Home Improvement

I didn’t get back to Kaglo until mid-morning on Sunday. I had been working in the Central Plateau Saturday morning, and by the time I was finished it was too let to get public transportation back to Pòtoprens. So I decided to get a spot on a truck that would leave at 3:00 AM on Sunday. I’d be in Pòtoprens before 8:00, and would have some of my Sunday to myself.

As soon as I got home and changed, I walked up the hill to Mackenson’s house. It’s across the road from where I live, in Upper Glo, about a five-minute walk away.

The house really belongs to Mackenson’s father, Léon. I had been there any number of times, but I remember my first visit well. Mackenson had asked me to become the signer on his report card. His parents can’t read or write, and ever since Mackenson started working with me regularly at math, he began to view me as a reasonable alternative to his signing the cards himself. I told him that I’d be happy to do so, but would have to talk to his mother or father about his grades before I did. I wanted it to be clear that I was signing for them.

So I went to talk to Léon. He’s an older man, though his age would be hard to guess. Mackenson is 18, and has four older siblings. The oldest is about thirty, so Léon is probably in his 50s, though he looks like he could be much older. He’s a farmer and a day laborer. I guess it’s a hard life. His wife lives just up the hill, in Ba Osya, with their unmarried daughters.

What I remember so well is how surprised I was to discover that Léon was living with Mackenson and another younger son in a single-room house, no more than ten feet long and ten feet wide, made entirely out of rough wooden support posts and tin roofing material. A cloth hung over the front entrance in place of a door.

I had seen such houses often enough in Haiti. They are quite common in Cité Soleil, for example. But I didn’t know there were any in Kaglo. The houses I had visited in Kaglo, where I’ve sent much of the last ten years or so, are nice concrete structures. Those that some of the poorer families live in may be a little worse for wear, and I know of one with a straw roof, but they have solid walls and offer real protection against the cool night air and the heavy summer rain. Léon’s house took me by surprise.

Over the course of the past year, though, the house began to change. Four concrete walls went up around it. Léon and his boys stilled lived in the tin structure, but it was like a mollusk growing a newer, larger, harder shell around its existing one. It’s not that Léon’s financial position had changed very much, but he was getting some help from a neighbor, who had decided to help him build a new house.

In any case, when I got to their house on Sunday, work was in progress. The roofing material that formerly was the inner shell was arranged in piles in front of the completed cement structure, and neighbors were helping to arrange the beams they would be nailed to. Mackenson had told me earlier in the week that they were finally ready to put on the roof, and I said I’d come by to give an unskilled hand.

It turned out that “giving a hand” meant sitting and drinking coffee with the older men, whose role was to provide advice while the ones doing the work would try to pretend they were listening to it. There simply wasn’t enough work to go around. The project was too small. Two men were balancing on roof beams, nailing them in place then attaching the roofing, and they couldn’t have more then one or two others passing them what they needed. Mackenson’s married oldest sister was preparing a large pot of beans and rice to share later.

I was happy with my very limited role. I had to head back down the mountain that morning to spend the afternoon working in Cité Soleil, where I would also sleep. Conserving my energy seemed like a good idea. And I was glad to be reminded that Léon likes his coffee strong.

The house isn’t exactly finished. The floor is packed dirt, and it still lacks a door, but it’s a big improvement over what they had. And Mackenson is pleased. He told me that now he has a home where he can receive his friends.