The Santa Claus Complex

I got an offer in the mail last week for [something I didn’t need] at the local grocery store. By the time I went to the store the coupon was expired; might as well try anyway, right?

What’s the worse they can say?  No? (They did.)

Imagine if all you had to do was ask, can I have this for free? Americans would be lining up. (Images of Sam’s Club and Costco come to mind…Free samples people, samples! Oh, and don’t forget, you probably don’t actually need any of these products!)

Keep some of these American consumer habits in mind for a moment; now, what about Haiti?  There is real need in Haiti, that is obvious from the moment you arrive, but the discussion on humanitarian aid is making a shift from what they call the “Charity approach” to the “Partnership approach”. It’s a hugely important step moving forward, but trying to put it into practice in the everyday in Haiti is like swimming against the current.

Our involvement in Haiti has built up a culture of dependency and if you are easily identifiable as “not Haitian” (i.e. a “blan”) you will be hard pressed to escape the phrase: “Ban mwen…” (Give me) which seems to follow you wherever you go. Before we go any further, I want to share two thoughts:

  1. A child asking you for a dollar or a woman asking you for food does not lessen their humanity or right to basic dignity. This is a behavioral norm WE have created and will take time to undo; it most certainly is not an excuse to patronize.
  1. Nevertheless, by perpetuating the cycle of dependency (through blind acquiescence to these requests) WE are guilty of robbing them of a little bit of that dignity.

There are grey zones (as always), you might have friends with a particular need you can help fill, there is room for generosity too; this post is not an excuse to turn a cold shoulder to those in need. It’s meant to begin a discussion about the way we respond to need, and how this response is changing.

We have to find a way to serve the community without enabling individuals only, find a way to help the community move forward so THEY can provide care to people who need it, and create sustainable initiatives that equip Haitian leaders to step up and lead their communities so that children grow up with these leaders in mind, not the idea that just blans run the show. Directing your resources towards locally operated initiatives that focus on sustainability, education and empowerment in addition to need, is the best way to go.

What we can’t continue doing is showing up like a big blan Santa Clause; it’s destroying our ability to create real relationships because it never lets us get to a place of equality in our partnership with Haitian friends. What would our involvement in Haiti look like if we took off the big red suit?

If you could only ask one question in Haiti, this should be it

10600420_892750534070318_4911410345658811571_n                                         Pronounced: [ree-sh-lov] Her sister is Mylove [I called her Milo for the better part of a week]

Kijan ou rele? = What’s your name?

Mwen rele = My name is 

If all of the stories you share when you come back from Haiti feature “this adorable little boy” or “a woman in the market” and “that guy at the clinic” then it’s likely the only stories that Haitians are sharing about your work in their communities go something like this:

“Blan yo rive, yo fè [fill in the blank] epi yo soti”.

The foreigners come, they do [something] and they leave.  You become part of the parade of blan who have come through before.

That doesn’t sit well with me, I hope that the people I’ve met remember me as more than “that blan”, but I can only be sure of this if I remember them as more than “the guy that I met at the Citadelle”.

Your stories need names to fill them: real live people who existed before you arrived and will continue to exist after you leave.  The problem with generalizations (this little girl, that older man, a woman, etc.) is that they only give you a snapshot of that person.  You’re left with an image of someone in a place and time that existed only when you were a part of it.

When you know the names of the people you met, I bet you’ll be surprised by how often you catch yourself thinking, “I wonder what (Emmanuel, Mylove, Thony or Martin) is doing today?” and maybe even, “When will I see him/her again?”

“Kijan ou rele?” goes a long way.  Reach out and connect with the people you interact with each day and make a point to remember them; it’s one of the greatest acts of service you can do.

The Life Cycle of Banana Trees

We are conditioned to believe that Haiti is dependent upon our help, our knowledge and our resources to survive.

Lesson one (and a warning to the wise): if you approach volunteer work like you know it all and have it all, you’re gonna get schooled.

Lesson two is about banana trees. (Sort of.)

I enjoy bananas: banana splits, bananas ak manba (peanut butter!), fruit salad, banana bread, banana pancakes…the list goes on.  They’re delicious, but not critical to my economy, or even my menu, so I knew very little about them.

It’s a different story in Haiti:  In celebration of World Food Day 2013, the Haitian Minister of Agriculture released the slogan: An n kontinye plante plis bannann pou nou kapab kombate grangou!

“Let’s continue to plant more bananas so that we can combat hunger.”

Sometimes, context makes all the difference in determining what information we value, like how a banana tree grows.  To dismiss the experience and knowledge of our friends in Haiti in favor of only what our culture tells us is relevant would be a wasted opportunity.

So how do bananas grow?

Before my first trip to Haiti, my only response was: “On trees”.

Zanmi m’ ayisyen, Ben, made sure I knew better before I left.

The short version: Banana trees are self-replacing perennials, each harvest cycle lasts anywhere from 9 months to a year.  While the “old” plant is producing a bunch of bananas (which it can only do once), a new shoot has already started to grow.  In order to encourage the new growth, once the bananas from the old tree are harvested, that part is trimmed back. Grow, cut, and repeat.

    Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 11.07.07 AM

We could all stand to learn something from each other, just make sure you take a break from teaching long enough to be a student too.

Blan yo ap danse? (The blans are dancing?) Yikes…



Let’s come back to the drums (tanbou) for a moment. Something you’re sure to notice in Haiti is that rhythm resonates in every movement, creates a certain musical measure for conversation, and permeates much of Haitian existence; consequently, music appreciation doesn’t need to be taught (at least not formally).

I have a friend who is a well-recognized music teacher here in the United States. He is enormously talented musically and his passion invigorates his teaching.  Music (and the arts) should be promoted in our educational system; he’s a huge proponent of that.

