The first news I heard as I walked up the hill after a week and a half spent away was from Jhony’s father. I don’t see Flambert very often. I suppose he’s down the hill most of the time, looking for work. He hasn’t had consistent work for four years. His wife, Bebette, has been supporting him and their five children with her small business. She sells roasted and ground coffee, bread, and homemade coconut candy by the side of the road just below Kaglo.
Flambert told me that Jhony was home. This might not sound very earth-shattering, but it’s a pretty big deal. Since last November, Jhony’s been living at their church, about two hundred yards down the hill from his mother’s small house. I’ve written about Jhony before: about the surprising way he spells his name and about the reason he was living at the church. (See: InterVention.) Last fall, he got sick. His family was convinced the sickness was caused by a curse that had been placed on him, so they put him under the protection of the pastor. Several efforts I made to lead them towards seeking conventional medical treatment for Jhony got nowhere.
When my own doctor – fourth-year medical student Dr. Job – went to the church with me for a casual visit, he talked with Jhony and looked him over. By then Jhony had been sick for awhile, and the symptoms had shifted some. Job couldn’t do a full examination. The circumstances didn’t really allow one. But what he saw and what he heard led him to voice his suspicion: Some kind of blood infection had led to anemia. He could be sure, but he thought daily vitamins with iron might help. Since they couldn’t really hurt, I bought some on my next visit to the States, and Jhony’s been taking them ever since.
When I heard that Jhony was home, I went to see him right away. I also needed to pick up a can of coffee that his mother had been holding for me since before my last trip. I spoke with Bebette, and she gave me more details. Jhony’s problems turn out to have started, from her perspective, as a silly argument among kids. One of Jhony’s cousins was ridiculing him and his mother because they live with their family in an unusually small, beaten-up house. They appear to be one of the poorer families in the area. Jhony is extremely loyal to his mother, so he answered the ridicule with hard words of his own. Apparently, the cousin’s father, who is Jhony’s uncle and Bebette’s brother-in-law, took what Jhony said badly and said that he’d make Jhony pay for his words. Bebette believes that he then went to a local Voudoun practitioner and paid to have a curse placed on Jhony.
It took the most curious conversation to bring this story out. She was complaining about the way her children – delightful kids, one and all, as far as I can tell – are constantly fighting. I answered that I remember fighting with my siblings. Worse than that, I remember that, as much as I adore and admire my sister right now, there was a time when we hardly spoke with or wanted to speak with one another. That’s when Bebette started talking about her broken relation with her formerly favorite sister. They haven’t exchanged a word, not even a “good morning”, since her brother-in-law cursed Jhony. And it’s hard to describe how grave a matter withholding a “good morning” is in Haiti.
And for Jhony, living at the church for these past months was a grave matter as well. Though he seemed much better by the middle of the winter, after he had lost one full marking period of school, the pastor insisted that he could not leave the church grounds on secular business, like education. So he missed another marking period, and then another. Three out of four of the year’s marking periods. His grades for the first period had been excellent – as they have been his whole life – but the year, the eighth grade for him, was definitively lost. There was no way he could pass.
And this promised to mean more than simply losing out on a year of school. Jhony was attending the public high school down the hill in Petyonvil. The only free high school anywhere near him and, so, the only high school his mother could afford. Petyonvil’s population is something around 100,000, and there is only one public high school, so even though it is much too far away from many of the county’s residents for them to send there children there, places in the school are nonetheless hard to come by. Somehow Bebette had secured one for Jhony, but there are so many kids who can’t get into the school at all that the school’s firm rule is that students who fail a grade are out. They are left to go to private schools instead. No exceptions.
Jhony’s situation appeared lost. Bebette would not be able to pay for a private secondary school, so he seemed to have lost any chance of moving forward in school.
This is a very big deal to him and to his mother as well. Her parents didn’t believe in sending girls to school, so they didn’t send her sisters or her. She somehow got herself through first and second grade without their help – I don’t know how – but she can barely read at all since her two year’s of education was in French and it’s a language she doesn’t speak or understand. She’s been very determined that her sons and her daughters as well would be more fortunate than she was, so she’s worked very hard to keep them in school. Her oldest child, a daughter, moved down the hill to go to high school, and, without Bebette’s supervision, has gotten into all sorts of trouble, but her younger daughter and her four boys have been with her and have been in school. She’s insisted on it.
My neighbor, Mèt Anténor, has been helpful in this respect. He’s the principal of the local elementary school, and it’s there that all of Bebette’s children have gone. Unlike a lot of public school directors in Haiti, he’s inclined to view all sorts of rules loosely. Though he is forced to charge parents a small yearly fee – the government pays nothing but the teachers’ salaries – he does not insist on the fee when parents cannot pay. He’s a local resident, and he knows well enough who can pay and who cannot. Children are expected to come to school in uniforms, but children without uniforms are never sent home. Mothers and fathers like Bebette do as much as they can, and Mèt Anténor overlooks the rest.
Mèt Anténor and I were talking one day about Jhony last spring, and it turned out that he had already gotten to work. It also turned out that, rightly or wrongly, “no exceptions” depends on who asks whom. As a public school principal, Mèt Anténor has connections to the principal of the public high school. Apparently, one can ask for favors. And when Mèt Anténor personally introduced Bebette and Jhony to the school’s principal, an exception to the “no exceptions” was created. The principal remembered Jhony as a serious boy who worked had and caused no trouble, and decided to give him a chance. If he appears at school on the very first day of classes, he will be allowed to stay. He’ll be repeating the eighth grade.
It remained only to get Jhony out of the pastor’s hands and, then, to get him a new uniform – the rules at the high school are stricter than the rules Mèt Anténor applies. Bebette managed the first piece in the simplest possible way. She went to the church, announced that Jhony was going home with her, and simply took him away. She did so over the pastor’s objections. Though she credits the church and its pastor with helping Jhony back to health, and though she continues to view herself and her children as devout members of his congregation, she would not allow Jhony to continue to live in other people’s hands. She told me by way of an aside that she believed that the pastor did not want Jhony to leave because he is a very well-behaved boy who is willing to do all sorts of chores and never argues or talks back. This she was willing to say about a religious authority whom she credits with saving the boy’s life.
She’s now having he uniform made, so Jhony will be ready to go. She glowed as she told me how she finally sees that Jhony’s health has returned. He has good color and seems to be at full strength. We agreed that we wouldn’t know for certain until he starts hiking up and down the hill every day, as he will have to do when September comes. Even if he were to take a tap-tap from Malik, he’d still have a half-hour hike each way, and the sixty cents the round trip between Malik and Petyonvil would cost every day is more than Bebette can afford.