Category Archives: Original Life In Haiti Letters

Here I’ll post the original Life in Haiti letters, written in 1999 and 2000. There’s much I would change about the letters if I were to re-write them from the perspective I’ve gained as I’ve continued to live and work with my friends and colleagues in Haiti, but I’ve decided to leave the letters basically unchanged. I’ll correct misspellings and if there are wild inaccuracies I’ll note them. But on the whole, I’d rather share them as they are.
I hope you enjoy them.


For someone arriving at London’s Heathrow International Airport, it’s easy to believe that we all live in one world. Thousands of miles from Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, or New York, one is faced with so much that is perfectly familiar. I was at Heathrow for the second time in two weeks, and the fact that I was on my way back from Düsseldorf only added to the impression. More so, perhaps, than in Miami or in Düsseldorf, I found myself in a shopping mall, but not infinitely more so. I was looking through the same stores, selling the same sorts of things, made by the same companies: French perfume, Scottish whiskey, Italian silk ties, Japanese cameras, Iranian caviar, Belgian chocolate, American sunglasses. Heathrow may be an extreme case. Not all airports carry caviar. But it hardly seems all that extreme.

I used a payphone to wish my grandmother a Happy Valentine’s Day, and only needed to enter my Working Assets Long Distance code to charge the call. My small provider was connected through a larger American firmer-probably MCI or Sprint-to something called “Worldcom.” When I punched in my card number, I heard the same familiar operator’s voice welcoming me to the system and giving me simple recorded instructions for dialing the States.

The spectacular array of languages that I heard and the looks and forms of dress that I saw amplified the effect all the more. Flights seemed to be coming from everywhere and to be going everywhere: Dubai, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lagos, Oslo, New York, Seoul, Addis Ababa, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Athens make up only a very partial list. And all the people, going to all their various places, speaking all their different languages
were buying the same French perfume, Scottish whiskey, Italian silk ties, Japanese cameras, Iranian caviar, Belgian chocolate, and American sunglasses. I found it all pretty stunning.

I was hungry, so I stepped into a not-quite fast-food restaurant, one very much like scores of American chains. It offered, among other things, American-style grilled burgers and sandwiches, various pasta dishes, several stir-fries, and espresso. There certainly was no hint of Britain in it. Even the chips were called french fries. I didn’t have a British pound on me, so I paid with my Visa card. The same card I had used to pay German marks for a train ticket to meet a Turkish-German student in Bielefeld who’s interested in alternative education, the same card I had used to pay French francs for a textbook in French on auto mechanics that I ordered over the internet for my friend and neighbor in Ka Glo, Toto.

Which brings me back to Haiti. The reason I ordered the book is that although Toto goes to a for-him-expensive auto mechanics school in Pòtoprens, descending an hour by foot and another thirty minutes by tap-tap every day, and although he spends significant time every day trying to do homework, he doesn’t have access to the book his teachers use, or to any other book on auto mechanics. Few of his fellow students do. They take dictation in French, or copy texts that their teachers write on the blackboard. Then they learn their lesson by heart.

My point is not, however, that Toto’s school stinks. I don’t really know that it does. My point is, rather, that Toto lacks something that those like me who were sipping double espressos at Heathrow, enjoying our one world, probably take for granted: If we are students in a school, we have access to school books. And that is just one obvious way that Toto-and here he stands for almost all of the Haitians I live and work with-lives in a world apart, without a share of the Heathrow-world. It least without a share in any positive sense: It is worth knowing that Toto, like many young Haitians, pays close attention to whether his sneakers have three stripes or a swoosh or another of the fashionable trademarks.

But my point is also not that Toto, or anyone else, should have more access to the consumer-world. Nor do I wish to preach against that world. I myself am only too comfortable shopping on the internet, I enjoyed my Heathrow espresso, and was glad in Düsseldorf to be able to buy a Steiff animal for the daughter of a friend whom I would see when I got to JFK. The sermon against consumerism is some else’s job. It’s a true sermon, though, and I wish I knew how to respond to its truth.

All I really want to do is describe my own sense of the interconnectedness among the places I visited during a twelve-day trip from Ka Glo, Haiti, to Wesel, Germany, and back. And I wanted to note how deceptive, how one-sided, that sense seems to me to be. For surely there is also a close connection between the tightening unity of London with Miami and Düsseldorf-and, for that matter, with Singapore, Dubai, and Tokyo-and the
poverty I see in Haiti every day.

An Act of Violence

Sunday we killed Miki. We had been planning to kill her for several days, but somehow couldn’t quite manage. We were all too busy Thursday and Friday. Then came Saturday, the Sabbath in our mostly Seventh Day Adventist community. On top of all that, it was a hard thing to resolve ourselves to do. Much, much easier to procrastinate. But Sunday, Madanm Frenel insisted, and with good reason.

When I told Toto how Miki was killed – how Frantzy, Toto’s little brother, and Ti Papouch killed her – he shook his head and said only this: “Yo mechan kamenm.” He was saying that the boys were wicked, or nasty, even though he recognized that the killing had to be done. Frantzy had gotten a rope around Miki’s neck. Then he dragged her, running at full speed, to the galèt, the rocky ravine, a few hundred yards away. He threw her, by the rope, off a cliff. Then the two boys stoned her to make sure she was dead.

Miki was our dog, really Madanm Mèt’s, a sweet and gentle creature. She was very often the first to greet me when I got home at the end of the day. She was always the first one to greet Madanm Mèt. She would sit at my feet whenever I read outside, hoping that I would take a minute to scratch her ears. A thin but energetic little dog that seemed to enjoy being around people.

At the end of December, she gave birth to three puppies. It was her first successful pregnancy. One previous time she had lost her litter because one of the children had kicked her. Soon after she gave birth in December, however, she got sick. She stopped eating, and immediately lost a lot of weight. The two weaker puppies quickly died. Of hunger, I suppose. The third hung on.

And then Miki started to regain her strength. She began eating again. She could stand up and even walk without trembling. It looked as though she would pull through. And the puppy’s strength grew with hers.

Then things suddenly got worse. Wednesday morning I heard odd squealing as I stumbled back in the half-darkness from the outhouse to my room. For some reason Kenedi, Toto’s mother’s dog, had brought her own six puppies to a quiet, sheltered spot near the outhouse. Miki was devouring them. She tore up three of them before we could shoo her off. She got two more on Thursday. Friday, we awoke to discover that she had killed her own puppy during the night. She spent much of Saturday and Sunday morning stumbling around. She would stand up, hobble around for a few steps, lie back down, then stand again. At one point I thought I saw whiteness around her snout, but I’m not sure. A had clear memories of the dog that Gregory Peck shot in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Finally on Sunday, she went after Madanm Frenel’s new puppy. She’s had the puppy only for a couple of days. Her last dog had died suddenly about a week earlier. Toto and I were sitting on my patio, working on his English homework. We tore over when we heard the noise. He managed to chase Miki away, but Madanm Frenel became firm. Her young boys were very likely, despite any warnings or prohibitions, to put themselves in danger trying to protect their little dog. Or simply out of mischief. Mèt Antenò agreed, and he called Frantzy and Papouch over. And they did what they did.

Haiti’s dogs must be among the most wretched creatures on earth. My neighbors were a little amused by how fond I was of Miki. They weren’t really surprised, though. I suppose they think it is the way of foreigners, something “blan.” John’s fondness for his dogs is well-known all over the mountain.

