8 Things I Learned from Living in a Slum

Samuel James White
Jun 25 · 6 min read

It was October 2017 and I’d decided to fly to Haiti. Yes, that Haiti. I’d never visited the Caribbean before and the flight cost less than $100 from Miami, so I thought why the hell not?

Thy only stories I knew of Haiti were those about the earthquake and the rampant poverty that kept the country as the poorest in the whole of the Western hemisphere.

I was couchsurfing in the capital of Port-au-Prince with a man called Dodley, which meant I was staying in his house. For ten days I lived in what most people would consider to be more like a concrete shack than a house. I’d never experienced such poverty before, or since.

Here’s what I learned from those ten days.

1. Simple Tasks Take Forever to Finish

Want to get some food? There’s no supermarket. Want to get around? You have to wait forever for the tap-taps, which are no more than covered cattle trucks. Want to take a shower? Better get some water from the local well.

The things that take mere minutes in the West take forever. You never have any time because even getting dinner can take a couple of hours. And if you want to travel into the centre of the city, that should take about an hour to go a few miles.

Poverty is not just a lack of money it’s also a lack of time.

2. Safety is Not Something People Understand

Western countries are obsessed with safety. Health and safety officials with their hard hats and clipboards grunt and nod as they examine every aspect of safety.

Not so in Haiti.

Safety can very much boil down to the philosophy of, “But did you die?”

The way we got from street to street without a long walk was to climb on top of the roofs of houses and then skip from one building to the next without falling into the gaps below.

Getting around with a taxi meant getting onto the back of a motorbike with at least three people. No helmets were ever in use and the driver would dodge and weave through oncoming traffic.

Traffic lights are rare here and it’s just a matter of relying on the driver’s skill to survive. I must admit that they’re pretty good when it comes to this.

3. The Government Will Never Help You

Haiti is an extreme example because the country is so poor, but I’m sure this rule applies to impoverished communities all over the world. The government doesn’t care about you and the government won’t help you.

The slum I was staying in was within walking distance of the airport. Electricity only appeared for a few hours per day, and sometimes not at all. There’s no sanitation and no running water. Your faeces get taken out and dumped in the street in a bucket.

And, according to Dodley, things had never been any different.

4. You Get Used to the Smell

Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, experiences an odd phenomenon during the evening hours. Stand on top of a roof and you’ll see black smoke rising above the whole city. This is not a fire but sanitation in action.

All garbage is burned in huge piles at the side of the main roads, outside everyone’s respective neighbourhoods. The toxic smell rises and you’re forced to inhale everything from plastic to discarded diapers.

The smell of raw garbage and sewage is a constant in this city. But, as awful as it sounds, you get used to the smell. It becomes a part of you.

Fresh, clean air becomes a memory.

It made me understand why most Haitian men are lucky to make it out of their 50s. The constant pollution means they’re constantly assaulted by dangerous toxins. It’s like smoking multiple packs of cigarettes every day.

5. Gunshots are Not Out of the Question

Like any poor neighbourhood, the law has an almost non-existent presence. At night it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots. These didn’t bother me because they were in the distance, but the last thing I need is a celebratory bullet accidentally falling on my head.

The one upside of this is that Dodley told me most of the gunshots were fired as part of parties and gatherings, rather than due to crime.

After all, you can’t get much crime in a neighbourhood where nobody has anything to steal anyway.

Oh, and guns are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Walk into an ice cream store and you’ll see a security guard with a shotgun. Yes, not a bank, in an ice cream store!

6. For a Westerner, it’s Like Talking to Children

In the West, we have a high level of education. You don’t need to go to college/university to receive a high-class education.

Visit a slum and you suddenly realise how much a lack of education ruins people. The young people could all read and write, but you can’t have an intelligent conversation with most of them.

My host was a rarity in that he spoke fluent English, but you can forget about having a conversation that goes beyond what you can see in front of your eyes. It was frustrating at times, but you understood.

For example, once there was a guy in the neighbourhood performing fire dancing and sword tricks. Dodley was convinced that the guy was performing witchcraft and magic. I tried to explain how he was doing the trick, but he just wouldn’t buy it.

He was convinced that this guy was a wizard. In the end, I just nodded and let it go.

It really makes you understand the value of a good education because I left knowing that 99% of the people in that slum had no hope of ever leaving that slum.

7. As an Outsider, You are Royalty

I never once felt unsafe living in that slum. Even at night when you have to light your way down the street by the light of your phone, I never felt the need to run or to look behind me in case I was being followed.

On the contrary, I always felt like royalty. The girls wanted to touch my hair and the guys always wanted to speak to me about where I’d come from. If I needed a beer or some food, they would run to get it for me. They would guide me through the slum and introduce me to those who lived there.

Dodley took me to the school where he learned English. It was only meant to be a short visit to meet his sister. In the end, I gave a short talk to a group of English students. His former teacher dragged me into the classroom like a visiting monarch.

It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that.

8. They Know they’re Screwed

I spoke about the lack of education in the country. At the same time, they’re not stupid when it comes to their situations. They know they’re being screwed by the outside the world.

We heard about the sex scandal involving the very people meant to help the Haitian people. This came out long after I left the country. It didn’t surprise me at all. The Haitians told me about those same things when I was there. It was an open secret for years within the country.

They gave stinging criticism of organisations like the UN for doing more harm than good. Nobody I spoke to believed that the outside world offered anything good for them.

It made me question what I see in the media about how grateful local people are when the West comes with their food aid and their troops.

Do most people really see us as saviours? After visiting Haiti, I’m not so sure.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.

Samuel James White

Written by

Writer, financial expert, and full-time traveler. Have been on the road for almost five years. Read one of my 35 historical fiction novels under James Farner.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.