Part 2 of Spring Break in Haiti. See Part 1 here
I have just left the room that was supposed to host our last pre-trip session.
We ate a fantastic dinner (the pork was the best, as Amy said it would be). Dr. Karlin was wonderful as ever in coordinating not only a dinner but more importantly a fruitful discussion of Haiti. Among those in attendance were Vivien, director of Work; Serena, a soft-spoken, unassuming-looking woman with very well-articulated thoughts and who would be leading a group of middle schoolers to visit rural schools in Haiti in less than a month; and Amy Wilentz, journalist and author of the book Farewell, Fred Voodoo that I had just finished reading hours before.
Over trays of food and from behind an annoyingly-placed column that divided our group in two, I watched and listened as the three women challenged each other on their work in Haiti, questioned us on what we think of the protests currently storming the country – effectively shutting down our trip – and agreed, for the most part, what it is about Haiti that’s so meaningful to them and what can be done moving forward.
The onslaught of a headache aside, I spent the whole time grappling with how I feel about the trip being cancelled. I have learned so much more about Haiti in the last three months than I ever imagined I would, and in this moment it has all come to a head.
If I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m largely relieved.
I’ve been having trouble finding sponsorships and organizing fundraisers. The momentum we started our video program with has slowly lost steam as each of us gradually became busier – with school, with work, with other priorities and commitments that don’t feel so far away. I was beginning to worry constantly that none of the resources I had wanted to offer Work would manifest before we were due to fly to Haiti, and I wasn’t quite sure how to shoulder that burden.
More than that, I’ve been sensing a growing fear in myself, a dreadful existential fear that’s difficult to pinpoint, ever since reading Jonathan Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By. In several of his chapters, he describes the earthquake in such vivid terms that it scared me, which isn’t a feeling I’m used to. Natural catastrophes are equalizing in a way that many other things aren’t. While I still had pages’ worth of description of the comprehensive insurance and medivac policies we’d purchased stuffed in my backpack, I knew that, when it comes down to it, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Who’s to say something terrible won’t strike while we’re there? The bubble of protection we’ll be encased in is real only insofar as a sort of tenuous order upholds. If anything were to happen to me, would I have regretted my circumstances?
The protests and Level 4 travel warning issued by the State Department have provided me with the opportunity to examine this fear from the safety of a thought experiment. Reading Farewell, Fred Voodoo only emphasized that for me.
I applied for this program knowing exactly what I wanted to get out of it. In my mind, it was a second chance I would finally be ready for, run by a professor who acknowledged the ethical pitfalls of such school trips and wanted to grow beyond them. I didn’t know much about Haiti at all before I applied, and it really needn’t have been Haiti.
Of course, acknowledging this doesn’t make me more genuine of a person. I’m now still one of the many foreigners entering Haiti with personal motivations.
As a student, this reflexivity appears to be a valuable skill. The ability to speak wisely about mistakes is something that can admit me into more programs and get “adults” to pay attention to my “potential”. But I’m not interested in all that. If I take this seriously, the responsibilities are enormous.
The women in the room seemed to speak of Haiti with such love – the sort of love that begrudgingly edges into ownership, toes the line between wanting to be part of it all and being able to think so because they’re not. Everyone had an emotional opinion about Haiti. Unformed, as they clarified in the self-deprecating tone that all of our readings are tinged with, a cynical humor that only those whose work begets guilt as much as it is necessary can understand. Unformed opinions, but nonetheless strong and emotional.
As for me, I’m still hesitant. Why Haiti? I’m all too aware of how big and consequential a commitment it will be. Falling in love with a people is much harder when you’re not, and never will be, one of them, and in any case I haven’t had the chance to fall in love with Haiti yet.
Instead, for now I’m choosing to commit myself to a broader mission of effecting change through media. For me, the power of media is a strong personal belief, and the ability to empower through narrative even more so. Work is interested in advancing the same mission and as a student with some background in media and some access to resources, I am able to help. Whether or not our efforts will have a lasting impact is not ultimately up to us to decide. Everyone wants to be their own hero. The role I’d like to become familiar with in their story is the sidekick who’s there to offer support and encouragement should they request it.