Haiti’s dogs are beaten, broken, and despised. One sees them everywhere. Limping on twisted limbs, their ragged flea-bitten fur hanging loosely over their protruding ribs. Almost all the families up where I live have dogs. And only a few give them any sort of care. They keep them for security. Not as attack dogs, but for the noise they make. They are barely fed, but called thieves when they try to take some food. And “volè,” or “thief,” is a very harsh word in Kreyol. They wander around Bwa Mokèt, looking for market scraps. They wander around Petyonvil and Pòtoprens, looking for God knows what. People think nothing of beating them, of kicking them, of hitting them with rocks.

Children are especially fierce towards them. The boys near Erik’s house broke his dog’s leg by picking it up high by its hind legs and letting it fall. Breny and Christophe, Madanm Frenel’s two boys, think nothing of dropping rocks on puppies when there are puppies around.

I don’t understand that violence. I know that it’s connected to the violence that we all experience and see here every day, but I wonder why that connection is so hard to break.

The Group in Bizoton

Ensemble Scolaire Père Basile Moreaux is the only place where I have ever:

  1. Taught a class with someone sitting on my lap. (The well-behaved little boy’s mother participates in the class, and she herself was holding her beautiful girl.)
  2. Spoon-fed someone in class. (No metaphor here. The little girl didn’t want to eat her beans and rice, and Madanm Aline was busy.)
  3. Been vomited on during class. (Not the same week as #2.)

I am having a strange and wonderful experience there.

Père Basile Moreaux is a collection of schools on one campus. It’s directed by an energetic and funny priest, Pè Simon, who’s largely responsible for the fact that the program has developed as it has. There’s a three-year preschool, a six-year elementary school, and a seven-year secondary school. Post-secondary professional programs are planned. It’s in Bizoton, an area on the coast south of Pòtoprens, on the road that leads
through Kafou to Leyogan and Okay. Our connection there is with the preschool, which receives substantial support from the same Haitian foundation, FOKAL, that funds much of our work. We were invited to start a weekly discussion group there by four preschool teachers who were coming into Pòtoprens each week to participate in one of our groups here. The trip for them was two hours each way, and they were having to leave school early to arrive on time. They claimed, and we agreed, that it would make more sense for us to come to them-especially since a group at their own school would allow more of them to get involved. I now go every Thursday, alone or with others, in public transportation I’ve described elsewhere. Their school day ends at about 2:00, and we start somewhere between then and 2:30, depending on how long it takes to get together.

It was clear from the start that we would not aim mainly at training discussion leaders for preschool classes. It might be a good idea to lead discussions of texts with children three to five years old, but I’m not sure that it is. I am sure that I don’t know how to do it, and I suspect that there are better things for such very little kids to do in school. On the other hand, the teachers themselves are poor readers in two ways. First, their own limited education has been in French. Kreyol, though native to them, is not the language they would tend to read in. Work at reading seriously in Kreyol can thus be useful to them. Second, the reading that they have done for school has probably been pretty narrowly focused. They read to remember, perhaps word-by-word. At best, they might look to memorize and deliver a summary. They don’t engage themselves actively with the texts they read: They don’t probe, question, reject, or affirm. They don’t judge. They don’t bring their own knowledge and experience to bear.

We believe that such reading as they do is the farthest thing from liberating. We decided, together with the teachers who invited us there, that we could postpone any question as to whether or how to bring Wonn Refleksyon into their classes. We decided that the opportunity to read actively and thoughtfully together would be useful enough in its own right. The teachers themselves had one important suggestion: that we invite the parents of their preschoolers to participate. They felt this could serve to bring more parents into the school. As a result, we now have a group that consists mainly of parents. Plans to get more teachers involved have consistently failed, but we have new parents with us almost every week.

As the group’s work has progressed, it’s character has shifted dramatically. In early meetings, two men who were in the group dominated almost entirely. Each question anyone asked would draw at least one long speech out of each of them. Sometimes two or three. The speeches were really very long, often several minutes – which is longer than you might think. They rarely were closely related to one another, except in as much as they would treat more or less of the same subject. As the orators spoke, others would listen politely or whisper unobtrusively to whoever was closest. After a short series of long speeches, one or the other of the men would turn to me to produce another topic of speechification.

In contrast to our monotonous large-group discussions, our small-group work was engaging from the very first. Participants would talk, in groups of three or four, about their questions and concerns about the text. I would step out of the group, often even leaving the room. (Actually, that’s how I got vomited on. But that’s another story.) Everyone, or almost everyone, would participate actively. The four teachers who had experience in the process worked, both by example and explanation, to integrate the parents who had joined us. The types of questions that the small groups develop have changed quickly. In early meetings, each group would tend to summarize a text and then ask something about the “lesson” in it. Often, they would answer their question in the very same speech. As the weeks have passed, though, the questions have grown shorter and more specific. Particular questions about words, thoughts, or events in the texts. And about our judgments, too. Such questions have tended to lead away from the texts, and our discussions now wander very, very far.

But as they have, they’ve changed in character, too. Instead of two or three men dominating through long speeches about the lesson “we” are to learn, five or six or eight or ten men and women are making much shorter about the texts, but even more about their lives. These speeches may not always be as responsive to one another as one might wish. Perhaps we’re not yet, as a group, engaged enough in what any one of us has to say. But more people are talking, fewer are whispering – however unobtrusively – to their neighbors, and attendance is one the rise.

And it’s important to think about how much mere attendance means here. Bizoton is a working-class neighborhood. For these working-class parents to get dressed up – they wouldn’t come without looking good – in the middle of a blistering Bizoton afternoon to spend two hours of their very hard day reading and talking about stories is one small but very clear sign of what they’re willing to do to be a part of their children’s education.

The meetings can still be odd in some ways. Just one example: Almost any extended silence is likely to bring forth not new questions about the text or about related issues. Instead, the silences invite testimonials for the meetings themselves: how much “we” like them, how “we” need to get more parents involved. It’s something I’ve not seen before, and I don’t quite understand it. But I assume that the tendency will fade as we learn to engage ourselves more and more with texts and with what we have to say about them.

Manman Edwa

I didn’t know her. As Edwa led us up to the open casket, John said to me quietly that he had never seen her alive. As I looked at the face of dead woman’s corpse, neither older or younger-looking than her 57 years, I thought to myself that I wasn’t seeing her now. She wasn’t the corpse in the coffin before me.

Edwa is a friend and also, as I learned to say in the year I spent working in a Business Office, a vendor. He drives a motorcycle-taxi, and he’s the one we call on. We have enormous confidence in him-so much so that we bought him a pager so that we could always reach him. He is reliable, trustworthy, and a great driver. He takes us around, but also runs errands and hand-delivers letters. On the back of his bike you really feel safe.

Or as safe as Pòtoprens traffic generally allows one to feel. Even sitting behind him, even with no way to watch his eyes, I am always struck by how alert he seems, by how much he seems to be paying attention to. His head is in constant but very slight motion as he turns from mirror to mirror to various spots of the road-both what’s directly in front of him and what’s farther ahead. On the roads here, more potholes than roads, he weaves so carefully that one hardly ever feels a bump. With him, there are no close calls. He is also, invariably, on time.

