At the end of the song my dad would always add a goofy-sounding, scatted, "Oh-bodeo-doh" where an "amen" would normally have punctuated a normal "grace". We loved that song, and though I don't remember watching the movie as a child, I do know that we had the book and the record, which survived until the mid 80s when my brother and I were influenced by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to scratch the living bejeezus out of our Psalty, Bullfrogs and Butterflies, and Fox & The Hound LPs in the name of Hip Hop. Despite our DJ-induced wax massacre, the Johnny Appleseed prayer outlived subsequent fads and is lodged forever in my memory, and arguably in the bedrock of my worldview.
|"Whoa... this tastes |
like we're naked."
I have to admit, one thing I love about Haiti is the immediacy of the stuff of life. The same dirt that you plant seeds in comes into your house and into your lungs. The faux immediacies of expedited service, Netflix, fast food, ATM's, competitive delivery companies, more bandwidth, ambulances, schedules, and all of that jazz would be a welcome convenience here, but in their absence there is the presence, the grit, and the touchable, visceral friction of nature... even here in the city. Butchered goat meat drips from a stick rack on the roadside. Babies are born into soil. Light comes from fire. Water is boiled over three rocks. The rooster wakes you up. The barking dogs, the barbed lime trees, and the thorny flowers above your stone wall protect your house from the hungry thief that weighs the risk of the climb. The eggs are covered with the mud that broke their fall. There is no fruit that is not "organic". Dogs are stuck together in the street. Dead things don't get buried quickly. The water was carried to you in a bucket and you can't waste a drop. This is the realest world. This is the world where I am part of creation and the veil between me and my effects is thinner. The veil between myself and my Creator is somehow thinner too because of it. My responsibility, my capacity, and my total lack of control... my ultimate dependence... these are all crystal clear here.
Conservation and stewardship feel natural to me in Haiti, despite the blatant and rampant neglect of the environment in this culture. Maybe the fact that trash is everywhere makes me more sensitive to not add to the pollution. What we don't recycle will be visible in the pit near our house. Our impact on the environment is not carried "outside the environment". Our waste is an immediate and tangible spectacle, so our recycling must be as well. Our cereal and cracker boxes get turned into beads. Our pop and soup cans get cut and stamped into medallions and earrings. Our bottles get melted into cheese trays, spoon rests, and cutting boards.. and some day soon we hope, into even more beautiful beads. Our empty bleach jugs get carried home by people who need a cleaner vessel for their water. Our grocery bags are used as rain hoods and purses and lunch boxes. Our styrofoam packing bricks become the place for bead painters to erect their forests of drying bead skewers. Our scraps feed the pigs. Our leftovers feed the neighbors. There is virtually no trash in our house that is not creating wealth for somebody. I love that.
The reality that wealth is being harvested from refuse is part of what makes a "poverty perspective" unpalatable for me in any of its many forms. This is the perspective that there just isn't enough. There are the highfalutin, ivory tower academic myths of overpopulation and scarcity that critique consumption and threaten global extinction if people keep eating, doing business, making babies, and doing just about anything that is necessary for the survival of our species. These arguments point out that it would take 4 planet earths to sustain American levels of consumption for the current population of the planet, are supported by studies conducted by people raising money for conservation NGO's and often do not mention anything about the potential yield of millions of untended achres of the earth or the advanced productivity of modern farming techniques. They also factor oil in quite heavily, without acknowledging the virtually global agreement that a move away from oil is necessary, that technology markets are rapidly responding to these deficits, and that American consumption levels are, thankfully, not at all normative for the planet. What's more, they ignore the more easily verifiable statistic that currently the earth is producing almost twice the food needed to feed its population and that population growth is slowing down and likely to become a more economically disastrous problem of economic contraction. This is because population growth is linked to economic growth, and PEOPLE are bad for poverty. PEOPLE plant seeds.
(Note: I recommend the www.overpopulationisamyth.com and the www.povertycure.com videos covering these issues, and I've posted two of them at the bottom of this blog.)
More close to home for me, the "poverty perspective" takes on a different face. Hopeless moans of scarcity and dependency are spoken from the mouths of those who beg for a white savior, a visa, or an escape route to save them from this perceived land of destitution. These are Haitians who have believed the lie that their home will never be a good home, that Haiti is under a curse. These are the preachers that tell their congregations that their ultimate hope is that God will someday bless them with a way to go to America, but lack the faith to preach that God will someday make Haiti more lush and green and productive and stable than it was when it supplied the world with coffee and sugar and was called the "Pearl of the Antilles". These are Haitians that have been taught by missionaries to wait for missionaries.
