The Quest for a Shithole

A young soldier’s first bivouac is an overwhelming thing. Fresh off the cattle car in 1987, they handed me sixty pounds of gear, a helmet, and a non-working M16 and led me and the other wide-eyed privates on a ten-mile march. At dusk, we stopped and got in line for some manner of disgusting food and were told to make camp.

I paired up with a young man from Louisiana named Alvin Lee. We were trying to figure out how to turn our shelter halves into a tent when something started brewing. I headed off into the woods with my Army-issued entrenching tool (folding shovel). When I found a suitable spot, I dug a little hole in the soft, brown Missouri soil, designating it as my shithole. Before I deposited in it, it wasn’t a shithole. In fact, it wasn’t even a hole. That little spot of earth was a pristine oasis of nature until I came by. Logically speaking, what makes a hole a shithole is the contents of the hole.

I’d like to introduce you to two men:

I met Mduduzi in Swaziland — a little country inside of South Africa that has been ravaged by poverty and AIDS. It is one of the poorest countries in the word. I was there to work with an organization caring for orphans left behind by the AIDS epidemic. One day we got the chance to go into the community to help with some projects in Mduduzi’s village. AIDS had claimed his father and his mother was deep in its clutches. I got to speak to him and found him bright, articulate, and very humble. He knew at least three languages and translated for me so I could play with some village children who were gawking at my skin. As we added a roof to a structure for his family, he helped in every way possible. If he lived anywhere else this young man could easily find success. What he lacked then and unfortunately probably still does is opportunity.




William is deaf. He lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti when the big earthquake hit. In the destruction, most of the deaf couldn’t hear the passing trucks offering water and food and many perished. A few men rounded up those who couldn’t hear and with the help of the Red Cross they created an enclave of deaf people — allowing them access to necessities of life during the early days of the disaster. When I was there it was time to move the enclave to permanent housing outside the city. William is a gardener and a good one at that. I was fascinated with his ingenuity. At his new home, we set up a little hydroponic system he had created and a composter William had fabricated out of garbage collected in the city. Because the move took him to the cleaner countryside, William told me he was concerned about his ability to find garbage to fuel his inventions. A generous man, he wouldn’t let me go without giving me one of his prize plants.


These men live in countries now referred to as shithole countries. By definition, when you refer to a place that way, you are inferring that the contents (in this case, the people) are shit. Yet they are not shit. They are often industrious and intelligent men and women who lack opportunity. I don’t pretend to know the politics of the visa lottery, but basic human dignity tells me that I am not far removed from them. Only the latitude of my birth provides me opportunities that neither of them will ever have.

It angers me that this new designation comes from the country I call home and I refuse to be associated with it. In fact, I would rather be lumped in a hole with Mduzuzi or William than the President of the United States. How sad is that? They were born into hardship not privilege, yet both respect others and work hard despite their difficult surroundings. Yes, there are bad and unproductive people in every country, including ours. But that doesn’t make any entire nation a shithole and all its citizens shit. To refer to an entire place with such arrogant disdain is foolish and way beneath the dignity that a high office should possess.

Every day the bar of decency gets lowered in my country and we should all outraged by it. Yet many leaders remain quiet. Silence in the face of such contemptuous behavior doesn’t distance you from it or make you prudent, it makes you complicit.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King


And by the way, if you scour the world for holes, we’re digging several to build a fence we can’t afford. Maybe if we’re looking for the real shithole, we should search around Pennsylvania Avenue.

30 thoughts on “The Quest for a Shithole

  1. and i cried when i read your post today, mark. these disparities and unfair disrespect for these people and the places where they live make me so upset. people like you, one at a time, help to show these people that there is good in the world and helps to show them their worth and value in the world, no matter where they may live or their circumstances. if it makes you feel any better, yesterday, a group of activists projected the word’ shithole’ on trump’s dc hotel all day and night –

    1. Not sure it makes me feel better. It does make me laugh, though. I just want us to get back to some semblance of decency and I want people who matter to call him out on his behavior.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Watching this video should be required of every student. It’s more valuable than the entire contents of any course syllabus.

      Father, I pray that I never forget and become a fool.

    2. I saw that recently. It was an interesting revelation to those kids and startling reality. We can’t pretend to understand where some people come from, can we?

  2. The best response I’ve read to POTUS’ characterization. Shit holes exist because we’ve made them. Kudos to you for being in places struck by disaster and seeing the dignity of God’s precious creation – his children.

