Life Goes On: Part One

I suppose I should always have suspected that life goes on even under what might appear to be dire circumstances. Some of my very dearest friends are Colombians, who have been raising their beautiful children and living their interesting and varied lives all these last years while a violent and complicated civil war is being fought around them.

Then, a few months ago, I myself had the experience of crossing what was then something like the front line in a war of attrition between the forces of the UN in Haiti and those of what was then being called the “former military”, irregular thugs who had put themselves in charge in a couple of parts of the country. They claimed to be former members of the Haitian military that President Aristide disbanded when he returned from exile in 1994. At the time, I was on the way to Hinch with Saül, my godson’s dad, and Saül’s younger brother Job. As we crossed that line, it was striking how little it affected us. The war – if it was a war – was being fought on a level that didn’t touch us; our little visit to the countryside went on as if there was nothing strange about our crossing a market town occupied by a half-organized band of heavily armed men. (See: ToEnch)
Lately as things seem to be spinning out of control in the Port au Prince area it is both striking and instructive to watch, to experience, how life simply continues in all of the good and bad ways in which it goes on all the time.

I have carefully avoided changing names and hiding identities in what I’ve written so far about Haiti. Partly it’s been out of a sense that I have not been writing about people who are guilty or innocent; I have not been writing about people whose true identity needs protecting. Partly too it’s been that I haven’t wanted to turn anyone’s life into something like fiction. What I’ll write right now is different, and I will hide the identities of all those involved. The reasons will be obvious enough.

Several months ago, on a Sunday afternoon, a front yard not too far from where I live erupted in the sound of angry people arguing. It was the unveiling of a great scandal. A man had entered the yard with his three oldest daughters – his wife is deceased – to announce that the third of the daughters, a lovely seventeen-year-old girl, was pregnant by his neighbor’s fifteen-year-old son. He had brought her to his neighbor’s yard with her married older sisters to put the case before the unsuspecting parents. He was demanding an immediate marriage.
The girl insisted that she had been together with a boy only once, and, so, that the question of paternity was clear. There was no suggestion of rape. The boy, for his part, corroborated his part of her story. They had been together. He would not deny it. He too said it had been just once. Though he and his parents strongly suspected that the girl had been with other boys as well, they did not feel that they could simply shut the girl’s claims out of their lives. They are very decent people.

At the same time, they would not consider marriage. The boy is a child. He’s a long way from finishing school, a long way from finishing growing up or even growing. Apart from all the practical issues marriage would Fce him with that he is in no position to address, there is the damage marriage would do to his prospects for the future. And marriage for someone his age isn’t even legal in Haiti.

So there was a scandal and, for awhile, an impasse. The boy’s parents agreed immediately that they would financially support the girl through the pregnancy and then support both the girl and her child for the first weeks or months of its life. They would then pay for a paternity test – an enormous expense for a Haitian family, costing more than twice the average Haitian annual income.

They were able to finance the test by borrowing money from a family friend, but they are far from believing that the test will resolve the problem. If the result is positive, the girl’s family is likely to return to its original demand, marriage. If it’s negative, they are likely to believe the test was a fraud that their relatively-to-them wealthy neighbors were able to buy. The boy’s parents nevertheless decided to have the test done for their own peace of mind. They feel they need to know.

A lovely little boy was born in May and the families now await the results of the test. DNA tests aren’t performed in Haiti. The samples are sent to the States. So they take some time. If the baby is indeed their boy’s child, they will take him in. If he is not, they will not. I don’t know the girl’s family, so I can’t report what they are thinking about.

I am close to another such case right now, though the second isn’t as far advanced as the first. It is, however, in some way much sadder. It involves two restavek children, a boy and a girl, both in their late teens. A restavek is a child who lives outside her or his parents’ home. The word comes from the French for “stay with,” and restavek children stay in homes as domestic servants. Generally they are from families that cannot afford to raise them. Jean Robert Cadet’s book Restavek is a moving account of a way of growing up that is probably hard for most Americans to even imagine. The children’s parents give them up hoping they will find better circumstances than they themselves can provide, but often enough they receive the worst treatment imaginable.

This is not quite the case for these two children. They are treated decently in the houses where they live. The boy lives with his aunt, her daughter, and his grandmother in a one-room shack in a small slum in Delmas, one of Port au Prince’s large suburbs. The girl was living with a woman, no relation to her, whom she calls her aunt and the woman’s two young girls when the woman lost her housing. She asked the boy’s aunt whether the girl and her two daughters could stay temporarily in the boy’s aunt’s house. So, for awhile, the house’s one small room was home to the boy and six girls and women, ages six to seventy.

Somehow, in those crowded conditions, the girl and the boy found a way to share an intimate moment. I have heard not the slightest suggestion that he forced her. But now she is very much pregnant, and it’s hard to imagine what she, the woman responsible for her, the boy, and his aunt will do. Their circumstances were already very difficult.

So, one of the ordinary parts of life that just goes on during a political crisis is, unfortunately, unprotected sex among minors who are unprepared for its possible consequences.

The current “crisis” – whatever we really mean by that word – may make things harder for them in various ways. Prices continue to rise. Jobs become scarcer. The visitors, both foreign and expatriate-Haitian, who would normally be bringing dollars and demands for services into the country, especially during the summer, are staying away.

But the real problem is not this particular difficult moment in Haiti’s history. It’s the fact that children grow up here, as they do in many places, unprepared to deal with the temptation that sexual maturity presents them with and unprepared to deal with the consequences of their poor preparation. It is the world’s oldest form of recreation, but surely the world’s oldest problem as well.