Scholars have long debated the question of “nature versus nurture” in human development. What role does our genetic makeup have over who we become? What effect does where we live and how we are treated, what we eat and what we experience have on who we are?
The people of Haiti have a long history of abuse, exploitation and political corruption. The vast majority of Haitians are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the new world to work on plantations owned by the Spanish and French following the extermination of the native people who greeted Columbus. Not only were the slaves and their labor exploited, the land itself was stripped bare of trees for export and for fuel. Mineral resources were dug out of the ground with little regard for reclamation. The island has been wracked by numerous earthquakes, floods, landslides, hurricanes, tsunami’s and epidemic disease. More than half of the island’s wealth is owned by the French speaking one percent minority of the population. The other 99 percent, the Creole speaking majority, lives in desperate poverty.
Much of the island is mountainous and sparsely populated. Most of Haiti’s more than 10 million people live in cities and along the coastal plains. It is the second most densely populated country in the Americas and it’s cities are some of the most crowded in the world. I am still overwhelmed by the images of acres of tents and huts the size of the tent we use to sell our wares at summer art shows with walk ways wide enough for only a single person to pass through. I was told that a dozen or more people may live in that small space.
Just as we have similar problems in parts of the US, the country of Haiti has serious problems with gangs, violence and political corruption. Most of the people we met, however, were gentle, friendly and polite. Although the rules of the road seemed to us to not exist, even in the most snarled traffic jam, patience prevailed. There were no obscene gestures, jumping out of the car and arguing or angry, impatient honking of horns. People waited. Those who couldn’t wait jumped out of the Tap they were riding in and began walking. The response to our impatience was usually, “No problem.” Time seems to be mostly irrelevant. Of the many people seen by the medical clinic we helped with, only one person showed signs of high blood pressure.
We might see the easy-going, laid back attitude of the Haitians as a sign of laziness and lack of initiative. We wondered why they didn’t move out of those terrible slums and find a job? Would we be as driven and punctual as we are if we had grown up in a tropical climate with the long history shared by the people of Haiti?
My ancestors came from a climate similar to North Dakota’s. Norway has cold winters, snow and short summers. Survival in those cold months requires hard work in the summer when we store up provisions for the long winter. Winter requires hard work simply to stay alive. We need to shovel snow, work to keep our homes warm and our cupboards full. We have a long history of independence and landownership. My ancestors, though poor, believed education was almost as important as food. My family may have been tenant farmers, but they were never slaves. None of my family has ever been sold as property. My grandparents, parents and I have spent our lives in a place that has bountiful resources, clean water and a stable government.
I have lived the majority of my life in the same place. One day I realized that I had lived on our farm longer than any other human being. I came to live here on the farm my maternal grandparents settled in the early 1900s when I was six months old. I left for a few years when my parents moved to town and I went away to college and worked elsewhere. I have lived here for more than half a century. My earliest memories are of this place. I know the fields and trees and sloughs. The horizon is visible all around me. I can see a summer storm coming for hours before it gets here. I feel claustrophobic in the woods. I’m uneasy in the mountains. I know that I am who I am because of the people who lived here before me and because this is where I have spent most of my life.
I cannot understand what it means to have spent one’s whole life in a crowded city like Port au Prince. I try to imagine what it is like to live in a tent city day after day. If that were where I had grown up, wouldn’t I be a different person? Would I find the energy to go look for a job in the face of an 80 percent unemployment rate? What would I do to feed and educate my children? How would the lack of adequate nutrition have changed their ability to learn? Would I be as generous as Haitians are with their neighbors? Would I understand better what it means to care for our neighbor?
We are all who we are not just because of the choices we make but because of history, climate, landscape and the community which surrounds us. This doesn’t make us better or worse than our neighbors in Haiti. The people we met in Haiti were patient with us. They were gracious in accepting our help. They were polite in spite of our sometimes superior attitude and our occasionally condescending manner.
I am a little different because I have spent time with my new Haitian friends and have patiently waited in the warm Caribbean sun. I have had smiling, affectionate, children sit in my lap while they tried to teach me Creole words. I better understand generosity and tolerance. There is a little bit of Haiti in who I am.