our church in the mountains we feel that we are part of the congregation. We can get fed spiritually and participate. The irony? The people telling us that they thought we should attend a church near the mission attended churches outside of their own communities back home, even though there were plenty of churches to choose from there. Why is the standard different? Is it because we’re missionaries?
I would encourage you, if you’re going on a missions trip or something like that to just shut your mouth. I mean that in the kindest way possible. Instead of telling people what they should and shouldn’t be doing take the time to listen. Ask questions that go beyond programs and why you see what you see. Take the time to get to know the people you’re with. Ask them what is hard and discouraging about living and doing what they do. Ask them what hurts their hearts. Ask them how you can support and encourage, rather than look for ways to break down and destroy. That’s what judgement does. It breaks down and destroys. It leaves people feeling misunderstood. It leaves people feeling like they didn’t stand a chance with you. There is a reason that God told us to stop looking at the sawdust in our friends eye when we have a chunk of lumber in our own. Try putting yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself the hard questions about what you think you would do in some of the situations that they’ve been in, and then know that what you are thinking and what the reality would be are probably two very different things. Because you’re not perfect. And you don’t have life all figured out yet. Just like us.