Sunday in All Its Ordinariness

It’s only Tuesday, but the details of the day’s events are already slipping from my memory. It was such an unremarkable day, a Sunday like so many others. But I’d like to share how I spent that very ordinary day. It will take a lot to tell this story, because there is no real story to tell. I would like to describe a sixteen-hour panorama, and so this sketch will be much longer than the others have been. Sorry.

I was up just before five, neither especially early nor especially late. I had a little writing to do, and I wanted to get through at least an hour’s worth before I could get too distracted. I mention the time in part to report a fact, but also because it was the last time all day that I looked at a watch. It was Monday at four A.M. before I knew the time again. It was dark, so I used my flashlight to find some matches and light my kerosene lamp. My eyes aren’t yet accustomed to its weak light, so it doesn’t let me work for very long. But by the time my eyes would start to tire, the sun would be up and I would be able to move outside.

John was scheduled to come by at six so we could go for a jog. By the time he arrived, it must have been six-thirty – to judge from how light it was. But our six o’clock was a Haitian six o’clock, and six-thirty was not even remotely late. John and I run together off and on-sometimes more often, sometimes less. We go about two or three miles uphill from my house, and then we walk back. I’m not comfortable jogging down the steep, rocky trail. I enjoy these runs, because it’s a great time to talk. We pass several little communities on our way up, and cross paths with various merchants and others headed up or down the hill. Everyone wants to exchange greetings. Children run out to us for a “Hello” or a handshake or a high-five. But between these quick words in Kreyol, John and I get to talk. He’s a remarkable colleague, very good and experienced at all sorts of things that I don’t know how to do.

This particular run was an expensive one for John. On our way up, we saw a market woman limping badly. She was walking down the hill, leaning on the thick stalk of a palm leaf, with a big basket of oranges on her head. On our way back down, we saw her again in Ba Osya. Her limp was much worse. She had left her basket at the water source at the side of the road, and was struggling back up the hill. Apparently, she had wrenched her ankle, the one that was already sore, and she had to give up her trip to Petyonvil. She was heading back up to Grifen, a forty-five minute uphill hike. John went to her to offer her a few kind words and ten Haitian dollars.

When we got back to Ka Glo, John came in and sat with Mèt Anténor and me for a cup of coffee. John is the one who placed me with Mèt Anténor and Madanm Mèt, and they enjoy his occasional visits. When John left, Mèt asked whether I would be around all day, and I said that I would. He said that he had some corn to grind, but that he wasn’t ready yet. I told him to let me know. I strolled over to Toto’s house to say good morning, greeting Madanm Frenel and her two little boys on the way. Toto had come by the night before to see whether I had any film lying around. A friend had asked him to take photos at a small ceremony, and he had our camera, but no film. I had said that I would look. I didn’t find any, and went by to let him know. He was getting dressed when I walked in. He said he would bring our camera down to Petyonvil anyway, and would hope that he could find some film there before the ceremony began.

As Toto was buttoning his shirt, I spoke with Jean-Reynald, another neighbor. He had come over early, and he and Toto were eating breakfast together – fried spaghetti and lemonade. At twenty-four, Jean-Reynald is the oldest of Bòs Jean-Claude’s three boys. He’s taking a course in auto mechanics and an English class as well. He asked me a couple of grammar questions, but then got to the point: When would we re-start our weekly English sessions? I said that the young people who wanted the class had to get together and decide. I was “disponib,” or “available,” but they had to organize the thing. He said he’d get on it. Toto took his tie in his hand – he would put it on when he got down the mountain-and started off. He said he’d be back early afternoon.

I walked back to Mèt Anténor’s house. Bòs Jean-Claude – a different Bòs Jean-Claude – was there, talking to Mèt. He’s a man in his forties, who lives a couple of hundred yards up the mountain from us – straight up, in a lakou well off the main road. He’s said to be a first class stonemason. He had come with a neighbor to ask Mèt Anténor whether they could borrow the benches that are used Saturday mornings for the church in the yard in front of our porch. His godchild was getting married, and he was hosting a reception. Each man put a bench on his head, and headed uphill. They would need to make a couple of trips.

