Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:57 pm, Sun Jul 14, 2013.
Two centuries of supposed independence, long periods of guidance from more sophisticated allies, billions of dollars in foreign aid and the world’s second-oldest democracy comes down to this: a cute kid smiling and asking that her photograph be taken as a pretext for demanding payment.
Haiti, a nation that in forcefully declaring itself free in 1804 put its slave masters to rest long before the United States ever did, has been reduced to a place where children play the role of convincing victim in tourist snapshots.
And why not? The little girl who materialized in front of my camera, smiling brightly on the trash-strewn Atlantic shore of Cap-Haïtien, might be onto the best-paying job she’ll ever get. The dollar I handed over for her hundredth of a second of cuteness is about half of what most Haitians earn in a day.
Her country is a confusing, complicated place, and it doesn’t get any easier with familiarity or much better for the presence of an endless parade of do-gooders, myself included.
I’ve been there six times since the summer of 2010, three on work projects to the town of Gonaives. On those trips, I’ve played a small role in helping a team from Richmond’s St. James’s Episcopal Church build a school.
Every step of the way, we were convinced we were doing something good. For us, to be sure, it feeling quite good to build a thing we could actually see. But more important, we thought, for Haiti: creating a place where Haitians could learn.
That’s no small accomplishment in a country with a 53 percent literacy rate, a showing more in line with the miseries of Africa than the relative affluence in which Haiti is nestled. Its neighbors east (Dominican Republic, 87 percent), west (Cuba, 99.8 percent) and north (the United States, 99 percent) far outpace it in educational attainment.
Even Honduras (80 percent) and Nicaragua (68 percent), the other usual contenders for the infamy of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, do better by their people.
Each year, we’d troop down there and roll up our sleeves and haul cinderblocks and buckets of cement, roll gasoline-laced paint on walls and do our best to not to greatly interfere with the construction of what would become a two-story, six-room schoolhouse.
We finished in March and waited eagerly for the bishop suffragan of Haiti to come to town to dedicate the school.
With incense-waving pomp and circumstance, Bishop Oge Beauvoir did the honors in style.
An hour later, our group, basking in the glow of our collective success, met with him.
I’m not sure if we had expectations, our private meeting being a last-minute addition to our itinerary, but I can say with some certainty that what we heard wasn’t what any of us would have imagined coming our way.
With nary a thanks for the effort, the bishop launched into a talk about the dire state of the church in Haiti. The church, he said repeatedly, was land rich and cash poor. It had acre after acre of land, particularly in the lush plateau and north regions, but neither the means nor the expertise to use it. The foreign aid on which the church has long depended, he said, was drying up fast while demand for services was as high as ever.
Our school was an example of those ills. We’d given the church a gift it apparently couldn’t afford to keep.
Open an hour, and it was seemingly on the chopping block already.
In the weeks that followed, in a flurry of email between our team and the bishop, we were told the intent was never to close the school. (The bishop himself proved the point, with much grace, months later when I and two other St. James’s members returned to Haiti to scout new projects.)
But still, at the time, it was a bittersweet day.
We’d never planned to finance or otherwise run the school.
We set out to build something with the hopes of creating a place for Haitians, not us.
That it didn’t work out came as a surprise.
But you don’t have to look far in Haiti to find a road paved with good intentions, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where it leads.
Cheap American rice has been shipped in by the boatload, a great humanitarian gesture to feed a hungry nation. But with every sack, the market for more expensive local rice dies a little more.
Every T-shirt a well-meaning missionary leaves behind is one less T-shirt a local merchant will sell.
Every dollar handed over to a practitioner of the Haitian handshake — one hand rubbing the belly, the other stretched out for your dollar — is one more step backward for a nation that has struggled mightily to recover from its fight for independence.
Everywhere you go in Haiti, you see something you think you can fix, with money or goods or just by doing what you’d do at home.
But trailing after all of those good intentions are consequences.
Some are good: Our school is a tangible thing, a structure that, hopefully, will stand for years to come, doors open to generations of future leaders.
And some bad: Who trains the teachers and pays them to work is still up in the air, and whose children get to attend is yet another layer of nuance to explore in a country whose government makes no promise of education.
Three months after the dedication, St. James’s sent three of us back to Haiti to scout out new projects. We like doing, after all, and we aren’t easily deterred.
The bishop himself, who’d left so many of us disillusioned in March, offered to be our tour guide, driver and compatriot.
He managed the difficult task of pulling off a good second impression. He was open and honest, defining challenges as quickly as opportunities. What lingering ill-will existed dissipated quickly.
The goal, the bishop kept saying in June, wasn’t getting American do-gooders to foot the bill for every step of every project. It was helping the Haitians find ways to sustain themselves.
How that’s going to happen isn’t an easy thing to figure out.
Beauvoir, born and raised in Haiti but a naturalized citizen of Canada, admitted the depth of the challenge and the need for many voices in helping craft solutions.
In Cap-Haïtien, where he has been based since winning his seat last year — after seven years in charge of the seminary in Port-au-Prince — the Episcopal church has a school filled to capacity and demand for space it can’t provide.
On the road out of town, the church has an agricultural school and acres and acres of land. It’s the perfect environment in which to grow crops that could be sold to support schools and other church projects. But on our visit, the school was locked tight, the fields were overgrown and rusting farm equipment was covered in weeds.
On the highway in front, trucks from the Dominican Republic rolled by, heading home with empty trailers.
There’s potential, for sure.
But while we do-gooders debate ways to tap in and help out, there’s a country full of kids who know that the best immediate chance of survival is finding a white guy toting a camera so they can smile wide and demand their dollar.
I paid mine reluctantly.
It seemed a small price to pay, but it made me complicit in a centuries-old shortcut that never seems to lead anywhere.
Napoleon couldn’t conquer the Cap-Haïtien shore two centuries ago. You have to wonder if he’d bother trying these days.
Zachary Reid writes about education for the Times-Dispatch. In the past year, he has accompanied St. James’s on mission trips to Haiti, New Orleans, Cuba and Honduras. Contact him at zreid@
timesdispatch.com or (804) 775-8179.