But he’s also a great friend, a man in his early twenties with a gentle manner, a gentle little voice and, almost uniquely among the Haitians I know, delicate soft hands. We had been following with concern the decline of his mother – “manman” in Kreyol – for several weeks. When I saw Edwa in early January, she was in the hospital. She had been diagnosed as diabetic, and they had just cut off two toes. She would, he said, be fine-able to walk within a few months. A week later, they cut off her whole foot. A week after
that, she was dead.

Monday night, Coleen, Erik, and I went to the “veye,” which is something like a wake, but even more like a block party. Edwa lives in a poor, over-crowded neighborhood of Petyonvil. It’s a lively and potentially dangerous area, where a fair amount of drug traffic is said to go on. It’s also said, however, that if you aren’t involved in that stuff, and you’re with people who live there, you’re ok. Edwa himself says, for example, that he can leave his motorcycle parked on the street all night while he sleeps in his little room, a short way up one of the side alleys. The very fact that there’s criminal business going on all night provides a certain kind of security.

We got to the veye at around 8:30 or 9:00, but the party wasn’t nearly in full swing. Edwa was running around arranging chairs and tables along the narrow, crowded street. His own place and the alley in front of it had no space for him to receive guests. Men were playing cards and dominos. Woman were chatting. Everyone was drinking. We sat with a cousin of his and shared jokes. Edwa was serving beer, soft drinks, and homemade liquors. Ginger tea and coffee would come later. For the couple of hours we were there, he hardly sat down. He was always working, or grabbing a younger relative or neighbor
to help him. I’m told the party probably went through the night.

What struck me most was the total absence of anything that looked like grief. If there was a sadness visible somewhere deep in Edwa’s large dark eyes, and I think that there was, it was a sadness half-hidden, or trying to hide, behind the smiling, welcoming face of typically extravagant Haitian hospitality.

On the other hand, grief flowed spectacularly at the funeral next afternoon. I went with Coleen and John. I’ve read about expressions of grief like the ones I witnessed there, but I had never seen or really imagined anything of the kind. There were two funerals in the church that day, and they were combined when the priest came to sing mass. But before the mass, the coffins lay open in a different corners of the building. A small brass band was playing by each. As people came in, they filed up to the coffin to pay their respects, or to get a last look. It’s hard for me to know what looking in a coffin is really for: It seems such a strange custom to me. Edwa welcomed everyone dutifully, even warmly, but without the previous night’s smile. I would have expected him to be exhausted, but he didn’t look it. He was, instead, a picture of funereal solemnity. As the occasion demanded.

And there was shrieking. Women, mostly middle-aged women, would give themselves over to spectacular, spectacular cries. Some would fall down, needing the hurried support of those around them. Some would writhe, tossing themselves about, or being tossed about, in their pain. Their companions would collect shoes they had kicked across the room or purses they had thrown aside. They would try to lift them gently into a chair.

It’s tempting to try to explain their wailing. Various accounts are possible. None seems to me much more convincing than to say that the women were overcome by a spirit which let them give themselves over to ecstasies of pain. But that could be well off the mark, and I don’t really know what those words mean anyway. After the mass, I headed up the hill towards home. John and Coleen went to the cemetery.

Edwa has problems: He lost an older sister horribly last year. He had to sell his motorcycle to pay for her funeral. He rents one now, so it’s that much harder for him to save money towards his own future. And his mother’s funeral seemed enormously expensive, too. He’s left as the oldest child, with a younger sister who’s the single mother of two and a little brother in high school. They both depend on him now. But Edwa will surely manage. He has a good job, one that he likes, and he’s very good at it. There are a lot of Haitians much worse off than he.

But I don’t want to leave things there. I’d like to add one more thing. One idiomatic way to call a person “cruel” or “pitiless” in Kreyol is to say that they are “san manman,” or “without a mother.” I’m not sure why this is so. I can imagine several explanations. And now Edwa is without a mother. Nothing would convince me that he will turn pitiless or cruel. But I would say this much: the fact that Haitians use the expression in this way might be a way of thinking about the immeasurable enormity of Edwa’s loss.

Sunday in All Its Ordinariness

It’s only Tuesday, but the details of the day’s events are already slipping from my memory. It was such an unremarkable day, a Sunday like so many others. But I’d like to share how I spent that very ordinary day. It will take a lot to tell this story, because there is no real story to tell. I would like to describe a sixteen-hour panorama, and so this sketch will be much longer than the others have been. Sorry.

I was up just before five, neither especially early nor especially late. I had a little writing to do, and I wanted to get through at least an hour’s worth before I could get too distracted. I mention the time in part to report a fact, but also because it was the last time all day that I looked at a watch. It was Monday at four A.M. before I knew the time again. It was dark, so I used my flashlight to find some matches and light my kerosene lamp. My eyes aren’t yet accustomed to its weak light, so it doesn’t let me work for very long. But by the time my eyes would start to tire, the sun would be up and I would be able to move outside.

John was scheduled to come by at six so we could go for a jog. By the time he arrived, it must have been six-thirty – to judge from how light it was. But our six o’clock was a Haitian six o’clock, and six-thirty was not even remotely late. John and I run together off and on-sometimes more often, sometimes less. We go about two or three miles uphill from my house, and then we walk back. I’m not comfortable jogging down the steep, rocky trail. I enjoy these runs, because it’s a great time to talk. We pass several little communities on our way up, and cross paths with various merchants and others headed up or down the hill. Everyone wants to exchange greetings. Children run out to us for a “Hello” or a handshake or a high-five. But between these quick words in Kreyol, John and I get to talk. He’s a remarkable colleague, very good and experienced at all sorts of things that I don’t know how to do.

This particular run was an expensive one for John. On our way up, we saw a market woman limping badly. She was walking down the hill, leaning on the thick stalk of a palm leaf, with a big basket of oranges on her head. On our way back down, we saw her again in Ba Osya. Her limp was much worse. She had left her basket at the water source at the side of the road, and was struggling back up the hill. Apparently, she had wrenched her ankle, the one that was already sore, and she had to give up her trip to Petyonvil. She was heading back up to Grifen, a forty-five minute uphill hike. John went to her to offer her a few kind words and ten Haitian dollars.

When we got back to Ka Glo, John came in and sat with Mèt Anténor and me for a cup of coffee. John is the one who placed me with Mèt Anténor and Madanm Mèt, and they enjoy his occasional visits. When John left, Mèt asked whether I would be around all day, and I said that I would. He said that he had some corn to grind, but that he wasn’t ready yet. I told him to let me know. I strolled over to Toto’s house to say good morning, greeting Madanm Frenel and her two little boys on the way. Toto had come by the night before to see whether I had any film lying around. A friend had asked him to take photos at a small ceremony, and he had our camera, but no film. I had said that I would look. I didn’t find any, and went by to let him know. He was getting dressed when I walked in. He said he would bring our camera down to Petyonvil anyway, and would hope that he could find some film there before the ceremony began.

As Toto was buttoning his shirt, I spoke with Jean-Reynald, another neighbor. He had come over early, and he and Toto were eating breakfast together – fried spaghetti and lemonade. At twenty-four, Jean-Reynald is the oldest of Bòs Jean-Claude’s three boys. He’s taking a course in auto mechanics and an English class as well. He asked me a couple of grammar questions, but then got to the point: When would we re-start our weekly English sessions? I said that the young people who wanted the class had to get together and decide. I was “disponib,” or “available,” but they had to organize the thing. He said he’d get on it. Toto took his tie in his hand – he would put it on when he got down the mountain-and started off. He said he’d be back early afternoon.

