When I was living in Haiti, people often asked me for money. Strangers in the street held out their hands to me on the rare occasions that I walked by on foot. The construction workers shoveling sand in front of my house stopped as I closed the gate on my way to work, pointed to their throats. “I’m hungry,” that meant.
I came to Haiti in May 2011 as a development worker with an international nongovernmental organization. I liked Haiti from the start, but in my 15 months here, I struggled with the feeling that my job was ineffectual.
I understood why people asked me for money, a job, for things. Most Haitians only ever meet Westerners in our capacity as self-appointed helpers. We are never just here because we want to be in Haiti; we claim we are here to better Haitians’ lives. But they have seen us come and go for decades, and they are poorer than ever before.
Meanwhile, they see us leaving the grocery store with bags of food that cost more than what they make in a month. They watch us get into large air-conditioned cars and drive by them, always by them. They see us going home to nice, big houses, shielded by high walls.
And here is what they don’t know: These houses? We could never afford them back home. These houses we have because they don’t. We have a job because they are poor. And because their poverty is extreme, because the country they were born in is hot, dusty, stormy, messy and perilous, we are paid well.
There are those among us who have come, in all genuineness and dedication, to help, to make a difference. Some are willing to accept very little reward for our efforts. I wasn’t one of them.
Like most development workers in Haiti, I did not live with Haitians. I kept a car window, a gate, a wall between them and me most of the time. I didn’t sit with Haitians in the dark when the power left once again. I didn’t hurry with them after overcrowded tap-taps — the run-down, beautifully painted cars that are the Haitian version of public transport. I didn’t walk home with them for hours over mountain tops, in the pouring rain or under the burning sun.
“I thought you were here to help,” a little boy once told me with a confused frown after I refused to give him money, or a new football, or the pen in my hand.
“Well, I’m helping in a different way,” I said, and added an evasive explanation about how my work would better the health of the Haitian people. I felt like a liar, knowing that I spent my days in an air-conditioned office with little to do.
Maybe, if I had believed in my own answer, that would have made a difference.
I knew people who put their foot down every time. “Where’s your dignity?” a friend once asked a girl in a school uniform who hassled him for money. “You’re getting an education. You’re the one who’s supposed to move this country forward.”
I understand his anger at this girl. But is this girl likely to find a job in Haiti, with her education? No.
When I complained about my work, I was told that I should just look for something else, that there were opportunities a-plenty in the wake of the earthquake. In a country where 80 percent live below the poverty line, I could have found another job in a heartbeat.
But the longer I lived in Haiti, the less I believed in my work.
“A year spent in Haiti gets you street cred for the rest of your life,” somebody once said about what our stint in the Caribbean could mean for our careers. And that’s exactly what my development work had become: a career.
I left Haiti eight months before my contract was up. I went to Scotland, back to university, with a clear goal of my own: to quit development work and find myself a different career path. I still feel that was the most honest thing I could do for Haiti. Because another truth is that I would not have wanted to live in Port-au-Prince without that big house.
I am writing this from Haiti. I came back here eight months later to visit friends and rejoice in the country’s beauty — as a visitor. So far, nobody has asked me for money — maybe because this time I get around mostly on foot or on the back of a motorcycle taxi. But if they do, I’ll say no. If they ask: “Aren’t you here to help?” I’ll say: “No. I’m just here to be in Haiti.”
Nora Schenkel is a masters student at the University of Dundee, Scotland.