"Would you like a tour?" they asked. It was said sleepily, over morning coffee and bananas. Back when I was still eating bread in gluten-denial. Looking around at one another, still in can't believe we're really here dazes, we nodded. Who wouldn't want a tour of the city we'd come to serve?
In 2010, Haiti was hit with a massive earthquake. For many, like me, it was the first time I'd ever really heard of the country. I didn't know anything about it, but suddenly it was all over the news. Like many of us, I became enamored by the media's stories of hardship and survival as they covered Haiti in 2010. Little did I know, of course, that I would end up there on my first stint of mission work at the end of that same year. Little did I know that the pictures shown on my tv screen were just a small, sometimes biased look into this complex nation.
We went on our tour. What we saw was shocking. Crushed buildings and toppled street corners surprised us on every corner. Entire communities living under tarps were tucked away down every street. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Many times throughout those first months, we would audibly say that our minds could not comprehend what our eyes were seeing. It was a disaster.
What is it about disaster? We can't look away; we can't believe it. We get drawn in. We care. We give (often times blindly) and then get angered when the organizations did not live up to their promises of helping people in that area (looking at you, Red Cross). We get jaded about disaster, yet are still moved to give. We have a complicated history with disaster.
This was me in 2010. And 2011. And 2012. With cholera's outbreak in Haiti, the earthquake, the hurricanes, the mudslides, the political instability--Haiti was a place of incredible disaster. There was always something to take our minds away to the next big emergency. There was always something to write home about, or for people to write us about, worried for our safety. While people continued to follow disaster all over the world, they began to talk to us about the "millions of dollars that went into Haiti" and "didn't help." People who gave with generous hearts wanted to know what the heck had happened to their money. Quickly, they blamed the people they'd wanted to help: the Haitians.
As this has been one of the most disaster-ridden seasons (or at least it feels like it), here we are again. We are waiting to hear back from our friends in the Dominican Republic, getting hit by Maria as I type. We are praying the storm turns, and that Haiti is spared. We wait, and we answer those people who have so many questions about the island we love so much.
I am reminded, though, about what it is really like in Haiti (and in other places, I'm sure). I no longer look at what the news reports as accurate. Though, I am sure people are telling their reality, what good is someone flying in and reporting what they see as absolute truth? How can someone who does not know the culture or language differentiate between a fight or a desperate call for help? How can someone accurately tell you what is happening in a land and people they don't know?
When a natural disaster strikes now, I am still worried. I am saddened for my friends in mud huts who may face a mudslide. I am deeply concerned for my friends without much shelter. But, I am not concerned about the kind of people Haitians are; I know they can face any natural disaster, even if they aren't as prepared as they could be.
I think about Hurricane Matthew, which hit the southern part of Haiti just about a year ago. We were back in the USA, preparing to go back to Haiti a short week or two later. For once, we felt like we knew what to do in a situation like this: Listen. We talked with our friends, heard what they believed needed to happen, and spent money accordingly. Some of our friends, who I consider real heroes, took a boat down to the coast from our coast, since the roads were closed. They delivered filters, and seeds for replanting. They helped people rebuild their homes. They did not wait for any crazy organization to step in, they utilized their culture. They take care of one another.
If there is one thing working in such a disaster prone zone has taught me, it is that listening to our local friends and standing with them in the face of adversity is of the utmost importance. Additionally, I am taking a fascinating class that has provoked my thoughts even further. While Konbit and organizations like it do not present themselves as groups who really work to prevent disasters, I have also realized that everything we can do to help people become resilient is helpful. What has happened in the US in recent weeks is heartbreaking, but it is because of the infrastructure that already exists that allows for cleanup sites and mass distribution. It is the establishment of systems in place. It is the belief in the people there, too, that allows things to get cleaned up and going.
Imagine no clean up dump site, no place for you to "wash up" after helping out, no road to get to some of the most needy places after a disaster. That is what we work with in countries like Haiti. People are still willing to work hard and gather together in the face of disaster; people are still in desperate situations. It just requires even more planning.
With this kind of information, what do we do? Do we only move when someone is in desperate need? Or, do we look to see what kinds of programs are giving more resilience skills to people already? We don't just have to wait for disaster; we can be a part of building up communities to do what they already do well: overcome.
Natural disasters aren't going away, but wouldn't it be amazing if the people and communities most at-risk felt more empowered to overcome their challenges?