I just spent the past three weeks in Ayiti (Haiti) doing research for my thesis. One of the problems affecting the country is the lack of clean, drinkable water for its citizens. Being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Ayiti has no infrastructure to treat its wastewater. People get their water from mountain springs, wells, or by collecting rainwater in cisterns. The water contamination is reflected in the high incidence of gastrointestinal infections. Ayiti’s poverty comes into play again as such easily remedied illnesses are the cause of a high percentage of child mortality (of course, contaminated water and the sicknesses that follow could be remedied with a little U.S. support and technology, but our government is focusing their humanitarian efforts in other directions: see defense contractors.
It was with this depressing, albeit rudimentary, understanding that I went to Ayiti to find microorganisms in the water. I half-expected to encounter a grim population, but I found no such expression on the faces of the people. Too busy with the activities of daily life, not once did I sense any self-pity. Instead there seemed to be a pride about being Haitian.
At every collection site we visited, children gathered around us inquisitively looking at our equipment and our pale faces. Everyone had a smile. A few people took the opportunity to brush up on their English and struck up a conversation with me (I didn’t make an attempt to learn Creole). People asked about where I live, did I have siblings, what did I think of Haiti. Several times people told me, “I am happy to be talking to you.” The comment struck me as odd, not because I haven’t heard (or said) the U.S. version, “Nice talking to you,” but because the sentiment was actually genuine.
The lack of cynicism and hostility in Haitian society was the biggest shock I experienced. Not once in Ayiti did I feel unwelcome. There were no bad feelings for a person from a country whose military had invaded Ayiti dozens of times, whose government backed the brutal Duvalier regime, whose racist immigration policy had consistently denied political asylum to Haitian refugees and sent them back at a time when atrocities in Ayiti were being carried out.
The trust and respect I was accorded while working was a little startling. Who was I to deserve this trust? All I knew how to do was push a few buttons and record measurements. I had no solutions to offer, not even any good ideas to improve water quality. In hindsight, though, the warm manner in which our group was received probably came from the idea that we were guests in their country. Being proud of their country, they wanted us to have a good experience while in Ayiti. The manner in which I, a foreigner, was treated while in Ayiti is probably what I’ll remember most.
It makes me somewhat ashamed at how foreigners are treated in this country -- with suspicion and contempt. Here, foreigners are either made scapegoats as the source of America’s problems or made the outright enemy of the state. With regards to Ayiti, a mainstream belief in this country is that Ayiti is the source of AIDS, a belief as racist as it is false. Maybe this behavior doesn’t apply to you, personally. I just know I have never gone out of my way to make someone from another country feel as welcome as I felt in Haiti.
You could wonder about the reasons for the difference in attitudes between the two countries. My friend said he thought the less people have the more they give and vice versa. I can see that. If I didn’t know better, I’d say my experience in Haiti gave me the impression that the less people have the happier they are, the pain of hunger and sickness aside.
In its drive to turn the world into the new Mall Of America, the U.S. is currently pressing Ayiti to embrace the prescription of globalization and privatize their state-run industries. Even though privatized schooling has been a detrimental experiment, there seems to be too much power not in the hands of private corporations. Aristide is trying to resist this plan for the New World Order, but given the enormous economic power of the U.S., he won’t be able to hold out for long. The IMF is currently withholding aid to Ayiti ostensibly in reaction to the claim of corrupt Congressional elections.
No doubt you may hear this situation described in another, more U.S.-friendly manner. The U.S. does not force its will upon other countries; we only want to do what is best for the people and their economy. We simply suggest a manner by which to attain this end, for you see, the U.S. government, U.S. economists, U.S. intellectuals, and the U.S. media all understand how to solve Ayiti’s problems better than the Haitian government, let alone its people. If they should choose to go another route, which is their right, so be it. Just don’t expect any monetary help from the world’s financial institutions.