I walked back to Mèt Anténor’s house. Bòs Jean-Claude – a different Bòs Jean-Claude – was there, talking to Mèt. He’s a man in his forties, who lives a couple of hundred yards up the mountain from us – straight up, in a lakou well off the main road. He’s said to be a first class stonemason. He had come with a neighbor to ask Mèt Anténor whether they could borrow the benches that are used Saturday mornings for the church in the yard in front of our porch. His godchild was getting married, and he was hosting a reception. Each man put a bench on his head, and headed uphill. They would need to make a couple of trips.

Mèt Anténor still didn’t have the corn ready for the mill, so I walked down the hill to talk with Richard. He lives in the next village down the hill from Ka Glo, Mabanbou. Richard had lost two grandparents just before the beginning of the school year, and the cost of their funerals threatened to keep him from school. When I heard that he could go to school for a year for about the price of a pair of the fancy running shoes I wear, I told him I’d help him out. I went down to see him because I had some money for him. He was alone on his porch, eating a chadèk-a large citrus, a lot like a grapefruit. He had cut off the top, and poured sugar over the exposed surface. Then he took a knife and started jabbing it into the flesh of the fruit to help the sugar mix into the juice. Now he was scraping out flesh, sugar, and juice with a spoon. It was quite a delicious little mess he was making.

When I got back to Ka Glo, I strolled to the porch between our house and Frenel’s, the porch of the uninhabited house where I had spent my first eight weeks here in the summer of 1997. Jean-Reynald was sitting, drawing lettering in pencil on a bright yellow board. Mèt Anténor was making a sign for his school, but he had been forced to interrupt his work. So he passed it to Jean-Reynald. He’s not Jean-Reynald’s father, but he is a full generation older, so he has a perfect right to hand him a chore. Jean-Reynald was carefully drawing in the letters with nothing but a straightedge. He trusted his eye. When he finished, he took out a small can of red paint. He had to jam a chip of wood through a hard crust that had developed on top, and then he used the chip to paint in the letters. He didn’t have a brush.

As I watched him work and we chatted, Mackinson came by, a boy from down the hill in Marianman. He was the first of four boys who would come by that day to have me inflate a soccer ball. I seem to have about the only working pump for at least a mile in any direction, probably farther. From the sound of things, they already had some kind of game going at the water source under the great mapou tree.

By now, Mèt Anténor was ready with his corn. Now, usually people grind about a gallon-bucket full at a time. And this would be the first time I would grind for Mèt by myself, so I was glad. He himself can’t do the work because of his asthma, and his boy, Papouch, is still too small. As I say, I was glad, because it seemed an unambiguous sign that I had made it into the family. When Mèt Anténor showed me a five-gallon bucket nearly full of corn, my jaw dropped. Grinding corn by hand is hard. And I’m really not that good at it yet.

The mill is next door, at Bòs Kastra’s place. He is an older brother to the Bòs Jean-Claude who lives in our lakou. By the way, they are first cousins to Mèt Anténor, to Frenel, and to Toto’s late father, Bòs Boby, too. The lakou is, in other words, one family. The mill itself belongs to Bòs Kastra’s oldest son, Kasnel, but I’ve never seen anyone ask him if they could use it. We all just do. I said hello to Bòs Kastra, Madanm Kastra, their daughters Yanick, Andre, and Mitann, and their younger son, Byton. Mitann had been asking me for days whether she could come by with some questions about how to use a French/English dictionary I had brought for her from the States. I had been telling her she certainly could, but she never did. She said that it wasn’t her fault, and that she certainly would later that day. Andre was sitting on a step, with large piece of stiff cardboard on her lap. She’s taking dressmaking lessons, and was making a collar. She was carefully cutting out the fabric with a kitchen knife, probably the only knife she has. Yanick, the oldest daughter, was cooking. She was over a wood fire, next to the new kitchen Bòs Kastra is making. It’s not finished yet. No one in Ka Glo cooks inside their home. The fire would make too much smoke. They cook either in an outbuilding, if they have one, or in a cleared area behind their home. Madanm Kastra was helping Yanick as much as she could. She’s sickly and blind, but she was shelling some beans. I greeted her, as I always do, with a respectful kiss, and she asked me how Erik and my other friends were, thanking Jesus each time she heard that someone was ok. Byton is apprenticing as a carpenter, and he was making a door for their new kitchen. He was cutting rough hewn one-by-four planks to size. Nikson, Jean-Reynald’s youngest brother, and Big Eli, the first cousin who has lived with them since his own mother died, were holding the wood for him. Bòs Kastra himself was looking over a big hole in the back yard. He himself is overseeing the construction of a new house, one for Kasnel. Kasnel jokes that his father is throwing him out, but the truth is that Kasnel is almost thirty-six and much more than ready to get married. I’m told he’s almost certain to get married when the house is finished, but that could take a month, or six months, or more than a year. It depends, Bòs Kastra told me, on when they have money for materials. But since they started work on the house, Kasnel has been subject to extensive teasing.

We spent a lot of time just talking, but I finally got to the mill. You crank it with your hands more or less as you would pedal a bicycle. It would take enormous strength to grind the corn finely enough in one shot. Nobody does it that way. We do it in two or three passes. I suppose we all feel that we have more endurance than raw power. So I started. Occasionally, folks would come by, surprised to see me grinding by myself, but not really enjoying it as a spectacle. I’m no longer a spectacle here, at least in my own little village. I was midway through the second pass when Nikson came by with corn of his own to grind. Madanm Mèt had been calling me to eat for awhile, and I was wearing down, so I told him I’d get through this second pass, take a lunch break, and then finish. He adjusted the mill, which he noticed wasn’t quite where I needed it to be, and went off to help Byton.

I finished, and went to eat. When I got to the table I was stunned by the quantity of food – even though I was unusually hungry. Madanm Mèt explained that she had made two full meals for me, because she would be hiking up the mountain to visit her father. It would be almost an hour each way. Her father, Bòs Sen Lwi, is a farmer who lives in Divye, with a young girl, a cousin, who takes care of his house. Madanm Sen Lwi lives in the States with another daughter. She is coming soon, for her first visit to Haiti in ten years.

I ate the boiled plantains and sweet potatoes, with salad and tomato sauce. I decided to save the rice with its pureed bean sauce for later. Both were great, but it was very much the wrong choice. I’ll explain eventually.

Nikson was almost done when I got back to the mill. On the way, I looked at Byton’s progress. The one-by-fours had to be cut so as to be one-half-by-four for the first four inches at each end. That was how the planks would be fit together. He had penciled the lines to cut on each plank, but wasn’t cutting yet. Next to him, Mèt Anténor was finishing the sign. I helped Nikson finish his corn, and then turned to my own. I was about a third
of the way through and tiring, when Richard arrived. He was angry. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t called him to help me out. We worked together for about five minutes before he was called away. Nikson then came back, and helped me get to the end of the job. That night, when Madanm Mèt got home, she looked at the quantity of cornmeal, and said only, “Mèt ap touye w” (The Mèt is killing you).

I needed a rest, but Byton needed help even more. I held the planks for him, one by one, thin side down so he could carefully saw out four-by-four-by-half-inch squares of the end of each one. He doesn’t have anything like a vise. After that, I sat down to watch. He nailed them together into a rectangular figure-eight. Then he covered it with a piece of tin, the same tin they use for roofing here. I couldn’t resist poking some fun. I said we would ave to call him “Bòs” now. That’s a respectful way to address a master craftsman. He laughed, but I could tell he was pleased. He was working hard and carefully, and was still at it, adjusting this and that, several hours later.

