On Being Asked for Things

I appreciated the thoughtful comments on my last post (and several emails too). Thanks to those who weighed in with the encouraging words.

Todays windy thesis is on a somewhat similar topic of cultural differences…

Disclaimer: this long post was written little at a time over the span of a week (usually a bit at night before I go to sleep), so not everything which says, “today this or that happened,” was really “today,” but happened the day I wrote that part.


So I had my first Haitian visitor from Port-au Prince come up to visit. He brought his girlfriend and they spent two days/one night. I don’t know him well, and he speaks very little English (his girlfriend none). The good thing was it wasn’t too awkward, even though my place is small and I felt bad about the accommodations, especially my bathroom being so primitive and the door to it falling off. But they both fit in well without skipping a beat. Who knows, maybe its better than what they have back in Port?

I didn’t have food on hand, so the three of us went to market together and purchased stuff for preparing supper at my place (all three on my motorcycle). Yeah, I’m getting used to having others on my motorcycle with me, though it does make driving trickier, especially fording creeks and maneuvering congested roadways, particularly if there are two behind me instead of just one. I’m also getting used to having flats repaired, my back tire already has six patches! But regarding food, I would say I’m even getting a little more used to buying staples and having them magically turn into a wonderful meal later. Historically, I’m more used to purchasing food that looks like food when I buy it, such as frozen pizzas,  Mac&Cheese, or burritos from Taco Bell.

One thing about Haitians though, they all know how to cook (at least Haitian food). And are good about it, though opinionated on the process. I’ve been trying to master the “simple” and ubiquitous rice and bean dish that is so common here and while I think I’m at the point I could finally do it myself, it’s very complicated, believe it or not, with many ingredients, tons of steps, and takes hours to prepare.

So with my visitors we purchased $10 worth of food and that made a large supper for six people, with leftovers for breakfast the next day, and we didn’t use all the staples either.

Cultural differences are everywhere. For instance, why did they prepare the food on the ground instead of on the table? I’m not kidding, they even brought in a cinder block from outside to be used as a chair, when I have multiple chairs around my table.

Another cultural difference was brought to my attention when my acquaintence and his girlfriend were ready to leave the next day: I drove them out to the highway where they could catch public transportation back to Port-au Prince and as I was getting ready to drive off, my friend approached me and I had a feeling he was going to offer me money to help defray the costs of staying here, which might have been polite to offer. Of course, I wasn’t going to accept money from him, I was happy to host for “gratis,” as they say. But I misjudged, it WAS about money, but he told me he had no money for the return trip and could I give him some so he and his girlfriend could get home? He said this right in front of her and I was embarrassed both for myself and for them, but apparently the only one who felt embarrassed was me. To be honest, I was flabbergasted for many reasons.

Oftentimes living in Haiti, you just feel like people only are interested in you for what you can you give them. Of course, that’s not true, but it does feel that way sometimes.

Today, for instance, I have been asked for many things. An older girl I met today (and who hung around annoyingly), wanted suntan lotion. She is not really mulatto, but  assured me her skin was light enough to need the lotion, and she couldn’t find any here in Haiti. I told her I couldn’t find it either (not that I’ve looked because I still have some from Kansas). Well, she then wanted to know if I could help her find some? I told her no, reminding her I couldnt find any for myself either. One of the teens listening to this exchange exasperatedly spelled out for me that the way I could help her “find” lotion was for me to put a portion of mine in a little bottle and give it to her. Guess then she would “find” it in her hands?

This girl is visiting from St. Marc. One person told me she was lazy, and said so right in front of her! She responded with telling me he was a liar. While I don’t know how lazy she is, another informed me she was also deeply in love with me (not in front of her). I said, “What?! I just met her today.” I was assured she has known ME longer. No doubt.

At this point I’m not looking for a cross-cultural bride, but opportunities abound. A number of people have offered to hook me up.

I just came here to learn Creole, but it’s sobering to see how my presence affects the fabric of people’s lives. One of the boys made a note to me where he used both the words “Nicko,” and, “Dady.” I asked him if he knew what “Dad” meant (his own Dad having left him, and his Mom the one who threw the beer bottle at him mentioned in my last post). He said, “Yes.” I asked him then why he wrote, “Dady,” then? He said, essentially, because I’m like a Dad: I give him food and spend time with him. I was touched, but suggested “older brother” might be more appropriate. At the same time, I also feel sorta like a heel because I’m leaving Ravine Seche soon.

Another example: This evening, after dark, a young fisherman I’ve become friends with came to my door and told me he hadn’t eaten today, nor had his wife, only their baby, and could I help them with food? He said he had been fishing for several days with hardly catching anything. (We need to revise that saying, “Teach a man to fish and he’ll be fed for life,” to, ” Teach a man to fish and he’ll be fed until he catches all the fish,” which is what they’ve done here). I didn’t have much food left in my house to give the hungry fisherman, but cooked up three Ramen Noodles in a pot and sent him home with that along with several mangos. He seemed grateful.

