Thursday, March 27, 2008


Imagine if today, in your home - wherever that home might be - imagine if a few people you'd never met before and knew very little about came walking in and told you they wanted you to try something totally new.

They might ask you to hear them out, to at least listen to their ideas.

You might agree to listen and allow them in your space. Or, you might not. For the sake of my story, today you'll agree to listen.

The new acquaintances tell you that the way you have been getting your water is wrong. All wrong. It is not the best way. It is not the best water. They go on to tell you that the water coming from your tap is not the absolute smartest way to get water. Many strong arguments are presented against the way you have always done it. Your way is the way you are used to doing it, but it is not good. They ask you to begin to take a bucket down to a nearby spring each day. Use that bucket to bring water up to your house for dishes, bathing, drinking, and laundry. Don't use the tap water anymore.

Begrudgingly and mainly because they are watching, you begin to do it their way. Every time you do it their way, you're a little bit annoyed that you had to switch methods. Your entire life you've just taken your water from the tap and this new way just feels like more work.

The story is a made-up example and maybe a poor/unimaginative one; but it is good to think about it in these terms when we go into cultures that are not our own and expect them to embrace our way of doing things. It makes sense that after a missionary leaves, things return to the way they were. It makes sense that many things seem not to improve - even after decades of "help."
We've been convinced that there are things worthy of sharing and teaching, or attempting to introduce ... and there are things that are just forcing yourself and your culture onto Haiti. We are NOT saying it should never be done. But so much of what has been tried here has been tried for a little while, then as soon as the project manager (missionary - or whatever title they use) leaves, the project dies. Whether it is planting trees, animal husbandry, water filtration, farming, or medicine ... as long as it is a unknown concept that is being introduced into the culture - it needs constant attention or it won't last. Some things are worth introducing, some are not - but whatever you introduce needs babysitting and long-term follow through.

It makes sense. How likely are you to start going down to the river to get your water? Even if the new idea is ultimately "better" -- there is still a strong pull to stick to what you are used to and to follow cultural norms and habits. We are all creatures of habit; products of our cultural upbringing.

To Haitians, some of the things we force on them seem as ridiculous to them as not using clean, safe tap water would seem to us.

Another sensitive topic, worth at least considering -- the local economy. If I go into an area where everyone makes about $60 per month and I begin to hand out expensive gifts, (not expensive to *me* but expensive in terms of the local economic structure) might I be doing more harm than good? In Haiti, giving a kid a $30 gift/toy would be like giving a kid in the USA a $1,000 gift. Would we do that? Giving a child such a large gift might cause trouble for them in their family and community. Some of what we intend for good ends up causing harm. It is difficult to convey this because often people want to give what *they* want to give - and don't want to hear other opinions.
I recall vividly visiting this mission in 2005 and having the missionary seem upset that we were going to give someone in the village $60. It was not the missionary being rude--- it was the missionary understanding a lot more than we did about the situation. At the time, we would not have stopped to learn and understand.
Ultimately doing things that are culturally relevant is best --- it is not always possible and it not always easy - but it always something worth attempting.