I went out to the mapou tree, where there was serious three-on-three soccer underway. It was the big guys, the over-eighteen crowd. It was dusty, sweaty, loud, and foul-filled. Each team had someone younger and smaller in goal. Big Eli must have been feeling good, because he was playing goal despite his asthma. He’s good: brave, quick, and very smart. Pretty soon, he had swapped positions with a teammate. He had a great time, but he paid for it, too. Later that afternoon, he was slumped across a bench, gasping for air. We sat together and spoke for awhile. He said that he thinks he wants to be a tailor. His asthma attack didn’t last long. By early that evening, he was dressed up for the Sunday prayer meeting that the young people hold.

I myself joined the game for a few minutes, stumbling around to the delight of all, but then I went to take my bath. Mèt Anténor had left some bath water in the sun for me – a little thank you for grinding his corn – so the water wasn’t quite cold. Or not very cold. It felt great to be clean for a few moments after having jogged, covered myself in cornmeal dust, and collected a certain amount of plain old dirt during the game. When I was done, I went back to the mapou, to watch some more soccer. The younger guys were playing now. Johnnie, a little boy from Mabanbou, came by to talk. He’s about eight, and had come up the hill with two one-gallon jugs to get water at the fountain. He has to make at least four such trips each day, usually with younger siblings who carry one jug at a time. He and I like to chat. He told me about his first few days of school, and about how he had spent the morning.

As I went back into our yard, Valouloun came up to me. She wanted to play. I tossed her around in circles a couple of times, and then we played “pla men cho” (hot palms). We sat across from each other, and each put out our hands. She placed hers palms up, and I rested mine palms down on them. She then tried to slap one or both of my hands before I could get them out of the way. Kristo and Breny, Frenel’s two little boys, left their game of marbles to join.

Then Mitann finally came by with her new dictionary. She wanted to know how to use the phonetic alphabet and the various abbreviations. She’s in her second to last year of high school. This year, if she passes her exams, she’ll get one sort of diploma, but she’ll need to go for another year to get a more advanced diploma if she’s to have any chance of going on to college. She’s very glad to be in school this year, at the inexpensive and relatively strong public high school down in Petyonvil. She spent last year at home – she would say she “pèdi”, or “lost,” the year–because her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. This year she found a “patwon,” or “sponsor,” a connection who was able to get her a place in the public school. It is hard to get a place in the school. Many of the spots are taken up by children whose parents could easily send them to private school, because they are the people who have connections.

Papouch came by, and asked me to follow him. He wanted me to see that he had finished building his guinea pig hutch behind the house. He then proudly showed off the little critters themselves. He raises them to sell for food. He says that they “gou,” that they “taste good.”

I went back in, and had my second meal. The rice and beans were cold, of course, which wasn’t itself a problem. I was hungry, and they tasted great. But the bean sauce had congealed. Too bad. When I came out, Mèt Anténor was talking to a man and a boy who looked about seventeen. It turned out that the boy had never been to any schooling, and his guardian – or would-be patwon, I wasn’t sure just who the man was – was trying to get him into first grade. Mèt Anténor was sorry, but he had to patiently explain that the boy was too old to start at a conventional school now. What he didn’t say was that part of his problem is that his school is simply too small to take everyone who would like to come. So he has to find ways to keep some people, needy though they might be, out. Eventually, the man turned to go, but, as he did, he turned to the boy too. He said, “See? It’s not my fault.” The boy never said a word through their whole short visit.

It was getting dark, and the youth group started their prayers. They sing most of them, so I listened from my rocking chair and let myself just think for awhile. Bòs Jean-Claude returned the benches. He asked Mèt Anténor and me why I hadn’t gone up to the reception with Mèt. I said that I didn’t know I was invited, and he said that he had assumed that, when he invited Mèt Anténor, that would mean me too. I am, he said, part of Mèt Anténor’s household. Soon enough, Madanm Mèt got home. Her father had been away. She had made the long walk to his house and back, as she said for, “gran mèsi.” That means, literally, “a big thanks,” but is Kreyol for “for nothing.” The kids started doing their homework around the table. Kasnel came by to talk a bit with Madanm Anténor, and Toto dropped by to talk with me. Eventually, I went to my room, lit the lamp, read for awhile, and then went to bed.

There was, as I said at the beginning, nothing striking about the day at all. But maybe that is, in itself, striking. Ka Glo has come to be a home to me, a place where I can pass a whole long day without ever finding anything that’s strange.

Steps in a Process Part Two: Useful Disruption

I suppose there is a sense in which it’s good for people to start to feel comfortable within the process of learning to discuss texts. It’s hard to imagine how a group could ever take shape if its members weren’t more or less at home in it, and no group can take over responsibility if it doesn’t begin to cohere as a group. What this all means is that participants need to find roles in their group that they can feel comfortable playing.

But the very heart of the objectives that Touchstones – or Wonn Refleksyon – sets for itself is to help people learn to recognize and modify their habitual roles. This is central to taking responsibility for one’s own education, central to our becoming increasingly active within our education – not just as who we are, but as who we are choosing to be. And this aspect of our work runs directly counter to the need to help participants feel at home in the group, because the roles we generally settle into at first reflect more than anything the roles we play in other aspects of our lives, especially our academic lives if we are teachers or students.

This has been true in spades of our Saturday group. They came to the group, as a whole, as strong students. Such students provide impressive answers to what they view as the questions in a text that any good academic would probably have in mind. They might contribute their outside knowledge of a text: Our most forceful participant told us, wrongly it turns out, that an excerpt labeled as coming from the Iliad was actually taken from a play by Racine, and he proceeded to describe the content of that play. His knowledge of that play was, for him, the context within which we, as academics, should address the excerpt. Or such students refer to a text’s purported social or historical context: A student told us that we had to see Hector’s doomed choice to leave his wife and return to battle in the context of the Greek sense of honor, which he explained at great length. Or they might connect the text to what seem like important academic and societal questions or concepts – existwntialism, political ideologies, historical issues. In our class, other members of the group, also strong students, would follow such leads, adding their short comments whenever there might be a little space.

The overall strength of the members of this particular group was, almost from the start, how fluidly many of them spoke, so we would pass from one long speech to another without much space in between. Or much connection, either. These speeches might be punctuated by quick questions or short comments from other members of the group, but such questions and comments only served to invite further speechifying.

These long-acquired habits can’t change very much unless participants become aware of them and of the consequences they have. They must make their sense of the discussion, and not just of the issues under discussion, explicit. They must turn their collective attention to the activity itself.

There are various ways to do this within Touchstones. An important one is the use of observer groups. A meeting using observer-group work can start as any other class would. A text is read, and then students work individually on opening questions. At some point, however, some of the students are removed from the circle. They sit outside of it while their classmates hold a discussion of the week’s text. That discussion ends early, well before the end of class, and the remaining time is used in judging the discussion that has taken place. Often there are two discussions of the text, so that all participants can join one and observe the other. Then, the two are compared.

Our Saturday group took to judging themselves early and quickly. In discussions of our work together they made frequent reference to a lack of balanced participation among group members. That is: They noticed that some of them were talking a lot, and others very little. They also discussed the role I was playing as their leader. It was an unaccustomed role for them: a leader who rarely spoke, who never took the final word, who was more likely to intervene to help someone else get involved than to share his own thoughts. At the same time, they quickly recognized that I was exerting a lot of control over the group by determining its procedures.

