The Common Good
March 2010

Scarcity and Generosity

by Kent Annan | March 2010

After Hurricane Jeanne struck Haiti in 2004, people gave abundantly from what little they had.

Buses kept racing by, packed tight with people and chickens and sacks of produce, often with a few more people hanging out the doorway as well as more freight and a crowd piled frightfully on top. The throng who wanted to go to Port-au-Prince was steadily growing, a battle brewing. After 20 minutes a large version of a tap-tap pulled up. As it slowed a few men swung up and on. Women holding baskets or bags of produce wielded them like battering rams to clear a way. Raw Darwinism on display, with the sole exception of a little girl about 7 years old, who was ushered through.

Miss this chance and you might have to wait another hour. Everywhere you turn, demand is far greater than supply; you fight for whatever you want or need. Can’t be shy. About 60 or 70 bodies squeezed in.
The truck jostled along. People started talking about life and the day in the market, then the topic turned to Gonaïves, not far up the road. About 2,000 people died in the flooding from Hurricane Jeanne a week ago. Mass graves were dug and filled. The outskirts of Haiti’s fourth largest city remain submerged, with reports of people still stranded on rooftops waiting for the debris-filled water to recede or until they can clean their mud-filled homes. It was not completely surprising because ecological devastation, poverty, lack of competent governing, lack of a hurricane control center—ad nauseam—create conditions for mass tragedy. Aid has been slow to arrive because organizations can’t figure out how to deal with the logistics and mobs of desperate people. Distribution has been difficult, dangerous, delayed.
A young man, about 20 years old, started talking. “I’m from Gonaïves,” he said. “Just got out.”
Conversation stopped. His Creole was rapid-fire and a little disoriented as he jumped around telling of awful things, of the bodies, of water sweeping the living away to join the dead. Still little potable water, little food. Mad stampeding to get at any meager supplies that came in. Bridges were down; roads impassable. He must have slogged through muck and water to get out. His eyes darted to different people as he talked. People asked questions, expressed sympathy. He’d left his mom and siblings behind to find help, but he hoped to return soon.
“There’s nothing, nothing,” he kept saying as he stood, shifted, fidgeted back and forth. Then to illustrate his point he said, “These clothes, look I’ve been wearing them since last Saturday.” That was eight days ago.
We all looked more closely, and he was filthy, a rarity because being well-presented in public is a high cultural value. Little bits of straw and other debris were embedded in his hair. His shirt was stained and ragged, as were his baggy jean shorts. He wore flimsy plastic flip-flops. A middle-aged man sitting behind him said, “Here. Take this.” He reached into a plastic bag and gave the young man a white polo shirt.
“Thank you,” said the young man as he took it. The crowd immediately told him to take off his old shirt and put on the new one. When he did, a sharp, rancid smell released. Within 30 seconds, someone else down the bench gave him a white T-shirt. A pair of green shorts appeared for him. A comb. Someone else gave a bar of soap.
Meanwhile a market lady had taken a crumpled 10-gourde bill (about 25 cents) out of the fold of her skirt and started squeezing her way from person to person in the bus, saying, “Just give what you can. Five gourdes, 10 gourdes, 50 gourdes, anything you can give to help him out.” Almost everyone gave something. After completing her circuit around the bus, she gave him a fistful of bills and coins that he stuffed into his pocket.
He was holding onto the roof rail with his right hand, revealing a few small holes in the armpit of his new shirt. He started looking around, up and down the bus. Then he started wiping tears from his eyes. “Mwen pa konnen ... ” “I don’t know ... ”
“No! No!” People protested. “You didn’t even ask for anything, we just want to give.” “We’re all Gonaïvians now.” “If there were other ways we could give more, we would.”…
It’s staggering how wave after wave of suffering, both individual and collective, keeps crashing down. Each person in the back of this truck must in some way battle, throw elbows, squeeze for what she or he needs. From a distance via the news, you wonder how anybody makes it. Up close you wonder too, but less so because you see the little things. You see the person beside you pass along 10 gourdes, a shirt, a bar of soap.

From Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously, by Kent Annan. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Annan. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.
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