I’ve only been here two months, and none of the people here speak a word of English, but already my life has become interwoven with theirs…

Besides tangibe items, my time is also often asked of me. This afternoon I finally turned out of my house several of the teenage boys because I just wanted a little time to myself. They were quite offended and said I wasn’t being a good Christian. I told them they were right, I wasn’t a good Christian, and I wanted a little time to rest, sorry. When my doors opened later they were waiting with accusations, asking why I had become a, “wicked, mean, person”? And could they now cook spaghetti on my stove because they were hungry? And (nearly in the same breath) could I give them money for the big funeral wake this Saturday for the elderly lady who just died? It’s going to be a big party with tons of food and dancing, but we need money for it!

They didn’t get money for the funeral party, nor will they, but I let them make the spaghetti, which ended up feeding about half a dozen (including myself, though I don’t particularly like Haitian spaghetti, which tastes nothing like American spaghetti).

Another fellow showed up today wanting me to come help diagnose why one of their solar panel street lights wasn’t working (these lights were donated by the organization, Food For the Poor). The base of the light had been opened, then they came to find me because I have a multimeter tester and they consider me a technician of sorts. (Though after I checked it, they argued with my analysis).

The name, Food For the Poor, reminds me how Enochson, my 15-year old constant shadow, asked me what Food For the Poor means in Creole. I was surprised he didn’t know because the signs are around town, and Food For the Poor has donated and built new houses to each family in town, so it’s a huge charity presence here (a Catholic one). I told Enochson what the name meant in Creole  (Manje pou Pov Moun) and he was insulted. He said, “We’re not in poverty! – Those beggars in St. Marc… now they’re in poverty, but not us.”

While anytime seems like a good one for Haitian’s to ask me for things, when a relationship is strained, that seems like a particularly good time to them. Like the girl today who wanted my attention (while I was trying to be as rude to her as possible without being rude) and who decided the best way was to ask me for things – like suntan lotion. She also asked for my clothes hamper!  Or another example, the kids that I turned out of my house were angry that I wanted space, but felt the best way to restore our relationship was by asking me for money for the funeral wake.

This incessant asking for things is a peculiar character trait hard to accept, because in American culture asking for free handouts is looked down upon. But here, the idea of being interwined financially with another is a sign of mutual solidarity together, and thus a positive thing. The idea is that if I ever need money or anything else someday I can ask them for favors in return, because we are buddy-buddy to the point that what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. But since my funds are incomparably more than theirs (as the rich American who has been jobless for two years), it becomes a one-sided entanglement where reciprocation never happens like it would between their own. Just so happens I don’t really need or want what’s theirs, and they want many things that are mine.

But I guess I’m coming to realize, as bizarre as it sounds, that at times their asking for things is the best way they know how to say, “I want to be close to you.” Lisa brought up a similar point in her comment yesterday. Guess it could even be likened to the stereotypical differences between husbands and wives. The husband buys his wife snow tires for an anniversary present, thinking she will be touched by his concern for her safety, and it is what he would want, but she is offended instead, because that’s not really what makes her feel special. What is meaningful to one worldview, be it a man, woman, Haitian, or American, is often not meaningful to a different worldview. I guess the thing for me is to try to look past all the annoying ways (to me) the villagers treat me, and see their heart of desiring to be friends with me, instead.

Of course, sometimes people just want to take advantage of me too. That’s alright, I’m Ok with that. For instance, I’ll sometimes get overpriced for groceries at the market. I was told the other day I had been “robbed” when I admitted to having paid $2.50 for eight avocados. But I responded, “Don’t get angry about it, I was happy to pay that much, and perhaps the lady needed the extra money, and that still seemed cheap to me compared to stateside prices for avocados.” Today though, I bought eight more avocados for only $1 🙂

I do try taking people’s stories at face value, not because I always believe them, but because their honesty is between them and God and my generosity is also between me and God. I would prefer extending my trust to someone rather than my suspicions. What if I didn’t help someone who really was in need, just because I was suspicious of their story?

I recently talked with someone leaving Haiti who said his only regret was not having given more.

But then, I’ve also had people try guilting me into giving, which can be annoying. For instance, a kid asked me to give him my headphones. I tell him I don’t have a pair of headphones for him. He persists. He says he knows I have a pair because he has seen me wear them before. Yes, but those are mine and I use them. Then he asks, “Well, do you have another pair?” Again, I tell him I don’t have a pair for him. He persists in asking me if I have another pair. I admit I have two pairs. Jubilantly, he says that in the Bible Jesus says that if you have two of something and someone asks you for one of them, you have to give it.  I told him I’m sorry, but I’m keeping both my pairs of headphones, I use them both for different things, and the Bible also says to give cheerfully, and if I were to give you a pair of my headphones right now I can guarantee it wouldn’t be cheerfully.

