Katie—an American—wants to know what it will take to improve Haiti.
I am translating her questions for five young women who are studying journalism, and though they are smart and engaged, I expect this type of inquiry to stump us all. It is too broad; it relies on too many assumptions.
Is the country actually broken? Is it the politics that need improvement, or the mentality of the people, or the constant interference of other nations? Do these women even have enough of a sense of self-efficacy to hypothesize about this issue or are they perhaps so depressed by the trees that they can’t even consider the forest?
But it is easy to underestimate people who start conversations quietly. The girls hem and haw for a moment, passing a few quick Creole sentences between them like hot potatoes. Then Jocelyn speaks up.
“Consciousness,” she says. The people’s mentality needs to change—their education and their level of understanding about how to make things better for their own families, and as a country.
Valerie disagrees. She doesn’t think it is a question of education as much as it is a question of having a sense of fraternity. The people who earn money and have the means to help everyone are too busy looking after their own interests.
“If I am in a position of power,” Valerie says, “and my brother needs a job, then I give him one. And then if I get some scholarship money to distribute, I give that to my sister. And if I have no family at all? Then I just forget about the scholarships and try to make a profit.”
Francoise thinks this paints too bleak a picture but when she protests she is mostly drowned out by the rest of the group insisting that nepotism has, in fact, decayed their nation.
Finally, Lilian interrupts. She’s sorry (which is an interesting start—based on the assumption that we, the American interviewers, prefer one answer over another—which is basically true).
Lilian doesn’t really think anything can be done to improve Haiti. She sees people behaving in the same patterns time and again, and reacting in the same way to each situation. She concedes that education and a real sense of brotherhood are good ideas but she doesn’t think they will work here.
“What is going to change Haiti?” she says “Nothing. I don’t really think there is hope for this country.”
It is what I, myself, have said on more than one depressed occasion but hearing that opinion from a Haitian—and from a young person—is far worse that hearing the words coming from my mouth.
And yet, it makes me wonder how I would feel if I were in her shoes. Because what do I—an American—think it will take to change the course of the United States? For a moment, I forget about Haiti.
Do I even think there is hope for my own country?
I am a skeptical person. And I am constantly frustrated by many aspects of American culture and foreign policy and what we seem to consider to be the priorities in a nation that has so many other options on the table.
Yet how (and who? and through what means?) can we change so entrenched a system?
Don’t we in the U.S. also need a raised level of consciousness? Could we not also use a greater sense of brotherhood?
It is so easy to criticize another country, but just within the boundaries of my own nation I wish that many things were different.
If I had to respond to Lilian and her peers, I would say that the change in a country comes with the change in its people. The fact that they want something to be different and are discussing that process, is already a change. The fact that they are investigating alternatives, that they are skeptical, that they are talking to people from other countries, is already a good start.
But perhaps it is—more than anything—the fact that so many of us worry that change is not possible that should assure us that it is.
It is not contentment that changes a nation, or a culture, or the history of the world; it is dissatisfaction with the status quo.
It is saying, This, right here, is not good enough.
And then it is each of us who feels that way getting out there, and finding—or creating—something better.