As we were getting ready to leave Haiti after a week of warm sun, hard work and making new friends, our leaders warned us that when people asked us how our trip was, many of them really only wanted to hear, “It was great!” A few might want the one minute synopsis and still fewer want the full account. If you are one of the first group, the trip was great. Please feel free to stop reading and flip to the next page. If you belong to the second group, go ahead and read until you feel you have enough. I’m going to tell the rest of you what I really learned.
Haiti is a geographically beautiful country. It has mountains, valleys, streams, rivers, sandy beaches, palm trees and tropical flowers. Gardens are full of plants I knew the names of because they were the very ones I sold as house plants in my former career as a florist. The bananas hang in big bunches ripening beneath wide green leaves. Mangos, papaya, pineapple and limes thrive in the warm sun. Historically, Haiti was a major supplier of cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, rice, cocoa and timber. There significant deposits of oil, gold, uranium, iridium, and marble under the soil. It was those very rich deposits of gold that enticed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish to return to the “West Indies” after stumbling upon the island in 1492.
Over the next three hundred years, the resources of Hispaniola, as the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic is called, were exploited by the Spanish, French and even the Dutch. After the native Indian tribes were exterminated by European diseases and overwork, African slaves were brought to the island to work in the mines and on the plantations. Still more slaves were brought to the island as a stopover on the way to be sold in the United States.
Haiti is a country whose land and people have been exploited and plundered since 1492. The once forested mountain sides have had the trees clear cut for timber which was exported. Still more trees have been cut to provide fuel for cooking and sugar processing. Because there are few trees left on the hillsides, every time the rains pour down, the mountains erode and the top soil runs into the rivers and is deposited in huge deltas at the edge of the sea. Rock and mud slides are a daily occurrence. Once the country grew enough food to feed itself and was a net exporter of food and agricultural products. Now growers produce exotic fruits and sugar cane for export markets and average Haitians buy imported rice and beans.
The people of Haiti have a long history of abuse and enslavement, but they also have a history of self-determination. The language of Haiti, Creole, is a combination of French, Spanish, African languages, English and other tongues. The black slaves invented the language as a means of keeping their white masters from being able to understand what they were talking about. In 1804 the black people of Haiti overthrew their white and mulatto rulers and established the oldest black republic in the western hemisphere.
Unfortunately, the politics of the island’s next two hundred years has been a story of continued exploitation and political corruption.
It would be easy to look at the millions of extremely poor Haitians and accuse them of being lazy and looking for someone else to bail them out. The people we got to know do not deserve that characterization.
We found our new friends to be hard working and very patient and gracious people. They love their children and respect their elders. In Haiti there is a saying, “Yon sèl nou fèb, ansanm nou fò.” It means, “Alone, we are weak. Together, we are strong.” This phrase is lived by the people of Haiti on a daily basis as they struggle to survive. The Haitians are generous and are willing to share whatever they have, even with those of us who have more than we need.
The problems facing the people of Haiti are overwhelming. In spite of the billions of dollars in aid that poured into the country following the disastrous earthquake in 2010, many people still live in tents and cardboard huts. Much of the money has been diverted from disaster and reconstruction aid to projects which benefited a few. Unemployment is eighty percent. Literacy among adults is about 50 percent. Only half of the children can afford to go to school. Clean water almost does not exist. Cholera and typhoid, water born diseases we nearly eliminated a century ago, are rampant.
I struggle with how my own lifestyle contributes to the poverty of our new friends. When I go to a discount store and buy a piece of clothing that says, “Made in Haiti,” am I helping the workers there or am I perpetuating abuse just a little bit less oppressive than slavery? Are the workers paid a fair wage? Do they work in reasonably safe working conditions? Isn’t a job in a sweatshop better than no job? Do my electronic toys contain iridium mined by Haitians who risk their lives in mines every day? Are my electronics inexpensive enough for me to buy, discard, and replace because the raw ingredients needed to make them are kept cheap by paying Haitians nearly nothing? Do we make things better or worse when we flood their shores with things we do not want or no longer need and get a tax deduction for doing so? How are our exports of heavily subsidized rice keeping Haitian farmers from feeding themselves? Has our own government interfered in Haiti’s politics to protect our own self interests? How has that contributed to the instability of the Haitian government?
I am only beginning to ask the questions. I don’t know any of the answers.
Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains