I think one of the biggest challenges any foreigner faces when coming into a place like Haiti is the communication barrier. I say “communication” and not “language” because there is so much about communication that isn’t about the words we use.
I’ve been here in Haiti for seven years as of this week, and I still have times where I don’t get it, where I lack the words I need to say what I want to say, where gestures confuse me, and the underlying meanings of things go over my head. In Haiti words carry a lot of weight. Say the wrong thing in the wrong way and people can be deeply offended and you have no idea why. Joke about something in the wrong way and you put up barriers, but no one will tell you what you said that was wrong. Listen to what people say and believe it means one thing, when in fact it can mean something very different to those who truly understand all the nuances.
Some days I feel terribly lacking in my Creole, and others I feel encouraged. Just a couple days ago I was at Deli Mart in St. Marc. I have a favorite cashier there named Ouilette. She’s really sweet. She always chats up Olivia and she always treats me really well, going beyond the usual politeness and actually engaging me in a conversation. Over time she’s learned that I speak decent enough Creole and that she doesn’t have to convert Haitian dollars into Gourdes for me when it’s time to pay, often flipping her hand in the air and saying, “I don’t have to do it, you know!”. This week she was bragging to the gentleman behind me that I spoke really good Creole, and that I made her job easier because she didn’t have to do the conversion. She went as far as telling him that I was almost Haitian.
It feels good when I hear people say that. Like I’ve earned my stripes a bit. And, I’m deeply aware of the difference between saying something flattering and saying something because it is meant with sincerity. Often the conversation goes like this…
Someone Else: You speak good Creole!
Me: Thanks. I’ve been in Haiti for seven years. I’m obligated to learn the language.
SE: Seven years! It’s so good you’ve learned Creole.
Me: It’s important. It’s the language of the people and I want to respect the people here.
SE: It is important. Seven years and you speak Creole! You’re almost Haitian.
It wasn’t always like this though. I can honestly say that it’s really only in the last two years that I’ve started to feel comfortable with my Creole, that it’s not always lacking. Now I feel like I could always learn more vocabulary and the nuances under the actual words and phrases, but I get it for the most part and can hold my own.
I remember a time within the first year that I was here. I think it wasn’t too shortly after Chris and I returned from our honeymoon and were settling in to our new normal. I was making some administrative changes to our follow up program and had a meeting with our staff to tell them about it. I think it may actually have been one of the first times I had to do a lot of speaking on my own, and I can almost guarantee that it was broken Creole at best.
After I was done my explanation I looked at the guys, all staring either at the floor, or at me with glazed over eyes. I asked if they understood. It was quiet. Then, very cautiously, one of the guys shook his head and said, “Non, nou pa kompran.”
No, we don’t understand.
It was a pivotal moment for not just me, but us as a leadership couple. For me it was confirmation that I still had a lot to learn in the area of communication, but I was trying.
I looked at that one worker, who was ducking his head, almost afraid that he’d spoken up. I looked him in the eye and said thank you.
Thank you for telling me that you don’t understand. This is the FIRST time anyone has done that. Now we can all work together to try and figure this out so everyone DOES understand. If you don’t tell me, then I think you do understand and I get upset later when things aren’t being done the way I expect them to be.
On a leadership level we realized it was the first time that anyone on our staff had openly admitted they didn’t understand something, rather than the habitual yes or nodding of the head, only to be followed by a project being done wrong.
Since then I have learned that Haiti’s history has built up layers of miscommunication. For many Haitians, admitting to a foreigner or lighter skinned person that they are confused is seen to be a sign of weakness, as well as disrespectful. It hurt my heart to realize that often people were saying yes to us because they thought that’s what we wanted to hear.
That one confession of not understanding opened a very big door for us here at the mission. It gave our staff the freedom to admit when they needed help. It gave them the right to admit that they didn’t understand what we were saying, so we could work at clarifying things. It opened the door for sharing ideas in a way that they hadn’t been part of before. We could problem solve together because they realized we weren’t always looking for the “right” answer.
That was about 6 years ago. When I look at our staff now I see people who have more confidence than they did six years ago. I see the times where they come to us with ideas about how we could do our work better or differently. Six years ago that never would have happened. I see people who will tell us when the staff want to have a meeting to discuss a problem they have with our leadership choices. I see a group of people who feel a part of things, rather than just being employed by the mission. They know their input has value, that they have value.
Sometimes admitting we don’t know something is the best place to start.