Mèt Anténor still didn’t have the corn ready for the mill, so I walked down the hill to talk with Richard. He lives in the next village down the hill from Ka Glo, Mabanbou. Richard had lost two grandparents just before the beginning of the school year, and the cost of their funerals threatened to keep him from school. When I heard that he could go to school for a year for about the price of a pair of the fancy running shoes I wear, I told him I’d help him out. I went down to see him because I had some money for him. He was alone on his porch, eating a chadèk-a large citrus, a lot like a grapefruit. He had cut off the top, and poured sugar over the exposed surface. Then he took a knife and started jabbing it into the flesh of the fruit to help the sugar mix into the juice. Now he was scraping out flesh, sugar, and juice with a spoon. It was quite a delicious little mess he was making.

When I got back to Ka Glo, I strolled to the porch between our house and Frenel’s, the porch of the uninhabited house where I had spent my first eight weeks here in the summer of 1997. Jean-Reynald was sitting, drawing lettering in pencil on a bright yellow board. Mèt Anténor was making a sign for his school, but he had been forced to interrupt his work. So he passed it to Jean-Reynald. He’s not Jean-Reynald’s father, but he is a full generation older, so he has a perfect right to hand him a chore. Jean-Reynald was carefully drawing in the letters with nothing but a straightedge. He trusted his eye. When he finished, he took out a small can of red paint. He had to jam a chip of wood through a hard crust that had developed on top, and then he used the chip to paint in the letters. He didn’t have a brush.

As I watched him work and we chatted, Mackinson came by, a boy from down the hill in Marianman. He was the first of four boys who would come by that day to have me inflate a soccer ball. I seem to have about the only working pump for at least a mile in any direction, probably farther. From the sound of things, they already had some kind of game going at the water source under the great mapou tree.

By now, Mèt Anténor was ready with his corn. Now, usually people grind about a gallon-bucket full at a time. And this would be the first time I would grind for Mèt by myself, so I was glad. He himself can’t do the work because of his asthma, and his boy, Papouch, is still too small. As I say, I was glad, because it seemed an unambiguous sign that I had made it into the family. When Mèt Anténor showed me a five-gallon bucket nearly full of corn, my jaw dropped. Grinding corn by hand is hard. And I’m really not that good at it yet.

The mill is next door, at Bòs Kastra’s place. He is an older brother to the Bòs Jean-Claude who lives in our lakou. By the way, they are first cousins to Mèt Anténor, to Frenel, and to Toto’s late father, Bòs Boby, too. The lakou is, in other words, one family. The mill itself belongs to Bòs Kastra’s oldest son, Kasnel, but I’ve never seen anyone ask him if they could use it. We all just do. I said hello to Bòs Kastra, Madanm Kastra, their daughters Yanick, Andre, and Mitann, and their younger son, Byton. Mitann had been asking me for days whether she could come by with some questions about how to use a French/English dictionary I had brought for her from the States. I had been telling her she certainly could, but she never did. She said that it wasn’t her fault, and that she certainly would later that day. Andre was sitting on a step, with large piece of stiff cardboard on her lap. She’s taking dressmaking lessons, and was making a collar. She was carefully cutting out the fabric with a kitchen knife, probably the only knife she has. Yanick, the oldest daughter, was cooking. She was over a wood fire, next to the new kitchen Bòs Kastra is making. It’s not finished yet. No one in Ka Glo cooks inside their home. The fire would make too much smoke. They cook either in an outbuilding, if they have one, or in a cleared area behind their home. Madanm Kastra was helping Yanick as much as she could. She’s sickly and blind, but she was shelling some beans. I greeted her, as I always do, with a respectful kiss, and she asked me how Erik and my other friends were, thanking Jesus each time she heard that someone was ok. Byton is apprenticing as a carpenter, and he was making a door for their new kitchen. He was cutting rough hewn one-by-four planks to size. Nikson, Jean-Reynald’s youngest brother, and Big Eli, the first cousin who has lived with them since his own mother died, were holding the wood for him. Bòs Kastra himself was looking over a big hole in the back yard. He himself is overseeing the construction of a new house, one for Kasnel. Kasnel jokes that his father is throwing him out, but the truth is that Kasnel is almost thirty-six and much more than ready to get married. I’m told he’s almost certain to get married when the house is finished, but that could take a month, or six months, or more than a year. It depends, Bòs Kastra told me, on when they have money for materials. But since they started work on the house, Kasnel has been subject to extensive teasing.

