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.