November is a month characterized by gratitude and giving worldwide. It’s great to recognize this season that embraces giving and philanthropy, especially as we at BRITE work to raise funds for our year-round programs in Haiti. This month we took some time to reflect on what generosity means in our country, both culturally and developmentally. Every culture has its own practices of generosity, and in many countries like Haiti where poverty constrains resources, giving is an essential part of survival. There is a profound culture of generosity in Haiti, though it looks different from what happens in places like the U.S.
“Different doesn’t mean bad. It is still equally important,” said Nadia Odjo, Director and Founder of BRITE. “Americans will give to someone they don’t know somewhere. But Haitians would never do that because the people that are close to them are in such need. They don’t give to a stranger when they know that they have a niece who’s not going to school or their mother’s roof is leaking.”
Most of Haiti is made up of small towns and communes, villages that are close-knit, where acts of generosity happen between family members and neighbors.
“People will cook and leave food for their neighbors who may not have something to eat, and vice versa,” said Nadia. “So many times, people find themselves with nothing, and they truly have to depend on a neighbor to eat that day.”
For Vice Principal of Ecole Jeremie St Fort, Mr. Tranquilus, this sort of neighborly aid has been invaluable for his family, and greatly shaped the man he is today.
“I always give my heart, and I’ve got a sensitive heart,” said Tranquilus. “My mother taught me how to be generous. She would give to others, even if she didn’t have enough for her own children.”
Tranquilus is one of ten, and his family has known many difficult periods and trying times. But he also remembers how the generosity of others has made the difference for his entire household. In 1995, a man in his community decided to help send Tranquilus and his siblings to school. School fees can impoverish families in Haiti who must come up with a large sum of money to send their kids to school each year. Families are constantly starting over on their investments and struggle to build wealth as a result. The man who helped Tranquilus would travel often between the United States and Haiti and send money back to pay their school fees, uniforms, and books. He did this for other families in the community as well.
Such examples of generosity have strengthened Mr. Tranquilus’ resolve to engage civically and sacrifice for the benefit of others. He doesn’t have much in terms of money but uses what he does have to serve however he can. When asked about some of the greatest sacrifices he’s made Tranquilus has many stories to tell. In 2017 when a student at EJSF fell gravely ill, he spent a week traveling back and forth to St. Michel Hospital with the child’s mother, transporting them on his motorcycle and helping to follow up and ask questions. Later that year, the student’s mother became sick with tuberculosis. She was a single mom with children to feed, and Tranquilus again stepped in to support with the means he had. It’s not his job to do these things, but he does them anyway. He sees the value in it.
“Generosity is an act of sharing, without expecting to receive something in return,” Tranquilus said. “Generosity is a strong point for each Haitian. It’s in our blood. Even though it’s beginning to fade.”
It wouldn’t be balanced to talk about generosity and mutual aid in Haiti while ignoring the violence that is currently gripping the country and tearing many communities apart. Aggravating an already precarious economic situation is a volatile socio-political atmosphere, destruction from natural disasters, rampant gang activity, and extreme financial and physical insecurity. It is true that Haiti can be a dangerous place to live. Yet, it is also true that within our culture is a deep-rooted sense of community and care.
“It’s complicated,” said Nadia. “Because you’re hearing about these awful things, people that are trying to take advantage of a situation with kidnapping. At the same time on an everyday basis, you find such support of each other, and without that some people would literally die.”
The difficult reality is that chronic poverty is deteriorating our culture of generosity because a nation cannot be built on aid and charity alone. When organizations funnel resources after a disaster, or members of the Haitian diaspora send wire transfers to pay school fees, or neighbors offer food to the hungry family next door, the intention is to meet the immediate and desperate needs, not the long-term ones. But what happens when those immediate and desperate needs never go away? When they are multiplied, or aggravated by trauma? The result is a nation of people in increasingly dire situations, receiving aid that does not meet their needs, and with no material way to help themselves. Eventually, they can no longer look out for their neighbor because their own situations are far too pressing. It’s a large problem to contend with, and while generosity is a key ingredient in the solution, it requires much more than that. For generosity to be sustainable, it must be generated by self-sufficient individuals who are engaged in their community. But the path to self-sufficiency for Haitians is not always clear.
“I think you contend with it by creating opportunities,” said Nadia. “People need to be able to build wealth, the same way that people build it in other countries. Able to provide for daily needs, able to save, plan, own property, have a decent house to live in.”
The stories that we hear of crime and violence are a result of lack of opportunity compounded by time and trauma. Without opportunities and a base of support, it’s hard for self-sufficiency to become a reality.
“I always think of Woody, and just how completely his life changed from us giving him a micro-loan and purchasing sewing machines for him, said Nadia. Woody is a tailor from Jacmel who received a micro loan from BRITE that had ripple effects on his life and career in the last few years.
“He was able to save money, to get married, get a decent house to live in with his new family, able to provide for his mother and his child. He was also able to learn more skills and to buy a motorcycle, a form of transport. And not to forget the self-worth and the confidence. He’s a generous person actually! He gives money to his church, he’s able to help another friend through mentorship…Not only does he sew for himself, but he’s sewing for another company where he’s training other people. All of this from that. Isn’t that amazing? You don’t sit and think about that but that’s exactly what’s happened to his life.”
Woody’s case is an example of how generosity, channeled through opportunity, multiplied into many other contributions to society that we could not even foresee. As we think about giving at BRITE, we try to remember that the goal is to strengthen communities by equipping individuals with what they need to build their own success. BRITE is fueled by the generosity that comes from those who believe in our mission and want to support it. But our mission is fulfilled when those who receive our services become more independent and thus more productive for their communities.
“I think that self-sufficiency and community engagement go hand in hand,” said Nadia. It’s like a web. Your community needs you to spend your money and build in that community. In a way, you sort of start depending on each other,” Nadia remarked. “I think it also develops a sense of pride, in the community.”
We’ve also seen this effect in Rodaille, where we are currently building our school campus. When Hurricane Grace passed over the island in August, the roads in Rodaille were completely washed away in some places, making it impossible for trucks to come with materials. In an act of service, members of the community and even some teachers came together to devise a plan.
“They went and fixed the road in order for the trucks to come with sand and materials, because if that’s compromised, it will affect their livelihood, it will affect the school that’s being built, it will affect a lot of things, including their own investments in the community. They saw a need and they acted on it.” Nadia shared. “People are beginning to realize that ‘your gain is my gain, but also an obstacle in your way is an obstacle in my way.”
Without support that comes directly from those who give to us, BRITE would not be able to give to people in Rodaille, and these powerful breakthroughs in collective engagement would not be likely. But amazingly, generosity is an exponential power. It offers chances for change, and opportunities for people, and places, to be transformed.