Monday, January 28, 2013

The art of seeing

The story of God coming to Abram after his separation from Lot (Genesis 13: 13-18) is for me a favorite. 

On that day, Abram had lost not only his nephew (which he was ready to do), but he also lost wealth: Lot took with him all of the best portions of the land, leaving Abram the “loser.”  What’s more, Lot had done so not by deceit or strength, but by exploiting the offer that Abram himself had made.

A most gratifying lesson here is that God came to Abram without being called. The Bible says, “The Lord [came and] said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him … .”  Abram did not have to pray or fast or call on the name of God – he was simply sad and dejected, and God saw his need, and came to him. 

As an adopted great-grand-daughter of Abram, I draw immense encouragement and courage from that level of attention and tenderness on God’s part. It is empowering and sustaining. 

But by far, the key passage for me is the following: “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all … you see I will give to you.”  

I had read this passage at least twenty times in the past twelve months, but did not catch the importance of seeing until reading a related Jewish commentary: God promised to Abram everything that he (Abram) saw. The lesson was that Abram’s gift was limited only by his eyes. Presumably, had he seen beyond the horizon, that too would have been bequeathed to him. The question was challenging: what are we seeing?

In Haiti, seeing unpleasantness is easy, but I am training myself to work differently. Now, when I “lift my eyes,” I am passionately looking for a Haiti that is green, clean, prosperous. That is the only Haiti worth seeing, because it is the only one worth pursuing: the one God intended. At times, I see it. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Deconstruction and Reconstruction

Conventional Wisdom
Haiti represents a most “complex” situation, from a humanitarian response perspective.
Actually …
Many factors would indicate otherwise: small size, mostly homogeneous, largely tolerant population, close proximity to the US, engaged diaspora, absence of extreme weather (in spite of hurricanes), low level of public violence, etc.

Conventional Wisdom
It will take 25, 50, 100 years for Haitian society to change.
Actually …
Consider the Haitian who moves to Montreal in January, on his first trip out of Haiti. Within three weeks, he has adjusted to the weather, has mastered the public transportation system, and arrives at work on time every day. He is not exceptional or even unusual. We Haitians can be impressive.

Conventional Wisdom
The Haitian government is corrupt at all levels.
Actually …
Most Haitian bureaucrats are honest and quite competent. If corruption happens, it is at a high level, by those who are invited to embassy cocktails.

Moreover, the GoH receives 1 – 10 % of international aid, and this over the last four or five governments. So any corruption happens on a small-scale, and cannot explain the spectacular failure of the last three years, for example.

Conventional Wisdom
Government by consultation and inclusion provides the best model of governance.
Actually …
Haiti has a long list of political leaders including:
·         a President (elected by popular vote),
·         a prime minister (appointed by the president),
·         twelve to fourteen ministers (appointed by the Executive)
·         various “secretaries d’Etat,” government organs, ministry-light
·         100 deputies and 30 senators, elected by popular votes
·         CASECs and ASECs (regional and departmental representatives,    
·         at least 133 mayors, representing the 133 “communes”  (elected)
·         etc.

These are people who were sufficiently brave to place their names on ballots, at potential risk to themselves and family members, in order to hold public office: why not allow them to govern? Why insist on the inclusion (intrusion) of “civil society” and endless consultation with those who lost?

The winners won. Theirs is the privilege to govern. That too is democracy.

That said, focus should be placed on a democratic and transparent government and an informed citizenry, so that people can make wise choices at the ballot box.

Conventional Wisdom
Better NGO coordination is needed in the country.
Actually …
It is rather stronger governmental NGO oversight that is needed. NGOs should be small, have limited budgets, specified scope of activities, and adhere to government regulations.

Conventional Wisdom
Education is the answer to Haiti’s problems.
Actually …
We need to rethink education.

The truth is that before the quake, roughly 70% of school-aged in children were in school in PAP, almost in equal number between boys and girls. 