We spent a lot of time just talking, but I finally got to the mill. You crank it with your hands more or less as you would pedal a bicycle. It would take enormous strength to grind the corn finely enough in one shot. Nobody does it that way. We do it in two or three passes. I suppose we all feel that we have more endurance than raw power. So I started. Occasionally, folks would come by, surprised to see me grinding by myself, but not really enjoying it as a spectacle. I’m no longer a spectacle here, at least in my own little village. I was midway through the second pass when Nikson came by with corn of his own to grind. Madanm Mèt had been calling me to eat for awhile, and I was wearing down, so I told him I’d get through this second pass, take a lunch break, and then finish. He adjusted the mill, which he noticed wasn’t quite where I needed it to be, and went off to help Byton.

I finished, and went to eat. When I got to the table I was stunned by the quantity of food – even though I was unusually hungry. Madanm Mèt explained that she had made two full meals for me, because she would be hiking up the mountain to visit her father. It would be almost an hour each way. Her father, Bòs Sen Lwi, is a farmer who lives in Divye, with a young girl, a cousin, who takes care of his house. Madanm Sen Lwi lives in the States with another daughter. She is coming soon, for her first visit to Haiti in ten years.

I ate the boiled plantains and sweet potatoes, with salad and tomato sauce. I decided to save the rice with its pureed bean sauce for later. Both were great, but it was very much the wrong choice. I’ll explain eventually.

Nikson was almost done when I got back to the mill. On the way, I looked at Byton’s progress. The one-by-fours had to be cut so as to be one-half-by-four for the first four inches at each end. That was how the planks would be fit together. He had penciled the lines to cut on each plank, but wasn’t cutting yet. Next to him, Mèt Anténor was finishing the sign. I helped Nikson finish his corn, and then turned to my own. I was about a third
of the way through and tiring, when Richard arrived. He was angry. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t called him to help me out. We worked together for about five minutes before he was called away. Nikson then came back, and helped me get to the end of the job. That night, when Madanm Mèt got home, she looked at the quantity of cornmeal, and said only, “Mèt ap touye w” (The Mèt is killing you).

I needed a rest, but Byton needed help even more. I held the planks for him, one by one, thin side down so he could carefully saw out four-by-four-by-half-inch squares of the end of each one. He doesn’t have anything like a vise. After that, I sat down to watch. He nailed them together into a rectangular figure-eight. Then he covered it with a piece of tin, the same tin they use for roofing here. I couldn’t resist poking some fun. I said we would ave to call him “Bòs” now. That’s a respectful way to address a master craftsman. He laughed, but I could tell he was pleased. He was working hard and carefully, and was still at it, adjusting this and that, several hours later.

I went out to the mapou tree, where there was serious three-on-three soccer underway. It was the big guys, the over-eighteen crowd. It was dusty, sweaty, loud, and foul-filled. Each team had someone younger and smaller in goal. Big Eli must have been feeling good, because he was playing goal despite his asthma. He’s good: brave, quick, and very smart. Pretty soon, he had swapped positions with a teammate. He had a great time, but he paid for it, too. Later that afternoon, he was slumped across a bench, gasping for air. We sat together and spoke for awhile. He said that he thinks he wants to be a tailor. His asthma attack didn’t last long. By early that evening, he was dressed up for the Sunday prayer meeting that the young people hold.

