Short and Sad

I’ll call her “Ellen.” She’s eighteen, from Upper Glo, the poorer side of the community where I’ve been living on and off for over ten years.

I little over three years ago, she was at the center of a great scandal. Great, at least, by the standards of this very small community. She was pregnant, and she claimed that there could be no doubt as to who the father was. She said that she had only ever been with one boy. I’ll call him “Mark.” Like Ellen, her was about fifteen at the time. She and an older sister appeared at the boy’s house – his father is a prominent member of the community – one Sunday afternoon. It caused quite a stir.

Mark admitted that he had been with her once, but his family was not willing to simply accept that Mark was the prospective father. So his mother agreed to take full but temporary financial responsibility for Ellen. All through her pregnancy, she would ensure that she ate well and got good prenatal care. But the family also arranged to have a DNA test done as soon as the baby was born.

That test was conclusive. Mark was not the father. So, his family ceased supporting Ellen and her child, leaving her on her own and her father’s hands. She and her family continued to insist that the baby could only be his, that she has never been with anyone else. They claimed that the laboratory had been bribed. I have very good reason to believe that such was not the case.

Ellen was young, but she took motherhood very seriously. As soon as she was able, she started a very small business to support herself and her child. She sold crackers, hard candy, and cheese puffs at the side of the road, under the mapou tree in front of my house.

These are all inexpensive items, and her profit could not have been much to speak of, but she persevered. She sat there all day, every day, making a few pennies at a time. The only time she ever left her post was to do her buying down in Pétion-Ville or to look in on her little boy. She would get one of her little brothers to watch the business for her, but she had to be careful. If she left them for too long, they were a little inclined to help themselves. Not a lot. But every penny counted because she was working for her boy.

She kept at it consistently over the last three years, and had reason to be proud of what she had achieved. Her boy was a big, healthy-looking baby, and she had set aside enough money to send him to kindergarten in the fall.

That would be impressive enough, but it means more when you know something about her family situation. Her mother’s been dead for years. And her father has shown no interest over the years in sending his kids to school. Her teenage younger brothers, for example, are only now in the second grade, because they didn’t stat until they were able to pay for their own school expenses. She got, perhaps, advice and encouragement from adult women around her. She has, for example, a wonderful relationship with the fried snacks merchant whose business is next to her. But this is something she did entirely on her own.

Last Sunday, she and an older neighbor brought the boy to Madan Anténor, who is, among other things, the closest thing Ka Glo has to a nurse. She’s a trained midwife and a health-extension worker. She does vaccinations and basic first aide.

I was with her at the time. The child was struggling terribly, taking short, shallow, rapid breaths. He had a high fever, and looked weak. Madan Anténor gave the boy some children’s medicine to reduce the fever, but told the girl to take him down to Pétion-Ville. She feared pneumonia and, therefore, the worst.

Ellen got her boy down to Pétion-Ville to see a doctor as quickly as she could. It’s a half-hour hike, a long way with a sick three-year-old on your hands, no doubt. Apparently, she didn’t get him down the hill quickly enough. When I return to Ka Glo today, a week after it all happened, Ellen’s youngest brother told me that the little boy was dead.

I went to see Ellen, and we had a long talk. I wanted to tell how impressed I had been by what an attentive, caring mother she had been. It’s not as though I expected to be able to cheer her up. Nothing but time could possibly help with that. But I thought it was important to say something to her.

She’s thinking of using some of the money she saved for her boy’s first year of school so that she can go back to school herself. Pregnancy forced her to drop out of fifth grade. Mainly, she’s just sad.

I have had to read and write about various mortality and morbidity statistics since I came to Haiti. There’s plenty of data to show that bad things happen to the poor. But even though there are poor all around me here in Haiti, it’s not every day that those statistics strike so close to home.