Last Word – A Chair to Sit On

Last Word – A Chair to Sit On

Service gives a personal perspective on poverty.
By Wendell Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Languages

For the past several years, I have helped lead a Wilson College trip to the bateyes — sugar cane worker villages — of the Dominican Republic.

I do the following exercise with students when introducing the bateyes and what they are like. First, I show them this photo of a chair.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“A white chair,” someone replies. “What kind of chair?” I ask.
“A plastic one.”
“Good, now what’s different about this plastic chair?”
After a pause, a student says, “It’s been fixed.”
“Yes. If you look closely, the arm has been carefully sewn back onto the seat with what is probably chicken wire. Someone has done a terrific job, displaying great skill — there’s no way I could do that — and spent considerable
time fixing a plastic chair. So, what’s remarkable about that?”
The students have no answers.
“Let me reframe that question. If you owned this chair, and it broke, what would you do with it?”
“Throw it away.”
“So why fix it instead? Is it perhaps because you can’t afford to buy a new one? What does a plastic lawn chair cost? Five dollars? Ten?”

The exercise is to get them to see that beyond the obvious signs of poverty, there are the not-so-obvious ones, too. Ones that indicate need and suffering but also skill, thrift, and initiative. I am trying to get them to see that if you ask what poverty looks like, the answers are as complex as human beings are.

Of course, we all know what poverty looks like. It looks like neglect. Often the biggest culture shock our group gets when we go to the bateyes the first time is trash strewn everywhere. One January, after our group had gone to the Dominican Republic, I had a two-day turnaround between that trip and one my wife and I took to India. (We professors have to pack a lot into a January with no classes.) And I remember walking around a rural area of Goa thinking that there were so many things that felt the same about those two places — roosters crowing, the close tropical air, and the heavy smell of flowers and manure. And chief among them was trash. When I returned, I talked with an anthropologist colleague and remarked about the similarities. “Yeah,” he responded. “Trash looks the same the world over. And the trashed out places are always where the poor people are.”

Repaired plastic chairs and trash may be signs that the people are poor where you are. But it goes beyond this. What poverty looks like is not just taking care of your broken plastic chair or not having a trash collection where you live. It gets down to basic human needs, such as, do you have a place to sit? And when I think of this, I think of the Haitians I have met and their particular form of poverty. The most representative metaphor in my experience is chairs or the lack of them.

The appropriateness of the chair metaphor was confirmed for me the first time I encountered Haitian immigrants in the United States. I was with a team of migrant health nurses doing health screenings at a migrant labor camp in Franklin County, Pa., during the apple harvest. They had invited me along even though we all knew the skill I had to offer — speaking Spanish — would be of no use among Kreyol-speaking apple pickers from Haiti (or Florida).

We went to a dormitory of ten rooms in a row at the edge of a field. They had converted one of the rooms into a kitchen with a hot plate to cook some food. We were lucky that one of the workers knew enough English to translate our questions into Kreyol. As I waited while the nurses did the screenings, I was struck by a scene of men lounging on the grass under the shade of a tree in front of the dormitory. Some were sitting. Some were lying propped on an elbow. They were talking and laughing as if sitting or lying on the ground was the most natural place in the world. One they preferred. “Is this a Haitian thing?” I asked myself.

One other guy was leaning back against the dorm wall in a discarded school chair with three legs. He had to tilt the seat and lean back against the wall because the missing leg was a back one. It was the sort of precarious situation you find disturbingly fascinating and can’t look away from because you’re waiting for him to fall.

“Should I tell him this is dangerous?” I kept thinking. “What will happen if he falls? Will he be embarrassed, like a schoolboy doing what he’s been told not to do?” Regardless, he had gotten good at balancing and didn’t fall. I thought about that three-legged chair all the way home and have thought about it ever since. At the time, I could not comprehend what I’d seen. Why were those guys lounging on the ground like it was the best place to be? Why expose yourself to the risk of a three-legged chair that could topple at any second? Now, I understand what I did not see then. We have a colloquial metaphor for poverty — “to not have a pot to piss in.” Those guys were so poor they did not have a chair to sit on.

I know very few phrases in Haitian Kreyol, but there is one — “Chita ou meme.” It means, literally, “Sit your self.” It might be better translated as, “You sit down.”

When we were in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic this year, one of our projects was to do a blood pressure survey. We went house to house in teams of three: a Wilson-student Spanish interpreter, a Kreyol interpreter, and a Wilson nurse. We asked questions about healthcare access, health promoters’ work, and hypertension knowledge. Then we took people’s blood pressure.

A repeated and almost choreographed interaction took place whenever we began a survey with a new patient — we Americans and our Dominican partners would come to a house. The house would be a wooden or cinderblock shack, usually with two rooms — one for sleeping and another for everything else. There would be a space outside for cooking over a charcoal fire. And often, there would be a plastic chair or two. To do the survey, we needed a place in the shade to sit. Invariably, a Chip and Dale contest of politeness was preliminary. The person we were interviewing would insist that we sit. The unspoken or sometimes-translated negotiation was, “You are an important American guest in my house. I will honor you by giving you the chair.” And I would reply with my learned Kreyol phrase, “Chita ou meme.” “No, you sit,” the person would insist. It would go back and forth, but I would insist more and eventually win. Our interviewee would sit.

This was strategic on our part: after the survey questions, we needed the person to be seated to take their blood pressure. But it was also strategic in another sense. We had come barging into their home unannounced, bothering them with questions. It was we who should have sat on the ground or kneeled. I didn’t have the Kreyol to say the many things I would have liked to say to these people. But at least I could speak with my body and where I chose to sit, “I may look like an important American, but I am not. I am here to serve you. You have the good fortune to have a place to sit, and I will not take it from you.”

This is the attitude of humility and service I teach students to embody in the bateyes. I believe it is at the core of the ethic of service that Wilson College values and follows. We do not want to take anybody’s chair from them, especially from people whom the world has so often denied a place to sit for centuries in so many different ways.


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