I myself joined the game for a few minutes, stumbling around to the delight of all, but then I went to take my bath. Mèt Anténor had left some bath water in the sun for me – a little thank you for grinding his corn – so the water wasn’t quite cold. Or not very cold. It felt great to be clean for a few moments after having jogged, covered myself in cornmeal dust, and collected a certain amount of plain old dirt during the game. When I was done, I went back to the mapou, to watch some more soccer. The younger guys were playing now. Johnnie, a little boy from Mabanbou, came by to talk. He’s about eight, and had come up the hill with two one-gallon jugs to get water at the fountain. He has to make at least four such trips each day, usually with younger siblings who carry one jug at a time. He and I like to chat. He told me about his first few days of school, and about how he had spent the morning.

As I went back into our yard, Valouloun came up to me. She wanted to play. I tossed her around in circles a couple of times, and then we played “pla men cho” (hot palms). We sat across from each other, and each put out our hands. She placed hers palms up, and I rested mine palms down on them. She then tried to slap one or both of my hands before I could get them out of the way. Kristo and Breny, Frenel’s two little boys, left their game of marbles to join.

Then Mitann finally came by with her new dictionary. She wanted to know how to use the phonetic alphabet and the various abbreviations. She’s in her second to last year of high school. This year, if she passes her exams, she’ll get one sort of diploma, but she’ll need to go for another year to get a more advanced diploma if she’s to have any chance of going on to college. She’s very glad to be in school this year, at the inexpensive and relatively strong public high school down in Petyonvil. She spent last year at home – she would say she “pèdi”, or “lost,” the year–because her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. This year she found a “patwon,” or “sponsor,” a connection who was able to get her a place in the public school. It is hard to get a place in the school. Many of the spots are taken up by children whose parents could easily send them to private school, because they are the people who have connections.

Papouch came by, and asked me to follow him. He wanted me to see that he had finished building his guinea pig hutch behind the house. He then proudly showed off the little critters themselves. He raises them to sell for food. He says that they “gou,” that they “taste good.”

I went back in, and had my second meal. The rice and beans were cold, of course, which wasn’t itself a problem. I was hungry, and they tasted great. But the bean sauce had congealed. Too bad. When I came out, Mèt Anténor was talking to a man and a boy who looked about seventeen. It turned out that the boy had never been to any schooling, and his guardian – or would-be patwon, I wasn’t sure just who the man was – was trying to get him into first grade. Mèt Anténor was sorry, but he had to patiently explain that the boy was too old to start at a conventional school now. What he didn’t say was that part of his problem is that his school is simply too small to take everyone who would like to come. So he has to find ways to keep some people, needy though they might be, out. Eventually, the man turned to go, but, as he did, he turned to the boy too. He said, “See? It’s not my fault.” The boy never said a word through their whole short visit.

It was getting dark, and the youth group started their prayers. They sing most of them, so I listened from my rocking chair and let myself just think for awhile. Bòs Jean-Claude returned the benches. He asked Mèt Anténor and me why I hadn’t gone up to the reception with Mèt. I said that I didn’t know I was invited, and he said that he had assumed that, when he invited Mèt Anténor, that would mean me too. I am, he said, part of Mèt Anténor’s household. Soon enough, Madanm Mèt got home. Her father had been away. She had made the long walk to his house and back, as she said for, “gran mèsi.” That means, literally, “a big thanks,” but is Kreyol for “for nothing.” The kids started doing their homework around the table. Kasnel came by to talk a bit with Madanm Anténor, and Toto dropped by to talk with me. Eventually, I went to my room, lit the lamp, read for awhile, and then went to bed.

There was, as I said at the beginning, nothing striking about the day at all. But maybe that is, in itself, striking. Ka Glo has come to be a home to me, a place where I can pass a whole long day without ever finding anything that’s strange.