Haitian Proverb: Neg di san fe. People talk and don't act.
I didn’t sleep as well as I have been last night. I kept having weird dreams.
My eyes pop open as my body jolts back to waking consciousness. Everything is okay, go back to sleep. Two people were outside in the courtyard speaking in Kreyol. I walk over to my window, but I cannot see anything. “Ventwa (23), Vensis (26), Venwit (28)…” the smooth male voice spoke. What is this counting? A female voice appeared asking a question really fast. The male voice responded, then started to read out numbers again, “Karantun (41), karantde (42), karantsenk (45)…” This must be a radio show, but what kind. I remembered my professor telling us something about a book of numbers that Haitians use sort of as a fortune telling divination sort of thing, kind of like the I-Ching in Chinese culture. Something inside of me was a little freaked out. Flashback to watching Hotel Rwanda and the radio as a means of communication that it was time to kill… I put in my headphones and listened to some Haitian music to try to get back to sleep. It must’ve been the security guard listening to something on the radio, but I have no clue what it was. I’ll have to ask my professor back in the States.
This morning I was a little nervous about my interview. From my experience, and from what my Haitian professor has told me, Haitian people like to talk so I shouldn’t be as nervous that I didn’t really prepare. A knock at the door as I button up my shirt. Its James, my John Legend loving lobby attendant. “I just wanted to wake you up. Ms. Vivianne (the owner) said your driver will arrive at 8:30,” he said. In haste, I grabbed my shoes and told him I’d be ready and thanks. I struggled for a moment about whether to tuck my shirt in or not. Tucked in. Its more professional, right?
The driver got a little bit lost on the way. Shit! I’m glad I didn’t decide to walk like I originally planned. Very few of the streets have signs, there are people everywhere. He calls Ms.Vivianne and tells her to that we cannot find it. She tells him to ask someone, so he pulls over and gestures for me to roll down the window. No one knows where it is either. I’m not worried about being late. It must happen often here.
We finally figure it out. Its a small, but modern building with the foundation’s logo on the door. Before getting out, the driver writes his name on the back of a blue post-it note and says to call him when I finish. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” “Celestine,” he replies. “Mesi bokou,” as I leave is small white Toyota (with transmission problems).
When I walk into the Foundation, there is a small black woman sitting in the waiting area. She looks around my age. I walk past her to the a woman who appears to be the receptionist. “Mwen gen yon [pause as I search for the word for meeting…instead I go with interview] entevyou,” I ask. It seems that many people in business settings have been speaking French to me. Though I know a tiny bit, and can understand a tiny bit, it throws me off because I’m expecting Kreyol. “What is your name?” she asks after a failed attempt in another language. She stands up gesturing to the black woman sitting in the waiting area and leads us both into a room with the Co-Founder of the organization.
He is an “average” sized, white, male. “Ce va?” he asks. “I’m well.” Both the young woman and I take a seat across from him at his desk. He is bald and wears a gold cross around his neck. His red, white, and black plaid shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal some chest hair and the gold chain he is donning. “I don’t speak French,” I proclaim. “Okay. I will have to struggle with English then,” he replies turning towards the woman “Do you speak English?” “I can understand it, but I don’t speak it well,” she says. The other co-founder walks in at that moment extending his hand for both of us to shake. “Shall we go into the conference room?”
We are joined by another woman who is called the Operations Manager. She has an American accent, but speaks to both of the men in Kreyol too. We go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what we do. I’m a graduate student in the U.S. interested in development and environment blah blah blah. The young black woman seems to work for an organization called Biotechnology Development in Africa (or BDA). The foundation has been trying to initiate a project with BDA for the past year, but its not moving ahead. [Because I am making these notes public I’ve decided not to use the real names of the directors at this point to protect them. They will be called L and C.] L does most of the talking, with C chiming in from time to time.
They keep getting interrupted with phone calls. “Sorry. Its crisis mode,” says the Operations manager. They explain to me that they are in the middle of receiving some money.
Money and politics are the main themes of our discussions. Though they’ve managed to survive, money and politics continues to be an issue. In Haiti, they explain, no one wants to do anything unless they see how it will benefit them. This explains why I’ve had such bad luck getting in touch with people here. For example, this project with BDA, which at this point is awaiting a signature just for a $250,00 feasibility study is being delayed because there is no money for people in the government to gain from it.
They detail how they have had many successful programs in the past but that they cannot be maintained because of funding. They had an “Ecole Verte” or green school which sough to education youth from Port au Prince about the environment and would take them up to La Visite Park, where they do all of there work. La Visite is one of two national parks in Haiti and is vital to the socio-ecological system here. “If the park goes, then so does all of Port au Prince’s water,” said the operations manager. Many people are migrating to the lands that are within the park out of necessity. It is probably better than living in “Site Soley” says C. They can grow food and have space up in the mountains where the park is located, but growing food means cleaning of trees for land.
I ask them if they are the only environmentally focused in NGO in Haiti and they say no. There are others but they have more of a philosophical approach at times, whereas there organization seeks to be more hands on and pragmatic. They work directly with the farmers (universally referred to as Peasants here). There organization is more interested in the people and the environment and not simply in conservation. They want to create jobs for people, and realize that addressing the environment in Haiti must also address the other issues like poverty. Value must also be placed in the environment for Haitian people to care. “If you had to cut down the last tree to save your family, you would, and so would I,” says C. I nod my head that I would. They need something that combines environmental concern and protection with the livelihoods of people, so they are interested in developing something like eco-tourism or or trees and foliage that can be useful in skin and healthcare products.
