Ethical Travel Get Out There NGO-Land

Entering a War Zone: Part II The Simple Truth

Tent City

We finally arrived at a high, metal red gate surrounded by concrete where two Haitian security guards opened the gates to the compound of a neocolonial mansion. After pointing to dozens of boxes of condom donations stacked on the ground floor, I was escorted to my fire-ant infested, tent space.

We finally arrived at a high, metal red gate surrounded by concrete where two Haitian security guards opened the gates to the compound of a neocolonial mansion. After pointing to dozens of boxes of condom donations stacked on the ground floor, I was escorted to my fire-ant infested, tent space.

Tent City

The compound was a combination of polyamorous, shirtless U.S. military expatriates, Harvard graduate students (to be fair, one claimed asexuality), hippies, and independent American journalists—all with unwavering socialist ideals and uniform hatred for America yet all who pitifully have fallen not too far from the tree that is Americana. The “penis game” was an everyday spectacle where the boys would each extend a measuring tape as far as possible until it broke and then checked the measurement. The boy with the longest measurement supposedly had the largest penis. Conversations revolved around dead babies and “crazy” overdose stories: you know, frat boy stuff.

The female relief workers followed what seemed to be a Doreen Virtue cult. Spiritual “fairy horoscopes” were read and during lunch a “healing card” was passed around for relief workers to hold between their hands to heal their insides when they weren’t being healed by Acupunturists Without Borders who came and stuck needles in their ears.

Most relief workers believed in some form of mysticism. When he wasn’t preaching about anti-capitalism and anti-intellectualism, one ex-U.S. military guy (never went to college) blew into a Native American Indian wooden flute in the morning and in the evening to connect to the Earth Gods. I overheard one aspiring American journalist telling the flute player that dust clouds floating around in Port-au-Prince were actually propelled by a mystical human energy of a given place; that there was actual human energy (not wind) that generated dust clouds. Yet another relief worker recited the Celestine Prophecy as literal truth.

One morning, an attempt was made to convince me to accept this mysticism. A Burner with cracked-out eyes and a glow-in the dark earring claimed that his “healer” provided him with a $250 “nutrition” mixture that would provide energy he normally would not have access to as a relief worker in Haiti. He unwrapped a dirty plastic bag and placed a white plastic container that looked like it had exploded on the table. Inside the container was this brown, slimy substance that smelled exactly like Elmer’s glue. I tried to explain to him that this stuff was glue and that he got high off of it; hence the energy. Glue also stifled appetite. Surprisingly, his eyes slightly widened as if it made sense to him; but not enough to get him off the substance.

The mystical was a distraction, an escape to the reality in Haiti. It staged a direct attack against evidence, structure, predictability and efficiency and purported a mental culture of relativism in which assumptions not supported by evidence were taken to be as truth by virtue of being conjured up in conversation. Mixed with a masculinist tribal hierarchy and socialist utopian ideals the compound has become a sort of institutional disaster legitimised by uneducated expatriates who have converted themselves into tribal leaders, in protection of their resources and political whims.


At night, among the shrills and cackling from another midnight Haitian-Voodoo funeral, they listened to the sweet flow of an Noam Chomsky audio book and praised the Hugo Chavez for lifting the barrios out of poverty. Have you ever been to a Veneuzelan barrio? I asked? No, but I have been to an Haitian barrio , one relief worker answered.

Relief workers rant on about elitism and neocolonialism as if they are exempt from the phenomenon, that the “true” Haiti lies just outside the compound doors. The division of labour mostly based on race at the compound is an awkward reminder of racial relations under colonialism. The Caucasian twenty and thirty year olds from the United States sit all day on their privileged rears (many who do not know the language and who have never been to Haiti, including myself) with their laptops atop a neocolonial mansion trying to figure out how to save the Haitian people while over one million Haitians were homeless and starving out on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Meanwhile, downstairs, young Haitian women cook beans and rice everyday and clean the compound, middle-aged Haitian men provide the security and transportation services, and the elderly Haitian men fix up the house and preach about Jesus in the backyard. Then, the tribal members go to the UN Logistics Meetings throughout the week and complain about how the Haitians are not a part of the relief process because the United Nations is (insert Chomsky quote here).


Yet at their very compound the service workers are not invited to the meeting space to express their opinions and the separate spaces for eating and toilet usage remain mostly un-trespassed. Awkward bonjours and ça vas are exchanged during momentary contact when the Tribal members descend down the staircase to fetch some food and go back up reclaim their favorite seats.

I later accompanied a journalist on a story about malnutrition in Grand-Goâve. At one tent city, the community of around fifty people surrounded us while an Elder summoned a young man to climb a coconut tree for about ten coconuts which the Elder sliced open with a machete and handed them up to us. Malnourished children, grandmothers, pregnant women, sons, fathers, etc. watched as we ate the first, second and third coconuts until we could hardly put another coconut piece in our mouths. The Elder kept on cutting more and no one lifted their eyes off of us as we painfully stuffed our stomachs. We left the malnourished tent city completely satiated and embarrassingly humbled that due to their hospitality, one villager might have gone hungry that night.

But it underlined the simple truth that instead of using mysticism and theory and all these Western imports to describe the Haitian situation, perhaps the best method is simply spending quality time with them to better understand their needs.

Edyta is a PhD Candidate in Human Geography at the London School of Economics (UK) writing a historical ethnography on informal property systems in rural, post-socialist Poland. Her professional and personal interests are a confluence of research in developing countries, travel and photography. She became first interested in property rights in 2005 when she was exposed to a woman-led, local land rights movement against a property developer in post-tsunami Thailand and has presented her publication at international conferences in China, Amsterdam, Spain and the United States. In July 2010, Edyta will be the resident artist at the Milkwood Writer’s Residency in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic.

  • This is a fascinating read, and so real. Relief workers should consider their place of priveledge and the implications for the community. This is fantastic work, and I look forward to reading more.

  • This is so important. Thank you for writing this, and for giving us an honest glimpse into a world that so few of us get to see.

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