Last Friday, the Comunidad 19 traveled to the Haitian-Dominican border in order to witness market day. The pushing of the crowd quickly pushed each of us through the initial shock of doing something few of us ever pictured ourselves doing. As my eyes soaked in the piles of dirty, donated merchandise presided over by glazed stares, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere that vibrated the very air with sounds of struggling humans– struggling for their daily bread and struggling to believe in their dignity. During that day, I met more faces and still shared smiles, but I could not help but be moved by the fact that this brutal learning exercise for me was their ugly, daily reality. Did they know that they were made for more? How could they? As is brilliantly noted in one of my favorite travel articles of all time,
“Happiness is important, sure. But it’s also common and can be found in most situations once your mind adjusts to your surroundings. You can find happiness in any slum or in any mansion, on the beach, in the mountains, or in the middle of the desert.
But what is rare in many parts of the world is human dignity. You know, people who aren’t treated like animals — used, ignored, cheated, beaten, mutilated, silenced, or suppressed” (5 Life Lessons from 5 Years of Traveling).
I have explored marketplaces before, most impressionably the Jerusalem bazaar shown below, but what really struck me about this binational convention was the distinct lack of crafts, or anything locally hand-cooked or hand-made for that matter. Everything was packaged in crisp plastic, evidently manufactured in bulk, and soiled from the transport. Clearly there is no fault in making your living by reselling donations, but the initial tragedy that I realized was the lack of resources and training available for the merchants to harness their human creativity and ingenuity in providing unique goods, services, and creating wealth. As humans, we take pride in the works of our hands. We love to create beauty and order when we cannot find it naturally in the world around us. I would have leapt for joy at the sight of one single artist.
Unfortunately, the picture gets substantially darker. Underlying the ugly market is the uglier disease of rampant corruption, bribery, and mistreatment. Whenever there is a situation where one group’s livelihood is at the mercy of another, there you will find scumbags taking advantage of the powerless
…but on that battlefield you will also encounter those who choose have turned their backs on comfortable, safe lives in order to protect the powerless. They hold on to what makes us human.
During our stay in Dajabón, our group listened to two talks by groups who labor to protect and defend, sometimes in the face of persecution– our first speaker had just been released from over 500 days of unjust imprisonment. Relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are complicated and overshadowed by miscommunication and misinformation, but there are always those who profit off the weak and those who speak up for them.
I know which side I want to be on.
On that theme, I’d just like to share a TED talk that I watched this morning. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling, and not fun, but it’s infinitely better to work at bringing truth, dignity and beauty to the uglier faces of life than to cowardly cast our eyes away. Hold on to your humanity.