U.S. Americans tell me, “Haitians are poor.” Haitians tell me, “we aren’t poor, we are happy.” On this, my first trip to Haiti, I have come to believe the truth is dependent on one’s perspective.
Haiti is a land plagued by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tropical storms, and waves of cholera. Records going back to the 1700’s show this, and the inhabitants know more will come. The earthquake of 2010 is probably the worst tragedy most have experienced in their lifetime. The country is still struggling to come back from the severe devastation and loss of life it caused. There is still a lack of infrastructure, paved roads, repaired bridges, unclean drinking water, food shortages, crowding, unsanitary living conditions, health issues, and high unemployment.
For Haitians it doesn’t help to dwell on a past that can’t be changed or fear a future that is unknown, yet will inevitably bring more disasters with it. They focus on living in the present: learning what they can each day, understanding it fully, improving what they can – so the future will be better too.
Getting through hard times is easier if one has support from others. Pooling resources and sharing helps everyone. 60 disparate families that came together after the 2010 earthquake to build a community with the help of an Haitian organization, MPP. First MPP helped them get shelter and food. The next thing the families fought for was a school for their children. With the help of the Atlanta Partnership for the Haiti EcoVillage School and the UUSC, the villages now have a nationally certified school. Every family works in the school garden so the children have food at school.
Now each village is tending goats, growing manioc, goat feed and moringa. They are working together so the village can become self-sustaining and bring in some income from these products. They started learning to sew over a year ago. They make school uniforms for their children and hope to sew them for surrounding schools as well. This is a joint effort of all the EcoVillages. In observing this group I saw them working hard, hours long without a break, yet they laugh and tease one another as well. Small children come to work with their mothers. When the older children come in after school they help take care of their siblings and seem to enjoy playing with them. When I visited the school the children all smiled and laughed and were eager to learn.
The U.S. seems so different. It is an individualistic society where often suburbanites drive into their garage and walk directly into their house without seeing anyone. When we pass someone in the grocery store, we seldom know or greet one another. We have individual goals – a more prestigious position at work, a better car, a bigger house. We work long hours under great stress to “make it” in our jobs. Many people live alone and are lonely. That is not to say we are unhappy, for we are fortunate in many ways.
In contrast in the EcoVillages of Haiti everyone lives together, works together, and struggles together. The individual depends on the community for spiritual and emotional health. One Haitian, who moved to the U.S. and then came back to live again in Haiti, told me stress in Haiti is different. In the U.S. we are under a lot of pressure to succeed and build a career and to have material possessions. In Haiti happiness is independent of the physical. It is based on family and community.
Haitians are proud, proud of their heritage, proud of their culture, and of what they have accomplished. They need and want the help U.S. Americans are giving them but they do not want to be told what to do and how to manage their affairs. They want the relationship to be one of mutual respect.
So, are Haitians happy or poor? Happiness seems indeed to be a matter of perspective. Despite meagre physical infrastructure, money, and comforts Haitians are happy for they have what they value most, community and family. We could all learn something from them. I know I have.
Written by Marty Maxwell