As I walk around my neighborhood, there are always desperate people who will say, "Give me a job!" Granted, this is a drastic improvement from the more common "Blan, bring me some food!" or "Give me a dollar!" that I used to hear before we were creating jobs. I usually try to show my compassion while saying something like, "Jobs are not always things that other people have to give away. Jobs can be invented. You're smart and God did not create you to be poor. You can invent work for yourself." This usually becomes a more involved conversation about what that might look like, but generally the poor have been convinced that a job can only be created ex nihilo by God or given by a "blan": white people who are seen as landlords of destiny. A job must be given by somebody who already has material resources and opportunity: in other words, somebody not like them. But they DO have material resources and opportunity in every piece of fruit they eat and every inch of soil they walk on. This is the sad dependence of independent Haiti. It is still the day after slavery.
Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery" has been very influential for my understanding of how to help the poor in Haiti. He speaks of the day after emancipation when freed men and women celebrated and then went back to their slave masters to ask for exploitive, low paying jobs. They did not have confidence that they could learn how to get by on their own. He spoke of how much advancement was limited by the slaves' lack of faith in their own capacity and in the perception of inadequacy that had been formed around them. Mostly, he saw that the paternal structures of slavery had created a sense of fatedness and irresponsibility in former slaves. In creating Tuskegee University he was challenging this self-conception in former slaves through job creation and education. It's a great inspiration for our work at Apparent. Here are some quotes:
"Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the federal officials to create one for them. How many times I wished then and have often wished since, that by some power of magic, I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the soil – upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature, where all nations and races that have ever succeeded have gotten their start – a start that at first may be slow and toilsome, but one that nevertheless is real.”
“I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.”
“In order to be successful in any undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause. In proportion as one loses himself in this way, in the same degree does he get the highest happiness out of his work.”
As I talk with those of my neighbors who beg for jobs, I try to show them that they already have capital... even if it is just the time to sit around, but likely something more like their ability to find things, to communicate with confidence, to connect people, to draw... whatever I can see in them at first glance or through a short conversation. They look at Shelley and I as if we were the Blan with capital that used that capital to start a jewelry business to employ 200 people so that we could get more captial. How much I love dispelling that myth. When the Apparent Project started, it started with 4 women and a couple street kids learning to roll up garbage on a stick to make beads in a garage. The capital came out of litter piles on the street. That is what created these jobs: working with what we had. We had money from my inheritance to move here, ship our stuff, and pay off all of my school debts, but I had to work as a teacher to pay the rent, and our handful of friends that donated some monthly funds paid for our food and freed shelley up to teach a few people some job skills. But the fact remains, what it actually took to get the business going was trash, people, and time... and faith in possibility.
Believing that "there is not enough" is a sure way to be either materially or spiritually poor, or both. If there is not enough, then what you need belongs to somebody else. If there is not enough, then you can do nothing about your fate. If there is not enough, then those who have enough are your enemies. If there is not enough, you will have to favor some of your kids above others. If there is not enough HERE, forsake here and go THERE, leaving nothing of value. Some great social scientist once noted that the source of all conflict is a perceived threat to resources. Threat to resources and perception of threat are equally valid sources of conflict, and the resources don't have to be material. Faith that there is enough is essential, therefore, to peace. Faith that there is enough... that the Lord has been good to me, is a prophetic stand against addictive consumerism and a motivator to the poor to find solutions in their own back yards... or in the trash in their streets. But a belief in scarcity flies in the face of Jesus' talk about birds and lillies, creates conflict externally and internally, and paralyzes the poor. As theologian Walter Brueggemann said so poignantly:
It is true that in developing countries the poverty is not only material but conceptual. Where education is limited by broken structures, limited funding, and lack of available teacher training, we can expect to see stunted ideas and a poverty of concepts. This does in fact limit the problem solving capacity for people who intend to create businesses, but if this were exhaustively prohibitive and universal, then the only jobs that could exist would be those that had been handed down through some eternal tradition and history would be void of innovation. Haitians are amazingly innovative and on every corner you will find creative ways in which people have made do with what they have available to them. Just look at how untrained men wire their shacks with city electricity that they aren't paying for! I don't believe that God has abandoned their brains any more than I believe He has abandoned their hands or their bellies. The sun and the rain and the mango seed... and the mind to combine these with the dirt at hand.
