New Year’s Day is probably the most important holiday in Haiti. It’s not because of the advent of the new year. It’s because of Haitian Independence Day, the celebration of the 1804 victory over Napoleon’s French. January 1st and 2nd are both national holidays, and people spend them at home with their families.
January 1st, in particular, has a well-defined pattern. Women get up especially early — by three or four A.M. — to make pumpkin soup. By six or seven, children are carrying bowls of it to neighbors’ homes to give and receive New Year’s wishes. Each household makes the soup slightly differently, and by mid-morning each family might have bowls of a half-dozen or more different batches on its table. I love the day because I love pumpkin soup and also because I admire both the Haitians’ commitment to remembering a shared history and their devotion to sharing their soup.
Madan Anténor and I had been talking about the celebration almost since I arrived in December. Perhaps uniquely among Haitians, she prepares her soup initially without meat. She takes out my serving — I’m a long-time vegetarian — and then adds meat, which she has prepared separately. I’m sure it’s a nuisance for her.
This year looked like it might be a little harder. One of the less important of the effects of the hurricanes that ravaged Haiti in August and September was the destruction in many areas of the country of the pumpkin crop, and the mountain we live on was one of those areas. But I made a trip to the Central Plateau last week, and found a good-sized pumpkin in the marketplace. Madan Anténor received a second as a gift from the farmer who works some land that her father left her. As I left for some end-of-year work at a new Fonkoze office in northern Haiti, she said she was all set.
Her one concern was that her pot wasn’t big enough. Her younger sister had already announced that she, would come up to Kaglo with her husband and kids so the two families could have their soup together, and between the two families, me, and all the households she would be sending bowls to, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to make enough.
Then on Tuesday night everything changed. Early in the evening, Cassandra, her 21-year-old oldest child, got suddenly sick. She had a fever and could not stand up under her own power. I’m told she was chatty and lucid as the family took her down to a hospital in Pétion-Ville even if she could not hold her head up straight. She didn’t, apparently, think things were very serious. But by 11:00 that night, she was dead. It’s very hard to figure.
I had spoken with her on Sunday. She seemed fine. It had been a hard couple of years for her. She was not able to pass the first half of the national high school graduation exam. She tried a couple of times, but never quite could. She hadn’t ever been really good in school, and the enormous amount of housework she was always doing either at home or in her aunt’s house, where she spent a couple of years, only made things harder. With perseverance she had worked her way to the second-to-last year, but couldn’t pass the test. And without passing she wasn’t able to enter 13th grade, the last year of high school in Haiti. She was hurt, and spent a couple of nights crying about it, but she shook off the disappointment soon enough. She started a class in accounting, and moved forward.
On Sunday, she was in an especially good mood. She was telling me about a cooking class she attended during the fall while I was in the States. She had learned to make a number of things that she wanted me to try, and was just waiting until her mother decided to fill the propane tank for her indoor oven. Gas prices have been coming down of late, so she hoped her mother would fill it soon. She seemed really happy with what she had achieved. We talked a little about her boy friend, as well. He’s a nice young university student from a nearby community. Her little siblings enjoy the joke when I refer to him as my brother-in-law.
And now she’s gone. “Just like that,” as we sometimes say.
So today is not a happy New Year’s Day. Madam Anténor’s yard is full of visitors, even more than she had anticipated, but their mission is not at all what anyone hoped, or even imagined. It’s terrible.
She is the second young woman to die in Kaglo in December. A couple of weeks earlier, Youyout, the granddaughter of a farmer who lives about a hundred yards down the hill, died as well. She had, I am told, been sick for just about a week. I know that there are young people whom diseases carry away quite suddenly in the States, but it sure seems like a very rarely thing. Blessedly rare.
So to be in a community that loses two such wonderful people so quickly leaves one wondering. These are not Haitians dying of poverty-related malnutrition. There are too many such people in this country, but these were children of households that could afford to feed them well. They were both strong, vibrant, hardworking young women, women whose families were already accustomed to depending on them for a lot. There will be no autopsies, so I can wonder all I want, but it won’t make me any smarter. Nor will it do me any other sort of good.
Most of my adult neighbors seem pretty hard-nosed in their sympathies. In this country, children are the only safety net that people have as they grow old. And in that context, these awful losses cannot help but seem like investments gone awry. I’ve heard several people say that losing such a child is like preparing a wonderful meal, setting it out on a table, and then having it disappear before you can taste it. I’ll add that none of these very practical comments have come from the two girls’ families.
I can’t speak of Youyout’s family, but only last week Madan Anténor was sharing with me some thoughts that she had regarding a couple of last things she was thinking of doing for Cassandra, things that might send Cassandra towards the brightest future that a mother’s resources and wit could offer. Madan Anténor and her husband are not be poor by Haitian standards, but they’re not wealthy either, nor even solidly middle-class, but she was planning some extraordinary expenses because she couldn’t rest easy without giving Cassandra everything she could. She may need to spend almost as much now just to send her daughter to a decent grave.
For the moment, though, Madan Anténor seems to have very little on her mind beyond the pain of loss. The funeral won’t happen for a couple of days, and there’s very little likelihood of things improving for her before then. Anténor himself is doing most of its planning, with help from his brothers and brothers-in-law. But eventually Madan Anténor will force herself to pull herself together. She has no choice. She has two younger children, and each has both a present and a future for her to guide.