Subject: Final Trip Blog From The Compound - Intangible Non-Commodities…
Heather gave a pretty good summary of the activities yesterday. While we frequently get things done in threes (Liette, Heather and I), there are plenty of projects and other stuff that we’re split apart for. Both of my highlights from yesterday were such, and they rolled into my thoughts as I considered the last few days in Haiti.
Trust and respect are non-commodities – everywhere - but especially here. You can’t buy either, they must be earned - and earned with action. Again, Haiti is a desperate place, with people born into terrible situations where self preservation is the primary goal. The idea of doing good for your community, or your country, isn’t really something intrinsically wired into most of the population. How could it be, when you’re walking “roads” laden with rocks, in donated, ripped gym shoes , and trying to figure out how to put the next meal in your children’s bellies or your own? On my previous trip, I remember Liette telling me that there’s a massive problem with kids having rotting teeth due to the absence of dental hygiene awareness (and supply availability), combined with the fact that many parents are faced with the impossible choice of their children starving – or feeding them whatever high calorie food they can get their hands on – and sugar cane is cheap and easily accessible. Imagine– do you let your child starve or rot their teeth out? It’s a no brainer decision whether you’re from the North America or here, but that’s the reality on the ground. And in the face of balancing those priorities, integrity can easily go out the window. Would you steal to feed your children? Would you trick someone out of proper change so you could buy medication to help a relative with HIV? Would you take someone’s property if you know you wouldn’t be caught – and it allowed your child to go to school for a year? Would you judge someone harshly who did? These questions synthesize situational discussions we’ve had in my MBA program (Global Horizons and Business Ethics), but down here it’s known by a much simpler term …… “everyday life”.
Two players that have factored into earlier blogs will enter this one as well – Rigaud and Robinson.
Robinson was the 25’ish year-old moto driver for security for each of my runs, hired because he was punctual, I presume. On the first run, Operation SOL, as he whisked me back to the compound he said he spoke some English, but didn’t get a chance to practice much. This was due to the fact that most of his friends spoke worse English than him, and the school he had been in was abruptly shut down many years ago. I offered to let him practice his English with me later in the day if he wanted to walk the canal around 5 PM. He was very excited, and confirmed that we’d meet up at 5 that day at the gate to HATS upon dropping me off. I told Karen about this, and was looking forward to it. She politely said “This isn't a good idea. He’s trying to get an in with you, which later on develops into requests for money, or letters to sponsor him for a visit to the States. I’ve had tons of people ask me to help them with their English, but most don’t really want that, they want something else”. She spoke to Richard, who relayed to Robinson a little later that I was too busy to walk that day. When we crossed paths for the next run, he didn’t raise the issue at all, I think he just understood.
Enter yesterday – when I asked if I could go to “the market” in Verettes to check it out. I didn’t really expect to buy anything, I just remembered it from last time, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Karen got a hold of Eugène, who takes care of the yard, and they coordinated a moto. Much as I’d love the challenge of going to market solo, I knew I couldn’t communicate with anyone there, as I don’t speak Creole. Euygène became the designated Ricksitter and Robinson was the driver again. On the way to the market he (Robinson) was giving me his family background, with his father dying 10 years ago and his mother living in the countryside with a husband she didn’t care for. His hope, as he told me, was that he could make enough money for her to come live with him. I listened intently, knowing at this point there was a pretty good chance I was being played, but stuck on a moto and still interested. It was the best of option on a list of one. When we got to the market, Robinson came along. He proved instrumental in helping me negotiate the one purchase I made (keep in mind, the “market” sells all kinds of used/donated clothes and food products most people reading this wouldn’t feed their dog – and I mean that literally). While Robinson helped me communicate with the seller, Eugène made sure that the money changing hands was proper (once a price is established in goudes, you divide by 5 to get Haitian dollars. From there you divide by 8 to get US dollars – though I’d never use American dollars in this situation). Both of my guides proved invaluable, and I glad to get exactly the experience I was looking for. Before we left, I picked up a round of soda for us and off we went.
|Market Day - Robinson on Right, Yjenn in Red.|
On the way back to the compound Robinson told me that he was trying to save enough money to get to Brazil, but that it was very difficult. I had asked if he’d been to Cap Hatien before (which is 6 hours north) and he said he’d like to go, and could take me there, but he’d never gone yet because he couldn’t afford gas for the ride. Let’s pause the story for a second. Ride to the market – he tells me the tragedy of his family. Ride from the market, he tells me what he’d like to do but can’t. So there’s the pattern. I slide my subversive life lesson into the conversation on the way home and said something like “I’ve noticed that trust and respect are hard to come by for lots of people who struggle, and that the more trustworthy someone proves themselves to be, the more business would come his way ….. and the sooner he can get to Brazil. Of course he agrees with me all the way home.