How would Haiti be different, over the last twenty or even ten years, if schooled children  had been taught systematically, to:
·         love their country and believe in its future
·         practice public cleanliness (even as simple as not throwing trash in the 
·         know that their future is up to them and to plan accordingly
·         respect the rights and feelings of all, even those who are poorer or less 
·         respect women, to eschew violence of all kinds
·         practice honesty, not taking what is not theirs

Absent a relentless focus on civic and moral training, education will not deliver its promise for Haiti's children.

Conventional Wisdom
Public policies ought to favor the poor.
Actually …
The interest of the middle class must be respected. Besides paying taxes, they are the ones who often promote and practice fundamental values that are essential to a successful society: the nuclear family, good manners, a sense of privacy, insistence on cleanliness and orderliness, avoidance of promiscuity, etc. As a group, they should be prosperous and prominent.

Churches and religion in general should forcefully promote and reinforce traditional families.

Conventional Wisdom
Development is about more than just “hardware.”
Actually …
A city's visible infrastructure (roads, airports, houses, hotels, parks, electricity, cleanliness, transportation, security apparatus, hospitals, etc.) is a leading indicator of comfort level of a population.

There are additional factors such as literacy rate, maternal health, average yearly income, life expectancy, but they are secondary.

Conventional Wisdom
The government, in its role of guarantor of rights, is the key player in matters of child protection.
Actually …
The greatest risks posed to poor children in Haiti are predictable: lack of basic needs such food and housing, but also abandonment, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at an alarming rate.

But the government is not responsible for those criminal acts. Often, it is parents who inflict or tolerate them.

Other than life and survival, the most basic and essential right of every child is to have present and parenting parents, a mother and father living together, raising their children through maturity. So, we must adopt the nuclear family model.

As it is now, 70% of Haitian children are born out of wedlock; only 50% of them live with both parents; orphanages abound, full of non-orphans.

Protection starts with presence: there is a helpful principle. As long as people abandon the long term care of their children to others, for whatever reason, or make babies with different partners, unattached, children will continue to suffer.

And the government will be powerless to prevent it. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Charles Baudelaire's Receuillement

Here is a poem I read today (in French, followed by English translation) and the observations that followed:


Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici:
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.

Pendant que des mortels la multitude vile,
Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci,
Va cueillir des remords dans la fête servile,
Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main; viens par ici,

Loin d'eux. Vois se pencher les défuntes Années,
Sur les balcons du ciel, en robes surannées;
Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant;

Le soleil moribond s'endormir sous une arche,
Et, comme un long linceul traînant à l'Orient,
Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche.


Be wise, O my Sorrow, be calmer.
You implored the evening; it falls; here it is:
A dusky air surrounds the town,
Bringing peace to some, worry to others.

Whilst the worthless crowd of humanity,
Lashed by Pleasure, that merciless torturer,
Go to gather remorse in slavish rejoicing,
Give me your hand, my Sorrow; come with me,

Far from them. See the dead years leaning,
In worn-out clothing, on the balconies of the skies;
See how Regret, grinning, rises from the deep waters;

The dying sun goes to sleep in an archway,
And, like a long shroud dragging from the East,
Hear, O my dear one, hear the soft night coming.

        — Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

This poem is well-known, and I have read it dozens of times. Tonight again, it first evoked the usual feeling of "sweet sorrow." But the melancholy did not last, and was soon displaced by a much cheerier analysis.

In this poem, Baudelaire clearly embraces sorrow, almost as we might pick up a small child, encouraging her to be still because the ice cream truck is around the corner. But in doing so, the poet also gives sorrow a separate identity, effectively distancing himself from it. The pain is his (see first line), but it is other.  "Receuillement" is an invitation to the company Baudelaire chooses to keep, but one he could just as easily dis-invite. The same welcome could be offered to hope, desire, longing, creativity, courage, discipline, happy memories, etc. 

That lesson is good to remember. Pain, whatever the reason, is inherently sad, but it is not me, nor me, pain. I can simply leave it behind.

And so it is with Haiti. Everyone agrees that poverty stinks—literally. It coarsens and it kills. But we also need to remember that it is not part of our essence or our DNA. It is separate from us. We can choose to simply walk away, go elsewhere, adopt other habits or approaches. We can instead invite joy, prosperity, abundance, goodness, beauty.   