He arrived in Haiti for a short-term visit in 2011, and you can only imagine his excitement during that first experience.  People moved here, naturally, effortlessly in beat with the background.  The richness of the church choir, the groups of kids singing as they walked down the street, and adults dancing as they moved along; this in accompaniment with the music broadcast from private radios loud enough for neighbors and passersby to hear at all hours, it was almost too much for him to handle; he was ecstatic.

As he toured the schools he realized that there were no music appreciation classes.  He reached out to the teachers about creating a partnership to fund a music program at their elementary school.  Surely a community that valued music so much would be excited about his proposal.

“Elèv nou yo pa bezwen aprann mizik! Se konprann.”

[Our students don’t need to learn music!  It’s understood.]

The teachers were a bit baffled by his suggestion, but patiently tried to explain all of this to the exuberant foreigner – how could he have missed something so obvious?

If you’ve travelled you probably know that we “blans” don’t have a particularly flattering reputation for our intrinsic sense of rhythm (Here I should mention I’m thinking mostly of those of us from North America, but if you are a blan from a more musical background we commend you and your skills!)  That may be because our culture tends to be more conservative when it comes to giving music a place in our everyday lives.  When was the last time you heard one of your coworkers or classmates start singing out of nowhere?  The last time you saw someone dancing in an “undesignated” location (i.e. outside of a studio, recital, bar, or club)?

Service is only helpful when we shift our perspective.  Funding the arts for schools here in the United States is a hot topic right now and it responds to OUR cultural need to preserve music in our society, to encourage it at an early age.  Haiti doesn’t need that; music is already ingrained in their everyday existence.

Si w’ ka mache, ou ka danse.  Si w’ ka pale, ou ka chante.

If you can walk, you can dance.  If you can speak, you can sing.

Defining need is an important part of service, and this is a great chance to acknowledge that need exists here and there, in both places, in both cultures, but differently.  So what do your partners in Haiti need?  

That’s a question you’re going to have to ask them.

“Nou marye tanbou nou” You marry your what?

For anyone who has ever endeavored to learn a second language, you know the sense of victory that comes with your first complete sentence.  “Bonjou!  Kouman ou ye?” The world opens up, and anyone might be your first (and maybe unsuspecting) target; you’re ready to practice some Creole!

Fast forward a few minutes, days, or maybe even months or years, and a very different experience surfaces, a moment that plunges you all the way back to the beginning:

“Bonjou! Kouman ou ye?”
“Mwen byen!! Ou pale kreyol?”
“Wi, wi! M’ap aprann!”

… A few simple exchanges follow, things you’re well prepared to handle, and then suddenly, Repeat?  Repeat again please?  Your friend waits for any sign of comprehension…nothing comes. Baffled, you just nod your head and smile.

Unbridled excitement and lofty visions of seamless interaction with native speakers give way to a new revelation: the distance between your Creole and native level fluency is laughable (in a way that sort’ve makes you want to cry).  There is so much more to learn!

But take courage zanmi m! This revelation shouldn’t discourage your efforts, only inform and fortify your resolve; you are on the brink of a more meaningful and profound level of interaction with your Haitian friends, colleagues and partners than was ever possible before.

One of the primary gaps in language learning is failure to distinguish between grammatical fluency and real cultural literacy. It’s one thing to speak the language, and it’s another to truly understand it; that comes with time, experience, and the willingness to dive deeper into the culture. While this applies universally, it is immediately relevant to language and communication in Haiti.

Let’s go back to the title phrase: “Nou marye tanbou nou.”


New learners can translate, it requires just a bit of vocabulary and familiarization with some basic grammar.  “Nou marye tanbou nou” = ” We marry our drums”.

Check it again . . .

Yup that definitely translates to “We marry our drums”.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute…

For a language like Haitian Creole that is rich in imagery and metaphor, translation often isn’t enough to convey meaning, and that can leave learners feeling a bit bewildered.

Learning Haitian Creole is about much more than the steps it takes to create a perfect sentence (Please note, we’re not devaluing those steps, HaitiHub provides access to those foundational building blocks through our language modules because they’re super important for getting started and they DO make a difference!) Like so many things, mastering Haitian Creole comes with layers of experience and an acute awareness of context. For many learners the most challenging aspect of Haitian Creole is also one of its most beautiful characteristics.  To truly understand what our Haitian friends are telling us means embracing Creole’s unique turn of phrase and the poetic spirit of its people.

So, back to it, “Nou marye tanbou nou” more closely represents the idea that, “We harmonize our drums to make music”.  Let’s dance! Ann danse! Wi?

That ultimately depends on context.  While a musical get together might be underway (in which case you’re in for a real treat) you might be jumping the gun, so don’t break out tanbou w’ yo just yet! For this particular phrase, there’s a meaningful metaphorical extension that gets at the very heart of what I’m trying to say.  “Nou marye tanbou nou” can mean: “We gather” or “We join forces”.

That’s what learning Haitian Creole is all about: coming together, joining forces, and using language to promote meaningful change in the relationships we build in Haiti. This can’t stop at just vocabulary and grammar; because language was created to share experience, words gather new layers of meaning over time. Meaningful communication has to take into consideration history, culture and so much more!

The HaitiHub Blog is resurfacing as a forum for discussion on language, service and cross-cultural communication.  For readers familiar with our language-learning site, you might have noticed the addition of the Serve Smart sessions to supplement the language module learning.  These Serve Smart sessions are an introduction to how the approach to service is evolving throughout the world. We want to make sure we’re at the forefront of that movement, along with our learners.

Your investment in Haiti makes you an important part of the conversation. Please feel free to post below or send us an e-mail at to share your thoughts.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you, byenvini nan blog HaitiHub!

- zanmi w’ yo nan HaitiHub