I Have Followed the Clouds to Shangri-La

A euphoric feeling swept through me as I beheld the waves of green, etched against a brilliant, blue Haitian sky. This was the lost city, a jewel, hidden from the view of dust-shrouded tap-taps winding the National Highway below: Deye mon, gen mon (Behind the mountains, there are mountains). The discovery was unexpected, delightful and inspiring: another chapter in my growing mental scrapbook of life in Haiti. My ‘first chapter’ began between the pages of a Haitian history book. The people’s will to survive captivated me. A Haitian friend summed up the tenacity of this spirit in a Haitian proverb: It is better to be ugly than be dead. I knew then that I had to meet these people.

In May 1998, I had my chance. Nothing quite compares to the first time! Haiti is a land of contrasts. One of the most beautiful and disturbing is the presence of joy and innocence in the midst of squalor and misery. Disturbing because it doesn’t fit Northern logic, which equates success, happiness, even God’s blessing, with a nice home, shiny car and a promising career. Disturbing because you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a relationship in which you believed you were the giver.

Be still and listen.

In my whirlwind ten day tour, I cradled the fragile life of a malnourished child, climbed the Citadel, and waded in the waters that had claimed thousands of courageous boat people. I massaged the wasted legs of AIDS patients and walked along the rows of street vendors, hawking their wares. I was inundated with poverty; the history that led to it, the system that sustained it and the people who suffered it.

I also saw hope in the beaming faces of the children, pride in the graceful stride of the women and a burn for opportunity and education. I heard the voices raised in praise, and behind every smile, joy. Haiti and her people moved from my head to my heart. I was captured.

I returned home with more questions than answers: what is help? Haiti is teeming with mission groups. People from all walks of life serving in hospitals, building orphanages, evangelizing, sponsoring students, teachers and churches. Have church-based missions made a difference in both the lives of the individuals who contribute and the lives of the specific individuals they touch? Undoubtedly.

Have church-based missions had an impact on self-sufficiency? Have they been able to eradicate the malnutrition, which feeds the proliferation of disease they treat? The act of charitable giving contributes to the cycle of dependency that has stifled grassroots development.

Consider the importation of used clothing or rice; the local tailor or farmer cannot compete with these well-intentioned donations. They fall victim to our misguided attempts at help.

What happens to the Haitian school or church that has built upon the temporary generosity of some Northern institution? Reality is that, within organizations, priorities shift, budgets drop, people get nervous or influenced by a negative media and the flow of aid can trickle or cease. The structures they’ve built upon a foundation of goodwill crumble or collapse, and a wall of mistrust towards the North rises from the rubble. Haiti is a graveyard of good intentions.

This is less a criticism than an observation. Humanitarian aid serves best to relieve specific and severe short term needs. Difficulties arise when charitable organizations compromise development with paternalism. Development respects the capacity of the individual and community. Development opens the door of opportunity to economic growth, without removing responsibility. The community can then provide its own medical care, construction, administrators and teachers.

At the close of my second visit to Haiti, a Haitian friend asked me if I had completed my quest. The answer was no. My friend replied, “Good. Then you’ll be back.”

And so I returned, standing in the back of a Land Cruiser, on top of a mountain in a cloud, gazing across acres and acres of beans and corn. I had my epiphany; commnunity-based development, the cooperative model, people of all faiths joining together in productive enterprise. My question, what is help, was finally satisfied. I can only imagine the dedication that it takes to plant mountains of corn, beans, cabbage and potatoes with only a hoe. Or to select rocks from the field and grind and sift them into powder to make cement blocks. That’s the human spirit at work. When development is of the people, for the people and by the people, the hearts, minds and hands of the people engage in cooperative ownership of their community. Development becomes a way of life: sustainable.

What is our role? To be servants: to respect, to listen, to ask, to build relationships with trust, to assist in providing tools, information and opportunities, to educate others, and to get out of the way!

Have I arrived? No. New questions surface to replace the first. I’m on a journey, and in Haiti, the journey is the destination!

by Valerie Mossman

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