There are many artisans who have been employed by the Apparent Project because they came to us with their own creative work and ideas and we saw a market for what they were already doing. Sometimes they come up with awesome ideas for reinterpreting work that is already happening, like turning paper beads into little people or decorative items instead of jewelry. Our Christmas ornaments are an example of this. Maybe there's a strange and almost mystical link between gratitude and creativity. It is no mere biological truth that babies come from love and connection. Fruitfulness seems to come from intimacy wherever it is found. The intimate study of elemental things yields chemical and technological advancements. The patient admiration and attention a musician has for scales enliven her concertos. The intimate knowledge of color theory, materials, and the smell of linseed oil and the affection a painter has for his subject make a canvas come alive at the artist's touch. Wealth, I think, comes from a similar admiration and gratitude for the stuff in front of us. Poverty, on the other hand, comes from a lack of gratitude for what you have that manifests itself by letting the bird in hand rot while waiting for the two in the bush. As Stevie Wonder said, "You gots to work with what you gots to work with." We had lots of trash and people with time on their hands to work with. And we still do.
That said, the poor don't need us if they can find a way to see the riches they have been blessed with. I don't mean this to excuse the systemic evils that have predisposed Haiti to poverty. But as long as Haitians play the victim rather than take their place as overcomers, they can not expect to undo what has been done to them. Even when blame is justified and accurate, it is no way forward without a creative vision for the future and a creative means for protecting a community from falling victim to its past. Likewise, for those of us "etrange" (foreigners) in Haiti who are humble enough to admit the fault of our ancestors and nations in oppressing her people, guilt and sacrifice and restating the truth of the victimization is not enough to heal. It may be essential and a strong warning, but it is not enough. There has to be a way to respect the skeletons under the dirt while choosing to plant new seeds in it.
I have often told visiting service teams that we do not encourage visitors to notice the poverty. Noticing only poverty increases the sense of dependence and poverty already felt by the poor. Noticing opportunity and gifting and the resources already available is what creates wealth. Wealth is a fire that is fanned into flame when the wind of gratitude and the spark of creativity find fuel in the simple resources we have been gifted with. Wealth requires people to water the seeds of what they "gots to work with". There is no other way to create wealth or to break poverty. When we go to the nations and homes of the poor and list the things we notice that they don't have, that they need help with, or capacities that they lack, we reinforce a message that we are superior, that they are poor, and that they are dependent upon us to change their situation. Their felt poverty may be quite different than the poverty that we have imported and imposed upon them. They may just want the freedom to go visit some family or the opportunity to drink a Coke on Sunday. Maybe they personally could care less whether that Coke is refrigerated. The poverty they feel is more important than the poverty we feel vicariously through them from our vantage point of abundance. We exacerbate the poverty of the poor when we tell them what to feel like they are lacking. But when we notice their capacity and encourage them in the use of the resources they already have available to them, whether that is a bit of money, some dirt, a seed, a free afternoon, sunlight, or some education, we empower them to expand the freedoms they enjoy. And that is what prosperity really is.
Abraham Lincoln (happy birthday, Abe) said, "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." At the Apparent Project we are extremely thankful for the people who have occasionally bumped us forward with capital to buy kilns, ship products, obtain sewing machines, purchase supplies in bulk, and bring in outside trainers, but the truth is, these capital donations only expedited what the labor could have eventually paid for. For me, as a Christian, the myth of scarcity is a huge theological problem. It says that despite the Lord's goodness, he only has so many apples to go around and there are not enough seeds... or in the academic manifestations of the argument... there is quite literally not enough ground to plant those seeds in. Looking around Haiti one will find that there is plenty of ground... but not enough people tending to it, nurturing it, rehabilitating it, and planting in it. The reasons for this are complex and worth reading about here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/01/11/subsidizing_starvation?page=full But, despite macroeconomics, neo-colonialism, American rice subsidies, or the ecological plight of the land, it is quite easy to find a seed on the ground wherever anybody has been eating fruit, and it is easy to find land to plant in too, even in the congested urban jungle. If we clear away our own belief in scarcity and our beliefs that our hopes for Haiti are being made impossible by corrupt governmental bogey men, or some sinister capitalistic machine or something, we will see dirt and seeds and sun and rain that we can do something with... both literally and figurateively.
The landscape pictures on this post are from my urban neighborhood... walled plots where people sleep, but don't yet garden. While the limit of land and other resources in the universe is observable and necessarily finite, it is nowhere near exhausted today for the world's existing population. If that is true in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I have to think it is true for the world. It will be a long long time before the final heat death, so academic arguments from some enviro/economic theory of thermodynamics that discourage production and consumption (in exchange for what alternative means of existence?) seem to me to be ridiculous. They also lead to bad policy.