    1. “There but the grace of God…” is a truth. We are all intertwined and a good few of our advantages here are simple luck or providence. Some lose sight of that.

  3. There’s no excuse for the behavior of our President. None. And now he’s denying he said “shithole” and that he’s “the least racist person you’ll ever interview.” I almost spit out my coffee this morning when I heard him say that remark on the news. I think the least racist person in the world would have immediately come out against the KKK rally in Charlottesville, VA, instead of staying mute. I don’t know how the country is going to survive the next three years of a Trump presidency, so all I can say is “God help us all.”

    1. That was exactly what I said to my kids the morning after the election. I don’t think either candidate revived my faith in humanity, but I was shocked. When David Dukes is carrying your banner, you know there might be an issue.

  4. Agree completely and more saddened by the day. I am hoping against hope that someone who is suited to the job of healing and reuniting the country is pondering a run for the presidency. And to work on repairing our relationship with the rest of the world, if it is still possible. I had never imagined a day when disgrace and lying would become the “status quo” for our leader in chief.

  5. Previously you have stated that you won’t make your comments political but, in this case, I don’t see how you couldnt. I am astonished daily by the way our president thinks he can say whatever comes into his head with no filters. It is sad and embarrassing.

  6. The people of Haiti are beautiful, the county is not a ****hole. It is not an easy place to live, the poverty is rampant, but the people are resilient, spiritual, loving, and resourceful.

    Our president is a disgrace and an embarrassment to our country. I hope and pray he doesn’t last this first term of office. I actually called my Haitian friends to apologize for our presidents hateful comments, just unbelievable ( yet believable) that the current leader of the free world would make such vulgar remarks about people he just doesn’t know.

    Thanks for writing this Mark, you have a gift for writing what others want to say.

    1. I agree completely. I love the people of Haiti, too. They hold no blame for decisions made by a dictator decades ago that thrust them into desperate poverty before the hurricanes and earthquake. They just have to live and die in the aftermath. He doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know, and seems to install yes-men who just go along with whatever he desires. It has gotten beyond crazy.

      1. If you go back in Haitian history you can also see how the US has contributed to the poor conditions in Haiti today. Our President doesn’t seem to understand or know much about historical facts. It truly has gotten beyond crazy in the White House.

  7. Mark, I respect & admire you so much. Your entire blog resonates with me. I am saddened every day by the political scene taking place in the United States. The blatant disrespect, the labeling, the hurting of so many people. Life sends many hurts & traumas, we have no control to stop. But this we do – thank you for this heartfelt blog. Thank you for caring so much!

    1. I am saddened by it too. I cannot believe the number of men and women in positions of power who continue to stay silent. Do what you want with the politics, but censure the man for outrages like this.

  8. I too think the scariest thing about the president’s disgusting behavior is the “cover” he is getting to continue. It could and should be stopped. I cannot wait to vote!

  9. The process of green card lottery is pretty simple if you are in the country allowed to do the lottery (there are countries not allowed like Russia or I think India where they do not want any more immigrants from those countries) you just fill it on line and wait to see if you got in. If you do the road to citizenship is easy. One of my childhood friends received it and she works now in a small hedge fund company making more than me and you together will make in 100 years and is one of the smartest people I know. People who usually apply for it are people who want a better life and like you said opportunities. But we voted this President and we have to bear the consequences as his behavior has not changed nor it will change. If anything could get worse like it is with more power. Unfortunately, people who elected our president will probably elect him again if they could and I find that a real problem as to them this behavior is fine. So how do we make 50% of the country have common decency and courtesy, compassion and empathy, love and understanding? That is the real challenge in my opinion. Trump will come and go but US citizens who elected him and their children will stay.

    1. Interesting. I listened to a podcast about it and how hard it is to get for most in developing countries. Even if selected they face records nightmares. Yes, Trump will go…

      1. Well I applied inside of US which is much easier I guess than being outside the US but having said that nothing is easy about immigration. I spent a good bit of money on immigration lawyers or few until I found a good one and you still have to make all your appointments, have all your immunization records etc (I got lucky to have had chicken pox as an adult as I was not vaccinated as a child and that is one of the requirements) but once you have a green card and you get it, you are golden as all the other visas are only temporary and I has student, tourist, and work visa and it was very stressful. Anyway, I still think it is waste of time to call Trump on his language as none will change and is nothing new. But like I said all the people who support him and might not use the same language but deep down also think these countries are shithole countries is the real problem and they need to be called out to love and compassion. I guess we can pray for them. We know Trump is going to Hell.

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