Hold On To Your Humanity

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.

DSC_0549_2
”Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

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.

Advertisements

Learning a Million New Things Everyday

Yesterday, the Comunidad 19 participated in an engaging tour of Centro León, feasted on “La Bandera”, and sang Prince Royce’s “Las Cosas Pequeñasen nuestra clase de español. While this was all wonderful, the real unexpected treat for myself came after dinner in the form of a casual talk by the Dominican Director of ILAC. He began per usual with his background, talking about how he grew up as the youngest of eight brothers on a farm, worked hard in a factory, educated himself enough to own his own farm, and how he now helps run the ILAC center by teaching the campesinos, or Dominican countryside farmers.  As soon as the words “opportunity cost” came out of his mouth during an example, the economist in me was hooked. Rightly so, because it was at this point that he began to speak about the economic differences in the Dominican Republic, and how it was important for our Comunidad to observe the differences but keep in mind that there was most likely an unnoticed rational behind them. “Observe, but not judge,” he repeated over and over as he described how they no longer took American groups to tour the factories where people worked, since in the past people had staunchly objected to the fact that the Dominicans were working such long hours and being paid only about $1 per hour. He pleaded that we do not realize that Dominicans are able to stretch that weekly $50 to support themselves better than we could imagine, since we Americans frankly have little clue about the art of being frugal in a developing country. He added that some people once suggested that the government double the minimum wage, but that this would be completely counter productive as it would cause the factory to relocate to another more lucrative country, leaving behind poor and now job-less workers. The way to break the poverty cycle was not through free handouts, but rather through supporting jobs and education. And here I will interject, because earlier in the day, on the sunny ILAC rooftop, I had read the universal proposition derived from that exact logic. It was a great hour during which the principles that I held by my own reason and logic, here specifically faith in the free market, were confirmed by a completely foreign source who had also arrived at the same principle, but through sheer personal experience. I mentioned in the last post that I had recently read Fr. Sirico’s wonderful book, Defending the Free Market, and found it informative and logical. Here is an important portion from his chapter on foreign aid that was unknowingly repeated almost verbatim during yesterday’s discourse:

“What then can wealthy nations do to assist developing countries? First, don’t make the matter worse by encouraging corruption and governmental irresponsibility, which is exactly what government-to-government aid tends to do. Second, stop undercutting businesses in the developing world by flooding their markets with free goods year after year. Save emergency aid for genuine emergencies, and when you rush in to help, see if there are any local producers already there with whom you can partner to source emergency provisions. Third, open the world’s markets to the businesses of emerging economies. As things stand today, many Western nations practice the confused and contradictory policy of protecting domestic firms through tariffs and subsidies–thereby shutting out the products of developing nations–and at the same time sending billions of dollars in tax money to developing nations to supplement their failing economies. This is the misguided strategy we have used to ‘develop’ Haiti for the past few decades. Is it any wonder Haiti’s people are still struggling to develop?”

The director, a neighbor and eyewitness of Haiti, added vibrant language of his own and described the foreign aid as “handicapping” the Haitians– they don’t need free things, he said, rather they hunger for education so that they themselves may be creators. Work allows individuals to have the necessary responsibility, independence, order, and sense of purpose in their lives. If you truly want to help people and break the cycle of poverty, advance education. And so I climb (through my loathsome mosquito net) into bed tonight feeling content. Content because while La República Dominicana and this experience outside of my comfort-zone has already embellished my surface interests (e.g. bachata music, yuca, siestas, etc.) my core beliefs stand not only unshaken, but triumphantly confirmed. But the best part yet: my Comunidad and I have the privilege of being a part of this legitimate foreign aid since, beginning next Monday, we will be teaching English in three different schools throughout the semester. Here’s to learning–now hopefully teaching–a million new things everyday. 🙂