Eddy and I were to leave Okay on a fairly early bus back to Pòtoprens. It would probably leave at around 6:00 a.m. We were staying in downtown Okay, not far from the station, but it was still almost 5:45 when we realized the time. We rushed out of the house, got motorcycles to the station, and were off. We grabbed a quick cup of coffee on the street while we waited for the bus to actually leave, but that’s all the breakfast we had. No problem. The bus would stop at Kafou Dewiso in less than two hours, and there would be
plenty of food there.
Kafou Dewiso is roughly halfway between Okay and Pòtoprens. It’s the usual rest stop for the busses that make the route. There’s hardly a bus, going in either direction, that doesn’t stop there. People get out and use the facilities. For men, that means finding the nearest tree or wall. Women do whatever they can or have to do.
Each bus is swamped by merchants selling snack foods and drinks. There’s sugar cane, fried plantain and meat, candies, cakes, crackers, breads, and nuts. Eddy and I were hungry when we arrived, so we quickly bought some fried plantain with the spicy coleslaw-like condiment it’s served with. We ate it fast, but the bus lingered, and the longer it lingered the more we realized that we were still hungry. We wanted more plantain, but all we had were a couple of hundred-goud notes. The plantain would run us about ten gouds. So Eddy called out the window of the bus to ask the merchant we wanted to buy from whether she had change. She didn’t, but she immediately talked to
another merchant, and then another, and soon she had our change for us. We bought more plantain and then a couple of drinks. Presumably, the woman who sold us the plantain would settle with the other merchants later.
These events struck me, but in order to explain why I probably need to say more about the scene. When the busses arrive, they really are swamped. There might easily be a dozen merchants just selling plantain. And as many more who are fighting to make each other kind of sale. The point is this: Competition is fierce, really fierce. Merchants run and push to get to advantageous positions. They shout over one another, too. Money is short all over this country, and every one of these merchants badly needs to make every
single sale that he or she can make.
So what struck me when our plantain merchant went looking for change is that she went to other plantain merchants. And they, instead of taking advantage of her situation, gave her the change she needed to make her sale. They may strain hard to compete for every sale they can make, but they have their struggle in common, and they’re not averse to helping one another out.
One of the most consistent impressions I have of the people that I live and work around in Haiti is of the solidarity they show one another. A quick example: Though traffic here is awful, and though everyone is always in a hurry to get through it as fast as they can, professional drivers are, on the whole, quite courteous. Private individuals, driving their private cars, may have all the worst qualities of the Boston drivers I grew up around, but many of the taxi and tap-tap drivers are remarkably quick to give up the right of way, to let another driver cut in, to make space for u-turns and various sorts of stops and starts. That doesn’t mean that they’re not anxious to get through. Nor does it mean they won’t press hard to make their way. It doesn’t keep them from yelling and cursing at one another. They’ll still ride their horn if they feel as though someone is holding them up. But they also seem to understand that their fellow-drivers, their colleagues, are in a hurry too. If I ever have a car again, I hope I’ll remember that.
I see the solidarity in other places, too. I’ve already written about the way the street boys work together at the Bwa Moket station, the way they share what they have. And sharing is an enormous part of Haitian life. There are, for example, two donkeys in our nine-family neighborhood, but all nine families seem to have nearly equal access to them. Frenel has a pretty good ax, but he’s only rarely the one whom I see using it. There are three water cisterns, but Toto’s, the most biggest and most reliable among them, is open
to all. Everyone grinds his corn in Kasnel’s mill. Transistor radios and headphones appear and disappear from the young people I live around as they borrow them or lend them to others. And then there are the exchanges of labor.
It’s among Haitian children, however, that sharing is especially striking. For example, I occasional buy candy in Malik on my way home. I always give it to Kasann, and she always parcels it out. I’ve never heard the slightest complaint. I can bring four or five pieces, and the children manage well with that. But I can bring one piece, and they still make do. The candy is about one inch by two, and has a consistency slightly stiffer than fudge. Kasann breaks it into smaller pieces-two or three or four or five or six-and however small the pieces finally are, everyone seems happy. I can’t help but think that a lot of people back home would think that there wasn’t enough to go around.
Sometimes I bring little balls up the hill with me, balls that the smaller children can use to play soccer. If I brought a hundred up the hill, there would be a hundred more children who would ask me, but we all make due. What’s so striking about it to me is that as much as each child badly wants his or her own ball, I might end up seeing any given ball that I bring up the hill in almost any child’s hands. I recognize this especially with regard to the couple of inflatable, higher quality balls that I carried back from Germany with me. Since I’m the only one around with a pump, I see each and every one of these balls pretty regularly. And the probability that the child who brings the ball to me is the child I gave it to just isn’t very great. It might mean a lot to each child to own his or her own little ball, but such questions of ownership seem to have little to do with who plays with one or when.
This sharing and that solidarity seem to me to be one and the same thing. And it’s striking that they are so prevalent in a place where resources of all sorts are so scarce, where the pressures on everyone’s lives are so great. There’s a lesson in that, and it’s worth taking home with me.