Sunday, January 11th, 2009


I often have interesting conversations with taxi drivers, but it’s usually me who starts them.

Yesterday I gave my destination and we discussed the route. Then the driver cautiously asked me if I were Québécoise pure-laine? Well, I said, I’m anglophone but I’m born here.

Because, rushed on my driver, he had read a story in the newspaper that morning* and couldn’t stop thinking about two countries, on two continents, separated by history and religion but united in their misery. La Guinée, in Africa, and Haïti, where he was born.

He was satisfied with his life in Canada, he wanted me to know that. His children didn’t eat steak every day, but they could have meat every week. Canada is a good country, built by people who were not his parents, and he was grateful for the welcome he had been offered, the opportunity to make a life here. But he couldn’t stop looking back to his people in Haïti, feeling for their suffering.

Yes, I said, and feeling responsible but helpless and not knowing what to do. I told him I’d lived in Nigeria in the seventies when people were doing very well, that I knew a little about how people lived who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and even a little about what children looked like who didn’t have enough to eat. That I felt a bond with people in other countries and circumstances that I had no idea how to act on.

Yes, he said. One doesn’t need to have a lot of stuff to be able to care for a family. His father had been a cultivator and he had worked with him. They rotated crops with the seasons, rice and yams and vegetables. In between crops, his father fished. There was always something to do. His father had also been a judge. This was in the time of Papa Duvalier. He had disappeared one day. Both his father and his mother. The children had all found their way out of the country. It had been hard, but the children were now all over the world and managing fine. Even their cousins had left.

But now, he said, Haitian rice farmers can’t make a living any more. They can’t compete with the price of rice imported from the US, where agriculture is heavily subsidised. When rice can be bought so cheaply, people would rather buy it than grow it themselves, so they leave the farms and go to the city. But of course there is no work in the city. People struggle, women prostitute themselves.

Yes, I said, and you and I look on from our comfortable spots and don’t know what to do. I told him my father had recently returned from Bangladesh and was struggling trying to help a woman he had made friends with there. He was helping her, but it was hard. It’s hard for one person to help another person, for a country to help another country. And for one person, like him or me, to help a country – it’s very hard to know what to do.

The kind of work my parents do makes some difference directly. The kind of work I do does not. I can only donate to local and international aid organisations, but it doesn’t feel right, or like enough.

Yes, my taxi driver said, he gives to aid organisations too. To Centraide and Jeunesse au Soleil. But they’re all local.

Yes, I said, to support international aid means donating to different organisations. And then it can be hard to know if the help being offered is really useful; for instance, free american-grown rice is even worse for farmers than cheap american-grown rice. I contribute to one that gives agricultural animals. The people who receive them must commit to breeding the animals and sharing the offspring. It sounds like a good program, though I can’t be sure of its impact in practice.

My taxi driver got very excited at the thought of country people receiving such a useful and community-minded gift as breeding animals, but pointed out that it takes so much more. There has to be water, for instance. And transportation. And fertiliser. And there has to be a market.

You know, I said, we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems parked here in your taxi. But I will shake your hand and wish you a good and happy new year, and know that your frustrations are shared.

He shook my hand, and thanked me for telling him about people who work in international aid, who travel and care. He feels better now, knowing that he isn’t alone in caring.

I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in my lack of direction.

Happy new year to all, and may we continue to shake hands with our neighbours and share our challenges!


* That would have been these articles:


  1. Thanks for the break from my small problems. I needed that. Btw, we bought a LOT of breeding animals this year in that program. It was a lot of fun picking out “weaving baskets” bunnies, goats, water buffalos etc.

    Comment by kathleen — Sunday, January 11th, 2009 @ 21:24

  2. A beautiful post. Thank you.

    Comment by Vila H. — Sunday, January 11th, 2009 @ 22:11

  3. Thanks, guys. This post feels self-serving to me – not at all important or beautiful. But if I’ve articulated a common dissatisfaction, then good. So yeah, thanks. for the feedback.

    Comment by alison — Monday, January 12th, 2009 @ 07:19

  4. Il y a tellement de moyens d’aider les gens des pays pauvres. Si on connaît un Haïtien, ou un Djiboutien, bref une personne qui a immigré ici et qui tente dans un contexte très difficile de subvenir aux besoins de sa famille demeurée dans le pays d’origine, un moyen efficace d’aider est de donner de l’argent à la personne ici, de partager avec elle cette lourde responsabilité. S’il y a, comme c’est probable, dans cette famille éloignée des enfants, rien n’empêche également d’en parrainer un ou deux.

    Mais si on ne connaît pas personnellement d’immigrés, on peut contribuer tout autant. On peut faire un don au Programme alimentaire mondial, par exemple. Bien sûr, notre don n’aura pas un effet aussi immédiat et concret, mais qu’importe ! Que recherche-t-on : aider les gens démunis ou satisfaire un besoin de gratification ?

    De manière générale, il faut appliquer le principe suivant : si on n’aide pas, au moins essayer de ne pas nuire. Un des problèmes auxquels sont confrontés les gens des pays pauvres est le réchauffement climatique aux conséquences catastrophiques. Donc, se comporter en citoyen responsable, réduire son train de vie, mener une vie frugale, bref consommer le moins d’énergie possible.

    Comment by Luc Séguin — Monday, January 12th, 2009 @ 14:20

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