What Does and Doesn’t Matter

I won first prize.

It was at the airport in Okap. As I was getting onto a plane to return to Pòtoprens, the ground crew that was sending us off drew the number of my boarding pass from a small dish of folded scraps of paper. The prize was a new cell phone.

I already have a cell phone. I dislike it. Not because of its look or the features it offers. Sometimes I just wish I didn’t have one at all. Often enough, I just turn it off. Until recently I had two, one for each of the major carriers in Haiti, but I finally gave one of them away because I was sick of carrying both. So I didn’t need another. But I was glad that I won because I thought right away of Ti Kèl.

He’s the 18-year-old who does chores around my house. If I’m expecting company, he cleans. If I run out of propane, he lugs my empty tank down in Pètyonvil and lugs the full one back up. If I need sugar or candles or kerosene or anything else, and I don’t want to go get it myself, I can always send him. He also studies math with me on Sunday mornings, at least whenever I’m home.

Ti Kèl has wanted a phone for the longest time. They are quite the rage in Haiti. There only are about 8.5 million Haitians, and about 1.8 million households, but there are well over a million cell phones. And the number just seems to be increasing. Not too long ago, when President Préval was asked about increasing poverty here, he’s reported to have answered that he hears about hunger, but then sees that every household has five cell phones and that people find the money to buy minutes for all of them.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of that claim, but I did think of Ti Kèl when I heard it. He’s wanted a phone, even though his household already has other phones and even though he has all sorts of more important needs.

Including figuring out how to pay for school in September. He’ll graduate from the local public primary school in June, and will have to go to private school in the fall if he wants to continue. He’s too old for public high school.

But he’s wanted a phone, and I had one I didn’t want, so I gave it to him. I did threaten that, if he wastes a lot of money buying phone cards, I’ll take it away. But he knows it’s not true, and he’s not foolish enough to make that kind of mistake with the little money he has anyway.

He was delighted. He thanked me a half-dozen times in the first three minutes of our conversation Saturday morning. Then we kept on talking. We hadn’t seen each other all week. I had been near Okap, and the week had been eventful, especially in the Pòtoprens area, where there had been lots of political unrest around rising food prices. We had lots to talk about.

I asked him how the week had been, and his answer was stunning. “I’m just glad,” he said, “that my father didn’t raise us to eat a lot. Most little kids, if they got only coffee in the morning and nothing the rest of the day, would be making a lot of noise, but my little brothers and sisters haven’t complained.”

Ti Kèl’s father, Decéus, is an aging mason at a time when construction is slow. His mother, Adelcia, is a market women when there is produce from their garden to sell, but it’s the end of the dry season, so she has little to work with. In other words, even if things were otherwise better in Haiti, this would be a hard financial moment for them.

The two of them have six children together: Boubout, Ti Kèl, Ti Fanm, Da, Wolan, and Fara. All of them still live at home. Decéus’s older daughter, Natacha, lives in her own place. Adelcia has four children from her previous relationship, and though the two oldest, Kale and Titi, live elsewhere, the two younger ones, Bèn and Boul, live with Adelcia and Decéus. Bèn is a young woman with two very small children of her own.

So the household is thickly populated. And lately, it seems, there are days when it goes entirely without food.

Though Ti Kèl’s answer took me off guard, hunger in Haiti is not as surprising as one would like it to be. It is increasing. Haiti is very much a part of the worldwide food crisis. Prices for the basics here – rice, beans, oil, corn, sorghum, flour, sugar – have been rising quickly, and incomes have not. Since Haiti was already a country where most people do little better than get by – more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, and more than 70% on less than $2 – dramatic inflation necessarily has an immediate impact. And that impact does not affect whether one buys a new car or a house, or whether one takes a needed vacation or goes out to a nice restaurant. It affects how much, and even whether, one eats. Hunger here is common enough these days to have earned a new nickname, “//klòwoks//”, or “clorox”, for the way it burns your insides.

Ti Kèl and I arranged right away with Ti Fanm to make a big Saturday lunch. The two of them must have worked together much of the morning, between the shopping and the cooking. My own share of the enterprise was limited to finance – it cost me about $5.20 – and eating.

It was just one meal, but it gave me lots to think about. Whenever I go past Ti Kèl’s house, Adelcia and Ti Fanm offer me coffee. My fondness for the stuff is well known in Kaglo. I had long known that theirs is a family that does not have a lot, but I hadn’t really considered that the little snack they offer me might sometimes be all they consume all day.

It’s hard for me to know where I’m going with this. I must admit that I don’t want to shift the emphasis of my activities in Haiti to charity. I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy giving what I can to Ti Kèl’s family and to other neighbors or, for that matter, to strangers, whose needs come to my attention. Nor do I want to spend more time finding resources that I can merely funnel towards them.

But I am around urgent needs all the time. I don’t think it would be right to pretend that I’m not or that I don’t notice them or that there’s nothing I can do.

It’s tempting to dilute the impulse to act – the call to conscience—by reminding myself that I can’t help everyone, by reminding myself that the needs here exceed what I’m able to give. It’s likewise tempting to remind myself that charity only encourages dependence. Both arguments are true, but they ring hollow when you’re thinking of children who might have nothing but coffee to keep them going throughout the day.

As I said, I don’t know where this is leading. I don’t see any conclusion that would seem true. Nor does it seem right to let things stand on a truism like, “There is no right answer.”

The knowledge that Ti Kèl, for example, is hungry a lot of the time ought to change my life. And, through me, it ought to change his. That does not mean that I’m ready to take responsibility for ensuring that he has all he needs to eat. But I cannot pretend that there’s nothing I can do.