Stephanie Fong, Zachary Fazio, Landis Masnor, and Renee Meschi are Shimer students participating in the Shimer Summer Internship Program. They regularly post updates about their internship experience.
This post is from Landis Masnor who is interning with CLM, a microfinancing organization aimed at eradicating extreme poverity in Haiti.
Blan is a term Haitians use for all white people. To my knowledge this also includes Hispanics and foreigners of all kinds. It is pronounced blah with a nasal ending. I am told the term is not prejorative and for the most part I have found this to be true. Being blan in Sodo, means that as I walk down the street crowds of children call out to me, “Blan! Blan!” Their comments rise from excitement, not from an explicative interest.
Most of the children are glad to see me, some are afraid. I usually wave and smile when they call. Sometimes I act as excited as they are and yell, “Ki Kote?!” which means “Where?!” The spectacle of being blan can be a bit overwhelming. I always, always, get double takes. I would like to take jogs in the mornings but I think that I cause enough commotion by merely walking through the streets. Blan is somewhat of a pre name. People often ask Lamartin, “Who is your Blan?” Sometimes when I greet someone in passing they reply, “Bonjou, Blan.” My name is Landis, but I also go by Blan.
Being blan also means that marriage proposals come much more frequently than in the states.
I’m not sure exactly what the stereotype for blans is but it certainly involves wealth. Blans are known to have a peculiar talent for raising the market price on all goods. I’m so good at it, I have my Haitian friends buy my soap and snacks for me. Some children have learned how to say “You give me dolla?” and do so often while holding out their hand. Some children yell through their fences, “M grongou,” which means “I’m hungry.” Barrai, my Irish housemate and fellow intern, yells back in Creole “I’m hungry too.”
The other day Barrai, Julia, the 3rd intern, and I went to the waterfall for which Sodo is famous. About a mile from our destination some children started tagging along. They became our “guides” much to our refusal. For the next mile and the entire time at the waterfall we explained that we didn’t bring any money, we didn’t need a guide, but thanks. They continued to lead the way and ask for “dollas.” I could understand it though, I wasn’t angry. Being the outcast is something valuable for a white American to experience here. But sometimes it feels like bullying.
When a young man waves me over to talk with him sometimes I get very nervous. I know he wants money but I also know that I’m not carrying any, I never do. In broad daylight I become so afraid of being mugged by the kid that I can’t control my body language. My arms fold up tightly around my chest, I turn at a slant, look down. The fear of him reaching in my pockets and taking out my phone terrifies me. And the other pocket, “Oh God. What if he takes my chapstick?” I want to rush away from these situations I feel so panicked, “Sorry, I’m late,” “Sorry, No Creole.”
Last Sunday as Lamartin and I are leaving for our 4 day journey we realize our motorcycle tire is low. Lamartin tells me to wait by the side of the road, he’s going to run home and air it up. So I’m standing on the side of the road in the outskirts of the town of Sodo dressed in full motorcycle gear and a raincoat. My presence in the area sucks out whatever few children live nearby. “Blan! Blan!” Different people pass by on their way to and from Sodo, they all say hi. One woman comes out of her home and heads straight for me. I mentally prepare my Creole anticipating she’ll ask me what if I’m lost. But I can’t understand what she’s trying to say until I hear “Kob.” She’s asking for money.
I don’t know why I was so angry when an adult asked me for money. I guess I expected adults to know better than to expect every blan to be handing out wads of cash. But then I realized that blans have treated her this way before. It’s also indicative of America’s longstanding relationship with Haiti. I can’t blame her for following what she’s been told. She sees me as a resource, just as countries have seen Haiti as a resource for centuries.
This makes me appreciate Freire’s warning against false generosity and Dorothy Day’s condemning of charity. To help another human being, to do for, or to throw money at a problem bring immediate physical good but cost extended emotional and philosophical issues. To see a person as a person, as a You, not an It, as Buber phrases a matter, is vital to building a relationship of mutuality and dignifying humanity. In the same way Frederick Douglass says, and I’m paraphrasing, “No one can put a chain around someone’s ankle without finding the other end around their own neck.” I think the same reciprocal relationship occurs with Freire’s false generosity- helping relationship. Obviously help manifests as emergency and/or medical aid sometimes, this is necessary. The help relationship that I’m speaking about is more clearly seen in the woman’s reaction to my physical appearance. She recognizes me as someone who gives her money. And that’s important because she’s probably having trouble feeding her 5+ kids. She doesn’t care if I stay in Haiti forever, she does not see me as a permanent fixture in her life, she doesn’t ask me my name. She is more concerned with eating. The role I’m allowed, expected to play, is one of a giver. And I’m allowed to say that because she isn’t asking other Haitians for money.
Nonetheless, I want to be a giver. Today we went to a CLM graduation and I started helping prepare plates for the recent graduates. I loved filling up plates full of rice and giving them to people. I loved meeting their outstretched hands with a plate. I don’t think expectation is bad either. I’m reminded of the lame man sitting by the pearly gate who asks for change. Acts says that Peter saw his expectation and this is what led to his healing. Perhaps this story in Acts is a good example of how the used/used, giver/receiver relationship can be different. Peter does not give him money to eat for today. He gives the man the ability to make money every day.
I don’t know exactly how this translates to my daily encounters in Haiti but I’m convinced that I should see being blan differently. Until today I’ve almost regarded these encounters, the requests for money, as harassment (which of course it sometimes is). I think it’s important for me to look forward to giving what I do have to offer. There are a lot of children who always try to grab my hands when I walk by their houses. I’m a bit obsessive about being touched and about germs too. I usually resist. I need to begin holding their hand like they want me to. Jesus is so cool because he wasn’t really preaching to the poor and destitute, he was eating with them, listening to them, touching them. And I’m not Jesus, but I need to touch the poor and broken. Because I need to be touched by them, and because I’m broken too.
On a less airy note, I need a mind of a snake along with this new heart of a dove. Last week $30 was stolen from my unlocked room inside the CLM home. This means that one of my housemates sees me as a resource. Still I think the story with Peter is a good one to bring up. I’m glad that I’m working with an organization that helps people get on their feet rather than giving them a hand out. This type of interaction, I think, also allows the both parties to become more human and less a resource. More on those special qualities of CLM in the next post.