Haiti Fact #16: The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) will withdraw its peacekeeping troops in October 2017 after thirteen years in Haiti. The withdrawal comes after a successful presidential election, demonstrating a departure from the chaotic elections of 2010 and 2015. A smaller peacekeeping mission will replace MINUSTAH.
I have been in Haiti for almost a year now. The past year has changed my life and has changed who I am. First and foremost, this year has blessed me with experiences that simply are not available to a white kid in Connecticut. Whatever happens next, I am thankful for this chance.
Haiti abounds with challenges and stress, especially because people treat foreigners very differently than they would treat a local. Not surprisingly, I saw countless instances of conduct that would just not be acceptable in the US. But I just had to figure out how to get over it. If my expectation conflicts with what is accepted here, it is my problem. But that line of logic does not help when a random person yells at me over some perceived offense and then just walks away. Moments like that still make my blood boil, especially when bystanders do not seem to think that anything out of line has just happened. For better or worse, dealing with that type of unnecessary anger and aggression in public shapes a lot of what I do. For example, people do not like foreigners to carry cameras or to take their picture. Carrying a camera in public makes me the target of a lot of hate, so I don’t take pictures. Most of the time it’s like that: not hard to make the changes, so I just make them. But some of them have not stopped irritating me.
People in Haiti treat foreigners differently. The fact that people do this because I look so obviously foreign can really get annoying. Driving in Cap-Haitien has also been a constant source of frustration. The chaos, heat and traffic of the streets exist in an uneasy calm that perpetually lies in wait for its chance to erupt into mayhem. I understand some of what causes this but I still struggle to adapt. However, my frustrations with the culture here really boil down to a separate issue: people neither leave me alone nor do they respect what I want. It is just assumed that I want to hear their advice or criticism and that I will accommodate whatever it is that they want from me, no matter how demanding it is. In other words, the “right” to say whatever you want to a random person in public ranks far higher than the “right” to just exist without getting harassed. Not surprisingly, this makes one more callous and less friendly in public. After a year of constant unsolicited feedback from strangers, I look forward to Connecticut where people will just leave me alone (a manifestation of privilege no longer lost on me). But moving to Haiti for a year presents challenges and frustrations like these and at some point one just has to deal with it. And although the difficulties currently obscure the positives, I know I will miss a lot of the fun parts of this life once I leave.
Life in Cap-Haitien involves a lot of walking. The narrow streets and total lack of parking complicate driving, making it easier to walk everywhere. I walk to work, to the market, to restaurants and to go hang out at the square. This has been a blessing that I will not forget. Secondly, I have some really good friends here. We have taught each other little things; for example, we teach one another our languages and our cooking styles. We of course teach each other a lot more than that, but it will take time to appreciate what I learned from Haitians and their culture. So that will have to wait. Certain situations led me to assume that my presence was not appreciated or desired, simply based on the amount of disrespect and problems that people gave me on a regular basis. But even in some of those situations people are now saying that they will miss me. That indicates that even after all that I learned, much of the nuance remains unclear. Fortunately, this year has lessened any shame I feel in losing. So the confusion is alright. I don’t mind it as much now and am a lot more confident in general.
This job forced me to reestablish myself outside of the traditional social context that has defined a lot of who I am. Away from home and in an exhausting and unforgiving job, I had to figure it all out again. Out of that frustration and difficulty, every bit of progress made me a little more confident. Those little tastes of progress kept me going. I believe that I put as much as I could into this job and I am proud that Eli and I overcame even a few of the obstacles that we faced. But now it is almost over: I am leaving Haiti for the US on July 6. The magnitude of the moment is daunting to the point that I just try to stay busy and focus on the short term. But even with a year’s worth of practice in letting the future be what it will, I am still struggling to do anything but think about going home.
A special thank you to these donors:
Bob and Barbara Profenno
Brian Hedges and Mark Terreri