How fast does donor fatigue actually set in? Since I, half asleep, opened my computer this morning to the latest in a long list of Haitian calamities, I’ve felt a weight all day. Yes, I’m a half a world away, and it didn’t come up in conversation too often here. But that ache, the “something-is-wrong” ache, was underneath every interaction I had today. But it’s going to go away. My question is: when am I justified to stop aching?
I’ve been to Haiti for my job with World Relief, just about two years ago. And honestly, it was the one place I’ve been where I wouldn’t immediately jump at an offer to return. That’s sad, isn’t it? I love travel, and usually I immediately fall in love with any new place. But not Haiti. I was once solo road-tripping to Arizona, and I broke down in Brooklyn, Iowa, an hour away from the nearest hotel or rental car place. When I asked about a restaurant, they told me that there were some chairs in the deli section of the grocery store. No joke. That wouldn’t have been my first choice of a place to break down. But I’d go visit there again with much less hesitation than if I were offered another trip to Haiti.
It was just a really difficult place. The complexity of its issues, the poverty (the worst I’ve seen anywhere!), not to mention the pollution that made me so sick. Some of the people there were great, but some of the people treated us Americans as if we personally had screwed them over. Considering our country’s foreign policy as related to Haiti, that’s not really something that should be too surprising. But it was the first time I had encountered anything like that. And again, a lot of the people were lovely. We met teachers who hadn’t been paid their $30/month salary for the past three months. But they kept showing up for work every day, because they knew how important their students’ education was. And World Relief’s staff is doing amazing things with a shoe-string budget. They have so much compassion and hope in such a difficult place, it was completely humbling for a spoiled American like me. But it was a difficult place to go. For a few years before I went to Haiti, I’d been blithely saying, “Oh, I could live anywhere in the world, no problem!” I stopped saying that after Haiti.
I’m not saying any of this to kick Haiti while she’s down or anything. I probably will go back someday, I think I would like to … eventually. But when I go, it won’t be as naively as I did when I first went there. I do hope that someday I have the courage to live in a place as difficult as Haiti, but I’m not there yet.
With all of this, I just want to unromanticize poverty and disaster as much as possible. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t sexy. It’s disgusting, complicated, smelly, problematic and messy, and if you’re involved in any way, you’re not walking away whole.
I wasn’t whole when I left Haiti—through a series of poor packing choices and crazy airport moments, I ended up in the Baltimore airport without my car or house keys at midnight, unable to wake up my roommate.
One of the guys I was with (the only part of my group that didn’t get accidently stranded on the way home) was trying to convince me to get a hotel. “Your organization should understand you spending money on a hotel in this situation!” I couldn’t even vocalize at the time—it had nothing to do with the organization understanding (of course they would!). It had everything to do with not being able to personally stomach spending more money on one night’s sleep than what one of those teacher’s monthly salary was supposed to be (that the students couldn’t afford to pay!), especially not when I was so close to home! Fortunately, I was eventually able to wake up another friend and spend the night with her. But Haiti messed me up—I remember the next day, walking from the bus stop to my apartment (after meeting my roommate and borrowing her keys). I was still wearing the clothes from the day before, the same ones I slept in, complete with Haitian dirt ground in. I was really sick from the pollution still, I was croaking more than talking, and all I wanted to do was cry because the streets of Baltimore was so clean and beautiful and healthy after Port au Prince.
Right now, during my middle of the night in Cambodia, people at World Relief headquarters in Baltimore are scurrying around, doing everything in their power to convince people why Haiti needs more than good thoughts before people stop caring again, before the news finds something that people care about more to talk about (perhaps some celebrity relationship). Other people at headquarters are trying to find a way into Haiti (all the airports are shut down), so that they can help assess the needs and get supplies in as quickly as possible. In Haiti right now, I don’t know if the staff that I met two years ago that were so wonderful are still alive or not. I don’t know if the people that I met that didn’t like Americans so much are alive or not. I don’t know if their family members are alive or not, or if they’re buried alive, or if they’ve been separated, or if they’re injured.
I do know that sometime too soon, I’ll stop wondering. Life moves on for those of us who are not directly involved. But should it? And how do we prevent that inevitable apathy?
Kerstin Pless works for World Relief as a photographer, videographer, and blogger in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She hopes that she hasn’t overwhelmed anyone out of responding to the needs in Haiti, and that people will go to WorldRelief.org to learn more and to donate.