Where I Live

It’s huge. Much larger than I thought it would be. And that’s saying something, because by the time I arrived last summer it was already clear that it would be much bigger than what I had planned.

Almost a year and a half ago, I decided I was ready to build a house in Ka Glo. I have been living there on and off since 1997. After spending a first summer in a small room in an abandoned house, I had been in Madanm Anténor’s dining room since 1998. The room, with its little cot, became a real home to me – a place where I could eat and sleep and read and chat with friends. With a couple of additional mattresses on the floor, it’s served plenty of guests, both Haitian and American, as well. I have no regrets and no complaints about the years I’ve spent in its comfortable confines. At the same time, as I’ve come to see myself more and more as a long-term member of the community in Ka Glo, I’ve thought about having my own place.

When I first spoke with Mèt Anténor and Madanm Mèt about this, they were pleased. Though they’ve always shown that they were happy to have me in their home, they recognized at least two things in my desire: first, that it was an expression of my long-term interest in Ka Glo and, second, that it was part of the natural transition a Haitian young adult would make towards independence. If I had decided to leave their house to enter someone else’s, I think they might have been hurt, but the idea that I would move into my own house in their own neighborhood pleased them greatly.

The first thing to decide was where to build the house. Mèt Anténor’s initial suggestion was that I speak with his middle brother, Mesenn. He’s a successful carpenter, who lives with his wife and kids in Pétion-Ville. He has his share of the family’s land in Ka Glo, and he’s not using it.

I didn’t want to buy land. First of all, it would be expensive. Second of all, though it could be done, it would violate Haiti’s 1987 constitution because I am neither citizen nor permanent resident. I hoped to get permission to build a house on someone else’s land. I would live in the house rent-free – perhaps for a contractually fixed number of years – and then the house would belong to the landowner.

Mesenn was happy to offer me a piece of his land, and it was a beautiful spot, with a nice view of the plain below. At the same time, it was steeply inclined, and leveling it off would have been a big expense, even before building could get started, so Mèt Anténor and I looked for another option.

And so we spoke to Castera. He’s Mèt Anténor’s next-door neighbor and his first cousin. His house is one that I spend a lot of time in because of my close friendship with his five children, especially the youngest three: Andrelita, Byton, and Myrtane. I love Madanm Anténor’s three children, but they really are young kids. They spend their evenings memorizing their school work. Castera kids are older by a decade, much closer to my age, so I tend to pass free evenings chatting with them instead.

Especially Byton, their younger of their two surviving sons. He in particular was excited about the prospect of my building a house in his father’s yard, so he took the lead. He helped with conversations with his father and his older brother Casnel. Casnel is 40, but he still lives at home. His own house isn’t finished. He’s a second important authority in the household.

The idea seemed good to everyone. There was a very small square of free land, right behind Castera’s kitchen. He would have to cut down a couple of trees, but they were ones he had already planned to remove because they were getting tall and starting to threaten Mèt Anténor’s house.

Byton agreed to work as the general contractor, with his father, a stonemason, as consultant. I asked another friend, Micanol, who’s a student in a school for contractors, to do a blueprint. He surveyed the little square of land and talked to me about what I wanted: two small rooms with a patio in front and an enclosed bathing area in the back. He did the drawing within a couple of days. It’s beautiful. He really worked hard on it. I still have it somewhere.

Byton said he liked the drawing, and I left it in his hands with some money to get started when I returned to the States after a short visit in January 2004. Through the spring he sent me occasional e-mail updates, and I sent money as I could. As I prepared to return at the beginning of the summer, I was excited to see how far he had gotten.

I was surprised. He had nearly finished laying down the foundation, and it was almost twice what I had asked for. His father had decided that he was willing to cut down and extra tree, and upon doing so he found the extra space to make the house larger as well. Whether I wanted a larger house was not an issue – I did not, and tried to say so at every opportunity. They were committed to building the house that they’d imagine I would like, and the things I said about my own wishes seemed to them less decisive evidence than their own thoughts about what my real desires must be.

So I swallowed hard and adjusted myself to the developing reality. I had some concerns about the amount of money the larger house would take, but Byton was being as frugal with my money as he knew how to be and I resigned myself to hoping for the best. I was able to squash a couple of expensive ideas. One was to build a water cistern under the floor of the house. (There are enough cisterns in Ka Glo. Mine would only attract mosquitos.) Another was to hollow out part of the filled foundation to make a basement room or two. (I already had enough rooms, and couldn’t see what a windowless underground space would add.) By the time I returned to the States in August, the foundation had been filled with gravel that Byton had personally collected by wheelbarrow from the road leading to Ka Glo, and most of the cinder blocks that would be needed to build the walls had been made in Castera’s front yard and were ready to be set into place.

Through the fall, I got a few more updates from Byton and I sent more money. By early January, I was ready to move to Haiti. I could hardly wait to see the house. I arrived January 19th, and crossed from Mèt Anténor’s yard to Castera’s as soon as I could do so without feeling rude.

The house was almost finished. Walls and roof were in place. Only windows and doors remained.

And the house was much larger than the space that the large foundation they had build had promised. Byton explained that, in starting to put up walls, he had noticed a way to extend the front room and the front patio, so he added another piece to the foundation and he kept building. Obviously, he supposed, I would want as much house as he could give me. He told me that it would be ready soon. Doors and windows are part of his own speciality, so he would build them each himself, and it wouldn’t take long. In the meantime, I would continue to live with Madanm Anténor. She made it clear that I would always be welcome in her home.

January became February, and the work proceeded slowly. Byton himself had not reckoned with the amount he had left to do. Every door and window had to be measured and built by hand. The frames had to be made, as well as the doors and windows themselves. The house has four doors – it will have a fifth – and six windows. That might not sound like much, but each door involves at least thirteen pieces of wood and each window at least two or three times that. And each piece of wood had to be measured, cut, and finished separately by hand. They the pieces had to be assembled and set carefully into place. Byton has no access to prepared lumber. He also has no power tools. So he worked and worked and worked. Day after day, I would see him there by 7:00 AM. He would be there by candlelight when I went to my own room at 7:00 PM. I have long known that he was a disciplined hard worker, but I had never seen anything quite like this.

But Saturday I moved in, with a couple of small beds, a table, some chairs, and assorted small necessities as well. I have two bedrooms, one large and one small, a large living room, a smaller bathroom – this is just a room with a drain in the floor that one can bathe in – and two patios. I am especially excited by the back patio. It’s a small balcony overlooking a plantain grove. It’s designed as a quiet, private place for me to read and write.

It will take me some time to learn to live in this house, to really live in it. I’ve made coffee in it, but am not yet cooking. There are some more pieces of furniture and other sundries I could use. In the meantime, I am pleased to have a space I can call my own.

My Haitian neighbors see something larger in this. Most Haitian young men I know stay with their parents until they finish their house. When the house is ready they marry, often after having waited for a very long time. So when I showed Bòs Philippe that I now have a key to a house, he answered that I now had to find the one who’ll hold the other key.

I told him that we’d see about that. For now, it’s just me.