Why do Americans learn a foreign language? For college-bound high school students, it can be something like taking calculus or organic chemistry – it looks good on a transcript. For a previous generation, perhaps, it was a mark of refinement.
And then there’s Ken Dutch. He’s not a high school student, and he wasn’t worried about his pedigree.
“I felt really dumb not being able to say anything to the people that I was hauling rocks with,” he explained.
So the mathematician who has spent portions of the last seven years volunteering in Haiti enrolled in Haitian Creole at Indiana University’s Summer Language Workshop, where it is being offered for the first time in 2017. One of five students taking the language this summer, Dutch has had to leave before this summer’s course is over to return to the island nation for a teacher’s symposium. It’s one of the projects – along with hauling rocks to build houses – he’s gotten involved with. On this trip, he’s also selling home-made Scrabble boards to boost literacy while raising funds for a seed bank.
Dutch shared his experience of learning about Haiti in a slide presentation he gave before leaving Bloomington. The learning curve, according to Dutch, was steep and humbling. “Everything I needed to know about Haiti I only started to learn after I accepted that most of the things I already knew were false,” he conceded. “Every time I’ve gone down there I have learned more about my fundamental ignorance of the place, and that has been the key to my not doing a bunch of things that harm people.”
Redefining doing good
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Dutch grew up in a tight-knit yet insular community in which people pitched in to help one another during adversity. He was raised on the story of his grandfather recruiting his teenaged sons to heave sandbags for three days against the rising Missouri. “If there was stuff that needed to be done it should probably be you,” he explained.
That philosophy guided Dutch through years of service. While building his career in math and finance, he traveled from Baton Rouge to Appalachia to rebuild areas where natural disaster had struck. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the minister of Dutch’s mission-oriented church approached him, saying, “We need big guys. Can you come?”
Dutch’s initial response was, “Where the heck is Haiti?”
Not only did he not know where it was on the map, he found himself grappling with long-held stereotypes when it came to considering a developing nation during a time of crisis. “I’ve got these mental images of riots, burning things, Papa Doc. And it’s always been poor. Coming from my background,” he admitted, “I knew it was poor because people just weren’t doing things right. On top of it, you’ve got AIDS and voodoo, and that might be part of the reason that they’re not doing all the things they’re supposed to. So this is all the baggage I’ve got.” Nonetheless, Dutch decided, “Well, I’ve had a quarter of French, and I went!”
Dutch’s first lesson was that most people don’t speak French in Haiti. French is taught in high school, used in church, and is still the “door-opening language for positions in government,” but only a third of the population speaks it. The language everyone speaks is Creole.
The next lesson was to reevaluate his role. “I went down with a bunch of ‘I’ stuff,” he admitted. “’I’m gonna do this!’”
Convinced that he had come to fix things, Dutch wanted to get to work. Sometimes he would work so much he neglected to do his laundry – a faux pas in a society that, as Dutch describes it, takes its grooming seriously. But in time, he realized he was neglecting something far more critical.
“I came to be known as 'the white guy with the dirty pants.' But then it was worse than that – they also called me 'the white guy who won’t talk to anybody.'” After being thronged for the first few days after arrival by curious residents hoping to learn about his life back home, the self-described introvert took to waking up at 5 a.m. to make his way to the job site without chit-chat.
After a while, “the word got around that this guy is a bit of a jerk and doesn’t want to talk with any of us. Dutch made this discovery the day he was met with the greeting, ‘Bonjour, blanc [Hello, white man].’”
“I was no longer Ken; I was the white occupier who had disdain for everyone there. And he was letting me know that it hurt. I had to think about it for several days. And he was absolutely right. I came and I didn’t know how important it was to everybody to connect.”
“Piti a piti zozo fait son nid”
The realization prompted a shift in his values, but also required some practical steps. He could hardly communicate, and the French he had taken was of no use. “If I went down there with French that’s not a nice thing to do,” he explained. “It’s a language of occupation, a language of privilege.”
So before his next trip, Dutch spent seven months learning Haitian Creole online. Coming to SLW has taken his skills to a new level – and provided a few more humbling lessons. “I didn’t know until recently that I spent most of the time I was down there talking in the past.”
While broadening the scope of his own role beyond hauling rocks to building social and economic infrastructure, Dutch slowly acquired facility in Creole. “We were having conversations about complicated things. The spillway, for example. We were talking about technical information and philosophy in this pidgin. We could find enough words to make things be known to each other.”
And when he would misspeak, his conversation partners would console him with a proverb: “Piti a piti, zozo fait son nid [Little by little the bird makes its nest].”
Learning Creole has enabled Dutch to communicate with his Haitian counterparts about technical issues, but it has also allowed for deep engagement with the other culture that has prompted reflection about his own. “Comparing the culture I live in and the thoughts I have about us being at the pinnacle of what a society should be, in the middle of Haiti I’m finding people who are able to care for each other in a way that we’ve forgotten how to.”
Ken Dutch shared his experiences during a Brown Bag Lecture at the Summer Language Workshop June 29. The workshop, administered through Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, continues through July 28 with a series of films, lectures, and events open to the public.