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Survival, Charity Tourism and the Marketplace

Making Haiti

by FARZANA VERSEY

"I survived by drinking Coca-Cola. I drank Coca-Cola every day, and I ate some little tiny things,” he said. Wismond Exantus’s tale of survival conveys a larger lesson about charity franchising. As someone who worked in the grocery store in Port-au-Prince, where he was found after 11 days, his recollection of Coca Cola as opposed to “little tiny things” indicates that the miracle his brother spoke about could have something to do partly with this beverage and the conglomerate idea it stands for.

There are other ideas. His rescue took place as mourners wept outside the shattered cathedral for the funeral of the bishop; his family could not go to the place to save him because of looters, so they approached the rescue team. The looters are home-grown vultures; the saviours are outsiders.

We’ve been through the Pat Robertson viewpoint. Unfortunately, outside of his limited evangelism exists a larger one that sponges on similar thoughts. It is a ready market for do-gooders who may not express their religious fervour in such black and white terms, but the glorification of being blessed works just as well.

“I am a person who has been blessed,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Utah-based millionaire. “To sit back and relax and send a little money or whatever, it just made me feel ungrateful.”

Ungrateful about what? He was not responsible for the earthquake or for the delay in supplies reaching. He bought helicopters to fly essentials. In Jimani, which he has made his headquarter just across the Haiti border, he has set up a tent. Reports describe him with reverence for managing a “bare-bones operation”, dressed in frayed jeans (is this mandatory uniform or designer empathy?) where he sweats it out with only a small refrigerator providing energy drinks.

Strangely enough, his how to be a millionaire story is rife with fraudulent practices, but this, we are told, has not interfered with his altruistic work. He had earlier “provided a home for boys pushed out of a Utah polygamist sect”. And now he is in Haiti where, according to the Utah governor, people rushed to the helicopters for food and it became “really dangerous”. Therefore, Jeremy is a hero because he not only saves people, but saves dangerous people and those who belong to sects that are not morally up to much.

It is not surprising that he is working with Maison des Enfants de Dieu — Children of the House of God — orphanage to send these children to adoptive families. He has already managed 21 visas and transported them to the United States.

Apparently, bureaucracy was not an issue, although it is for his aid effort where he sees boxes of food on the tarmac. “As a result I even stole. There is a lot left to be done,” he said. This is precious, considering that the local looters were considered selfish and almost vicious.

Johnson is not a celebrity, so his compassion is not entirely driven by charity tourism. It is more about personal gratification: “My life is going to change from this, there is no doubt.” He is already planning the next move and has his shopping list of people who need to be set right.

Haiti, having overthrown the imperial yoke, has to allow itself into a numbing social colonialism and aid slavery. Seen as a tribal society it will now be refereed and guided by the superior Red Crosses. A while ago, I read this delicious comment by model Naomi Campbell when she was asked why she chose to raise funds for the UK flood and not for Africa: “I do Third World. I have been doing Third World since 1994.” One wonders about the expiry date of such vanity of the conscience.

Thirty-seven per cent of Europe’s population was destroyed by the bubonic plaque; ancient cities have been buried by volcanic eruptions. We have had El Salvador, Mexico, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia — all victims of natural disasters, not to forget Hurricane Katrina and the fires in California.

These calamities have scientific reasons and imbuing them with fatalism makes a mockery of the spirit of enquiry that ought to look into the dangers manifest in our abuse of the environment. Such wimpy sentiments are merely geared to sneak out of political responsibility. Or sneak in political power through the backdoor.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist-author. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com