Haiti: A Transformed Perspective
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Haiti: A Transformed Perspective

I learned a lot from my trip to Haiti, enduring lessons that I know are worth sharing with others.

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Haiti: A Transformed Perspective

This March I had the privilege of attending the Vassar Haiti Project’s annual trip to Haiti during my spring break. For those of you who don’t know, Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) is a nonprofit based out of Vassar College, that purchases and sells art and handcrafts made by Haitian artists and artisans. The resulting proceeds are then funneled into several ongoing sustainable projects in the villages of Chermaitre and Fiervil, Haiti, such as the operation of a medical clinic and primary school, water purification, a women’s cooperative, and an agriculture and reforestation program. Founded in 2001 by Lila and Andrew Meade, VHP is fundamentally grassroots, beginning as a small-scale effort to provide meals to students in Chermaitre, Haiti, and evolving to become a largely student-run project with several divergent initiatives. Each year, a lucky group of student applicants is able to experience what is commonly referred to as a “transformative” trip, that is ultimately unprecedented in many different ways. This year, 14 members of VHP attended the trip, including 10 Vassar students, Manning Wu ‘14, Jackie Eiting, on VHP’s Board of Directors, and Lila and Andrew. Lasting 12 days, the trip included stops and activities in Port-au-Prince, while a majority of our time was spent in the adjacent villages of Fiervil and Chermaitre in northwest Haiti. When I started my freshman year of college, becoming so intimately involved with a nonprofit that does such hands-on work with a third-world country was well beyond my expectations. I was intrigued by the first official gathering VHP had for the year, where individuals could learn about the organization’s different initiatives and undertakings by listening to representatives who were obviously passionate about their role and VHP. And after attending education and health informational meetings and helping set up the annual September art sale held on campus, applying for the trip was for me a logical and important step, as I perceived a journey to Haiti as one that would integrate my experiences and understandings of VHP’s various endeavors.

One can imagine how getting accepted to the trip was an honor, as the experience and its impact suddenly became attainable. I think we ten students who were accepted to the trip had preconceived ideas of what it would entail, as well as what insight we could glean from it. These were addressed in our first official meeting for the trip. At this meeting, all of us, along with Lila and Andrew, convened to begin the initial discussions about trip fundraising and preparations, and also to touch base on the real reason that had brought us all together. Lila asked us: why do we go on the trip? Why do we bother making such an extensive trip when we already do such considerable work in Poughkeepsie, and why are we making the conscious effort to travel somewhere that we know we are already helping? Many of us came forth with valid, appropriate responses, such as traveling to Chermaitre to observe and evaluate the progress and status of the schools and clinic, and to see the work that VHP does translated into a real-world setting. While Lila noted that these were respectable responses, she presented the paramount reason for why our presence in Haiti is crucial: we affirm for the people of Port-au-Prince, Fiervil, Chermaitre, and elsewhere that they matter, and that their presence in this world matters to us. Thus, not only do we recognize the need and suffering of these people, but we also acknowledge their humanity and significance in a world where so many individuals are denied visibility, and subsequently, recognition as a human being. In this understanding is an implicit sense of equity and mutual respect, one that pervades all of VHP’s work in the U.S. and in Haiti.

It was this critical message that Lila and Andrew implanted in all of our minds early on, one that would become visceral in our mindsets and actions during both our preparations for the trip and the trip itself. Along with this conviction is a notion Lila reiterated for us before and throughout the trip, and one that became more clear as the trip progressed. Our journey was significant and difficult in different ways, due to facets that can best be described as anomalous for many of us. Driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince, we observed decrepit storefront signs, precariously overcrowded buses and vehicles, and congested sidewalks and avenues with street goers asking for money or help. While walking about these streets and attending open art markets, little kids rubbed their stomachs while murmuring “grangou”, Creole for hungry, adding to the general aura of poverty that much of the city emitted. As the progression of our trip saw our movement from the rapidity of the capital to the increasingly agrarian northwest of the country, the apparent impoverishment persisted: kids bathed naked in the rivers, and women traveled barefoot while transporting fruit and navigating riverbeds. These images were shocking and raw, as we were confronted by sights that were sad, unpleasant, and overall challenging to reconcile with the patterns and habits characteristic of our own lives. Lila articulated this reality as a contact between two different paradigms, which encapsulates the difficulty of comprehending and accepting a world and reality so distinct from my own. Indeed having only experienced the occidental world, my perspective was limited to a relatively inadequate representation of the world. Here emerges one of my primary interests in attending the trip: to enhance my cognizance of the world, its complexities, and its irrefutable hardships. A paradigm shift was in order: an opening up of my perspective and mindset to accommodate comprehension of a completely different way of life.

