A bunch of weirdos in the Republic of NGOs

Photo by Tina Schrag
Haiti is often referred to as the "Republic of NGOs" because there are literally thousands of NGOs in Haiti. In actuality, only 300 or so are registered with the Haitian government. (Don't worry, MCC is one those registered. But hey, if you are reading this and supporting an organization that works in Haiti that isn't registered, you should tell them to register. It's Haitian law and is a beneficial thing for the country).Anyway, MCC is a part of a NGO network that exists to help NGOs communicate and find ways to work together. Rebecca and Paul Shelter Fast are the MCC country reps for Haiti and actively participate in this network. (They are also the creators of this incredibly beautiful MCC Haiti blog and quite possibly 2 of the coolest humans I've ever met)

When we were in Haiti, Paul and Rebecca told us the following story.

Rebecca was attending the NGO meeting that day and arrived in the usual way, by a taxi moto (aka motorcycle). This is seen as "very strange" white NGO behavior in Haiti. Many big name NGOs in Haiti are ridiculously wealthy. It is not abnormal for a majority of those attending this meeting to arrive in a private car complete with driver. And here comes petite, blonde Rebecca riding behind a Haitian taxi driver on a moto. Before Rebecca headed inside for the meeting, she heard the NGO drivers wonder aloud (in creole, the language they assumed she did not speak) why she was taking a moto to the meeting? Another driver answered, "that's MCC. They're weird. They always take public transportation."

While this story is funny it is also telling of why I love MCC; we're a bunch of weirdos.

When I was in Haiti, I learned a lot of shocking things about North America NGOs in Haiti. (Paul and Rebecca are pretty tactful, which means they did not name-names). For example, there are NGOs fighting with one another about who gets to work in areas that will be prime media spots. That's a thing. Charities claiming the entire country's supply of aqua tabs weeks prior to when Hurricane Matthew was schedule to arrive so they could hand them out afterwards was a thing. (The local people who needed them could not get them for weeks). This is the reality of the Republic of NGOs. It's sickening.

I think all of these realities would've been a lot more shocking if I hadn't learned more about the Doctrine of Discovery prior to going to Haiti. You need to know about it too.

Essentially, the Doctrine of Discovery was a Papal decree made by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, saying that it was the Christian church's divine mandate to rule over indigenous people and thus justified the taking of their lands. For more than 5 centuries, the Doctrine of Discovery and the international laws based upon it have legalized the theft of land, labor and resources for Indigenous peoples across the world and systematically denied their human rights. The fall out from this one man's decree continues and continues and continues. Since this decree originated with Christian theology it deeply impacted how white Christian missionaries viewed the people they were living and working with. And in Haiti, if you know what the Doctrine of Discovery is, then it's pretty easy to see it still playing out in the country.

While my group and I were sitting in the Port-au-Prince airport, waiting to head back to the States after our trip, we overhead a church group sitting near us. They were talking with one another and one lady asked "now what language where they speaking again?" This group had been there for a week and didn't know that Haitians speak creole. They were there doing some kind of week long Bible school program and were very confused why the Haitians weren't understanding them. To put the icing on this ignorance cake, they also handed out boxes of easy mac as prizes. This a nation that does not constantly have electricity let alone microwaves and most would not be able to read the English instructions on the cups. This is the Doctrine of Discovery embedded into our American lives. The essence of the Doctrine of Discovery is that white people are good and black and brown people are not. It is the belief that it is white people's job to "save" black and brown people because they "don't know any better." It is the underlying current that many North Americans have that Haitians are stupid because if you speak English to them, they don't understand you (while making no attempt to learn even basic creole). Their way of life is different than ours so it must be "wrong". And down at the ugly heart of it is self-gratification. When NGOs don't build relationships with people they are wanting to help, then who is it really helping? If they make no attempt to learn the native language, then who is it they are really trying to help? Short answer: themselves.

The heartbreaking part is that the Doctrine of Discovery is too often embedded in people of color's worldview too. For example, schools in Haiti are either taught in French or English (languages a majority of Haitians cannot understand). And there is resistance to changing French or English curriculum to creole because French and English are commonly viewed as "better" languages than creole. That is the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.
And this is the world we live in.

Now I don't believe that MCC is perfect. Mennonites have an ugly history just like the rest of white American Christians out there. But I do believe that MCC is trying to be self aware. (They were the ones that did teach me about the Doctrine of Discovery after all). I also believe in the work MCC is doing in Haiti, but more importantly, how they are doing it. MCC works in creole. MCC has relationships with Haitian partners that are Haitian lead and community supported. MCC works in places that are not preposition for mass media marketing. In fact, MCC works in communities that are so remote that no other NGOs work there. (True story: in the community of Wopisa-Gabriyèl, where MCC is supporting a latrine project, members of the community literally have to descend a small waterfall in order to reach medical assistance. Below is this exact waterfall). 

MCC Haiti Photo

MCC also works in slums in Port-au-Prince where other NGOs won't go because they believe it's too "dangerous." This is really too bad because it is in these slums where the most vulnerable people live. This is the case in Cité Soleil where MCC supports a community center, Sakala, the only one that exists for the 300,000 people who live in this slum at the bottom of Port-au-Prince. (I say bottom because Port-au-Prince is on a mountain. The rich people live on top and the poor people live on the bottom of the mountain). 

We had the opportunity to visit Sakala and see the library and computer lap where members of the community can come and learn skills. They also host an after school program where they teach technical classes on gardening and welding. They currently have 250 kids in their programs, many of whom were playing games in the court yard when we arrived.

When we were there, there were many people busy planting trees. After Hurricane Matthew, much of the landscape in Cité Soleil was destroyed. We were told that members in the community lost everything but they keep working to build a better future for Haiti.

We also met the board chair of Sakala, Daniel Tillias, who is one of the most passionate people I've ever met. Gang violence might be a reality in Cité Soleil but so is the fierce optimism flowing of people like Daniel who repeatedly thanked us for coming to their community, a place where most NGOs (or white people) will not go.

Daniel Tillias (center) and Executive Director, Felder Jean Paul (right)

This is what I learned in Haiti: Be the type of person who builds relationships with people.  Climb over those water falls, live with your neighbors, believe in the optimism, not the fear. This is the challenge for me now back in Hesston, Kansas, (especially since I really don't like talking to people I don't know).

I don't exactly know what that means or looks like but I know I at least want to try. There is too much at stake. I want to be one of these "weirdos" who is willing to step outside of themselves and meet people where they are. Arriving, of course, by moto.