People ask all the time if the poorest of the poor are happy. Actually, they don’t. ask me if the people of country x are happy, most likely without realizing where they fall on the poverty scale. I’ve been learning to distinguish between incredibly similar levels of poverty, which at first glance are indistinguishable since they’re all so devastating compared to the America many of us live in. When we think of poverty, it’s fast food and metal detectors in schools and no health insurance. Poverty in a batey is no food all day, no high school diploma even if you manage to walk to a school 3 km away and no access to health care.
The things we look for to distinguish amongst the levels of poverty:
- Tin roof vs. cement walls vs. wood
- How healthy the dogs are (are they pets or a nuisance?)
- distance in km to a clinic or school
- presence or absence of power lines, televisions, microwaves, washing machines etc
- the color of children’s hair, the presence or absence of pits in their teeth, their age as compared to their apparent height and weight
- distance from the closest city, paved road, or bus stop
When we go visit the bateyes (which are current or former sugar plantation barracks, mostly inhabited by people somewhere in nationality limbo between Haitian and Dominican, and largely forgotten by the world) it’s often hard to process. Kids come running and singing, or sometimes people spit at our feet. There is an overwhelming sadness to seeing so many grown adults with no work all day and so many caved in roofs, and yet we are welcomed with the frenzy warranted to celebrities and religious figures. bearing that in mind, there is a natural inclination to declare these people (especially their children) as happy. They sing, they dance, they hold our hands and climb on our shoulders. They are tiny and adorable, as long as you don’t ask too many questions or look at anything other than their smiling faces.
It worries me sometimes that once we begin to see those in the bateyes as happy, we can excuse ourselves for forgetting them or for not doing enough to help them. But then you think about how awful a life without occupation would be. How much a toothache hurts, and how bad that would be if it just went on for days months or years. How unfulfilling to never advance or have a chance of advancing, to be illiterate with virtually no chance of ever changing that fact. To not have a country to call your own, to be subject to arrest at any moment, to be hated in the most insidious and subversive of ways: neglect, condescension and collective denial. I’m sure there is happiness in their lives, and in a way that is perhaps enviable because it involves tradition, community and pastoral cliches. But it is not the lasting happiness and sense of content that comes from autonomy, advancement and stimulating work.
what we’re doing for Esperanza will (i hope) help their borrowers, especially those of Haitian descent or nationality, but we can’t know that for sure. it’s very abstract, what we’re doing. We’re not sure yet that our results will be worthwhile, or what they’ll say, if we will have good recommendations based on that data, or if our recommendations will be taken. I think social entrepreneurship can be harder than straight charity because (at least for us) we’re not seeing results. There is no school to take pictures in front of, or bags of food to hand over. Just us and our clipboards, fumbling through Spanish, French and Kreyol, trying to make sense of hundreds of years of oppression, racial tension, poverty and industry.