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Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 12:18 am

Countries Trump was talking about


I have made it a practice to travel to countries where toileting facilities are different from ours. I can understand an obsession with scatology from somebody with a diet of cheeseburgers. He thinks he needs a chair to sit on while doing his business, because he probably has to sit there a big part of every day. But in rural Haiti and many other places where the diet is simpler and obesity is rare, people can just squat over a designated hole, take care of nature, then go on about their day full of family, art, animals, agriculture, God, whatever.  

Love of life shows in the vibrant colors of Haitian art that covers the walls of the newly refurbished Haitian embassy in Washington, D.C., where I visited last summer, hosted by proud staffers who must now be devastated from having been disparaged on the world stage.  At the embassy a painting of a rooster took me back to my visit to Haiti and the call-and-response of roosters at dawn in Port au Prince, where windows are always open as the city wakes up. As I walked the first time through the mass of humanity at the Iron Market I saw a woman with chickens tied together at the feet slung over her shoulder upside down. I thought they were dead until one of them cocked her head and looked up at me, like she’d never seen a white person before. And, if I’m right about what was on the day’s agenda for that hen, probably wouldn’t again.

Bathrooming is one of the first experiences of culture shock most Americans have in a different country. I remember a high school trip to Europe where I learned the hard way that what I thought was a shithole wasn’t. It was a bidet. I had to get used to no toilet paper in India. In Rajasthan I stood at a urinal with a long row of men relieving themselves in a hallway, a crowd of bus passengers walking to and fro just behind us. I had to tell myself privacy isn’t everything, just relax.

For travelers who are more curious than arrogant, bathroom culture shock can open the door to education about the causes of poverty. A little reading will soon teach that Haiti wasn’t always poor. Columbus “discovered” the island of Hispaniola at the same time he came here, in 1492, and introduced sugar cane, which led to the importation of slaves. The colony became first in world production of coffee, rum, cotton and indigo. By the time of the American Revolution the country generated more revenue than all 13 North American colonies combined.

A slave rebellion established a Black Republic, but Europeans took over, leading to a century of economic exploitation. The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Later, the brutal dictatorships of the Duvaliers stole whatever wealth remained.

To study Haitian history and politics is to begin to understand why these people are poor. Racism and economic exploitation are culprits, often with a U.S. imprint. But to understand poverty is not the same as understanding the poor. For that you need to spend time with them. I have had the privilege of experiencing hospitality, usually around wonderful food and drink, with a Muslim family in Dakar, in a refugee camp in northern Kenya, in a home in Hebron in the West Bank.

Our 1996 tour group in Haiti went to a place called Sans Fils, a home for the dying, run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I was given the task of shaving some of the men. I had never shaved anybody before but soon I did the first one without cutting him and the fellow across the way signaled for me to come over and do him. The men would try to teach me Creole words and would laugh when I didn’t understand.  

There was one fellow I got to be friends with because he was younger and knew more English than the rest. He told me his name was Bobadilla and he was 26. A big, good-looking guy, he had a bandage around his chest and shoulder, which I figured was a gunshot wound but later learned he had a cancerous tumor. I asked one of the sisters what will happen to Bobadilla. She smiled and said, “Oh he will die.” After that I spent more time with him. He had me massage his swollen feet and signaled with his fingers how he wanted me to pull on his toes. He told me to pull hard. I put on the lotion and pulled hard. He would say, “Oui!” I pulled harder and he said “Oui! Oui! Oui!” Never again will I hear the story of This Little Piggy Went to Market without thinking of my dying friend Bobadilla crying oui, oui, oui all the way home.

Amid suffering the Missionaries of Charity sisters seemed to radiate joy. They were smiling all the time. Sister Mongala told us they take a vow of cheerfulness. How do they remain cheerful when they work among the poorest of the poor? I expected a deeply spiritual answer, and it was in a way, but practical too. She explained that the Missionaries of Charity spend a lot of time in prayer, get plenty of rest and relaxation and, “If sister starts out the morning with a long face we tell her to go back to bed.”

Good advice for the Grump-in-Chief. There is no better cure for American arrogance than to visit poor countries. There culture shock can break your heart open to the realization that the wealthy have no superiority over people in poor countries, who can be just as strong and courageous, happy and compassionate as the rest of us. No matter how they use the bathroom.

Fletcher Farrar is editor and CEO of Illinois Times. Contact him at editor@illinoistimes.com. James Krohe Jr., whose column usually appears in this space, is taking time off to finish a book.


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