And so a funny thing happened. The group became so interested in the process we were following, and in how our procedures would vary slightly from week to week, that we shifted almost all of our attention to the process itself. Our discussions of the texts shrank in length and importance as members of the group insisted on questions they had about how I ran the class. The members of the group were thinking of themselves as future group leaders, not as current group participants. They stopped reflecting on their own work almost entirely. Specific personal judgments of their own contributions disappeared in the face of larger strategic considerations. The group’s progress in this direction was aided by a seemingly unrelated fact about the group: consistent tardiness. Participants would regularly arrive from fifteen to forty minutes late. To allow for this, I would hold discussions of the process for the first twenty minutes or so. Those who arrived on time felt as though they were getting to work, and the others found it easy to join in whenever they showed up.

It’s rarely useful to think of a group’s work as going well or poorly. Every group is an individual, with individual strengths and needs at every stage. So I wouldn’t have said that the work was going well or badly, but I did have a particular concern. I began to worry that this group was so involved in how its future groups might work that it wasn’t making much progress as a group itself. As its members settled into a regular focus on their interest in the issues surrounding group leadership, they settled back into their habitual roles. The more assertive participants asserted themselves forcefully, the more passive ones followed their lead.

At the same time, the very fact that they were, as a group, changing the focus of which is to say, taking control of – our discussions was a very positive sign. The day finally came when the group decided, without ever saying so, that they would not discuss the week’s text. After sharing our opening questions on the story of Cain and Abel, there was a short silence. The student that broke it asked about the choice of texts, and on that morning we never looked back. They were going to talk with me about how texts are chosen. As much as many of them initially looked to me to play a deciding role in our early discussions, they were happy with the fact that I was leaving our choice of focus in their hands.

So my effort to shift the attention of the group from the text to the process may have moved the group forward in some ways, but it didn’t disturb its work for long. My sense is, that the comfort this group is feeling can usefully be disrupted again. My plan is to encourage the group to focus once more on the texts themselves. These texts can be confounding, unsettling, if we take them seriously enough. I suspect that I will need to do a lot to help the group find them confounding. I suspect that I will increasingly need to show the group how much there is in each text that I myself don’t understand. If I can insist on my own uncertainties, on those I see in the texts themselves and in the questions they raise for me, we might just learn to find talking together difficult again.

Once we, as a group, find that we are at a loss, anything is possible. Until we do, it’s hard to see how the habits that we have can really change.

Madanm Kastra and Other Theological Matters

When I returned to Ka Glo from my short visit to the States, one of the first people I went to see was Madanm Kastra. She’s a next door neighbor, mother to five of my good friends here. Her life is hard: She’s blind, or very nearly so, she suffers from severe asthma, and she’s in general poor health. Though I reckon her to be roughly my mother’s age, maybe even slightly younger, she seems an old woman. She hardly ever leaves the small area just around her own house, and I’ve never seen her leave our neighborhood at all.

When we met, she immediately asked me about my family, asking about each person she had heard of. Then she asked about Erik, too. When she was sure that everyone I knew was well, she said, “By God’s gift! Thank you, Jesus! Glory to the Eternal!” No, she didn’t say it: She shouted it. I would have been taken back by her fervor had I not seen it before. When Erik was sick she prayed hard for him every day. She closely followed his progress. When he recovered, she loudly and passionately offered God her thanks. She had, I should say, briefly met Erik once. She asks how he is every time I see her, and offers God her praise when she hears that he is well. She’s a very dear woman and a very, very religious one. Religion is a very big part of life here, and it’s about time that I write a few words about it.

The centrality of religion to life in Haiti is everywhere to see, both in large matters and in small. Public meetings begin and end with prayer. Religious slogans are everywhere. They’re in the names of businesses. Here are some examples I’ve seen: “God is All-Powerful: Tailor,” “The Eternal is My Banner: Food and Building Materials,” “God Protects: Hotel, Bar, Restaurant.” Such slogans are in the art that decorates tap-taps, and in all sorts of graffiti. Conversations are saturated with references to God, whether or not religion is the topic being discussed. For example, when we ask one another how we are, we generally answer that we’re no worse – “nou pa pi mal” – and we add that it’s thanks to God, “gras a dye”. For another example, when we talk about plans for the future – whether we’re discussing something as specific as a date of departure or arrival or we’re just vaguely saying “see you tomorrow” – we’re nearly certain to add “si dye vle.” This means, “if God wishes,” or “God willing.” This is such a natural part of speech that “tomorrow-God-willing” often sounds like single word. It can hold together even in a question: “Are you coming tomorrow-God-willing?”

I myself consider myself to be a religious Jew, even if my practices over the last 20 or so years don’t make that very clear. There are very, very few Jews in Haiti as far as I know, just a handful of foreigners. It was common for Haitians when they first heard that I am Jewish to express wonder at the discovery that there still are any Jews. Not because they knew about the Holocaust, but because they didn’t know we survived after biblical times.
Others would be surprised to hear that we Jews do not, on the whole, accept Jesus as our personal savior. A Jew in Haiti is, in other words, a very, very foreign thing.

But one aspect of the centrality of religious life here is how common it is for people – even at first acquaintance – to ask you about your faith, to asked where you go to church or whether you’ve found Jesus or love Jesus or have accepted him as your personal savior. It can be one the first things that comes up in a conversation – waiting for or sitting in a bus, eating street food, or walking up the hill. The strange-ness of my faith is, in other words, something that can hardly avoid coming up.

But my situation is more interesting still. I live in a community made up mainly of Seventh Day Adventists. Their desire for me to join them has be very great. Perhaps it is, in part, an ordinary Christian desire to see a soul saved. They take Jesus very, very seriously when he tells them to go out and preach his word. And in this case it is especially intense because of the way they care about me. Many in the community I live in have made it abundantly clear that they do, gras a dye. It may also be fueled by what they feel I already share with them, such as a sense that Saturday is the Sabbath and an aversion to eating pork or shellfish. And by a sense that, even more than the other Christians around them, I am far from the right path.

Our relations with respect to religious matters have been maturing since I first got here. During the first summer I spent in Ka Glo, religious questions were both an impediment and a tool. I learned a tremendous amount of Kreyol in my struggle to fend off seemingly constant pressure to convert, to agree that Jesus died for me. At the same time, we didn’t have enough experience of one another to make judgments richer than labels. I was, to
many in Ka Glo, simply a non-Christian. On one occasion, I was even labeled an Anti-Christ. Though a strong sense of hospitality kept my nearest neighbors from pushing me too aggressively, those only slightly more removed from me could be very insistent indeed.

Often I lost patience with their unwillingness to meet my expectation – one that I rightly or wrongly held on to – that we would “live and let live.” A sense that religion is a private matter of conscience – one that demands mutual acceptance and respect – is just as deep in me as their desire to see all humankind saved is in them. More often, I lost patience with my inability to express myself. What I wanted to say, but somehow couldn’t manage, seemed so reasonable to me: My faith is different, I am happy with it, and I don’t want to change. I steadfastly refused to participate in any of their prayers through all that time. I worried that any gesture of compromise would only encourage their attempts to convert me.

