For someone with a high tolerance for 20th century American romantic ballads, one of the great ones must be “Maria”, from West Side Story. It opens with a sudden jump of a seventh, almost a full octave, from the first note to the second. That leap draws us into the beloved’s name. In Maria’s absence, her name itself becomes the object of our wonder as we hear her lover sing it.
We use that same interval – a seventh, or close to it – when we call Sayil. We start low with “Sa,” then reach high to draw out the rest: “yeeeeel.” He answers with an equally high-pitched “Wi,” or “Yes.” Sayil is the full-time resident housemaster at our office in Delmas, just outside of Prtoprens. He does daily general cleaning, keeps an eye on the water filters, pumps unfiltered water from the ground-level cistern to the roof for showers, sinks, and other plumbing, and does various odd jobs. He is also responsible for just being around, being a presence. He’s not very tall, but he’s a very large-framed, well-fed-looking man. If it wasn’t for his bright, eternal smile, he might be scary. He gets a very small salary and a smaller little house, which he shares with his wife, Jidit, just inside the office compound. What is certainly not any part of his job is to be a good friend. But he just as certainly is one.
Let me give an example. At the end of November, Erik was sick enough that we took him to a nearby hospital for a couple of days. The little community hospital was not much like those in the States. There were, for example, no candy-stripers. There was no automatic means of communication between the room he was given and the nurses’ station. The nurses did make occasional rounds, but not many. The usual procedure here is for a friend or family member to stay in the hospital room with a patient, sleeping in a chair or on the floor, partly as an advocate – to help him or her communicate with nurses and doctors – and partly to run errands, to get the patient things that he or she might need. For example, a hospital might not stock the medicines its doctors prescribe, and a family member must be available to run to the local pharmacy.
Settling into the hospital room was slightly complicated. It involved several trips for various of us back and forth between it and the office. The walk wasn’t far, not more than 15 minutes, but it was well after dark, and so safety felt like it could be an issue. Sayil went to the hospital once in the early evening intending nothing but a short visit. This in itself was surprising to us, because we felt he hardly knew Erik. At that point, Erik
rarely came to the office, staying instead in Gwo Jan, the community where he lives and learns Kreyol. Sayil stayed for quite a while, though, sitting quietly as we spoke in English. Sayil speaks no English. We were nervous and uncertain of our situation, and Sayil would answer occasional questions for us as best he could. Then he went home. He returned, however, to escort various of us back and forth. Twice, in fact. He took the time, late at night, to help his foreign friends feel safer.
Nor is it his job to bring music to our lives, but he does. He has a smooth, sweet falsetto voice, and he sings almost constantly as he works, mostly evangelical church music in Kreyol. He sings quietly, so the house is never full of his music. But any little room you turn into might surprise you with his song. Imagine living or working in a large house where at any turn you might run into Rev. Al Green, quietly singing “How Great Thou Art.”
And it’s not his job to make us laugh. But if something falls or breaks or slips, he’s quick to say “oops-see-daisy,” and it’s hard not to giggle. That’s just the smallest sample of a wit both friendly and lively. His high-pitched laughter is truly contagious, too.
Sayil has been working in this office since before I came for my first longer visit to Haiti in the Summer of 1997. He continually watches foreigners come and go, keeping mental track of all of us and befriending all who are willing. He notices the little progress we make in Kreyol, the weight we gain or lose, whether our hair is longer or shorter or, in my case, more gray. He learns our nicknames. He pays attention to us.
I’m given to understand that his job with us is a pretty good one. It’s hard to find any jobs here. For someone like Sayil, with little if any formal education, the odds of finding one that pays decently would be slim. He’s his parents’ oldest child, and he’s spoken of a younger brother who had the opportunity to go to school, even quite a bit of school, and who nevertheless doesn’t really “//touche//,” or “touch.” That’s a Kreyol way of saying that he doesn’t make much money. So even with an education, Sayil might do no better than he does: a small salary and a situation that keeps his expenses low. He’s from the countryside, the area around the inland city of Hinche, and he’s got a small amount of money invested there. To be specific: He owns a cow that his father is raising for him.
So maybe it’s a good job. But if it is, that says a lot. The compensation is poor, and there’s no way to advance. He can live frugally, and try to save money out of the little he’s paid and the little bit more he makes by selling soft drinks to our staff and our neighbors. But his first child is due this Spring, and one wonders what will happen to his need to save money then.
In the meantime, his is usually the first face to greet me when I come to the office in the morning, and usually the first voice I here. It’s the kind of voice that can make a house, even a house that is more office than residence, a home.