When art replaces charity: What does “doing aid work right” look like?

Haiti: “The NGO Capital of the World”

It seems like the island once known as The Pearl of the Antilles deserves better.  With new organizations popping up over night and others disappearing with the daylight, NGO culture in Haiti can often leave many feeling lost in a sea of goodwill that didn’t quite pan out.

While it is easy to approach Haiti’s NGO culture with a heavy dose of skepticism, there is so much to celebrate when an idea, a mission, and a community come together to create a thing of beauty.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce to you: Port au Prince’s Papillon Boutique


Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

The Papillon Boutique is the showcase store for the Apparent Project, an organization that combines the creativity and vibrance of Haiti’s artisan scene with the consumer purchasing power that keeps Haiti’s talented artists employed, using their talents and passion to support their families and work towards a brighter future. (Employed artists mean more income, more income means better opportunities for education, and a higher probability of keeping families together by reducing the number of children surrendered to orphanages.)

If you’re going to be in Port au Prince, this is not a shop you will want to miss!  You can even Schedule a Tour for your group simply by calling ahead!

So, what is it that makes this store unique?  The HaitiHub team made their first visit in March, 2015 to learn more about their mission and work.

Photo by Corrigan & Shelley Clay Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project

Photo by Corrigan & Shelley Clay
Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project

Socially Responsible Employment Practices 

The main mission of Papillon is to create jobs so that families can stay together.  Their model is built entirely around this driving vision.

Since it began in 2010, the Apparent Project has grown from 4 women to over 300 people on its payroll, but this job isn’t just a paycheck, it’s an opportunity to advance.

Papillon provides free on-site daycare for children 0-3 years old for all of its employees. Access to this kind of care opens the door for parents of all ages to work and support their families without worrying about the care and safety of their youngest members during the day.

Employees are also offered the option of Computer training and English Language training with Rosetta Stone.  This kind of professional development equips members with necessary skills that open doors to further opportunity.

The Artisans’ Guild

The Artisans’ Guild at Papillon Boutique puts the necessary tools and materials in the hands of artists so that they can create their one-of-a-kind works.  From beadmaking to papermaking, metal working, textile, glass slumping, and ceramic studios, the artisan’s guild has everything needed to continue Papillon’s tradition of offering high quality hand-crafted products available throughout the store.

You can even visit the artisans’ guild on a group tour! Just let them know ahead of time and they’ll show you where they make everything listed above – with advance notice, you might even get to try your hand at rolling one of their popular cereal box beads!

Photo Courtesy of The Apparent Project


Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

Photo Courtesy of the Apparent Project

EVERY purchase (no matter if it’s at the Papillon Boutique in Port au Prince, Online, or at Macy’s) helps support the artisans responsible for each piece’s creation.

In addition to their operation in Port au Prince, the Apparent Project ships merchandise all over the world; they exported $1.5 million worth of product last year!

Even with operations growing, the Apparent Project remains a grass roots effort committed to the well being of its employees and largely dependent on word of mouth to spread the word about their talented artists.

Jewelry Parties and group fundraising options are a way that you can get involved in the work that they’re doing and help support local artisans as well.  Each piece comes with a tag with the artist’s name, it’s a reminder that above all, this business is about people, families, and community.

Your support means more families staying together, more kids going to school, and a way out of poverty for many creative, talented, and hard-working Haitian families.

Best of all?  This isn’t charity – it’s a decision to stand behind the high quality work of a talented group of artists producing pieces emblematic of their own personal vision and inspired by the rich imagery of Haitian culture.

This is the very best of all parties involved.

by Erin Nguyen on March 12, 2015

How do you keep giving when you sometimes feel like people are taking from you?

You must not neglect doing a thing immediately good from fear of remote evil; -from fear of its being abused.”

- Samuel Johnson

How do you keep giving when you sometimes feel like people are taking from you?

This is a question that I have struggled with after spending time living in Haiti. Here, it’s not uncommon for someone to spontaneously ask for a “kado,” or gift—I have had friends and coworkers admire a belonging of mine, and then ask if I would give it to them as a “kado.” A child on the beach asked me for my bottle of water. A young woman at Titanyen asked me to give her the shoes off my feet. When you’re not used to this, it can be disconcerting at first—I always found myself thinking, “I have so much; surely I can afford to give this away.” But then I would wonder if that was really the best response. At the time, I needed some of those things—water, shoes—as much as the person who was asking; why did these people feel entitled to ask for my belongings, and why did I feel guilty for saying no? And did all of these people really need the things they were asking me for…or were they simply taking because I let them? How do you discern necessity from manipulation?

What I have come to realize over time is that in Haiti, many people experience a level of need that I don’t and will not ever fully understand. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a country where life is difficult and chaotic; I don’t know what it’s like to never have enough and to constantly worry about where I will get more. I can only imagine the anxiety and insecurity that this would instill in me, and the void I might always be struggling to fill.