“Environment and development doesn’t exist here in Haiti,” says the operations manager. She is the most outspoken and skeptical about what can be done. Most people are only concerned with profit. Wealth is concentrated among the elite here and they will keep hold of it at any cost. Money first. “People are concerned with profit, and the government is concerned with power, but you already know that as a sociologist,” L says. International aid is an issues too. L claims that 80% of what Aid the international community gives to Haiti goes back to the donor country in some way. Think about the personnel and the materials. Most of that money doesn’t benefit Haiti. He tells me to think back historically. Its been 50 or 60 years of this international aid for development and where is the development? Haiti is in the same place as it was. On top of that, when it comes to aid trickling down to NGOs like their own, it is SLOW and INEFFICIENT. In fact, most NGOs here don’t make it past 10 years, though they have managed to survive for this long. “If you depend on international aid, without self-sufficiency, nothing happens,” says C. The woman from BDA asks about the private sector to which they reply is of no help. They are all for profit. They also have their own problems, as most of the businesses here are small and not thriving.
Given all of this I ask how they keep going. They strive to stay positive and they have commitments to the people. If they quit, then people will suffer. He makes sure to tell me that they do not sustain themselves from the Foundation, and that their own salaries come from other ventures. We talked for an hour and a half before saying our goodbyes. They handed me a flyer and a DVD about their organization. I asked if I could call the driver on their phone. As I waited for him, I sat in the main lobby area. The operations manager came over and asked if I needed anything. I told her I was fine, but had a question. “Are these large supermarkets owned by Haitians?” I ask. She says that most of them are owned by Arabs, and a lot of the management positions are occupied by Filipinos.
On the ride back to the hotel, the driver and I speak in Kreyol. He points to mountainsides, which is covered in colorful square structures, “I live up there.” “Se bel (Its beautiful)” I say. He nods yes with a smile. In english he asks, “Are you American black.” “Wi.” “Ou se Ayisyen (Are you Haitian)?” “No. M’ap etidye kilti ak lang Ayisyen nan inivisite (No. I’m styling Haitian culture and language at University),” I respond. I ask him about the supermarkets. He says there are many big supermarkets here. I ask him if he buys his food there and he said yes. I told him that at the supermarket I saw “anpil moun blan (many white people).” He explained to me that Petionville is a kominite (community) with a lot of white people. I asked fi it was because of all of the NGOs and embassy and he said no its because of the money. There are many people in Petionville with money. Looking up at the top of the mountains attests to this fact. They are speckled with very large houses. I hand him 50 gourdes as he pulls onto the sidewalk to drop me off. I tell him thanks and head inside.
In the lobby, James sits at his small desk listening to John Legend. In fact, as I write this he has listened to that one song, All of Me, 6 times, covers, instrumentals, and all. I NOW KNOW THE SONG BY HEART. I’m not mad though. Yesterday he told me that is how he learned English apart from school.
I've spent the rest of the day chilling in my room, except for my daily walk to the grocery store. Tomorrow I might go be a tourist and go to the National Museum. Its a must given my intrigue with, and love of, Haitian history.
My conversation with the local environmentally based NGO has left me a little bit puzzled. On the one, hand they suggested that all of this foreign involvement in Haiti has not been of much help, on the other they cannot imagine life without MINUSTAH, a UN peace-keeping force presence. They said that MINUSTAH has made it so that they feel safe, and that their families feel safe. The situation is further complicated by a government that has little financial stability, nor willingness to address problems that aren't of immediate benefit to those occupying places of power. If the Park that the organization seeks to protect, while enhancing the lives of people living there, gets overrun there could be dire consequences for the broader community. The people that I talked to today called it short-sightedness.
After hearing all of this I don't know exactly how to feel. I'm very inspired by the organizations efforts, especially given the constraints that they operate under. I felt a sense of pride for whatever reason. Here is an organization that is trying the best it can. Its scrambling for money all of the time, picking up crumbs here and there. This makes me a little sad. The people that care and that are actively doing something for the Haitian people, are the same people that have it hardest. Haiti needs to be self sufficient, as those slaves that rebelled against their colonial masters envisioned. Gen twop men an Ayiti e moun li (There are too many hands on Haiti and its people). I've lost track of all of the foreign NGOs, UN people, foreign embassies I've seen here. Yet as my friend from the Foundation pointed out not much has changed with all of this foreign assistance. Haiti remains at the bottom, one of the poorest in the world. It is historically outrageous that the first nation in the world to declare "Tout noun se noun (All people are people)" would in up in the situation that it is in today!
I’m reminded of what the sociologist Howard Winant writes, “In a socially just and historically conscious world the West would not only forgive the debt of the world’s “others”; it would seek forgiveness; it would seek to make good on their losses, to make them whole in the legal sense. Such an event—difficult even to imagine today, but pressing world-historical requirement—would go a long way toward destroying the racial hierarchy built into the contemporary global political economy” (16).