In Haiti, I was struck by what it looks like you have absolutely no infrastructure, no government you can depend on for anything. There’s trash everywhere. At one clinic, I walked around in circles for a while searching for a poubelle (the French word for trash can, which I somehow remembered). I couldn’t find one, and ended up making my own bag to carry back to the compound. I had thought that if there were just more poubelles, there would be less trash. But what’s the sense of putting trash in a trash can if there’s no one to come pick it up? We saw no garbage trucks, nor utility services of any kind. As far as I could tell, the only way these rural Haitians handled trash was to occasionally burn it – a smell we could detect on many hikes.
Walking through the Central Plateau, we saw a few electrical poles, but most had no wires connected to them. There are schools, but most are private. Thanks to efforts by the European Union in the past 10 years, there are more paved roads. But in a country plagued by earthquakes, hurricanes, and strong rains paired with rocky soil, roads are regularly broken and washed out, and there’s no one to repair them. The efforts of the S.C. Episcopalians, Clemson University engineers, Water for Life and World Vision (I saw these logos around) have installed cisterns and water fountains, but no pipes carry the water into buildings or homes. There are few toilet facilities; we used outhouses in most places, though it looked like the locals did not.
And I heard many stories about people being “selfish,” looking out only for themselves. They litter. They beg for money. Their governments have for decades embezzled funds, promoted nepotism, and stolen from the people. We learned of one student who had received money from one of our donations who had had to flee the country because his own family was so jealous of his windfall that they had threated to kill him. And while it can be easy to make some stereotypical remark of a greedy or corrupt group of people, it’s actually pretty simple to see why many of them act this way. If you’ve grown up in a place where you have to take care of yourself to get food, water and education, if you’ve never had anyone outside your own family take care of you, if there’s no concept that a larger organization like a government will help you with basic needs, then you have no innate sense of community, no sense of a larger entity, a greater good. You’d look out for just you, because you had to.
I was told that in Haiti, you only have to pay taxes on your home or business building once its construction is complete. To get around this payment, many buildings are left with rebar sticking out of their roofs, so that the homes or offices are forever “under construction.” We saw mansions on hilltops with rebar sticking out; even the wealthy were not willing to complete their homes and pay their taxes. They did not feel the need to contribute to or connect to their community.
Two weeks after returning from Haiti, I had to do my taxes. I have never before felt more gratitude to pay taxes. I know my money will support roads, utilities, schools, health care, research and more. I’m not a fan of much of our government these days, but I trust that it will meet many of my basic needs. I can’t imagine living in a place where I had no connection to a larger organization working to sustain my community, my lifestyle.
So that “one thing” I’ll take away from Haiti is an appreciation of government, of infrastructure, of basic society. I mean no insult to the people I met in Haiti. They are a product of their lives, and they are doing the best they can to survive. I hope and pray a government will one day exist that makes them feel cared for and proud.