When you worry you’re being taken advantage of, it’s easy to become fearful and bitter; the natural instinct is to shut down or close off to avoid being exploited or hurt. To me, the challenge is always to attempt to understand the motivations behind others’ actions, and to recognize the histories behind the individuals. In doing so, it’s surprising how often fear seems to transform into compassion, and bitterness into empathy. Yes, there will always be people that are dishonest and insincere. There will also always be people who are grateful and appreciative, and who are generous in kind. In the face of disappointment in the behavior of others, I have been asked, “Why do you keep expecting things to be different?” But I have to ask…how can we not? To feel that you have so much that it’s easy to give is, in itself, a gift.

by Katie Lawler on March 19, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @http://katiemarielawler.blogspot.com/ for more regular updates on her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

That’s not what I meant: On goats, peanuts, and exercise regimens in Haiti

Dèyè mon gen mon.

This well-known Haitian proverb is probably not new to you. Behind mountains there are mountains; you move past one trial or obstacle only to find a new one.

In my experience at least, the more Creole I learn, the more mountains appear. It’s easy to feel really good about that first step because the jump from absolutely nothing to even a little something is so significant, and so quick!  But progress from that point on is slower, and advancing is a much more arduous task.

My best advice? Perseverance, humility, patience and a strong sense of humor. Besides the regular challenges of building vocabulary, sharpening your listening comprehension, and working up the courage to speak in a variety of settings, learning a new language also builds some other, less anticipated skills, like the art of mastering awkward situations.

[Mastering might be a stretch, but to be successful, you’ll at least have to learn how to accept them.]

One of the biggest favors you can do yourself is to get comfortable with awkward silences, and get over them. Words slip away, and you can spend what seems like ages searching for the right word while the person across from you waits patiently for you to say something.

If you’re the one doing the listening, be that person, give the speaker a chance to find the word they’re looking for! Jump in to help only after you’re certain you’ve given them a chance to speak, but don’t let your discomfort muddle the situation.

If you’re the speaker, and you think there’s a way you can get your point across, go for it! Language learning is a fantastic adventure and as new learners we have the chance to get creative, and to start building bridges that only come when we let our guard down. You might not ever hear the end of it, but what’s a laugh between friends?

In the spirit of sharing a good laugh, here are just a few examples of language fumbles from personal experience, and the experience of close friends (shared with permission of course):

  1. In an attempt to describe the difference between a peanut with its shell versus one without, I casually referred to the latter as a: “Pistache san kay” [Lit. A homeless nut]
  1. Overcome with the excitement of seeing a free ranging baby goat (because let’s face it, there just aren’t that many stray goats roaming the streets in the Midwest) my friend joyously exclaimed: “Gade, timoun kabrit!” [Lit. Look, goat child!]

Her Haitian friends still affectionately refer to her as goat-child.

  1. Another friend arrived in the country with some language skills already in place, including an understanding of anfòm as a word meaning “in shape”, as in physically in shape. While he wasn’t wrong, anfòm can mean to be physically in shape, it’s used colloquially as a way of asking how someone’s doing:

        Anfòm? [ Everything’s good?]

        Anfòm. [Everything’s good!]

As friends started asking: Anfòm? He repeatedly replied (having not yet set an exercise routine): Non, m pa anfòm. What             he meant was that he was out of shape; what they heard was that no, everything was not okay. We can only imagine that           his Haitian friends were increasingly concerned over the way he was adapting to life in Haiti…

There’s no way to learn a new language without experiencing at least a few blunders, the best thing we can do is laugh and then learn from them. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and give something a try; if you wait until you can say something perfectly, chances are your opportunity to say anything at all has probably passed.

Do you have any language bloopers to share?

by Erin Nguyen on March 12, 2015

What would you say if no one else could understand you?

Growing up I had a friend whose parents were non-native English speakers; whenever they wanted to hide the content of their conversation from us (for better or worse) they’d drop the English and switch to their first language. Whenever they did this, little red flags would go up for my friend and me.

The decision to use one language over another for bilingual speakers is known in the world of linguistics as “code-switching”. While many professionals suggest that the decision is often made without any conscious effort, there are also times when code-switching is a purposeful choice that allows you to communicate discretely by changing the language to one that only a few people around you can understand.


All of this brings us to the way we use language in Haiti.

For many of us, English is our first language and we naturally use it to communicate with the members of our group. While this doesn’t really qualify as “code-switching”, it has a similar effect on the non-English speaking people around us: arousing at least curiosity, if not suspicion over what we might be saying.

The same goes for any foreign language.

Just like my friend and I once wondered at his parents’ conversations, people around you are sure to be curious, and when language doesn’t provide any context, body language becomes a major factor in what we (perhaps unknowingly) communicate to those around us.

So, Idea #1:

Your body language is very important, even when you don’t think anyone is watching. People can read your reactions even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying. Speaking from experience (and some residual guilt) please be careful what your face reveals to those around you. Especially when encountering some of the harder aspects of life in Haiti.

Idea #2:

Whenever it is possible to do so, you should try to speak Creole. By doing this you avoid locking your hosts out of the conversation and you make those around you more comfortable.

Besides, this way when there’s laughter to be shared, everyone’s in on the joke and no one is left asking if perhaps they were somehow the cause of it.

Unless your Creole was the cause of it… In which case I’ve been there, and will probably be there again, but we were laughing together.