But as I’ve become more and more a part of this community, their insistence expresses itself less and less. Partly, that’s because they’ve given up. As Toto recently said to me, “Stiv, we cannot discuss religion because I’m a Christian and you’re a Jew.” I should add that Toto and I are very great friends. Partly it is – at least I hope it is – related to their growing comfort with whatever it is they think that I am. Madanm Mèt has said things to make me think that this is so. Even if she’s still clear enough about her desire to see me find Jesus.

But there are times now, rare ones, when we have begun to talk. We’ve begun occasionally to ask each other more serious questions – questions about how we pray, how God enters our lives, what customs and what questions we see as central to our religious lives. Madanm Mèt has been especially curious about the first of these, how I pray. She was pleased when I shared with her a short prayer in Hebrew with which a Jew expresses thanks for having reached a special occasion.

I can’t tell where this story will end. I still have never participated in their prayers, and that fact is palpably hurtful to them. I don’t know when or if that fact will change. But I’ll be pretty dissatisfied if it can’t. They are my friends, real friends to me. It would be an extraordinary fact, an ungodly fact, if the differences in how we try to love God were to
remain a barrier between us.

Of course, I know that it’s been a barrier to many over the last 2000 or so years.

Steps in a Process Part One: Finding a Home in a Group

It’s no accident that I write more often about the striking aspects of my daily life here in Haiti and about assorted chance encounters that I meet than I do about my work. My work is the least striking part of my life here. Though I spend almost all my time dwelling on my classes, little about them stands out. In many ways, they seem a lot like all the other classes I’ve taught over the years. Every class is unique, just as every person is, but they have a lot in common with one another too. But I’d like to talk some generally about how classes like mine work, and I can use one of the classes I taught this fall as an illustration. The process through which a group learns to take collective responsibility for learning together can be long and slow, and there are different ways to identify the steps along the way. I would like to present one possible account of the steps a particular group is going through – the group I work with on Saturdays – and to suggest where the
group might be heading.

This Saturday group has been a particularly interesting one for me. We meet at one of the divisions of the national university – the Inivèsite Leta Ayiti – namely, the Fakilte Syans Imenn, or the College of Humane Sciences. It’s the division where two of my Haitian colleagues studied – Eddy studied sociology, and Guerda studied child psychology – and, for what it’s worth, it’s one of the places where courses in philosophy are taught. The participants in the group are students or former students, colleagues of mine at Limyè Lavi, and various teachers and librarians. They are an educated, high-powered crowd.

Nevertheless, some of what the group has gone through in these first weeks is a perfectly recognizable version of what almost any group would experience. For example: In the first meetings, the most important tendency among many members of the group was to establish their individual identities within the group as a whole. Participants were in a new and somewhat unfamiliar situation. They were unfamiliar to one another and unfamiliar to me. Many of them felt the need to impress. These individuals spoke quite fluidly and at great length. They took turns politely, but their comments rarely built on one another. When I asked them, as a preliminary activity, to come up with questions about the text, questions that could serve to open our discussion, the questions came with lengthy explanations – what their importance was, what likely answers would be. At the same time, there were others who reacted to the newness of it all with silence or near-silence. They said little, waiting to see whether this was a group they could work

Against this backdrop, our first task as a group , my first task as a leader, was just to help people relax. Another way to say this is I had to help make a collection of individuals into a working group, to help them start to feel comfortable working together, to feel that their individual importance would be respected, that we would listen.

Almost all meetings, at any stage of any group’s history, will start – after reading of the text to be discussed – with individual work. For the first weeks, participants are mainly asked to develop questions on or around the text we are reading that could be used to start a discussion. We call these “opening questions.” New participants or group leaders often understand them to be like good essay questions for an exam. They pressure themselves to produce something penetrating, something that will “open up” the text. But I think this is a misunderstanding. It is not so much the text that a good question opens, but the conversation. Opening questions are, as Nick Maistrellis has said, “invitations to conversation.” They point to issues in or near a text that could serve as something to start with. The long, interesting explanations that some participants will tend to provide do not, in this sense, serve well. They take the place of an initial inquiry, and leave a group needing to start all over again. Typically, this is what happens, too. The long question or explanation is followed by a similar performance – perhaps immediately, perhaps after a short silence. At best, people politely take turns until they run out of speeches or time runs out.

Against such tendencies, the single most important strategy for accomplishing the group’s first task is to ask participants to work together in small groups. In early meetings, I ask small the groups to develop a consensus of one sort or another. Often, it’s a consensus as to what a good opening question might be. Such small group work helps in several ways. Working together in groups of two, three, or four, participants get to know one another. They get used to speaking directly to one another and listening to one another without their leader’s mediation. Reluctant speakers are invited and even forced to talk by the task the small group shares, but they’re also freed to begin to speak without having to face the more intimidating prospect of speaking before a larger group. Those who feel the need to prove themselves discover that their partners are indeed listening.

The small groups will generally choose the questions they argue for, and this usefully validates their sense of self. The pressure they can feel to impress starts to go down. Small group work also helps all participants learn to work with and to look towards one another, not to me. Though a discussion leader will monitor this work, most closely when working with children – helping them to stay “on task” – he or she is mainly absent from these small discussions. The most important accountability that the process imposes on small groups is the knowledge that each group will have to report on its deliberations to the class as a whole.

With my Saturday group, much in this stage of the work was easy. They are successful young students and educators. They’ve been lucky to get where they are, but they’ve also arrived because of their own strengths: They’re quick and confident. The habit of speaking directly to one another, without my intervention, came quickly.

The habit of listening to one another has been harder, but we’ve made progress there, too. Again, small group work has been central, but it has been useful to assign a different kind of task. Rather than asking each small group to develop a consensus around one opening question, I started asking each group to consider every member’s opening question, and to help each member make his or her question as short and as clear as it could be. Each individual reports his or her question to the class as a whole before we start our discussion. This type of small group work forces individuals to ask their classmates for advice. And even if they’re not ready to accept that advice – some are, some aren’t – they quickly start listening to their classmates’ questions to inform the comments they themselves are asked to make.

Though much of this important early progress happens in small groups, the core of our process is the large group discussion that is part of every meeting. I call it the core not because it’s more important than the other work, but because it’s the work that most participants –and most group leaders as well – look to as the center of the undertaking. It is indeed at the center of our objectives – helping groups take collective responsibility for their own education – because the group is, more than anything, the whole collection of
its participants. If participants are asked about the progress the group is making, they almost invariably think of the weekly large-group discussions. That is what they chiefly base their judgments upon.

These larger discussions have gotten better. People have gotten more and more comfortable with the task of openly discussing a text as a group. They’ve each grown more comfortable with the role that he or she plays within the group’s work. They’ve begun to feel at home. Next week, I’ll talk about how and why I’ve tried to disrupt this comfort, and about the progress the group has made away from it.

Madanm Renòl and Wilfrid

Wilfrid’s not a small boy, but he’s not an inch bigger than his eleven years would suggest, either. He’s slender, though not skinny. His broad little frame suggests that he could be a very big man some day. He’s got wide eyes, and enormous round cheeks, a stunning smile and a perfect set of teeth. His skin is smooth and light, the color of coffee ice cream. He’s been living away from his parents, in someone else’s home, for about seven months. He lives in servitude. He’s not indentured. He could leave, I suppose, if he had anywhere to go or if he was willing to live on the street. He’s a household slave. He’s one of what is said to be thousands and thousands and thousands of children in Haiti who are given up by their families, most often – though not always – because those families cannot afford to feed and clothe them. Parents in despair turn their children over to others, hoping that the children will find a better life. Such children are called “Restaveks.”

