> Posted by Josh Goldstein, aka Mr. Provocative
The proliferation of smart and cell phones in Haiti is nothing short of remarkable. Even people who seem to be among the poorest of the poor have them. When people at the so-called bottom of the pyramid truly desire a new technology and the price is not outlandish, they find a way to purchase it. Marchands (market women) peddle their wares on Port-au-Prince’s teeming streets under ubiquitous sun umbrellas that Digicel, the largest cell phone provider, has handed out by the tens of thousands.
And Haitians, as I recently learned, often use these phones to text, email, or call relatives in the diaspora to ask them to remit money. Remittance transfers from relatives in the US, Canada, and elsewhere is the one source of reliable income for many of Haiti’s poor. When I visited Fonkoze’s bank in Port-au-Prince, every person in the waiting area was there to collect a remittance — not to save or borrow.
Visitors to the island with any kind of conscience struggle with the enormity of the suffering they encounter. Many provide cash gifts to Haitians they get to know, just to “do something,” hoping to make a small difference in a life or two. There is nothing new about this kind of direct philanthropy in the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere. But today, thanks to the communications revolution, that sense of responsibility for acquaintances (who are not relatives) can persist, and vividly so, after visitors leave the island.
Before departing from Boston for Haiti this spring, I hired a driver, based in Port-au-Prince, whom I will call Hector, to drive my daughter and me around the island. We had “met” through email, connected by a friend who had used his services in the past. Hector and I exchanged a few courteous emails and telephone calls to take care of logistics (I assumed he was a man of some means because the Haiti I knew in the 1990s was a place where only the wealthy had phones.) Hector wrote me exactly as follows:
my dear friend Johs, the pleasure is mine to get ur massage today, i think whenever you wanna come in haiti u will be welcome, and i will be glad to spend you my time.i will be happy to receive u may 18th,11 cause it’s haitian’s flag party,my phone number is:xxxxxxxxxxx available anytime
The Hector who met us at the airport was a very nice 28-year-old man, brimming with life and contagious bonhomie. He was available to chauffeur because he was unable to find any steady work — in spite of having some college education.
There are, of course, millions of poor Haitians like Hector, but they usually remain a bloodless, undifferentiated abstraction, and it is hard for most of us to stay emotionally connected to an abstraction for long. It was Hector I got to know as person, who took good care of me and my daughter. I learned about his evangelical minister father, his little brother (a part-time dispatcher for Handicap International), and his fiancée (a nursing student in New Orleans). I met a sister-in-law. Solidly lower-middle class, I suppose, but by Haitian standards. He did not shout his desperation — he had too much dignity for that. He had many dreams, but his frustrated ambition to do something with his life in Haiti was heartbreaking.
After a week of long days together, if not exactly a friend, he was far more than just an acquaintance, and I was happy to reach deep and pay him more for his services than I intended or he expected. It felt good to be a good guy.
After we left, I expected that my ache for brother Hector would begin to dwindle a little bit each day until he merged back into that vague and easily compartmentalized abstraction we call “the poor,” and my heightened awareness of his individual struggle would be safely behind me. This had happened on earlier trips to Haiti and other desperately poor places with other Hectors whose names and stories were now mostly forgotten. Blessedly, for without the gift of forgetfulness one would never fully enjoy a meal again back in that other dimension, the United States of America, that I call home.
But it was different this time. There was no hiding. A steady stream of emails from Hector’s iPhone began to fill my inbox. The silos between our two worlds had broken down. At first they were love letters for all I had done. Grateful and nostalgic:
thank u sir , u are the best man i ever knew, i will pray to see u one day,i have no contact with didier since i have gonne.do u remember i tested u, u forgot ur VINGCARD IN THE VEHICUL. i love u sir
But then they changed to an almost daily recitation of his desperation and need. And despite myself, I quickly came to the point where I dreaded his next installment. In short, I wanted Hector to go away. The raw transcript of some of this correspondence is the best way to tell the rest of the story. (I have put my thoughts about the exchange in parentheses)
Hector: sir how are u ? i am ok plz help me to look for a job by ur contacts in aiti .god bless
Me: Hector, I wish I knew how to advise you. I just have no other contacts. Have you tried Didier again? I am so sorry that I can’t be of more help, my friend. You are in my thoughts and prayers. (How lame I sound, how insincere)
Hector: hi sir johs ,i prepare to applicate for a U S visa in august ,coz i think in the end of august that can run for me ,i wanna ask u to help me to pay the appointment in sogebank plz. let me know when u receive my message have a good day
Me: Hector, how much do you need? Best, Josh
Hector: hi sir johs how are u ? i ‘m about to need four hundreds us dollars coz for application and others request papper by the U S Ambassy.thank u before sir
Me: (I hate this)
Hector: hi sir .i have no news from u. how are u?let me know what is goin’ on
Me: Hector, I will send you money for your application if you tell me which bank in Haiti to send it to. Also it is important for you to know that I cannot afford to send money again. (A lie, of course I could afford again. I just don’t want to make the sacrifice). I wish you: “bon chance” with your business. Please go to a bank like Sogesol or Fonkoze and ask them for the best way to send you the money.
Hector: ok sir, i can understand ur effort about what i’m lookin’ for.so unitransfer. soge-express & moneygram ,they can do that cause they are goin’ to give u a number transfer .thank u so much sir josh
Eventually I figured out what to do. I downloaded a Western Union App on my phone and remitted the money. It was easy. So easy that now the Western Union app stares at me reproachfully every time I open my iPhone, almost shouting “If you are a good man, empty out your bank account, save a life.”
I know that I would do exactly the same thing in Hector’s place — grovel, importune — anything to help my family and improve my life — the only honorable course to take, really. In the greater scheme of things, the loss of the money to me was a mere inconvenience, while the extra money to him was, if not a matter of life or death, a possible entrée to a livable future.
So what if I had to make an adjustment in my monthly expenditures if I could give another human being a chance to grow and flourish? Such an inconvenience for one month was one thing— but every month into the indefinite future was another. I have a family, too. They have needs, too.
Surely, if I was a truly moral man wouldn’t I happily sacrifice on a long-term basis? And yet I had drawn a line in the sand by telling him I could not afford to do this again. But of course I could afford it if I gave my daughter less allowance, ate out less, perhaps cut cable service and newspaper delivery— all luxuries in the end— however customary in our wealthy society.
We live in a new world of electronic money transfer. I had some understanding of that. But what I did not know, until my Haitian experience, was that in that transformed world the daily misery of the individual people among world’s poor can be made instantaneously real. In the days before cell phones, someone like Hector might stand in line at the phone company for hours to make an international telephone call which he could barely afford— or send the occasional letter if he was literate. And that would be it for months.
Now tomorrow’s misery (and the day after’s) will be shouted immediately across the once nearly impermeable barrier that separates us. When Hector hits “send” with the latest trouble or even catastrophe, what will I do? Most probably, I will turn away.
Image credit: Jkr2255, CIA World Factbook
Have you read these articles by Mr. Provocative?