“While you’re there,” my father said to me some months earlier, “you should have the students do some kind of volunteer work.”
“Right,” my mother chimed in, “you might spend a day helping out at an orphanage or—”
“We’re not going to do that,” I said somewhat more firmly than I probably needed to, “And that’s kind of the point.”
My parents, children of the 60s and former Peace Corps Volunteers, were stonily silent on their end of this speakerphone conversation. I tried to explain, stammering something about the mistrust of aid organizations, the vulgarity of disaster tourism in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, and the problematic do-gooderism that plagues Haiti. But short of forcing someone to read Amy Wilentz’s substantial book Farewell Fred Voodoo (and I do force my students to read it), the problem with what has come to be termed “voluntourism” can be difficult to explain.
We’re not talking about Doctors Without Borders here, or Paul Farmer’s nonprofit Partners in Health, but about companies like Elevate Tourism, which cater to an affluent population looking for a travel experience that won’t just leave them well rested, but feeling like they have given something back to the world’s less fortunate. Those who are critical of the industry would say that the commodity sold is the client’s improved sense of self-esteem, and that little real value is provided to the locals. Mostly, I think, what bothers me is the arrogance of the untrained tourist who feels that she has a contribution to make to a country she knows nothing about.
Here is a story I heard in Haiti, which a young Haitian-American artist, Jessica Bodiford, recounted by way of elucidation when I said to her, “Well, these students have been moved by the poverty they see here. They want to know: what can we do to help?” And she and her mentor, the highly esteemed professor of archaeology and Vaudou officiant Monsieur Lubin (a handsome, lanky man in grey beard) both said in unison: “Nothing!”
An Italian man is working in Zambia on a development project. He sees that the people spend their days carting water from the river to the fields, several miles away. He thinks well, this is silly. Obviously what they have to do is plant right along the river for more efficient irrigation. He spends the season planting crops, and when they bear fruit, the river brings with it a flotilla of hippopotamus that thrash the crops to the earth.
“OOOOOOhhhhhhh,” one presumes the Italian said to himself, when he realized his mistake.
“Only Haitians can fix Haiti,” says Monsieur Lubin.
Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, is the focal point of this class trip: we are there to gather material for a set of multi-media annotations that we hope to make available for free online. Greene wrote the book while living at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince during the Duvalier regime, and the narrative wrestles— if only in the corner of its eye, seen in flittering references to the USA’s propping up of Papa Doc — with the larger issue of foreign involvement in Haiti.
Greene’s novel offers a unique perspective on outsiders in Haiti, particularly in the book’s searing depiction of the American couple Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a well-meaning but ridiculous pair who have come in the hopes of building a center for vegetarianism. Brown, the narrator, points out that, too poor to buy meat, the majority of the population are de facto herbivores, but this does not dissuade the Smiths in their mission to bring their brand of help to Haiti, believing as they do that carnivorous consumption leads to violence. In one of the most painful moments in the book, the reader is subjected to a bit of dramatic irony: Mr. Smith, glowing with self-satisfaction after giving a wad of cash to a legless beggar, fails to notice that he may just as well have painted the man with a bull’s-eye. As another begins to close in on this new prey, the imminent beating is obvious to the reader while Mr. Smith remains blissfully ignorant. This is also an apt parable for what many felt was happening to the aid pouring into Haiti from the US (not without strings attached) during the Duvalier regime: it never made it into the right hands.
So, you’re damned if, like Smith, you do try to help. But you’re probably also a heartless asshole, like Brown, the callous European hotelier, if you don’t even care to try. The most succinct and telling characterization of this type of self-interested foreigner is Brown’s horribly unmoving one-line eulogy when he sees that his longtime servant, Joseph, has died fighting the dictatorship: “He used to make good rum-punches.”
But then, it’s also gross to do what we did, and come back to the hotel each night and cry about how poor the people are and how frustrating it is that we can’t do anything about it. (Would it be less gross if we didn’t cry? Would it be less gross if we stayed in a tent at Sean Penn’s compound? Would it be less gross if we were there to dig a well, as if Haitians don’t have shovels or need our well-building expertise?)
Nearly all of my students cried at some point on the trip, and the ones that didn’t, I noticed, drank the rum-punch more often.
During the days, we listened to lectures and toured historical sites, like Christophe’s ruined palace, and the places where the rebellion began and the revolution ended. We learned about Vaudou and colonial architecture, Haitian culture and history, and our driver tried to teach us Creole. We saw lots of people who have “nothing,” we would say, whole families who live in corrugated tin shacks, who make a living grinding manioc and selling cassava for pennies, or picking coffee, or somewhat more lucratively, making alcohol from sugar cane. And we bought stuff and we felt bad for them. And then we felt bad for feeling bad.
In the evenings, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Roi Christophe in Cap Haitien, we drank Cokes and Prestige and talked about things besides Haiti. One of our group, Beth, has cerebral palsy. She walks with a pronounced limp, and, because she is fiercely independent and refuses to use either a walker or sometimes even your arm, she falls a lot. One night she was educating the group on how not to talk to disabled people—like, for instance, coming up to complete strangers and telling them you’ll pray for them. Well intentioned, maybe, but you’ve just basically told that person that you’ve looked at their life and decided it must suck.
“OOOOOOhhhhhhh,” I thought to myself, and realized my own mistake. This is the problem not only with voluntourism but with all poorism: you’re treating these people as if their lives suck; as if — the way Beth would just rather not—they need your arm to make it over the rocky path.
As my class prepared for the trip, one of the members of our group was needled by a friend of hers who was going to Haiti at the same time, but with her church for a mission trip. “Only,” the girl haughtily told my student, “we’re actually going there to do something.” To which Tori retorted, hand on hip in the nightly encore, “We are going there to do something: we are going there to learn.”
Monsieur Lubin believes that the Baptist agenda is to “destroy Haitian culture.” And from what I’ve seen personally, I think it is a fair assumption that, at the very least, they want to rid the country of Vaudou. How ironic is it that the missionary’s antidote to spirit possession (undoubtably the aspect of Vaudou that most terrifies them) is to perpetrate a kind of spiritual occupation through conversion? It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so tragic. And that’s kind of the gist of Graham Greene’s The Comedians.
And in that same vein of bitter ironies and head shaking, we fare no better. I don’t want my students to go to Haiti thinking that they are there to give the people something— white saviors there to dispense wisdom or faith— but is it any better that we are there (most strangely, given the colonial history of the place) to take? To learn from the country for our own betterment, to extract a devastating cultural experience, and then flee? I hope my students will be seduced by this country, as I have been, and come back again. Perhaps, more importantly, we are there to be taken.
And I was taken. I paid 150 dollars for some ironwork at a souvenir stand which just down the road, in a shop with price tags, would have cost me 25. And strangely, that was the most authentic role I could play—the foolish blanc, being bilked out of her money. Our trusty tour guide stood beside me in silent collusion. And that, too, seems right. Right out of Graham Greene’s novel, which I find, is a still relevant piece of fiction and a faithful sketch of Haiti, not only for its depiction of life under political uncertainty, but its portrait of the bumbling Americans who go to Haiti thinking they know how to help, or, in our case, thinking we know the value of things.
—Sarah Juliet Lauro: Tries to be one of the good ones.
Lead Image Credit: Christopher Phillips