This allowed me, and others on the trip, to see the suffering and pain of the Haitian people, as well as their humanity and connection to us as human beings. And breaking out of one’s habitual conceptions is a task that is easier said than done, yet that is essential for the success of VHP and its members. Better understanding the realisms and the roots of the quotidian struggles facing the people of Haiti, lays the foundation for a lasting sense of empathy that defines the work of the project and its mission. I believe that the recognition of others, their stories, and their sufferings is a prerequisite to developing empathy. Joan Halifax, an anthropologist, activist, and Zen Buddhism priest who has worked with terminally ill patients in the U.S. and India, echoes this notion in her TED Talk, in which she discusses the necessity and implications of compassion. According to her, compassion requires that no one feel extricable from the suffering they see of others, and that one of the main enemies of compassion and empathy is pity. Humans have the tendency when they see poverty or suffering to sympathize, which is important, but this often exudes a façade that veils a hollow form of concern for others. For pity is often a precursor to superiority, as those who are unaccustomed to the poverty that afflicts places such as Haiti cannot fathom experiencing such a “destitute” life. Throughout the trip, I tried to remain aware of the oftentimes blurry line between pity and empathy. For the trip was replete with elements of pathos, from hungry children to dilapidated village homes to inadequate living conditions for the secondary school students. And while we felt guilty and despondent upon seeing the severity of the situation, we didn’t let this sentiment overtake us and impede genuine connections with the Haitian people.

Despite the adversity and poverty facing the people of Chermaitre and elsewhere, they are humans who share the same needs, drives, abilities, and rights that we possess. My fellow travelers and I upheld this collective belief through the conversations and activities that filled our time. While in Fiervil and Chermaitre, we held meetings with students from the primary and secondary schools, the teachers of the primary school, the doctor of our clinic, the reforestation representatives, and the women’s cooperative, in which we asked important questions and actively listened to and respected all of their concerns, feelings, and voices. Instead of telling them how to improve themselves, or enacting a unidirectional flow of aid, we aimed to collaborate in order to ameliorate conditions or prevalent issues, within a truly equitable and mutual relationship. I myself aimed to avoid “invisible violence”, a term coined by Riina Yrjölä, who has studied celebrity humanitarianism. This manner of violence is symptomatic of many humanitarian and foreign aid endeavors that claim to be helping third world countries; in actuality, they are operating under an entrenched belief of the inferiority and “helplessness” of the recipients of this aid. The ‘they’ here refers to various celebrities and other prominent figures whose highly-publicized humanitarian efforts in other countries remain undoubtedly efficacious and scrupulous. Yet many of these widely-known cases have shown to be ineffective in helping the lives of others and in establishing a truly equal exchange between the two cultures. Throughout the trip, I often stepped back to evaluate my and the group’s presence in Haiti, and the image we were emitting to others. Did the villagers view us as their partners and friends, or as more ephemeral figures in their lives who would leave them in no better conditions than before our arrival? I believe that VHP eludes this potential pitfall through the traditions, values, and members that define it. By holding several meetings to discuss the issues and progress of the projects there, we concurrently adapted our paradigms to more fully understand their routines and realities, and gave them an honored and respected voice, one that reinforced their sense of value and importance in this world.

And it’s through the intimate friendships and partnerships with Haiti comprising VHP that has given rise to the equitable and collaborative nature of the project. Père Wildaine is the episcopal priest and district director who represents the Partnership Program to Chermaitre, and makes our work possible as the liaison between us and Haiti. Translating all of our meetings, and overseeing our several ongoing projects, Père Wildaine is entrusted with all of our efforts, work, and energy; he grew up in rural Haiti and knows Chermaitre and the needs of Haiti better than any of us. Additional partnerships are also integral to VHP’s success, including Clairvoix, the primary school director, Dr. Gueslin, the clinic’s doctor, and Benoit, a talented young artist who also directs the women’s cooperative. While at the clinic, some of us were able to sit alongside Gueslin during his meetings and consultations with patients, each of whom presented significant medical conditions requiring treatment or further testing. We spoke with Clairvoix during our primary school meeting, where he and the teachers demonstrated their commitment to providing education for the hundreds of students near and around the village. These individuals are invaluable in their contributions to VHP and its deep engagement with the Haitian people. And this crucial network that enhances our connection and work with Haiti indeed does help to prevent forms of power or senses of supremacy that often accompany foreign aid and humanitarian efforts. By valuing and recognizing the importance and potential of these individuals, we create a true, equitable partnership that forges a collaborative form of progress.