Please tell me I’m not the only one?

More on that next time zanmi m.

by Erin Nguyen on March 5, 2015

We just didn’t have the time

This is no longer a valid excuse.  Not an excuse.  Even just a few words can have a big impact, and everyone is capable of bringing a few words of Creole with them to Haiti.  Making the effort to speak Creole in the community that you’re visiting speaks volumes to those around you.

It says: “I’m here for more than just a chance to do something different with my spring break, I’m genuinely interested in what YOU have to offer and the relationships we can build together.”

It says: “What is your name? Because your name is important to me and you don’t have to be an anonymous figure in the picture we take together.  You are not anonymous.”

It says: “I can’t speak perfectly, because yes, there are a lot of differences in where we come from, not the least of which is language, but nevertheless we have something to learn from each other and there is something larger that ties us together.”

And it says: “I’m here because I care, and I care enough to leave Haiti knowing more about it after my trip than I did before.”

Finally, it probably also says: “I don’t take myself too too seriously because I’m willing to make mistakes that we will laugh about together… and not only am I okay with that, but I’m looking forward to laughing with you.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 4.10.16 PM

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts concerning: Communication, language, translators, language learning and the like.  If you’re ready to learn just some very basics that will go a long way, check out the video below: it turns out that teaching Creole via YouTube video is almost as much fun as speaking it.

by Erin Nguyen on February 26, 2015

On Feeling Trapped: What Mobility Looks Like In Haiti


I’ve thought a lot recently about feeling trapped.  In Tabarre, we aren’t permitted to walk anywhere.  There are armed guards at the gates to all of the NPH properties, and we have to find a driver and request a ride anytime we want to go somewhere, whether it’s work, mass, or the grocery store.  If the trip is far, the ride can be expensive, and our drivers technically end work at 7 PM, so if we want to go anywhere after that, we know that the drivers—who we see every day, and consider our friends—will have to stay late, after already having usually worked more than 12 hours.  There have also been many manifestations recently because of the gas strikes and the political unrest, so even if we have a car and a driver, the road might be unsafe and impassable.  When you’re used to coming and going at will, walking anywhere you like, and maybe even having your own vehicle, the lack of mobility can start to feel oppressive.  Our community at the villa is relatively small; regardless of how much you like people, it can be challenging to spend the majority of your time for months on end with the same small group of people, day in and day out.  It’s easy to complain about the freedoms and comforts we miss.

However, when I start to feel stressed and overwhelmed by the living conditions here, I have to step back and remind myself that I came here by choice.  I am fortunate to have been welcomed to work and live in Haiti, and I have an education, resources, and a United States passport, which means I have the freedom to leave at will.  All of these things are privileges, and ones that many Haitians do not have.  So maybe I can’t even begin to really comprehend what it is to feel trapped.

by Katie Lawler on January 29, 2015

Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @http://katiemarielawler.blogspot.com/ for more regular updates on her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.

Conversations on style and shopping second hand: Haiti’s Pepe Trade

Non! Tout rad nou yo dezyèm men.
[No! All our clothes are second hand!]

We were having a conversation about clothing and style in Haiti. She disagreed with me when I said that people here dressed differently compared to my community at home. Standing there in a muted selection of fairly shapeless neutrals I elaborated explaining that women in Haiti seemed to have a different sense of style and fit and an eye for brighter colors and bolder patterns. (In fact, compared to my wardrobe, I think I was arguing that they have more style.) Her main point though was that it couldn’t be that different because all of their clothing is our second hand clothing: rad dezyèm men.


A more common term for the second hand clothing sold by the ti machann running the small shops, stands and displays along the streets of Haiti is pepe. In many ways our rejected clothes are brought to life again by the keen sense for color and style of Haitian consumers. However, while an entire market has been built up around the importation of clothing from American thrift shops and charities, we should be careful not to slip into the idea that what’s no longer wearable for us is somehow “good enough” for Haiti.

Pepe isn’t going away anytime soon, for a populace with limited purchasing power pepe is a market that creates viable options. So stepping away from the pepe for a moment, what was more disturbing to me was the way that my friend insisted that Haiti only ever got America’s hand me downs.

So really, this is more about the idea and less about the clothes; it’s more about the mentality built up around what is acceptable here versus “good enough” there and the way Haiti views the U.S. and the way we view Haiti.

This idea goes way beyond clothing.

For our last night in Port au Prince we stayed with Daniel and Ketya at Trinity Lodge. Through my conversation with Daniel one theme popped up repeatedly: a desire to see things done right. He emphasized the importance of running his business the right way and to the highest standard. He took pride in his staff and the social security benefits that they provided for their employees. He pointed out the air-conditioning available in each room, high speed wifi, hot showers and high quality Haitian food provided for meals. My initial reaction was: “I’m in Haiti, I don’t need all of this”… and then I realized how limited my expectation for Haiti was.

His vision for his business, and Haiti, was to see the way that things are done changed; the idea of “good enough” wasn’t good enough for him. I think it’s time that Haiti be allowed to outgrow our hand me downs.

by Erin Nguyen on February 12, 2015

For more on Haiti’s Pepe trade you should check out the short video below: