Micah Wullschleger is a former Nebraska Appleseed intern currently working in Haiti.
“Whenever the name of Haiti is mentioned in the international media, it is immediately followed by what seems to be a title, a last name or a claim to fame: The poorest country in the western hemisphere. It is the only country whose name is associated with poverty. There must be a poorest country in Africa, Asia, or Europe, but they have never been mentioned. Although there are about two dozen countries poorer than Haiti, she has become, by default, the poverty champion of the world.”
– Haitian Poet and Historian, Jean-Claude Martineau
I will sheepishly admit that the only thing I knew about Haiti before the January 2010 earthquake was its aforementioned “last name.” In fact, that is what drew me to the country in the first place. Poverty, not something I have had any first-hand experience with, suffering, and inequality had become interests of mine. What better place to discover more about those things than in the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere?
Looking back to my first trip to Haiti, I remember being surprised when I saw gas stations, car dealerships, restaurants, a grocery, and a hardware store all on the first ride from the airport. I must have thought that impoverished people didn’t have such things. I remember being surprised that Haitians had newer music, were more in touch with American pop culture, and dressed better than I did. Poverty was all that I associated Haiti with, and poverty was all I expected to see.
In Haiti, there are poor, middle class, and elite groups of people. There are people going to school and work, people using cellphones and the internet, people watching TV, and people flying to other countries to visit family and friends. They have Stone Masonry and Rotary clubs, and people who study Latin. After living here for the past month, I am ashamed that I thought the Haitian people didn’t have or do these things, but I am guessing, if you have only known Haiti by its internationally assigned last name, you weren’t aware of these things either.
Nebraskans should be especially sensitive to oversimplifications such as these. How many times have we, because of our preconceived label as a “rural state,” shaken our heads in frustration as outsiders have wondered if we even have electricity where we live? If we ride farm animals to school and work? Nebraskans know that this is neither an accurate portrayal of an agricultural lifestyle, nor is agriculture all that exists here.
The unavoidable reality is that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 80% of people in Haiti live below the poverty line. There is no hiding the fact that poverty exists in Haiti, and I do not want to try to minimize the impact that poverty has on individual people as well as the nation as a whole. It is vitally important to know, however, that while poverty impacts people and nations, it does not define who they are.
Going back to Nebraska, I think it’s a safe assumption that 97% of Nebraska’s land is rural. Even my high school, the biggest high school in the state, is surrounded by cornfields on three sides, and this is in the middle of Omaha, the biggest city in the state. It would be very difficult to come to Nebraska and not see cornfields. But beyond this thriving agricultural economy, Nebraska also has metropolitan areas, a burgeoning art and music scene, cultural diversity, acclaimed colleges and universities, and everything else we all know is included in our own definitions of what it means to be a Nebraskan. Statistics do not lie, they just never tell you the full story.
We must fight the urge to keep our worldviews simple, and always strive to go beyond monolithic associations of other people. I came to Haiti to find out more about poverty, but the most important lesson I have learned thus far applies to everyone: The only safe assumption we can make about other people is that their reality is more complicated and intricate than our preconceived notion of them could ever be.