One person was introducing me to his godmother. I greeted her warmly and tried making small talk. Then I was motioned over to a heavy lady sitting on the ground nearby. I was told, “Niko, this woman wants to talk with you.” I came over, knelt down to her level, exchanged greetings, learned her name… and then she began rubbing her belly and telling me she was hungry and wanted me to give her money for food. I was taken aback. I caught myself thinking an unflattering thought about how hungry she could really be given her girth…?! there really are hungry people in the village, but I could tell she was not one of them. With more pressure, I gave her some change, about enough to buy a mango, and I could tell she was insulted by my stinginess, but I was insulted she wouldn’t talk with me as a person, but only as a slot machine, when I had made an honest effort to treat her with dignity.

I was attending a wedding in a nearby town and a group of young boys mobbed me at the reception. I didn’t know any of the boys, but they all knew me by name, and had a request. (As an aside, my name is getting spread around. I have even been able to measure the spread of my fame on my jogging route. At first it was only in my village people would yell my name. Then it was on the dirt roads too. Then it was passerbys on the highway. Now it has extended to  nearby towns!)  But what did the boys mob me for? A new soccer ball. I told them I didn’t have one on me at the moment, seeing as I was at a wedding and all. They suggested I could go buy one. I suggested they could pool their money together and buy one themselves. They admitted they all had money, but together it wasn’t enough. And there was a “big game” tomorrow so it was a pressing need. I asked them if perhaps their parents could purchase them a new ball? They didn’t think their parents would (or had enough money to, I couldn’t tell which). I was about to ask what happened to their old ball when an adult chased them all away and I didn’t finish the conversation. But I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they asked me to play ball with them, instead of buy a ball for them?” Though I know they would be happy for me to play soccer too. If only they had a ball… there is so much “lack” here, but giving free handouts to fill up the lack is like trying to fill in a black hole with light, it just absorbs the light and stays black.

So yeah, money with these villagers is a weird thing. They don’t have much of it, for starters.

The Pastor of the local church organized a church picnic for tomorrow (Wednesday), a grand event where everyone would go by boat to a nearby beautiful beach and they womould spend the day swimming, eating  (two big meals), having worship music, etc. And it would only cost $3 US per person. Somewhat dejectedly, the pastor told me yesterday that only six people have signed up (I think me and him might be two of them), everyone else saying it’s too expensive. The pastor has lived here his whole life so ought to know what cost is reasonable for the people. Maybe no-one really wants to go, but I think they do, it just really is too expensive. I feel a little embarrassed now that I’m one of the six bourgeois who have enough expendable cash to indulge myself in such a luxury as the church picnic.

But if there is a funeral, Haitians will come up with $500-$1000 US for the “funeral party,” an allnight time of eating, drinking, dancing, playing games, etc. Where do they get that money?? I don’t know. Borrow it mostly, I think. But for sure I’m convinced it could be better spent elsewhere, considering that is the equivalent of an annual wage here!

So anyways, the requests for things are never ending. And the motivations behind the requests are across the board, but the end result for me is feeling objectified at times (read: understatement). But if you read the book, African Friends and Money Matters, you would see my scenario is the textbook case.

I have thought about if there was anything I could do to level the playing field. Perhaps if I honestly had no money? And had to rely totally on their hospitality as a foreigner? That’s the only thing I can think of.

As I’ve weighed the issue in my own mind, I’ve had to grudgingly acknowledge even most (all?) friendships in the West exist to fulfill mutual needs (or wants) too, they just tend to be more emotional needs/wants rather than blatently monetary. Genuine selfless magnanimity in interpersonal relationships is most likely a rare quality in any culture. The Bible calls this rare quality, “Love.” Of the Agape variety…

The Pastor here in the village has been a notable exception to me of the objectifying I usually feel. We have become friends, I usually see him daily, and he seems to like me for who I am, hasn’t asked for too much stuff yet. In fact, he has given me more than taken. The other day he even loaned me dress shoes and a dress shirt for this wedding I just attended, and afterwards when I went by his house to return the items he told me he had decided to give me the shirt! It is a nice, button-down dress shirt and was probably a sacrifice for him to give away. How many people come to Haiti and are given a shirt by a Haitian? Usually it’s the other way around.

I don’t know what the point of this post is, but if nothing else I have a record of a few anecdotes that would otherwise have escaped my memory, and perhaps someday when I’m old and wise I will be able to distill a few general principals from all these experiences I’m having now.

(written from my cell phone)