Inherent in this framework of VHP is what I’d call its most central dogma, which preserves its unmatched impact and makes our connections with others so meaningful: our prioritizing of being over doing. We live in a world where so many of us are transfixed on our schedules, routines, and commitments, filling out mental checkboxes in our heads all day long. Our jobs, our homework and our duties are stressful, and set the precedent for a more automated and less humanistic approach to our lives and behaviors. And while being busy is good, I’ve realized that preoccupation with productivity can come with legitimate costs. We become so hung up on doing, that we forget how we are being: how much love and kindness we are extending, how much humility we’re bearing, how much we are laughing, and how much empathy we are extending to those who matter. Whatever the circumstances, I’ve learned that in comparison to how we are speaking with and engaging with others, and how we are making others feel, all other concerns are trivial. Being is more than a task, it is a state-of-mind that requires attention, effort, and a genuine intention of respecting and honoring others’ presences. In Haiti, there was lots to do: test the water and soil, hold many important and difficult meetings, paint the inside of the primary school, assist the nurses at the clinic, et cetera. And there were of course unforeseen difficulties that required our attention, and that gave us additional tasks: a wave of the stomach flu and other health concerns that struck almost everyone on the trip, multiple-day, torrential rains that soaked many of our belongings, among others. Yet we didn’t let any of these stresses or responsibilities interfere with our full presence with the Haitian people. Halifax additionally reminds us that to facilitate compassion and empathy, we must not be attached to outcomes. We must not always look at situations objectively, and view our efforts as solely means to achieve certain ends. She explains how fixation on the end product and an obsession over doing alienates one’s sense of presence, of truly being with others and establishing that sense of compassion that is necessary for help and equity.

I remember from Chermaitre that irrespective of the tasks or issues that were facing me, the conscious act of being over doing reverberated throughout my head, and arose in all of my conversations and interactions. Being has many constituents, but one of the most important is listening to others, and giving all of your love, generosity, and empathy to them. Being able to speak French with many of the villagers was a way that I was able to give myself to them, and seek to understand them and their stories. And it was a gift that these villagers saw in me a person who yearned to speak and engage with them, which led to more impactful conversations. My exchange with Telcy, a young, talented artist studying under Benoit, stands out to me as one of these conversations. Not only was it rewarding to utilize my French, but also the meaning and substance of our words proved potent. We discussed such topics as religion, life burdens, and education, which led both to agreements and disagreements, but a more widened perspective. We both shared our experiences with school, and I was moved to see his appreciation for education and its effects. Telcy revealed to me his plans to study at a university upon finishing his art school classes, seeing education as a way to support his family yet also achieve his desired position in society. He asked me if I was familiar with one of Nelson Mandela’s most noteworthy quotes, “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”, one acting as the guiding principle of VHP’s education initiative. For me, hearing these compelling words lauded by Telcy accentuated his vast respect for his education and opportunities, exceeding my expectations. His remark, which insinuated his strong drive for education and success, also confirmed the undeniable connection between us. We both appreciate education, and bear ultimate goals of earning a respectable place in the world, and helping the world in some way.

And talking to other driven students and figures in Chermaitre and elsewhere, such as Benoit, Jimmy, another young art student, and Marckenson, a secondary school student and driven young man who dreams of becoming a priest, only amplified the sense of similarity I felt between myself and the many students. It is the mode of ‘being’ on which VHP hinges that allowed these connections to be made and to strengthen. Being the most present as possible was an ongoing project for all of us, requiring the training of an often ‘unused mental muscle’, as Lila puts it. Being was a notion that guided our trip, one that helped maximize our mindfulness and awareness of those around us, and which helps VHP activate the empathy and equity intrinsic to it. At a VHP General Body meeting after the trip, we were lucky to have Père Wildaine present, who was able to give context of the trip to those who hadn’t attended the trip, yet who also transmitted an important message for us who had experienced Chermaitre and its people. Père noted the strength, the courage, the dignity, the motivation, and the wisdom of the villagers of Chermaitre, and of the Haitian people. They are smart, capable, and resolute in their mindsets and drives, but live in conditions that are not conducive to the pursuit of their ambitions and dreams. These people are brilliant, perseverant, and the same as us, the only distinction being our place of birth and the conditions that dictate our lives and mobilities. Père subsequently furthered this fact as the principal reason for why he does this work, and for why he devotes himself to VHP. VHP as an organization supports education, health, women’s empowerment, and environmental sustainability in the Chermaitre region to provide access to basic rights and services to people who most need them, but who also unequivocally deserve them. By helping to maintain these sustainable projects, VHP works to create settings and conditions that will enable residents to obtain access to healthcare, education, and other basic necessities, many of which we take for granted, and that are all crucial precursors to a prosperous and fulfilling life.

