Woch nan dlo

The other day, I was at a community group’s meeting in a village outside of Dabòn. The meeting was led by the friend of mine who brought me there because the local man who was supposed to lead it was called to the biggest city in the area, Leyogann, on community business. The main topic of the meeting was a relatively large project the group was managing. They were building outhouses for over twenty of the group’s members. People in the area generally use the bushes or a quiet spot along the road or the river to do what they need to do, but thanks to the group’s work and to resources made available to the small network of community groups they are part of, they are building good outhouses. It’s a big deal.

The particular issue under discussion was the following: The outhouses are really pretty nice. So nice, in fact, that folks don’t use them. At least some don’t. So a lot of time was spent going over the very real health issues connected with not having or not using latrines.

I had to laugh. Not at the Haitians who were sharing their thoughts in front of me. Nor at the visitors or potential visitors from the States I had spoken to since I began coming to Haiti who expressed concerns about needing to use an outhouse while here.

But there’s a Haitian proverb that goes “woch nan dlo pa konnen doule woch nan soley.” It means that a rock in water doesn’t know the pain felt by a rock in the sun. We can have a hard time imagining the concerns of someone in a situation very different from our own. The very different views of an outhouse seemed a funny example.

A more disturbing example occurred this past weekend. A complex set of circumstances brought me to Pòdepe, an important coastal city in the far north of Haiti. My father and I were there with his temple’s Haitian-American caretaker, delivering goods that were collected for two villages that were struck by the hurricane that did so much harm to Haiti last fall. For lots of reasons, I would normally avoid such a project, but it was my father’s temple and his trip. It would mean a rare chance to spend a few days with my dad and to visit a little bit of a part of Haiti that I had never seen.

I missed the actual distribution of the goods — hundreds of pounds of flour, some medical supplies, clothes, and shoes. Half were locked into a health clinic in the affected town. The clinic’s doctors agreed to get it into needy hands. The other half were to goto the other town the next day. My father reported that by the time he and the temple caretaker left the first town’s clinic in the emptied truck, several hundred people were waiting in line, struggling with one another for a little flour.

I was reminded of a scene my grandmother described to me years ago. She used to volunteer at her local Hadassah store. Hadassah is a Jewish charity that runs thrift stores. Her help was especially welcome because she spoke Yiddish and, so, could communicate well with recent Jewish immigrants — something hard for the store’s paid staff.

She described for me the scene of two women fighting over a coat. I was a young boy at the time, but I had already developed upper-middle-class sensibilities. I must have expressed contempt for people who would fight over such a thing.

She chewed me out, pointing out that I had no right to speak, that the two women really needed the coat. I was a rock in the cool, clear water, and had very little reason for thinking I could understand, and therefore judge, rocks that were battered by the sun.

The proverb expresses pretty well one side of the reservation I feel about this kind of work. The people I was with had a weekend to enter Haiti and distribute handouts to those who really need them. But evaluating someone’s needs is very tricky business. It’s hard in a community that one is part of, harder in one that one knows as a stranger but knows pretty well, hardest of all when one has no fixed relation to the people involved. It’s one thing to go somewhere as a visitor, hoping to build a long-term friendship that will be helpful and pleasant to everyone involved. To seek to make a dramatic, positive difference in the lives of people who live in a community one doesn’t know, however, seems a long shot to me. So, while I am impressed by the generosity of those who undertake such work, and I believe that the gifts they sent will make someone’s lives better for awhile, I myself would rather leave aid work in other people’s hands.

My luxury, the water that keeps me cool in Haiti, is the time I have and have had to develop friendships and partnerships from which I continue to learn.

Giving is complicated, especially across cultures. Questions as to who is giving what to whom seem to me eminently worthy of reflection. I invite anyone with questions or comments about the issue to append them to this piece.