People who believe that there is not enough to go around commit two major errors in addressing poverty. They see wealth as a pie that has to be divided amongst the population. This means that when you look at an impoverished place like Haiti, you will then look at your own wealth and consumption as the reason for the poverty and begin to imagine a way to redistribute your wealth to the poor. This is classic white man's guilt. It's the logic behind feeding programs, sponsorships, Christmas child boxes, and the shipment of all kinds of stuff (peanut butter anybody?) to the poor country to take care of the problem. Meanwhile, the free goods kill local business, make people dependent, and can lead to much worse poverty when the donations eventually dry up and local business is already extinct. The giver feels good, but typically the stuff sent is not exactly what the poor really needed or wanted, and the stuff they did want is already visible and available to them in their country if they had money to buy with.
In your own home, you don't think this way. You don't think that your family's wealth is a lump sum to be divided between you and the kids for the indefinite future. You, if you are sane, think of your children as potential workers and breadwinners, and you encourage them to get an education that will help them find means to provide for themselves and their future families. Yes, they begin as dependent babies, vulnerable to the lurking ravens and neighborhood cats outside the front door, but to treat them as such for the entirety of their lifespan would only be a self-fulfilling (and freaking weird) prophecy. You operate your family finances based on the idea that your kids are on a progression from dependency to self sufficiency that is not dependent upon your wealth alone, but also upon their capacity-building and eventual wealth-making potential. More people, it follows, mean more of this potential. If that's true for those we love most and take the most precaution to care for, it should be true of how we interact with the poor.
The other, more sinister problem with the myth of scarcity is that it sees people as the problem... consumers that are, by nature of their consumption, a threat to other people. This is what makes us guilty about our own consumption, and influences us, out of a guilty conscience and a misled compassion, to bombard the developing world with free food and goods that kill their already sinking economies. Despite the fact that there are ugly excesses to our consumption in the U.S. and ridiculous amounts of waste and ecological misuse, that doesn't conclude that all people everywhere will consume according to our strangely inflated standards. But, our consumption, whether wasteful or not, creates more wealth in the world, EVEN WHEN IT IS EXCESSIVE. When profit margins are evil and favor the It also leads us to find solutions to poverty that seek to limit the population... that treat people like a problem.
I'm not saying that people aren't the problem, they are. But they are not the problem merely because of their existence. They are the problem because of the lies they believe about themselves, about others, and about the nature of reality. People are the problem when they are not thankful and creative with what they have. People are the problem when they are takers without every becoming givers... locked in a permanent childhood dependence. People are the problem when they only eat apples but never plant seeds. People are the problem when they don't grow the ways in which they form a contributive identity. People are the problem when they forget that true help means setting somebody up to be an equal; setting others up to help others from the same capacity that you helped from. People are the problem when their battles are against flesh and blood. People are the problem when they see people as the problem.
I'm trying, in my own neighborhood, to help people plant little gardens from the seeds and pits of the fruit that our family eats. I'm showing my neighbors how I nurture seeds into starts, and I pass on information I get from the internet about how to best protect and care for these plants. It doesn't take much time. maybe 5 minutes or so every day. I crack open mango seeds and lay them flat on wet soil in little tubs until they sprout. I put toothpicks into avocado pits and suspend them in water cups until they sprout. I throw the seeds from peppers, citrus fruits, melons, and cucumbers onto a paper towel to dry them for a week or so, then I put the dry seeds on a wet paper towel inside of a plastic sandwich bag until roots and a stem form, then they go in small plastic containers with dirt until leaves sprout, then I take them to my neighbors to plant. Most of the neighbors live on undeveloped plots with decent soil, lots of trash, and not much growing. Some of them are squatters on property owned by landlords in Miami. Even if the land isn't theirs, we know that the owners will be happier to see a garden when they return than to see the same old brambles and trash. My hope is that someday our neighborhood will be flourishing with produce and that this process will teach some deeper things as well. Some of the people have already shown me plants that I gave them that are doing well.
Once when I was walking through the neighborhood giving away avocado starts a guy said, "But what are you going to give me right now to eat? I can't eat that plant, it doesn't have any fruit." I told him, "But if you do eat anything today, it will be because somebody planted something on some long forgotten yesterday. And if you don't plant anything today, you can be much more sure that you won't have anything to eat tomorrow either." I don't have any problem giving away food to somebody who is hungry. I do it all the time. But I want to do it like Johnny Appleseed's good Lord, who gives a handful of seeds along with every apple. These days, as I walk through my neighborhood more people are asking me for plants than jobs, and they show me where they planted the previous plants I gave to them. I hope that one day instead of asking me for a plant, they will be asking their neighbors if they want one. For now, maybe I will begin singing as I go:
"Bon Dye te fe mwen byen,
pou sa m di mesi!
Pou mwen li bay
Soley, lapli e gren de frits
Bon Dye fe bon pou mwen.
Or maybe I'll sing this:
Oh yeah... watch these too:
One of many episodes at www.overpopulationisamyth.com
One of many videos available at www.povertycure.com