My April 2015 trip to Haiti will mark the 10th year since I first journeyed to the island in 2006. Just as my parenting methods have evolved over the past 24 years, so have my views and methods of “helping” others, both here and abroad. For the first time, the April trip will involve much more teaching and not as much doing, as we work to train midwives in methods of cervical cancer screening and treatment. More information about this venture can be found here.
Haiti is an example of how too much “helping” by outsiders (usually Americans) can be a disadvantage. Too many projects have been started or promised and never finished. Completed projects were thought to benefit the community, but no input or cooperation was sought with the locals, so ongoing maintenance was not done and the project soon fell into disarray. Frequently, patting ourselves on the back for performing good deeds seems to be more important than truly working to help Haitians. These thoughts always come to the forefront as I am boarding my flight from Florida to Haiti. Many groups have brightly colored tshirts with the words – hope, helping, Haiti, promise, hands, hearts – emblazoned across the front. They are excitedly conversing about the “trip that will change their lives”, holding and feeding orphans, painting a school or building, bringing back pictures of the extreme poverty to show their friends. I cringe – for these are some of the same thoughts that I had during my first few trips and I now realize hurt Haiti, as well as any developing world country, more than if we ignored them. The following are some of my own reflections, reinforced by others that I have talked to or read about.
1. Read, Read, Read. Before you go to any new place, find it on a map and research on the internet. Read a few books about the history, both past and present. If someone had asked me ten years ago where to locate Haiti, I would have only been able to point in the general direction of the Caribbean. I currently have one bookshelf devoted to books about Haiti.
2. Language. It has become very easy to find free internet sites that will introduce you to the basics of any language, both written and audio. Greeting a person in their native language goes a long way in creating a favorable impression, even if you can’t carry on a conversation.
3. Cameras and photos. Always ask first. Many of the older Haitians believe that taking a photo of someone can steal their soul. Haitians know that they are poor – they don’t need you taking pictures of their houses, poor water sanitation, trash to show to others how lucky America is. On my second trip, I made a video recording of a group of young men singing a beautiful song at sunrise at the top of the mountain. I didn’t ask permission first and when one of the group realized what I was doing he wanted my camera in exchange. After a heated debate, he agreed that if I deleted the video he would give up his demands. It was still a beautiful song – but now only in my memory.
4. Take the time to sit down with a local and have a conversation. Ask them about their family, share stories about your family. Get to know them and their daily life, hopes and dreams. Often you will find more similarities than differences.
5. Contribute to the local economy. Eat at a Haitian restaurant or take an extra day to spend at a local resort. Purchase a few keepsakes to put on your shelf at home or give to friends. Too many aide groups view Haiti as dangerous and don’t go outside the walls of their compound. Just as any foreign country, you need to be smart about where you are and travel in groups, but I have always felt safe, even during our sunrise hikes on remote footpaths.
6. Make sure your mission is something that the Haitians need, want and can’t do for themselves. Holding orphans, painting and building is a job that could employ many locals for the cost of a plane ticket. Teaching Haitians how to paint or build will provide much more benefit for their future job skills. Teaching birth control and sex education will work to decrease the orphan population.
7. Work with Haitians. Employ them as part of your team. Ask their input as to what they think will work best when questions arise. I can attest that this method takes much longer and is frustrating for us task and time oriented Americans, but will make you feel like your mission was more worthwhile in the long-term. I have heard many volunteers comment that the locals won’t know the answers because they are illiterate and unschooled. My favorite quote, “Poor people aren’t stupid. If they were stupid, they would be dead.” Not all knowledge is learned at a desk.
8. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. This might be one of the hardest concepts for adults. As children, we were always being treated to new experiences beyond our control but as adults we are able to more rigidly control our environment and experiences to only those events that are comfortable. Potential volunteers have declined our trips due to being “uncomfortable” with limited food choices, bugs, lack of air conditioning, fear of tropical illness, to name only a few. I think some of my best experiences have come when I was the most “uncomfortable” and was able to forge on and still have a pleasant time. It certainly lends to better stories.
9. Spread the word. Once you return from your trip, tell others about what you have learned, both good and bad. The majority of people who travel to another part of the world do so because they talked to someone else about their experiences. We only tend to read the sensationalist stories about the developing world, but could better relate to reflections from a recent volunteer.
10. Don’t make promises to locals that you can’t keep. By the end of each of our medical trips, everyone has started to see the week in a much more rosy light as they are anticipating their first warm shower, comfortable bed and return to loved ones. Volunteers start to talk about returning again and make promises to hospital staff about what they can do for them in the future. The return rate of most of our volunteers is about 25%. Promises are soon forgotten once you have returned to your American life. Unfortunately, the Haitians do not forget.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from planning a trip, just to travel in a better mindset than I initially did. I have made each of these mistakes and a few more. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, that first trip was life altering for me and became a passion that has defined my life.
Part 2 of this post concerns sending teens on some of these same trips. How can trips benefit both our kids and the communities in which they serve?