I remember the first time I heard the term “White Savior Complex.” It was in the early stages of my undergraduate career. The real truth about history in America and our foreign policy, that has often been imperialist towards exploited nations, was all new to me. I knew something about short-term mission trips to countries in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia didn’t sit well with me even before I learned more about some of the repercussions of these trips. I wasn’t convinced that there could be any sustainable, real, long-lasting impact after just one week. I’m still not.
Going to Costa Rica for a month even further cemented this truth for me and the path I will take in my life. While the goal of my internship in San José was not to “make a difference” in the lives of locals or “help” them, I still felt like that month came and passed in the blink of an eye. The amount of impact was so small it was essentially nonexistent. Do I feel that I wasted a month of my life? Absolutely not. I did what I intended to: expose myself to a new culture, work more on my Spanish, break out of my comfort zone, and work hand-in-hand with Costa Ricans.
a Sewanee spring break
All of this being said, spring break outreach trips were (and still are) very popular, competitive opportunities at my alma mater. I applied for three trips my sophomore year and didn’t get any. That rejection stung, but it was a blessing in disguise. I had applied for Costa Rica, Ecuador, and New Orleans. These trips were all favorites of students on campus, and were the main ones I knew about. I hadn’t heard anything about my university’s program in Haiti, but in my opinion, it is the most relevant, useful example of sustainable development that my university participates in.
the Sewanee in Haiti Program
My alma mater has a partnership with a local NGO called Zanmi Lasante, based in Corporant (near Port-au-Prince) that spans decades. This NGO works with coffee farmers in the mountainous region of Bois Jolis (pronounced bwah-jolee), and introduces new species of coffee trees to see which strands will grow on their terrain. Currently, many farmers must burn their trees for coal because it is the most lucrative option and their plants die more often than not.
Farmers that participate in the program are compensated for the trees they opt not to cut down for coal-burning, in order to help the ecosystem reach equilibrium and provide them with stable income from growing their trees. My university sends summer interns to co-facilitate research on the growth of the coffee trees with Haitian university students, and the spring break participants go measure the trees with the same local students to see which species are growing and which are not. The professor and staff member that represent my alma mater in the program are also seeking to hire a graduate to live in Corporant and Bois Jolis full-time.
I knew that the Haiti trip was the right fit for me, if I was meant to go on an outreach trip while in college. I applied with very low expectations, but I got it and received scholarship money to cover the costs. Little did I know that this experience would be the catalyst for my love for Haiti and a strong desire to return there as a tourist, and maybe even as an expat.
getting to Haiti
We left campus before sunrise, and were driven by a chartered bus to Atlanta airport. After some more much-needed coffee and a croissant, I headed to our gate to meet up with the rest of our group. Unsurprisingly enough, there were hordes of people at this gate wearing matching t-shirts with their group name or a logo about serving Haiti. After all, if you didn’t get t-shirts, did the service trip even happen? We had a good-natured laugh at the fact that we could easily find one another because it felt like we were the only group boarding this flight that wasn’t matching.
After a pleasant flight, we arrived to the airport in Port-au-Prince. It felt so good to be in a new place that I had always wanted to visit, but didn’t know that visit would come so soon. The people were so beautiful, their smiles like rays of the sun. I felt connected there, like something was awaiting me. Something big. We hopped into SUVs pre-arranged by our amazing NGO counterparts, and headed to the hostel property they use as a social business in Corporant. It was adorable. We always had such delicious food, and an unmatched view of the sunset over the mountains in the distance.
Even though Corporant is lovely, we weren’t in Haiti to stay at that location the whole ten days. We hiked four hours uphill to reach the mountain community of Bois Jolis. I had no idea I could push myself to hike that far or for that long at such an incline, and I felt so accomplished after I pushed past those negative thoughts to get myself and my pack up that mountain. We had one evening to relax and settle in before the work started the next day.
Our entire purpose of being in the country was to work with the coffee farmers in Bois Jolis. Our main job was to use tools the university sent with us to measure each farmer’s plant, and record how tall it was. Later, the interns would do a side-by-side comparison to measure the growth across years. My team and I surveyed around 10-15 farms, and I was astounded that each farmer knew the place of every single plant. Even if it was teeny-tiny and looked like everything around it, they always knew which was their coffee plant. One farmer even cut us some sugar cane, which was certainly a welcome treat!
The sunrises and crisp, cool mornings in this community made me feel like I could stay there forever. I was so sad to leave. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t ready to climb back down the mountain when the day came to head back to Corporant. Bois Jolis will forever be one of my favorite places in the entire world.
back to Corporant
Once we were down the mountain, our trip was focused on learning more about Haiti. This began with a visit to the campus where the Haitian college students we worked with took their classes. We also got to meet representatives from a social business that produces malnutrition-fighting peanut butter. We toured the premises of both, including acres of gardens the students use at the university.
north to Cap-Haitien
Phase two of our learning portion was visiting Cap-Haitien, on the northern coast of the country. It had a sleepy, beachy vibe, and was much more laid-back than bustling Port-au-Prince. We stayed at a hotel and saw a different side of the country, a side that sees Haiti as a tourism destination. We visited the Citadelle, a landmark and historical site with guided tours that explain the building’s iconic place in Haitian history. Although it was intended to be a war fortress, the expected French invasion after the Haitian Revolution never came. The Citadelle remains almost untouched.
Port-Au-Prince metal market
Once we returned to the Port-au-Prince area after being in Cap-Haitien, we headed to the metal market. First, please go to Haiti (as a responsible tourist). Second, please go to this metal market in Port-au-Prince. Merchants sell artisanal sculptures, wall art, paintings, candle holders, you name it. This trip jump-started my love for purchasing local art in my travels.
back to the USA
Heading back to campus after the trip was bittersweet. But, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will return to Haiti and bring my family so we can experience it together. In those last few weeks before I graduated, I remembered my time in Haiti even more fondly when I sipped the brew that came from Bois Jolis farmers at our cozy campus coffee shop. So much love.
This article is not intended to judge or belittle people that go on short-term mission trips, or to question their intentions. I wholeheartedly believe that people usually have good intentions when they go on these trips. The main question I hope to raise with this post and with sharing my own experience is this: Are good intentions good enough?
Should we take selfies with kids or take pictures of people we don’t even know just to post on our timelines later and look cool? Is this trip going to be part of a bigger picture to empower this community? Or will this project just be dropped like a hot potato later on, left in shambles for locals to clean up after us? Are the locals at the center of this entire experience, leading us and showing us instead of the other way around?
No need to answer. Just think about it. I know I will.
P.s. If you’re interested in a new book for your collection, our group read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. I highly, highly recommend it.