Sixteen Dollars

A source of minor confusion for someone who’s in Haiti for the first time is the dollar. Prices are usually given in dollars, Haitian dollars. This is confusing because no such currency exists.

Haiti’s currency is the gourd. Right now, a buck buys about 35 of them. When I started coming to Haiti in the 90s, they were worth twice as much. A couple of years ago, they were worth 20% less. The value they have recently gained against the dollar both reflects and argues for cautious optimism, I suppose.

When Haitians speak of dollars, what they usually mean is five gourds. American dollars are called “dola US” or “dola vèt”. The latter expression means “green dollars.” Talk of Haitian dollars has its roots, I’m told, in a time under the Duvalier dictatorships when the exchange rate was held at five gourds.

So when Haril told me on Tuesday night that he had made sixteen dollars the Sunday before last, I knew he meant 80 gourds, or about $2.30. He had washed four motorcycles using the rainwater he collects in a basin next to my apartment in Belekou. He takes the water in a battered five-gallon bucket, and then splashes it onto a motorcycle every which way, scrubbing as he does. He used to get more business, but pressurized-water car and motorcycle washes are close by, on the main road, and they are, if not necessarily better, certainly faster.

It’s been a hard summer for Haril. I wrote of his dental problem. I also wrote of the fact that he got caught between his parents as their relationship deteriorated. His mother left their household some weeks ago. His father finally moved out of the neighborhood with Haril’s four younger siblings. Haril was left behind. He moved in with a couple of other young, parent-less men who share a room that opens onto one of the narrow corridors behind where I live. It’s a small, dark, hot, and airless space, but for now it’s home.

So Haril’s now fending for himself. He has a small business selling prepaid telephone cards. Someone helped him buy a first set of 25, and now every time he turns them over he earns 20 Haitians dollars, or about $2.85. He gives that money to an older neighbor whom he trusts to hold it for him. She keeps him from spending it. This is important because he’s counting on that money to buy the things he’ll need for school in the fall. He also assumes that he could need to help one or more of his siblings with school expenses, too. He’s especially concerned about the youngest two, a girl named Lovely and a little boy they call Pipi, because they’re really much too young to help themselves.

But if he’s to keep from eating his phone card money, he needs another way to live. So he tries hard to find motorcycles to wash, especially on the weekends. The Belekou intersection where we live is a major motorcycle taxi station, and the drivers seem to like him, so he can usually get a job or two. When he told me that he had made sixteen dollars by washing four motorcycles, I was pleased for him, but not surprised. What surprised me was hearing him explain how he had been able to make it through the week, Monday through Friday, on that money, $2.30.

He explained. Every morning he bought coffee and a little bit of bread for breakfast. It cost one Haitian dollar a day, less than fifteen cents. At lunch, he would go to lower Belekou, where there is a community restaurant, something like a soup kitchen, run by a Roman Catholic priest. There he can get a plate of beans and rice for another dollar. In the evening he buys a roll spread with peanut butter from a street vendor for the same price. It’s not much, but it’s three small meals each day for only fifteen gourds, or 43 cents.

And he does a little better than that because the older boys he now lives with are really kind. They like Haril, and they understand his situation. Guynold is in his mid-twenties, and he’s unemployed right now, but he had a job for a while in a factory. There, he earned 70 gourds a day, working six days a week. He’s now living mainly off savings, but if Haril’s at the corner when Guynold comes out in the morning, he’s more than likely to buy Haril breakfast: ten gourds of beans and rice or fifteen of spaghetti. They then share five gourds worth of juice. Daniel isn’t much older than Haril, but he’s been supporting himself by fixing flat tires for some time. He shares what he has with Haril as well. I’m not sure what Jonas lives on, but I’ve seen him share it, too.

So Haril is scraping by, thanks in part to friends who have taken the place of family, and he can probably continue to do so for the next weeks. As long as nothing goes wrong. Any unexpected expense will use up the money he’s saving for school, and even that won’t go very far.

When school starts in September, things will be quite different. Whether he can go to school, do his homework, and earn the money he needs to support himself and help his siblings is hard to guess. I want to say “no”, but it’s the same “no” I would have offered to someone asking me whether he could live on fifteen gourds a day.