Posted by: posthaiti | August 1, 2010

haitians want to work; they really, really do

disclaimer: this post may have me talking out of my ass, but i’m still going to talk.

let’s revisit that NYT article i mentioned in my last post, about the difficulties of moving rubble:

Further, rubble removal, a $500 million problem facing the recovery effort, has proved especially difficult in Fort National. International experts say it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily; fewer than 300 trucks are hauling rubble now. But those trucks cannot penetrate much of Fort National, which has only one main road and lots of steep alleys. In some places, even wheelbarrows cannot be used. Rubble has to be carried out pail by pail, which at least provides jobs.

unemployment is, basically, a way of life for haitians. it’s hard to imagine, but rates range from 60 to 80 percent, according to various sources from a quick google search. (actually, from my three trips down and some of the reading i’ve done, i think it’s definitely closer to 80 than 60.) to us, that sounds horrifying. i mean, most people that i know have never contemplated what they’d do with their time if they didn’t have to work. a lot of people use work as a way to avoid figuring out who they are, what their true callings are. others would rather just stay busy. some, like me, are workaholics and addicted to achievement. whatever. in haiti, there is no work, so i imagine there are a lot of people who have had much time to ponder life, their place in the universe, and what passing time actually means.

that said, most haitians would pounce on the chance to work. in leogane, haitians watched us as we worked. they watched and watched, used to seeing blans (blan in creole, from the french word for white, blanc, which is a semi-affectionate term for “white person”) riding in fat SUVs with the windows rolled up, their eyes wary and fingers knucklewhite gripping the steering wheel for dear life. they would pass and laugh, smirk, or shake their heads. sometimes they’d stop and ask if we had work. “do you have a job for me?” no, but you can go to HODR’s office and put your name on the waitlist. “we’re volunteers,” we’d say, with a mix of self-indulgant pride and subconscious arrogance (or maybe it was just me). “you mean, you don’t get paid?” the question fell like a dead cat tumbling from a three-story building. half the time they’d say, ok, i’ll work for free, i just want to work. the other quarter, hellz to the no, i’m not working for free. the final quarter would start in on the questions:

random haitian person: why are you working in my country?
me: i’m a volunteer, working with a nonprofit (zoinks! the dreaded word that most haitians associate with the stealing of their jobs).
RHP: can you get me a job?
me: like i said, we’re not paid. so, no, i can’t. but, you can volunteer with us!
RHP: so, who pays you?
me: well, like i said, we’re not paid. we’re a privately funded org. like, americans with money dump said money into a bank account in the US and buy us things so we can work, eat, and sleep down here, in your country.
RHP: so, why are you working here, in our country, and we’re not?

and that begs the question, why is *anyone* who is not haitian working in haiti — paid or not — when haitians are not? i thought about that a lot after the first few weeks, especially after one particularly heated man confronted me outside HODR’s base one morning. we were helping to build the first of many (we’ll see) compost toilets, the brainchild of a vol named ben. i fielded the entire convo, being the only one that spoke french, while the other vols happily — and rather innocently, i might add, since they didn’t understand what we were saying — mixed concrete and rendered cement blocks that would serve as the foundation of this strange newfangled shitter. (yeah, i just felt like using that word; it was my grandpa’s, and i always thought it was a hilarious way of referring to the toilet.)

he asked me the usual litany of questions. why are you working and we’re not? why are we, as vols, coming on our own dime to work *for free* in a country with an unemployment rate of 8 out of 10 people? why shouldn’t all the orgs like HODR be replaced by orgs like CHF, which pays locals to do the same work we’re doing? to be fair, this is an unusual situation in that these so-called jobs are “disaster relief,” so it’s not as if we’re planting ourselves as a vendor on the side of a dirt road or taking one of their factory jobs. it seemed almost ludicrous to me that many haitians would say fuck it, and walk away if someone didn’t offer them pay for clearing away the rubble of their neighbors’ collapsed home, but that’s haiti. in their mind, it seems, foreigners can afford to come — and can leave whenever they want — and end up taking potentially paying jobs from haitians and doing them for free. as slaves, they were screwed over. as a burgeoning country, they were screwed over (by the french). under the docs, they were more than screwed over. and now, under the NGO “scheme of things,” they’re tired of not having work and of seeing foreigners come down and take the only jobs there seem to be. and, to get damn well paid for them, too. they’re not stupid, they’re not blind, and they’re living in extremely miserable conditions. who wouldn’t want to get theirs?

of course, there’s the whole issue of the fact that haiti has no real economy to provide locals with even volunteer employment, let alone paid. unfortunately, in a sense, it’s outsiders who have stepped up and brought in basic services. why is this? and when is it going to change? these are questions that a lot of people have.

we did have quite a few local volunteers. HODR ran a local volunteer program that, albeit with a few major problems (again, a new blog post), ran quite smoothly. most of the locals were young boys in their teens or early 20s. many had a deep commitment to helping dig out — they had lost family members or had been struck by the devastation on a personal level. most just wanted to help their country, and HODR, not their local government, was providing them with the chance to do so.

back home, several people asked me why haiti needed foreigners to dig them out. can’t they do it themselves? well, yes, if they had shovels, picks, sledges, and wheelbarrows. most do not and can’t afford to buy these things. wouldn’t they want to do it themselves? well, yes, if they had the tools — and the moral support of their community. i can imagine that living your entire life in a place where expectations, self-worth, and morale are challenged on a daily basis can make you feel like saying, why bother? so when orgs like HODR, with no agenda except for the purpose of digging haiti out, come down and offer volunteer jobs, there are quite a few people who,if they don’t jump at the chance, will consider it, even if unpaid.

haiti. it’s complicated.


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