Both the poem and that reminder represented God's smile today. Thank you, Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reasonable Inertia

There is so much I think about doing, so much I could do: start a business, quit my job, get serious about writing, become my husband’s assistant for things I wish to see him accomplish (not to be confused with being his office manager who is very good at her job), etc.  Haiti is the Great Muse: it provides an idea a minute. Yet, I wait. I think. I talk. And I wait still.

Someone asked me once, “How do you think God sees you?” Within a few minutes, I knew the answer: as a child who complains about being bored but will not get off the couch and go play outside, even though the weather is nice.

How pathetic.

Except, that inertia is not out of laziness, but rather out of fear, the kind of fear that my middle-class parents worked very hard to instill in their children: “consider the consequences.” I did not always listen, but now I am thinking about it. 

Suppose I quit my job, out of some sense of wanting to be “authentic” or wanting to pursue my “passion” but do not make money in the new activities. What will I do when a child calls home, needing money for deposit on some wonderful academic trip? Or the car clutch goes out. Or, simply, EdH must be paid. 

When confronted with happy testimonials about women who “followed their dreams,” I generally celebrate their courage. It is good that many are brave and rewarded for it. I imagine what Haiti might look like if more of us were courageous.

And then I remember that inverter batteries are needed. I remember and whimper, “Oh yes, passions will have to wait a bit longer.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Boarding School Wish

Haiti is experiencing a pandemic of orphanages.  While exact numbers are difficult to establish, the estimates reach hundreds of thousands. And those children are generally not orphans. They have living, healthy parents who send them to the orphanages. (I have seen a mother and father, two young parents, accompanied by some other family members, pray for their new born baby, right before “giving” it to an American who runs a Port-au-Prince orphanage. That American believed she was doing the Lord’s work.)

That is called child abandonment. It is irresponsible parental behavior. And it ought to be illegal.

But those parents are not just irresponsible. They are also tired, hungry, scared and uninformed. They do not know that children need their parents almost as much as they need oxygen. They haven’t read the latest theories of personal virtues. They cannot listen to Focus on the Family. They have not heard of Dr. Seuss. They do not have hot showers or televisions. They must wait for the cover of night to relieve themselves under the stars.

While struggling to feed their children and themselves, they are told of a place, operated by a “blan,” that offers three meals a day, clothing, schooling, running water, electricity, American visitors, Christmas gifts, etc. So they reason: why not send my kid there, thereby assuring that she is taken care of, and that I am free of her (maybe to make more babies?).  When she grows up, she can take care of me.  If she is adopted out of the country, even better: I will have a kid in the US, and some day, she will come back, bring me goodies, even take care of me.

Theirs is the perspective of a sinking Titanic. Anyone on a life boat will do.

It is not to defend those parents. It bears repeating: they are irresponsible. But what are the excuses of the orphanage masters who know that Haiti is not the Titanic?

The simple and most oft-given answer is that they want to “help.” They see these poor Haitian children and are prompted (by the Holy Spirit no less!) to come take care of them.

So let’s assume that they do want to help. That simple fact does not explain why parents must be eviscerated. Surely God does not require that parents be sidelined in order for their children to eat.

So a very interesting question is why so many who would help Haitian children first require that they be separated from family, kept in parent-free houses.

Those who would help poor Haitian children must understand that they come, except in the rarest cases, with strings attached, called parents. Those parents are adults. They have every right and obligation to control their children’s environment: food they eat, medication they take, clothes they wear, schools they attend, stories they are told, friends they make.  We must all avoid weakening that bond, even if poor parents would not fulfill their duty.

Haiti needs a genuine “family reunification” initiative, one based on this most commonsensical truth: children need their mom and dad. Orphanages represent a wretchedly poor substitute. 

So the next time the topic rises, consider the sacredness of the parent-child bond. If working with the parents of those poor children seems overwhelming (and isn’t it always), then please say the following:
For the love of God and of poor Haitian children, let’s have a boarding school, not an orphanage.  The children can go home every week-end or at least for summer and other vacations. That way, we can help them without substituting ourselves for their parents, without dividing their family.