Partner / Wednesday Wisdom

This isn’t that

alice-1028Today’s post comes from Alice Brower, a senior at Carrboro High School in North Carolina. She is a student in Matt Cone’s Global Issues class and was introduced to Everyday Ambassador. Alice loves sports and school and is very involved with her church. Next year Alice hopes to be able to attend a bridge year program before starting college.

“So, you’re missionaries?” asked a woman staying in our hotel in Haiti.

“Nope, we’re students from Carrboro High School” my friend Eliza and I countered.

Slightly confused the woman asked what “mission work we were doing”. We smiled and told her we weren’t doing mission work, but were presenting at the 25th Annual Haitian Studies Association Conference about our Global Issues class. Still confused the woman commented that “she loved mission conferences.”

Her inability to comprehend our group wasn’t unique. We were an oddity because we came to Haiti without any project or “mission work” on purpose. This wasn’t that.

After the earthquake in 2010, widespread misunderstandings of Haiti began circulating. David Brooks’ New York Times column attested that Haiti’s poverty comes from “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Fueled by discontent of these misunderstandings, my teacher Matt Cone began a section in his Global Issues class on Haitian politics, history, and current issues. We read challenging books, discussed our questions, and talked to experts involved in the very issues we were studying. In the midst of our learning, we found a passion. We would lecture anyone who would listen about the way Haitian history affects current issues and the complexities of foreign aid.

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So when four of my peers and I were invited to present at the Haitian Studies Association Conference in Petionville, Haiti about why our class is important, we were over the moon. Finally, after dreaming of Haiti we were immersed in what we had learned.

One night as we were driving back from a meeting there was a light rainstorm which caused major flooding. A forty minute drive took over three memorable hours. At the first drop of rain pedestrians started moving faster, more cars and tap-taps appeared, and the colors seemed even brighter. I stared out the window in awe of the movement, noticing the organization in the chaos. We reached a gridlocked intersection where every driver was honking, pedestrians carrying chickens darted among the cars, and mopeds fearlessly forged ahead. A few Haitian pedestrians recognized the impending disaster of a truck’s wrong turn and began directing traffic, while a powerful UN peacekeeping soldier stood on top of his truck gripping a machine gun and looking befuddled.

DSC_0059The UN’s presence in Haiti is complex. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known by the French acronym MINUSTAH) has successfully provided political security despite real challenges. But, on the other hand, MINUSTAH soldiers have caused horrible events such as brutal rape all without consequence. Among the Haitian public there is widespread hatred for MINUSTAH’s because of their actions and for the soldiers perceived arrogance. As I was learning about Haiti, I too was angry at the Nepalase MINUSTAH soldiers who caused the cholera epidemic, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around public anger at the soldiers arrogance.

The rain continued to fall as we looked out the car window at the colorful scene. Our driver pointed to the soldiers and said “They are doing nothing! Haitians are directing traffic, so what is MINUSTAH good for? As I sat staring at the scene around me, my jaw became clenched. Annoyance and anger began to pulse through my veins. But this time, it was not at statistics about the cholera epidemic, but that this specific soldier wouldn’t help get traffic moving so we could all get home in a timely fashion.

My time in the traffic jam connected what I learned in class to daily realities. Suddenly I had my own emotions to complement my understanding of politics, economics, and history. Over the rest of the trip I gained a connection to Haiti that is impossible to kick.

When we got on the plane home, I felt changed. Which I guess is cute. But, I was leaving Haiti without pictures of myself saving impoverished children. I hadn’t really done anything or saved anyone. So was our trip valuable?

owenOwen Robinson would say that it was. He is a highly experienced aid worker who has worked extensively with Bill Clinton and Partners in Health. Recently he recognized that Haiti’s lack of a heart transplant waiting list meant that needy children couldn’t get assistance from NGOs ready to provide surgery, so he used his skills to start the Haiti Cardiac Alliance. While reflecting on his choices he said “Don’t come to Haiti to paint a wall. There are unemployed Haitians who can do that. Come with something unique to offer.” In the age of the commercialized mission trip where you can “book” a sexy volunteer week, that’s radical.

His comment gave words to my convictions. We left Haiti without a project to show for our time because right then the unique thing we had to offer was open learning.

That’s valuable for now. But, we can’t stop at “open learning”. So what’s next? I wish it were simple enough for me to just paint a wall. But, my newfound connection to Haiti has given me the stamina to work in complexities, the desire to think deeply about the roots of challenges in developing nations, and the confidence to discern how I might use my talents in a productive and humble way to address tough problems.

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2 thoughts on “This isn’t that

  1. Pingback: These aren’t your typical “Samaritans” (or are they?) | Everyday Ambassador

  2. This is a lovely and refreshing post, Alice. Thank you for your honesty and humility. As someone who has spent her career researching the cultural and socioeconomic imbalances of global development, I am admittedly ambivalent about encouraging a new generation of wide-eyed youth to travel to the Global South in order to “change the world.” In my

    Your post is one of the first I’ve seen on this site that I think really gets it right. I appreciate that you can be self-deprecating about the fact that you feel “changed” by your brief trip to Haiti – I don’t at all doubt that it was an extremely influential experience for you personally, but I also appreciate that you seem to understand that Haiti gave something to YOU, rather than the other way around. I also appreciate that you didn’t feel compelled to take pictures of yourself with “impoverished Haitian children” in order to show friends back home (or, god forbid, on Facebook) what a good Samaritan you’d been. In my opinion, if your first trip to a developing country leaves you with the sense that you’ve done nothing of lasting significance for the people you met, you’re probably right– and that’s the most mature, honest, self-aware perspective you could have about your trip.

    The end of your piece was what really moved me to comment here: ““Don’t come to Haiti to paint a wall. There are unemployed Haitians who can do that. Come with something unique to offer.” In the age of the commercialized mission trip where you can “book” a sexy volunteer week, that’s radical… We left Haiti without a project to show for our time because right then the unique thing we had to offer was open learning.” I couldn’t agree with you more. So many American group trips dedicated to “service learning” are really just about painting walls, and giving young people the erroneous and harmful impression that they have actually made a meaningful difference — while actually reinforcing old colonial dynamics of white privilege and impeding the growth of sustainable local institutions.

    On the other hand, you’re also right that there’s no shame in “open learning.” What can privileged Westerners teens or twentysomethings truly offer to a place like Haiti in a period of a month or less? Very little, I think. Those of us who seek to make a real difference in reducing global gender inequality or health disparities or anything else need to commit ourselves to learning much, MUCH more — in the classroom and in the “real world” — before we start planning programs or proposing interventions to improve the lives of people we hardly know. To promote ethically-justifiable change in another country, especially as young and relatively inexperienced people, I believe we need to deeply understand the local historical context (esp. vis-a-vis white Western presence), native cultural practices and beliefs, governmental functioning and the state of public institutions, gender norms, economic status, and realities of daily life for average people. That challenge alone can be a lifelong task. However, I believe you are well on your way to doing it, Alice, and I applaud you for having the courage to say that your main takeaway from this experience is to THINK HARDER.

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