A Little Bit of Family Life

Several Haitian families have drawn me into their circles, but two have drawn me in especially deeply. One is the family of Anténor and Bernadette Camille, who have been my hosts in Haiti since I first arrived in 1997. They have watched over me as I’ve discovered more and more about Haiti, I’ve seen their three children grow, and I was with them in the days after their oldest child, Cassandra, died suddenly at the end of December.

The other is the family of my godson, Givens. His parents, Jidit and Saül, and their three young children gave me a home in Port au Prince until they moved to Ench last summer. I’m friends with Givens’ three surviving grandparents and was close to his grandmother before she passed away. i know and like his uncles, aunts, and cousins. His youngest uncle, Dr. Job, looks after my health — at least as much as I will let him. The apartment Job shares with his sisters Vivi and Nannan and my friend Elie is one of my homes in Port au Prince.

Saül grew up in Colladere, a village north of Ench, as the oldest of seven siblings. He left school before he even became a teenager in order to work, but his mother, who couldn’t read a letter herself, pushed his younger siblings’ education very hard, and Saül helped her and them with both encouragement and financial support. What he hadn’t be able to accomplish himself he wanted very much for his brothers and sisters. When the younger children started to advance into higher grades, their mother moved with them to Ench, a big city with better schools. The father, Marino, remained in Colladere to work their land.

With his wife and children gone, Marino needed help running his household and his farm, so he did what many Haitians do. He took in children from very poor families around him. He fed and clothed them and sent them to school, and they helped him by doing household chores and farm work. As these children grew up, they would join his wife in Ench, where they could continue their education and help her run her house.

The last two of these children still live in Ench with Saül’s brother Ronald. Their names are Jacquelin and Koko. They are 20 and 19 now, and each has been part of the family since he was three or four years old. The family is especially attached to Jacquelin because he was their mother’s constant companion and helper as breast cancer took her life, but they are fond of Koko too. Both are good in school, and as they approach high school graduation, the family is wondering how they will be able to help them continue to move forward. Jacquelin’s education was their mother’s particular deathbed charge.

A few months ago, I was with the family in Ench when Koko approached me. He wanted to invite me to his baptism in March. I thought it was a nice gesture. I had been at Jacquelin’s the previous year in the large church that most of Saül’s family attends. Koko told me that his would be at their home church in Colladere, rather than in Ench, and I was pleased at the thought of attending. It would give me an excuse to go there, where I have a number of friends I rarely see.

Chief among them is Marino, whom I was especially anxious to visit because I wanted to meet his new wife. He remarried in August, to the delight of his children, who had been concerned that, at 70, he was living in the countryside, more or less alone, and wasn’t taking good enough care of himself or his home. Marino had told me about his plan to get married a few months before that on a long walk we took together. He explained his desire memorably. “Steve,” he said, “young people fall in love. Old people come to an understanding.” He had come to an understanding with a mature widow who has her own two children, and I couldn’t wait to meet her.

So I immediately agreed to attend the baptism. I was a little surprised, though, when Koko asked me not just to attend, but to be his godfather.

Haitians acquire godparents on all sorts of occasions. The first ones are named at their birth, and they retain them as secondary parental figures throughout their lives. They acquire more at the various graduation ceremonies they are part of, and another pair when they are married. I have friends here who address me as “parenn” or “godfather” for all of these reasons. What I now know is that Haitian Protestants add two more when they are baptized as well.

I wasn’t sure what my responsibilities would be, but I wasn’t really worried. I knew I could count on Jacquelin. He’s a year older than Koko, and had just been baptized the previous year. He’s outgoing and very competent. Saül calls him “A.D.M.,” short for “administrator,” because of how well he can be counted on to manage whatever responsibilities come his way.

Jacquelin took immediate control of the situation, explaining all my duties and how I should carry them out. My first job would be to help Koko prepare for the day by buying him the new clothes he would wear. I would also buy a small gift ,a Bible and a hymnal at least. When I asked Jacquelin about getting Koko a watch, he didn’t exactly say “no,” but pointed out that young Haitians tell time by looking at cell phones. I knew that Koko didn’t have a phone, so Jacquelin’s polite instructions were clear. Most importantly, I would stand with Koko on the day of the baptism, waiting for him as he emerged from the water with a sheet to wrap him in and lead him away to help him dry himself off and change his clothes.

But Jaquelin was more than an consultant. He was a real A.D.M. He took over management of my responsibilities, walking Koko and me through all the preparations. He decided which clothes would be purchased where, chose a tailor for the things that needed to be made, helped Koko deal with the tailor, negotiated prices, and kept me updated as to the progress they were making and the expenses it all involved. Ench is a long way from Port au Orince, and even farther from many of the places I go to do my work, so the whole think would have been difficcult to manage without him. The evening of the baptism, he led me around the church, making sure I was just where I belonged, waiting to welcome Koko as he stepped out of the water.

Koko now calls me nothing but “godfather,” and he sends me regular text messages on his new phone to let me know what he and Jacquelin are up to. Now that I am in Marigo, I’m even farther from Ench than I was. I will be passing through in a couple of weeks, and will see both Givens and him, but after that, I just don’t know. I may have to wait until he’s out of school this summer, and have him come to visit me.

But feeling myself being woven into the fabric of family lives here, with a clear role other than the foreigner or even the guest is an important part of what has made remaining here desirable over the long haul. It feels like an extraordinary privilege, and learning to appreciate it is one of the real challenges I face every day.