Pyramids, Mudcakes, and Other Scams

“I’m headed off to a meeting,” Bernadette tells me. “It’s a new program where you sell things, and you can also make money by enrolling other merchants.”

Warning bells start going off in my head. “I’d like to hear more about it later,” I tell her.

We sat down tonight and talked about it. Yep, it’s definitely a pyramid scheme. And, apparently she’s already signed up for something like this before. They gave her expensive foreign coffee to sell, and it totally didn’t work: the only way to make money was to recruit other sellers, because customers for these products were nonexistent. She ended up losing $250 USD.

Given that past experience, Bernadette was willing to listen to me. But, one of her best friends is eager to get in on this thing. I wanted to explain to her why this is a bad idea so she can convince her friend and everyone else not to do it.

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My “explaining” notebook

I pulled up the French Wikipedia article on my phone. First, I made the mistake of trying to walk through the math: “Now, let’s say each of you has to sign up 3 other people in order to make a profit. What’s 3 to the power of 10? 59,049. That’s bigger than the population of this whole town. 88% of you are going to be at the bottom level of this. You’re going to lose all your money.”

Then we got to the legislation section. We read about laws in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. “If these people tried this in Canada, and they got caught, they’d go to jail. It’s not legal.” Haitians are always comparing what they have here to what other people have abroad. This is just one more example of Haitians getting screwed for Bernadette to add to a whole bunch of others that she already has in her head. She started nodding.

This is also an example of my foreigner powers at work. Unlike the vast majority of Haitians, I’m equipped to tackle this problem. I’ve heard the term “pyramid scheme” before. I know how to Google (and read). I have a smartphone with Internet. I’ve spent my entire education being told that if I just read something enough times and take notes, I’ll understand it, so I’m willing to sit down and take the time to read the French article and try to make sense of it. I have spare time, and, also important, spare head-space, since my other obligations aren’t stressful (I’m stressed as heck trying to make this project work, but no one’s depending on me for sustenance).

I have mixed feelings about my foreigner powers. On one hand, their existence justifies my presence here: it’s great to be able to “save” Bernadette from making a bad investment just by knowing the right search term to type in. On the other hand, what if instead of giving me a grant we paid the salaries of Haitian lawyers and regulators so that they can nip these things in the bud? It’s a short-term, long-term game.

Right now, in the medium term, I take comfort in the fact that Bernadette’s a community leader: if I supply her with the arguments, she can influence other people to avoid this in the future. In the longer medium term, if we install an Internet-in-a-Box server at a school, all the students there will have access to the Wikipedia article, and maybe even a translated Khan Academy video on the subject, without having to pay for an Internet connection or a smartphone. In the long-ish term, if we teach kids to read and write in their own language, maybe they’ll start writing their own articles and chat messages. People who got scammed by a program can post about it, and maybe other people won’t fall for the same thing.

I mean, that’s what I tell myself when I wake up in the morning.

Meanwhile, I’m just sad that someone, somewhere, decided to exploit Haitian hope and lack of access to information. Also, I’m mad that they got away with it.

I’m also thinking about information on my end. I tried Googling “pyramid scheme Haiti” to talk about the problem with Bernadette in a local context. Surprise, surprise, an article called the “The 10 Nastiest Ponzi Schemes” popped up. It’s got this little gem about why you shouldn’t scam Haitians: “People there eat mud cakes when times get bad.”

But actually, the mud cake thing is a lie.(1) Not a super dangerous lie like telling someone that if they pay money they’ll get rich quick. But it’s still a pretty dangerous lie, because it changes how Americans see Haitians, which affects how we decide to “help” them.

If we keep portraying Haitians as these miserable and uneducated caricatures, clearly the solution is always going to involve someone like me swooping in as the savior with their smartphone.

But you know, somebody must have fallen for pyramid schemes once upon a time in the good ol’ US of A. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a law against them in the first place. Plus, I don’t want to live in a world where you have to Google every little thing and protect yourself.

I was about to write “I want to live in a world where I can rely on the government to protect me.” Still think this would be pretty good, but even better: a world where no one’s scamming anyone in the first place.

I know that’s not going to happen, but I’m thinking we can get a little closer to it if there’s more communication on all sides. There are three sides, by the way: Us understanding Haitians, Haitians understanding each other, and Haitians understanding us.

So:

I’m posting my first ever Haitian Creole status on Facebook, letting all my Haitian friends know to check out that Wikipedia article and message me before they get involved in something like this. After all, Bernadette’s the third person I know personally who’s been affected by this. It’s very likely that someone else I know is at risk, too.

I’m going to email this blog to some foreigners I know who are visiting Lascahobas next week, so that they can continue the conversation and back Bernadette up if people don’t believe her.

Bernadette already took notes in her own notebook, but I’m also going to write up and print off a brief explanation of why these things are bad, so that she’ll have the script for passing this on to other folks.

Oh, and I wrote this blog post!

Clearly, lots of world-saving going on here.

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(1)I have personal experience with these mudcakes. My first summer in Haiti, a bunch of kids gave me one and told me to eat it. “Haha, not falling for that trick, guys.” Then one of the girls popped it in her mouth. I still didn’t believe them (they could have dared her to) so I made another do it. Okay, then I tried it, too. Surprise. It tasted like dirt. The girls giggled and told me that pregnant women are supposed to eat them. That was the joke: since I ate it, I must be pregnant! Who was the father?

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