One of my first memories from the year I spent in Borgne was learning to wash my clothes by hand with some of the women who worked at the hospital where I lived. We would sit – five or six of us – around a square cement structure with a faucet in the middle, and we would wash our clothes in huge buckets, scrubbing the clothes until they were whiter than white. The first several times I washed my clothes, my hands would bleed from trying to scrub the way that Haitian women scrub. After laughing at how pathetic it was to see an 18-year-old woman who could not wash her own clothes, they would snatch my clothes from me with their calloused hands and take over, despite my protests.
Over the course of the year, this square cement structure where we would sit was my Haitian classroom – and these women, my teachers. Thanks to them, I grew proficient in Haitian Kreyol and learned to eat a mango the proper, Haitian way. I learned about family, children and marriage – how most of them started having children when they were somewhere between 17 and 21; how most of their ‘husbands’ had other affairs despite their complaints; and how one of them, who has truly one of the loveliest laughs I have ever heard, has a husband who consistently beats her so badly that she has had to spend multiple nights in the hospital. Thanks to these women, I learned about how many people deal with daily finances in Borgne, how they and their children experienced the educational system, and the influence that voodoo spirits have on peoples’ lives.
And thanks to these women, too, I learned about development. One of my most poignant memories occurred while washing clothes one morning when one of the women walked outside with her young daughter. I spent a few minutes playing with the small child, and later, I told her mother how cute she was. “Li bèl?” She’s cute? The mother asked, making a face that suggested otherwise. “Wi!” I said, confused why she would be making that face. “Li pa bèl” She’s not cute, the woman said. “Li lèd.” She’s ugly. And then, “li nwa.” She’s dark.
The idea that lighter skin is more beautiful than dark skin has a long history in Haiti, presumably originating during the colonial period when those with lighter skin (the French) were in positions of power over those with darker skin (slaves brought from Africa). Yet, despite having read that this attitude was prevalent in Haiti, I could not fathom at the time how a mother could think that her own daughter was ugly because of her dark skin. I could not fathom how deep the psychological effects of colonization, oppression, and persistent inequality must be for a mother to say these things to me.
This conversation has stuck with me for a long time, and it is one I think back to often. More than almost any other conversation, it has shaped my understanding of how devastating inequality and oppression can be, and how urgently these problems need to be addressed. And yet, it has also shown me that development must be a sort of balancing act; it must involve a constant evaluation of how to contribute to projects that enhance people lives without perpetuating relationships that promote the sort of inequalities that lead people to think, for example, that their darker-toned children are uglier than lighter-toned children.
I was back in Borgne to visit a few weeks ago, and spent multiple mornings sitting outside with the women who have, over the course of three years, become close friends. During the visit, one of them asked me, “Ki lè ou pral marye, Wynne?” When are you going to get married, Wynne? “Lè m’ gen 35 an!” When I am 35 years old! I replied, partially just to get a rise out of them because I know well that 35 is way too old to get married in Borgne. They protested: “M’ pral mouri anvan pitit ou yo fèt! M’ vle we ti Wynne’ yo a!” I’m going to die before you have children! I want to meet the ‘little Wynnes!’ We laughed, and they made me promise that, once I had children, I would bring them to Haiti. As we sat there, laughing and thinking about the future “little Wynnes,” I could not help but think back to the conversation I had with these same women a few years before about their own children. If nothing else, the past three years have shown me that in order to address the most tragic psychological effects created by decades of inequality and oppression, we, the global community, must not merely strive to eliminate poverty and build infrastructure. We must also begin building healthy, supportive and equal relationships.