When we get back, I know Robinson needs to be paid. I pull out my remaining Haitian money and Yjenn points to the 250 note, writes down “50”, and points and me. I take this to mean I should get 50 back in change, since he had looked past the 100 note I had. All the while Robinson is telling me that he and I are friends, which is awkward because money is about to exchange hands. I make a point of jokingly saying “I’m glad we’re friends, but my friends don’t charge me for rides, nor I them. I just want to make sure you’re fairly taken care of”. So I hand him the 250 note, expecting the 50 back. He tells me he has no change (oldest trick in the book), and then selectively plucks out a 100 note. I have a 50 note as well (good luck keeping up with the math, btw readers), so I put that in with my 250 and tell him to give me the 100 note back, which he does. This leaves him with 200 goudes for the ride to and from. I ask Robinson if he feels that’s “fair” and he says yes. Eugène, mind you, is a bit frustrated with the whole transaction, but speaks no English so he can’t communicate it. I think he could also read that I just wanted to be done. Later I reviewed the situation with Liette and she laughed, saying that the ride was 50 overall – 25 in each direction. So, I had paid 4 times the going rate. Robinson was no friend. This 50 fare was $1.20 US total, and I had paid him nearly $5 US. It wasn’t that punishing of an experience, but an interesting one nonetheless. Noteworthy – Robinson’s shoes were in taters, his moto gages did not work, it was missing a mirror, he had no helmet, and the bike was heavily dinged up. Also I had nearly forgotten about the sodas I said I’d buy until I mentioned I was ready to back to HATS. He said –“And the cola at the supermarket, yes?”. Point being – clearly the guy has legitimate survival needs to meet, as do any of us. He was just dirty in the way he went about meeting them.
I did some more work with Liette on the sponsorship paperwork with for a few hours, showered, and came down in time to hear that Rigaud and his wife were here and on the porch. I was excited to see him again, and to meet his wife. Interesting sidenote, Haitians almost never go in each other’s houses. All social get togethers are on the porch, or in front of the houses. Outdoor plumbing for bathrooms means there’s no reason to go inside a house, and since houses are small by most measures, I think it’s just been melted into the culture that there’s no need for it people to enter (and no air conditioning for 99% fo the population). On my last visit, I was just as inquisitive when we had gone to Rigauds house, and he broke the social norm and invited me in for a quick tour, which was pretty neat. In that discussion I had asked why most Haitians (including him) have two front doors on their house. He asked how many I have, to which I answered “one”. He said “why do you only have one door on your house?”. Point and match, smart move Rigaud.
|Rigaud and Madam|
So Liette and I caught up with them for an hour or two and it was….. fantastic. He again opened up for any questions I had ….. and I had a thousand. We touched on his job (maintenance supervisor to a team of four at the hospital), his crops (he has several plots and works them every day after his 8 hours hospital shift), HIV/AIDS (still rampant down here), his children (3 - with 2 in university and one that recently graduated university), TV and the internet (knows what they are but doesn’t have time for either, nor a setup – however his son accesses the net at the hospital, where he also works once a week), how he met his wife (she was our equivalent of an unpaid au paire, taking a sick child to the hospital when she caught his eye). For me, I think the most interesting part was his upbringing, and how forthcoming he was about it.
Rigaud had a very rough childhood. At the age of 7, he went to live with extended family where besides a roof over his head, he was left pretty much left on his own. He never had the opportunity to go to school so he got involved in helping in the fields and learned the trade of farming. This complements his salary and allowed him to be able to put his kids through school. This, despite working at the hospital for 29 years – and making only minimum wage (when his 6 of 7 work days is factored into his salary). I was particularly interested in getting under the surface to see how he felt of his Haitian compatriots, some of whom will take advantage of people and situations. While he said he was frustrated at times, he keeps away from folks who give off bad energy and engage in drama. He said he knows people envy his crops and life, and by nature want to tear him down. As a result, when he’s within earshot of people who mention his name, he discretely walks the other way and pretends to have heard nothing. This is counterintuitive for most people everywhere in the world as the drama bait is usually swallowed up and a feud ensues. Despite his lack of formal education, these conversations have demonstrated that he’s probably one of the smarter people I’ve ever met in my life. A successful entrepreneur who has put 1 child through high school and 2 more who are currently studying – despite the odds being stacked extremely against him. Rigaud could have been a Robinson. It was his right, being born into the cycle of poverty, regardless of which path he chose. I can’t blame Robinson for what he is, but I certainly can’t call him my friend. Rigaud, on the other hand, made a point of saying that he remembered my previous visit, was glad to see I was back again, and hopes to see me on another trip. And, not only did he not ask for anything - he brought bananas and mushrooms from his field for us. And for all these reasons, I’m proud to have him as a friend. I can’t speak his language, he can’t speak mine, but I have profound respect for him. And I believe that if things were needed, he’d be there. I trust that, and I trust him.
As I wind this trip (and mammoth blog entry) down …. never before have I seen an organization – corporate or otherwise – that definitively lives and breathes its motto as clearly as HATS does. “It’s all about the children”. While todays blog didn’t mention my interaction with them, there was plenty of it, as Heather mentioned in her update yesterday. I chose to focus on the social issues I ran into yesterday because I think it presents an interesting dichotomy of the moral challenges, and choices, people face living in subsistence. This is the culture the children of HATS inherit when they are old enough to be on their own. I hope they choose the Rigaud Road, because it’s the only way this country is going to get better.
This concludes my final entry from the compound. I’m going to try to throw another together on the travel back, but not sure if I’ll be able to complete since I also have a school paper due. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and please please please consider sponsoring a child or making a donation if you haven’t yet. Several years ago I searched high and low for a third world organization I could do some volunteer work with – and that I could verify wasn’t on the take. It was almost impossible to do. And then…. came HATS. Thanks for another great trip Karen, Djemima, Leica, Tifi, Ti-Luc, Josie, Moise, JJ, Dieunel, Judel, Jonathan, Anne, Sandra, Jofky, Vladimy and the newest tiny one…. Magdala (“M! M! M! M!”).
Thanks for reading!