As if it were not bad enough that they must leave their paents’ homes, one also hears that they suffer the worst treatment imaginable, abuse of every sort. They rise before the sun. Not from a bed, but from a place on a hard dirt or stone floor where they sleep. They rise first, because they have to get water and wood and to start a fire before others awake. They go to bed last. They spend every waking hour at work, and eat only table scraps. They are excluded from the loving warmth of the family they live with. They are
despised, ridiculed, shamed. They are beaten. They are raped.

We work with an organization of Baptist ministers in Okay (Les Cayes) that runs school programs for such children, and for children at risk of falling into servitude. It’s remarkable how much these schools do with very, very little to serve the restavek children. I just visited a couple of the schools for the first time, and for what I felt when I saw the children’s faces, their lovely little faces, and I realized who these children were, that these were the faces of slaves, there are no words.

What’s most remarkable about Wilfrid in particular is how happy he is. I’ve never seen anything quite like him. He works in Madanm Renòl’s house. She was my host in Kanpèrenn, a small town just outside of Okay. Every time I caught Wilfrid’s eye, he was smiling. And not just smiling, but glowing.

Madanm Renòl explained that he is from far out in the countryside, that he had never seen whites, and found Chris, David, and me funny. But this was false on two counts. First of all, Wilfrid explained that he had seen whites before, when the Americans invaded Haiti to end the military government that drove Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile. Helicopters landed near where he was from, and though he could only have been about four at the time, he still remembers them. He showed me with his hands how their blades turned above them. And he remembered how the troops ordered people to step back: “Avanse! Avanse!” He repeated what they had said, and mimicked the hand gestures that they had used. Second of all, I started glancing at him when he was looking at others, even at other Haitians, and saw that he was aglow whenever he caught anybody’s eye.

Wilfrid smiled as he worked, and giggled whenever we spoke to him. He took strongly to Chris and David, American college students who were in Kanpèrenn with me. Every time they spoke to him, he repeated what they said, laughing all the while. He even repeated his own name when they called him, intoning it just as they had. It was, I suppose, his little joke.

Now, Madanm Renòl is a real person. She was lavishly hospitable to me and the others, and I should be fair to her. Wilfrid has a bed, he eats well, and has started school since he entered her home. When his day’s work is finally done, he sits with the family through their evening prayers almost as one of them. And Madanm Renòl is demonstratively fond of him. She rests her hand under his cheek or on his head as she speaks of him. When she calls him, she calls gently. She calls him by name, or by a endearing nickname, “Ti Tonton” (Little Uncle). When I mentioned to her what a happy child he seemed to me, she explained that that is why she loves him so. But she also said that she was bound to take him into her heart because children are send to us by Christ. She seems kind.

Even so, she also told me that, as happy as he is almost all the time, I would be surprised to see him when she beats him. I wouldn’t recognize him, she said. He gets angry, stubborn. She demonstrated by clenching her fists, scowling, and gritting her teeth. That’s apparently what Wilfrid does. But in telling me this, she could have been almost any loving Haitian parent talking of his or her child. Children are beaten here.

So maybe he is happy because he’s left a bad situation for a better one. Maybe he is better off now, even without his parents’ love, even in a family where he is not quite a member, where Jolin – Madanm Renòl’s own eleven-year-old son – is clearly, explicitly privileged before him in every way. But all that seems much too simple to me. He’s not an adopted child, even if Madanm Renòl explained that she had taken him in to help him out. He was introduced to me as a household servant.

I don’t know what else to say about all this. It seemed important to say something. I don’t really know Wilfrid’s story. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. Though in a sense I surely will, often, his shining face etched into that corner of my imagination where haunting memories dwell.

Cleanliness and Godliness, For Amy

Mèt Anténor and Madanm Mèt were having an amusing little argument. They like to argue, really to tease each other. It never seems serious. This argument peaked my interest, because they were arguing about me. Madanm Mèt asked, “Is he some kind of animal?” Mèt Anténor answered with a chuckle.

They were talking about my bath. I was about to take a bucket bath in the small room we have for that purpose. The floor of the room is slanted towards a drain that leads outside. When you want to bathe, you bring a bucket of water in from outside and use a small cup to pour it over your body a little at a time. You can, of course, adjust the water pressure: You can pour the water quickly or slowly as it suits you.

The water is cold. It’s spring water that’s collected in a cistern next to our house. The cistern is mostly underground, so the water never really warms up, even when it’s hot outside. Lately, nights in Ka Glo have slipped into what I guess is the upper 50’s. Many people, mostly children, choose not to bathe – not unless they’re forced to. They are said to “fear the water” or “pè dlo.” Madanm Anténor had suggested to me, for the first time since my arrival, that I heat some of my bath water over the propane stove. Her husband was making comic, not heart-felt, objections. She argued that I’m not an animal, that I deserve more consideration, and here he laughed. As I turned on the fire under a small pot of water, just enough to take the edge of the chill out of the bucket of water I would use, he turned from her to me. “Hot water is for old men,” he said, walking away with a mock-sneer.

Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I have come to think that cleanliness is indeed next to godliness. But I need to explain myself. It’s not that I plan to start vacuuming my apartment more than once a semester when I get home. Or that I plan to learn to dust, to straighten my desk, or to keep my sink or stove top or refrigerator sparkling clean. I make my bed in Ka Glo, but only because I live in someone’s dining room. When I return to the States, I expect to live in a cluttered little apartment, with disorganized bookshelves, and layers of various papers on my table and desk. I’ll try to leave an open space in the middle of each room. I’ll try to keep my piles of stuff around the sides. But I don’t expect my home ever to look like my mother’s always has.

When I say that cleanliness is next to godliness, I mean much more that it strikes me as a gift from God. I’ve learned here to see bathing as a great luxury – even when it’s a cold bucket bath. I don’t mean to pretend that I wouldn’t prefer a hot shower. Though can honestly say that I don’t miss hot showers, I must admit that when I arrive in Miami for a visit to the States a hot shower is the very first thing on my mind. Or perhaps the second thing: just after my parents and grandmother, and just before everyone else.

But it’s hard to explain how difficult it is not to feel dirty here. In the city, one feels filthy, constantly covered by a layer of grime. Even in the countryside, sweat and dust accumulate quickly. One hardly ever feels truly clean.

I suppose most people adjust, more or less easily, to the situation. Almost everyone in Haiti has problems both more serious and more pressing than staying clean. For most Haitians, access to water is much more difficult than it is for us in my lakou. They might have miles to walk to the nearest reliable or not-so-reliable water source, and then the same miles to walk back home carrying whatever water they need. And water is heavy. I myself carry water only about 25 feet from the cistern to the bath. For most people here, then bathing is, in this sense, expensive. It’s an enormous investment of their time and their strength. And it can hardly seem important to do it much. Quickly rinsing one’s face and hands in the morning can do perfectly well.

But I really look forward to my baths. Or, to be more precise, to the moments after them when I’ve had a chance to warm up a little bit, but not yet to get dirty or dusty or grimy again. Moments of cleanliness are contemplative moments, moments where one can feel somehow apart from, or freed from, the day-to-day world. Bathing really is a very good thing.

By the way, for all his pretended contrariness, the first thing Mèt Anténor did when I got out of the bathroom was tell me that he was about to heat water for himself. He is, he said, an old man too.