On Being at Home

When, occasionally, I feel really sick, I leave my various homes and I move in with my godson, his parents, and siblings. There I count on my makomè, my godson’s mother, to look after me. Jidit’s now a mother of three – Christiana was born in October – and they keep her hands full. But there’s a spare bed in the dining room, and though the space in their two small rooms may appear limited, it’s never been limited enough to keep me out. It didn’t squeeze me out when there was only one room, and it doesn’t now that there are two.

I am entirely at home in their home. It’s the kind thing that means I don’t ask for what I want. I just take it. And they are at home with me. Just this morning I was watching with pleasure as my five-year-old godson, Givens, ate the food off my plate rather than off of his own. He simply knows that he’s entitled to it. His mother laughed, only remarking that he feels alèz, or at ease, with me.

Depending how one counts, I have at least two homes in Haiti. I generally tell people that I live in rural Pétion-Ville, the suburb up the mountain from Port au Prince. The part I stay in is called Ka Glo, and I’ve been spending my time in Haiti in Ka Glo since John Engle placed me in Madan Anténor’s house in June 1997. I’ve spent enough time there to see a generation of young people grow up in front of me, Madan Anténor’s own three children among them. Little kids have become teenagers, teenagers have become young adults, etc. I moved into my own house in February of 2005, and have been there as much as possible ever since.

Often I also mention to people that I have a place in Cité Soleil as well. It’s just a small room, and I’ll soon have to wedge my mattress in between benches when it turns into a school in January. I’ve been sleeping there once or twice a week since the end of last year, as my collaboration with the guys – now the young men and women – of IDEAL have moved forward. I only rent the room – it costs about $100 a year – but the space seems distinctly mine, even if there are two other people who sleep there whenever I’m around.

One could easily point to additional places around Haiti, in Matènwa, Lower Delmas, and Hinche, where I am at home as well.

I was thinking of homes all the way down the mountain this morning. In part, I suppose, it was because I was on my way to a mid-afternoon flight to Florida, for visit to my parents’ home. I am very much an American, and the United States is my home. I don’t currently have my own apartment or house there, but there are a handful of places where I stay very comfortably, some of them regularly. I think of my parents’ house in particular. Even if it’s far from the home they raised me in and even if I’ve never spent more than a couple of days there at a time.

But I had also been thinking of Junior, and his place in one of my Haitian homes. Junior is my new roommate. He moved into the house in Ka Glo just over a week ago. He’s a 26-year-old carpenter from Upper Glo, the poor neighborhood just up the hill, across the main road from where I live. He grew up in his grandmother’s house, raised by her and by a wonderful aunt, who was still with her mother. The aunt died very suddenly last year, and another one of his aunts moved into the house. This other aunt – I don’t know her – is said to be a fine person as well, but she moved into the grandmother’s home with several children of her own. So Junior decided there wasn’t really room for him. He collected his things and moved about a hundred yards to his parents’ home.

That’s when his troubles began. Junior is the third of his mother’s nine kids, and his oldest brother still lives with them. Junior and his older brother shared a room, the younger children shared another, and their parents slept in the third.

I want to avoid judging Mito, the other man, too harshly. As Haitians say “wòch nan dlo pa konnen mizè wòch nan solèy.” That means that a rock in the water doesn’t know the suffering of a rock in the sun. I don’t have a lot of experience with Mito, and I haven’t discussed the tales I’m about to tell with him. But I have always found him difficult to get along with, and I’m not the only one.

What’s more to the point than whether we get along, however, are the insistent expectations he’s had of Junior and the rest of their brothers. He decided long ago that his future was not in Haiti. He would immigrate to the United States. Mito had no way to immigrate legally, but various illegal options are said to be possible. Mito squeezed his family for all the money he could get out of them, and found people who said they could get him to the States.

