Earlier that day, I had made a mental note to have a talk with Toto. He had made a silly mistake, and I had suffered its consequences.
It started in the morning. My neighbors and I were scheduled to spend much of the day – a Sunday – working on the church they are building. It is long, slow project. They’ve been at it for several years, and are very far from finishing. They do a little bit of work any time they collect enough money to buy building materials. We were very glad to be able to spend even just a day taking a small step forward. We would be pouring a concrete cover over the large rainwater cistern that had been built into the foundation under what will be the entrance to the church. A local mason had spent two days the previous week assembling and connecting the wire supports for the concrete.
My neighbors clearly like it when I pitch in with this sort of work. My willingness to help with the church in particular may take some of the sting out of the hurt I believe that I inflict by avoiding their church services. I also think it helps them see me as a real member of the community rather than as a mere visitor. Almost as soon as the day began, I started carrying water, bucket by five-gallon bucket. It was a short walk from our water source to the spot where the teenagers would be mixing concrete. The young people like it especially when I carry things on my head. I must make quite a spectacle. So as I filled the drums they had put at the construction site, I drew a small but animated crowd of onlookers. We were having a grand time.
Toto asked a couple of the larger teenage boys to go get the sacks of cement, and that’s when he did something foolish. When I started to follow them to help with the job, he stopped me and told me not to. He said that I would not be able.
Big mistake. I insisted that I certainly could and would carry a sack or two, that I had carried cement for them in the past. I took a sack from the group’s storage shed, which is the house in which Mèt Anténor’s parents once lived, and lugged it to the construction site. I was very sore for the several days that followed. All the more so because I had seen how very easily the young boys whom I was helping did the same job.
As I scolded Toto that evening, telling him that he should never tell me that I can’t do something, especially when he’s right, we all had a good laugh. I explained that he needed to be more diplomatic, and he gravely pretended to recognize his error. Though Byton’s sisters made an appropriate show of apparent sympathy, they were evidently as amused as everyone else. It was all a a part of the evening ambiance.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the way that my work is developing is that I am rarely at home. I spend little more than one day at home each week. This, despite how comfortable I am in the house Byton built me, and despite how at ease I feel among my neighbors there. The house has a large and comfortable living room, and when I’m in Ka Glo on a Sunday evening it’s common for a crowd to gather. Though I rarely cook in Haiti – the food my neighbors still send in quantities makes it unnecessary – I do make popcorn. Byton makes limeade, and these snacks are more than enough to satisfy a gathering.
On the Sunday in question, we had a muskmelon and a couple of avocados as well, so the atmosphere was festive. Toto was there, as were Byton’s sisters: Yanick, Andrelita and Myrtane.
Their cousin and neighbor, Eli, was there as usual. For Eli it was a nervous moment. He had taken the first part of the high school graduation exam in July. Passing that first part qualifies a student for the final year of high school. It is a road block that keeps many Haitian young people from ever finishing. The previous year, Eli had narrowly failed, but he took courage and returned to try again. This year his result had been better. Though he hadn’t passed outright, he did qualify for the make-up exam in August. He had taken that make-up, and was expecting the results any day. We would learn later that week that he passed decisively, but as we sat that evening, he could not be sure of his result.
It is a strange and wonderful privilege for me to be part of these gatherings. Almost everyone sitting in the room grew up within fifty feet of my house. Only Eli arrived more recently: He moved to his Uncle’s house in Ka Glo in 1998, when his mother died. But even he grew up in Metivier, only about a half-hur’s walk away. These are people who have been together, living the same shared realities, for all of their 25 or 30 years. They know each other very, very well. I am the single stranger, the one person who does not seem to belong.
And yet I do belong. Younger than I am by a decade or more, and separated from me by a whole set of experiences that we do not share, my friends have nevertheless made me part of their crowd. They engage themselves in the goings on of my work and my life, and they accept my engagement in theirs. They know about my friends and family in the States, and about my friends and colleagues in Haiti. They tease me as they tease one another, and they casually accept the little hospitality I can offer as their due. This last point is especially important, because it gives me a comforting sense of the comfort that they feel.
In a very real sense, I’m still an outsider in our small village, set permanently apart from my friends by everything from my cultural background, to my work and my interests, to the color of my skin. And yet it’s not that simple. Perhaps it would be best to say that I am a outsider who belongs very much to the village as an outsider, as its outsider.
One of the pleasures of my life in Haiti has been to live there more and more as a foreigner who is not quite foreign. The foreign-ness that I carry around with me everywhere in Haiti gives me a sense of freedom that cultural expectations might otherwise diminish, but the comfort I have found as I’ve grown to be part of the world I live in there enables me to enjoy that freedom in ways that someone who felt more alien could not.