I love O’Hare Airport. Maybe “love” is too strong, but I certainly admire it. So much is accomplished there all the time. Pòtoprens International Airport is a different story. I spent a fair bit of time there recently, more than I wanted to, waiting for luggage I had checked on the way back to Haiti.
I hadn’t planned to check any baggage. In fact, I had planned not to. But when I went through security at Miami, I was told that I couldn’t carry a hammer onto the plane. So I went back to the line at the counter, and I gave them my backpack. And though I was the very first person off the plane in Pòtoprens, and the very first person through Haitian immigration, I stood waiting for my bag for almost an hour. It was frustrating.
It’s not that I have any particular use for a hammer here in Haiti. I don’t make, or plan to make, anything. The hammer wasn’t for me, but for Byton, who’s a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. He will eventually need his own tools, and acquiring them will be hard. He has very little money, and is unlikely to have more without the tools to earn it with. I thought an old, but perfectly serviceable carpenter’s hammer would give him a start. I
brought a tape measure, too. And I hope to bring a saw and a plane next time I come. So I was trying to do something nice, and here I stood in the sweltering airport heat, paying for my kindness. No good deed goes unpunished. As I stood there, I had time to think about that kindness, about what it really means for a foreigner to give to a Haitian, and I thought I should write about that.
Let me start by talking about a kind of person I sometimes meet here. I meet them most often in Okay, where I have had occasion to overnight at a guesthouse run by a Haitian Protestant denomination. Often there are groups of Americans staying there, usually for about a week. They are “work groups” on “short-term missions.” They have come to Haiti to give their time and energy towards various sorts of development projects. Some are medical or dental teams. Some simply come to build, often a church or a school. They come to serve God by helping those who are in need.
Though I don’t know what to think of dental or medical teams, I have to say that I find the teams that come to build things curious. After all, there are plenty of skilled builders in Haiti, and Haitian unemployment, among builders as among others, is very high-higher, perhaps, than most of us Americans can easily imagine. So if there’s a need to build a school, I wonder whether it wouldn’t make more sense for Haitians to build it. Perhaps the money to buy materials is short here, but there isn’t much in the way of planks, cement, concrete, and roofing that you couldn’t buy for the price of the airfare for a group of eight to ten Americans to fly to Haiti and back. So I do wonder who is giving what to whom.
But I don’t mean to point a finger. For me, the question is a general one. There are a lot of foreigners here in Haiti. Many of us come to help in some way. Haiti is attractive because it combines all the neediness of poor African or Asian countries with a convenient location, but has an exotic quality that impoverished areas of the States generally lack. The question is: When we think we’re doing something good here, when we think we’re giving a gift, who is giving what to whom?
Such questions arise for me around the notion of giving almost every day. Take Byton’s hammer. He thanked me profusely. That’s how he is. But I didn’t give him the hammer. My father did, and I told Byton this. Both the hammer and the tape measure belonged to Dad, both for a long time. I could be-and to a degree am-sentimental about the fact that they are the tools I remember my father using when I was a little boy, but if anyone deserves thanks, it’s my father, not me. I myself thanked him, and thanked him sincerely. I was grateful.
Let’s be clear, though. My father has other hammers and another tape measure. He was giving from excess. What he gave, he didn’t really need. That’s not to deny that his gift was genuine and generous. My father’s as generous a person as I’ve ever known. But it’s important nonetheless to see it for what it was: a thoughtful way to dispose of stuff he didn’t need.
Every day I have chances to give. Whatever “give” finally means. People come up to me and ask for a few cents or a soccer ball or my book bag or my watch. And a lot of people who don’t ask for anything could make good use of such things as well. Sometimes they are asking for things that, for whatever reason, I feel I need. Often they aren’t. Sometimes I give such people something. Often I don’t. When I do, I feel good. For a moment, anyway.
Giving is an act I was always taught to value. Sharing is a good thing. Generosity is a virtue.
But those good feelings are also a temptation of sorts. A kind of trap. I don’t especially think that I deserve what I have. Nor that others deserve to lack what they lack. If I give from my excess to meet some else’s need, am I doing something good or something obvious? Shouldn’t I be looking harder and more often for ways to give away the goods that I have? I’m not a Christian, but there’s something about St. Anthony that’s hard not to admire.
And that assumes that the distribution of goods between Haiti and the wealthy nations is innocent. The situation of Europeans and Americans who would give to Haiti or Haitians is, however, more strained than that. Years of our policies have done a lot to impoverish this place: from the annihilation of its natives, to the import and the exploitation of slaves, to the insistence on indemnities, to brutal occupation, to the extermination of Creole pigs. And that’s a very limited list. So that what I have, and what Byton, for example, lacks may have much less to do with luck or fate or the hand of God than it has to do with theft. And here “theft” is a euphemism for what is, in the end, much, much worse. So maybe we should be pouring resources through governmental and non-governmental channels, into this land. Maybe we owe Haiti some of what we have, and ought to give it back.
I’d rather avoid such larger questions. Even if I was sure that such steps were the right ones, they are ones I don’t know much about taking. I’m neither a policy maker nor a policy analyst, neither an economist nor a historian. It’s hard for me to guess just what consequences such larger projects would have. I don’t know much about the kinds of projects that do-and the kind that don’t-improve people’s lives.
So I would rather just think about the little things that I can choose to do on any given day. I can choose to give a little money to a street beggar or a larger sum to someone who knows me well enough to ask for it. I can give a hammer to a friend. Even such decisions can be complicated when I let them be. I can be haunted by the worry that I am encouraging dependence, or fearful that I’m only adding to the tendency to ask for things. I can doubt someone’s need. These are thoughts I have often enough, even if I have no right to them. To worry that I’m making someone dependent is to assume I know what someone should be like. To fear that I am encouraging people to ask, is to want to avoid the responsibility to think about what I have. To doubt another person’s need is to pretend I know more than I can know. I have, I repeat, no right to these thoughts.
Sometimes I give. Other times I don’t. Often I’m glad when I do. That’s not because I’m confident that such gifts make anyone’s life better-except perhaps my own. I try not to take myself too seriously.