The problem was that they were liars. Mito threw away a lot of money that his three younger working brothers earned. And he didn’t seem to learn anything from the experience. As soon as he got back to Glo, he began hitting up Junior for the money he’d need to leave again. The second brother, Kevins, is married now and living in his own home. He and Mito are not on speaking terms, so Mito knows he won’t get anything from him. The fourth of the grown brothers, Sonson, lives and works in construction in Santo Domingo. At times, he’s done pretty well for himself. But he’s been sick, however, and Mito’s one visit to see him didn’t bear any fruit. So Mito’s been leaning on Junior.

Junior does have a small, regular income. He works in a carpentry shop, and makes something like $50 a month as long as the workshop is getting orders. But Junior is a major contributor in his parents’ household. He’s been putting a couple of his younger siblings through school, and paying as well for his own continuing education. He keeps signing up for various professional courses. Right now, he’s finishing a nine-month class in videography. So he resents Mito’s demands. He did what he could the first time. A brother is, after all, a brother. But doesn’t see how he can pay for Mito to throw away a bunch of money again. Or why he should.

This meant conflict in their small bedroom, and Mito actually went so far as to throw Junior’s things into the yard. Their parents objected. They reminded Mito that he wasn’t the one who built the house. But he ignored them. Junior tried sleeping with the younger kids, but they are noisy – Why shouldn’t they be? – so it wasn’t really working.

I learned all this because I asked Junior how he was. He had come by to see me. He thinks of me as his godfather. There are various ways to become a godfather in Haiti, and I am Junior’s godfather in what is, perhaps, the most trivial possible sense. Junior made me his by inviting me to attend his videography-school graduation. It’s something I’ve done for a couple of young people, but Junior has taken it more seriously than others did. He stopped addressing me by my name, using the title “godfather”, or “parenn”, instead. This is true even though he hasn’t yet graduated. And he started coming by regularly to pay his respects.

Junior told me the story, and added that he now had to find another place to live. I told him that he could stay in my house for a while if that would help, and it was settled right away. He now appears to have moved in for the long term. He told me that he has land near his grandmother’s home when he will build a house, and that he hopes to start saving up for it soon.

So now Junior has a place to stay, too, though he doesn’t yet appear to feel at home there. One can see him walking on eggshells, trying hard to please. He’s taken over the housework that Byton, the house’s builder and other resident, and I are, frankly, too lazy and too disarray-tolerant to do. Today, on his rare day off, he got up well before 5:00 to make me breakfast. I like the way the house is now cleaner, but I hope he relaxes soon.

Thinking of Junior – and, for that matter, Givens, Jidit, my parents, and the guys who sleep with me in Cité Soleil – has suggested one harsh fact about what it really means to have a home.

Junior did not have a real home because he couldn’t be at ease once he left his grandmother’s house. If he and I play our cards right, he’ll settle in soon and have a home in some sense.

The case of Givens and Jidit is more complicated. For years, they’ve been living in a small building in the yard next to a large house off of a street called Delmas 75. Saül, who is Givens’ father and Jidit’s husband, has been the live-in custodian for the organization that rents the house. But that organization plans to move out of the house next summer, and Saül’s future with them is unclear. At the very least, the will have to find a new place. They are being cast out through a decision that is not their own. They have a number of options, but it’s bound to be stressful nonetheless.

So I think that having a home is more than the warm fuzzies we get about the places where we are at ease. It’s surely about safety and comfort, but it’s about authority as well. My home is a place I can make decisions about. I have the power – a power no one else has –to decide who will live in the house in Ka Glo. Though I only rent in Cité Soleil, it would not have occurred to anyone to put a school in the room unless I had suggested it first. Various friends know that they can stay any time in either place, and some come without asking, but no one would just move in.

Home is where my heart is. That’s true enough. By that standard, my homes are a little hard to count. They are on three continents and a small island. They speak four languages. And the lifestyles they represent cover quite a range.

But home is also someplace where I have authority, where I have power. It’s not a beautiful truth, perhaps, but I think it’s true nonetheless.