After all, the Haitians, despite the disproportionate poverty and hardship that beleaguer many of them, are humans just like everyone else on this planet, entitled to civil and political rights, but also to social and economic rights that are oftentimes overlooked by aid efforts and various organizations that are not grounded in equitable or humane values. Paul Farmer, a revered doctor, anthropologist, and author, is known for his work in providing healthcare to many of the world’s poor regions, including rural Haiti. And his creation of Partners in Health, studies of human rights abuses, and ensuing values and ideals have certainly influenced VHP. In his book Pathologies of Power, he focuses on the concept of social and economic rights. This passionate and dense analysis outlines the inadequacies and failings of current human rights endeavors, and provides many examples of deficits in social and economic rights around the world. He includes a powerful 2001 declaration made by a group of rural, HIV-infected Haitians, which aims to enumerate their demands and grievances regarding social and economic rights. Their focus on the concept of a human being and their right to life was striking; they write, “yes, all human beings are people. It is we, the afflicted, who speak now...The battle we’re fighting…is the same as the combat that’s long been waged by other oppressed people so that everyone can live as human beings.” The fact that we’re all humans and that we deserve to be treated accordingly epitomizes the foundation of human rights discourse, but it is often absent from the minds and strategies of higher powers. These patients’ collective rhetoric invokes the Haitian proverb ‘tout moun se moun’, translating from Creole to ‘every person is a person’. Michael French and Tracy Kidder include this proverb as a reaction in their novel Mountains Beyond Mountains to a statement from a sick patient in rural Haiti: “You can’t even get a blood transfusion if you’re poor...We’re all human beings.” This adage connects to issues of health and social inequalities in Haiti and the world, while it provides a fundamental reminder to all: that every human being must be recognized as a human being, possessing all the social, economic, and other basic rights that ensure survival, safety, and prosperity.

While reflecting, I’ve tried to consolidate Farmer’s, French’s and Kidder’s words about social equality, Lila and Andrew’s messages about love, care, and mindfulness of other ways of life, and my own experiences and observations. What I’ve realized is that empathy and compassion are universally understood, and manifest within all efforts to connect with and help other countries, cultures, societies, villages, etc. I’ve learned throughout my time at Vassar that in order to truly aid and be there for others we must try to understand the causes of their problems, and to respect their experiences, their voices, and the lives that they lead. Being mindful of those different lives, and the varying struggles that they pose, naturally contributes toward a more equitable and conscious world, the main ingredient for an enduring form of empathy that can be woven throughout all human interactions. And herein lies the key that endows us with the ability to effect real change: instilling in others a sense of safety and mutual respect, along with support and a genuine affirmation of the importance of their presence in this world. Even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows us that in addition to safety and physical needs, our sense of belonging, love and respect are fundamental to our well-being. While I’m not proposing this as a panacea to the rampant poverty and inequity that grip this world, it is an imperative principle that can often get lost in large-scale humanitarian ventures; this reality is due to less humanistic practices that lead them astray from their initial and ultimate purpose: to help. One of the most conspicuous and vital elements of VHP is its espousal of empathic and equitable ideals, which it parlays into its work at Vassar and with Haiti. I remember one comment made by one of my fellow trippers, which aptly captured VHP and the reason for its efficacy. She noted that the project’s relatively small size and focused efforts benefit it as it permits a more close-knit, collaborative, and compassionate relationship amongst all of its members, which carry over into its interactions with the Haitian people. VHP has upheld its mission of bettering the lives of artists in Port-au-Prince and villagers in Chermaitre, Haiti, remaining focused, practical, and constantly conscious of its humanity, its relations with others, and its recognition of other ways life. When I think about my work with VHP and my trip to Haiti, both unparalleled experiences for me, I do see a transformation. Not in myself as a person, but in the way that I look at the world: as one containing disheartening poverty and inequality, one deficient in social justice and respect, yet one reparable with understanding, compassion, and being.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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