Ari and a Dose of Reality

The group in Cité Soleil continues to show signs of flourishing, even if, as I have written before, I’m not sure towards what end. The guys will sit with me for three or four or even five hours at a time, engaged in one activity or another: the English class, Wonn Refleksyon, Business Skills Development, or just talking. It can be almost more than I can handle.

But I was a little concerned about one of the group’s members when I first saw him on Saturday. His name is Ari. He’s a dark, slender young man, probably around twenty. I hadn’t seen him for awhile. Just before the New Year, he had told me he would be missing a few meetings because his parents decided to send him to spend the holiday visiting his grandmother. I didn’t think anything of that. It seemed natural enough. I wished him a good trip.

Now that he was back, though, he seemed different: gloomy and much thinner. And though I don’t know his grandmother, I’ve known enough other grandmothers – including two wonderful ones of my own and my mother and aunt, who are grandmothers to an appreciative younger generation – that I was surprised to see that a teenager would lose weight while visiting his.

Saturday things became clear. As soon as I arrived in Cité Soleil, after the long trip from Matènwa, Ari took my backpack and walked up to my room with me. As I went in to greet Héguel, Ari started sweeping my room. I was grateful: I was tired and the pack was heavy. It felt nice to be getting un-requested support from a young friend. I asked him how he was, and then noticed he was close to tears. He motioned me to sit down next to him as he said he wasn’t doing so well.

He asked me whether I had noticed how skinny he had gotten. He lifted his sleeveless basketball short, as though things weren’t otherwise clear enough. I immediately admitted that I had. Though he was already skinny – the “slender” I used above was really just a euphemism – he was now terribly, terribly thin, his cheekbones protruding, the flesh just below his eyes sunken, the skin drawn around his elbows and knees. I asked him whether he was sick, and he said he wasn’t.

Then he told me the following story: Ari earns a few gouds now and then by pulling one of the large transport carts that carry merchandise around Port au Prince. One sees the carts in cities throughout Haiti. They look a little like giant, elongated wheelbarrows, with two wheels on an axel at one end, and two handles at the other. The guy working puts the two handles under his arms, and pulls the wheelbarrow behind him. They’ll be piled high with 30-40 cases of bottled soft drinks, a couple dozen 110-pound sacks of flour or sugar, stacks of crates of used clothing, or various sorts of building materials. For a really heavy load, a second and sometimes even a third man will push from behind. I had heard that Ari sometimes did this work, when he’s not fixing motorcycle tires or washing those same cycles with rainwater he collects for the purpose – anything for a little honest income.

Just before the New Year, someone had hired him to buy and deliver a load of ice. Haitians like their drinks cold, and since electricity is unreliable, they depend on ice companies that make the ice with big diesel generators. Wholesalers drive around in flat-bed trucks with enormous blocks of the stuff selling to retailers. Ari’s client had given him 330 Haitian dollars, which is 1650 gouds, or about $44 US in cash, and sent him off.

That’s when disaster struck. Ari somehow lost the money. He couldn’t tell me how. He simply said that it disappeared in his hands. I didn’t have the heart to press him. Just speaking to me about the matter was manifestly causing him such pain. I had to make it worse, because I could hardly hear him. His usually lively, penetrating voice was down to a bare whisper.

The client was furious, threatening to have Ari killed. The trip to his grandmother’s had been an escape ploy, a way for him to flee to safety while his father, who was willing to stand behind his son, negotiated a repayment plan with the angry client. The father could no more produce $44 US all at once than the son could.

Ari was so upset, about the danger he was facing and the burden he had placed on his dad, that he had stopped eating. And he was withering away. So he got up the courage to ask me whether I might be able to help in some way.

I happened to have a lot of Haitian cash with me, several hundred dollars worth of gouds. This is much more than I would usually carry, but someone had just paid back a for-me-large loan I had made. So, there was no question as to whether I could give him the money he needed. Though money is shorter for me right now than it normally is, things haven’t gotten to the point that I can’t afford to give someone $44 in a jam.

But I was frozen at first. I told him that I would definitely do something for him, but I couldn’t right away say what. He went downstairs, and I went across to Héguel’s room to ask for advice.

What had paralyzed me initially was the following consideration: Ever since I came to Cité Soleil I had consistently told the guys I work with that I would invest all the time I could spare, but that I would not put money into our work, that I simply couldn’t. I was worried that if I became a source of handouts, we would not be able to accomplish anything: The genuine and in some cases even urgent needs of the people around me in Cité Soleil so distantly outstrip any financial help I could hope to bring. Setting myself up as a source of money would uselessly distract us from the difficult but perhaps achievable task of organizing ourselves to make small, sustainable progress together. After the first weeks, the couple of the guys who had initially asked me for money stopped doing so.

So I was worried that I was opening a door that I had only just been able to close. Once it gets around that I gave one of the kids money for something, why wouldn’t others start turning to me as well? So I had decided that I would stick by the principle that I wouldn’t give handouts. It’s a good principle, as principles go.

But it doesn’t feel right. I am living and working in the midst of a community that is terribly poor – poor enough, for example, that $44 can be, very literally, a life-threatening loss. It represents more than a month’s income for many of the Haitian families who live on as little as a dollar a day. A few days earlier, for example, I had spoken with a couple of young guys who were running off at 5:30 in the morning, in their best clothes, to apply for factory work that pays 70 gouds a day, or a little less than $2 US. At that rate, they would not earn the $44 in a month, much less be able to accumulate $44 in savings. And they were very much hoping for the jobs.

The reality is that, whatever I think of my salary, as convenient as it would be to earn somewhat more, I am stunningly wealthy compared with many of those around me. I cannot pretend to be living and working in solidarity with them if I hide this simple truth about our lives.

So I gave Ari the money. He and Héguel then had a long talk about how Ari might be able to handle things so that word does not spread that I’m the one he got it from. I myself am skeptical. I can’t imagine that others won’t hear, or at least figure out, that that’s what happened.

But that’s ok, I suppose. Facing such requests seems reasonably to belong to living in Haiti. To avoid hearing them or, what might be worse, to avoid giving them individual consideration, would be cowardly. Or, at least, unrealistic.