On the day after our all day hike into the mountains southeast of Pòtoprens, the first sound I heard was the corn mill. I was on my porch, a little tired and a little sore. Juan and Erik were still asleep. I looked over at the mill, and saw Clébert grinding away. He may have been tired too, but that wouldn’t have been to the point. He is married, with four very young children, and the corn he grinds every few days is what his family mainly eats. The work had to be done. After he finished grinding, he went over to Toto’s house where he’s doing some repair work. He’s a stonemason. There he spent the day moving the rocks into position, carrying water and sand, and mixing and applying the cement. Building. If he had any complaints, he kept them to himself.
I often think about work here, about how much work, how much hard work, the people I know here do. Let me mention a few examples.
I’ve written some about my neighbor, Madanm Kastra, but less about her husband, Kastra himself. Bòs Kastra is in his mid-sixties. His five children, ages 19-35, still live in the house he built. Recently, though, he’s started to build a house next to his own for Casnel, his oldest son. He is, like Clébert, a stonemason. He gets some help from his brothers, men not much younger than he is, and from Casnel too. But, on the whole, he’s building it himself. He’s a small thin man, but stands straight as a rod, and he works with the same energy, lifting and moving heavy stones and buckets of cement, that he must have had forty years ago. He’s said to be sick, to need prostate surgery, but the surgery is expensive. He doesn’t have the money, and could hardly afford to take the time away from work that recuperation would require. Even so, to see him from behind is to see a young man. If, once in a while, his knee gives out mid-stride, he gives his leg a shake and keeps walking.
Or take the folks that live in lower Ba Osya. They come, mostly the children, to get their water in Ka Glo. They live about a mile away, but ours is the closest source. It’s an especially hard mile to walk, steep and rocky. A couple of hundred yards of it are through the galèt, the pathless, rock-filled ravine that separates Ba Osya from Ka Glo. They make the trip several times each day, before and after school, with a gallon or two or five or six. I’ve lost my footing on that trail carrying nothing but my lightweight book bag. They carry forty pounds of water on their heads. Even little ones, four or five years old, will carry a gallon. By seven, they carry two, one in each hand. It’s remarkable.
Or Madanm Mèt. She’s up by four every morning, cooking and sweeping. She won’t let her children or her husband or me leave the house without a big meal, and Kasann, for one, leaves by six. She herself won’t leave until the house looks good, and that means carefully sweeping both it and the dirt yard outside. She’s in a hurry, because she too has to get to work. She walks each day to surrounding villages, from ten minutes to two hours away. She meets there with pregnant women and new mothers to talk about prenatal and infant care. And she does child vaccinations. When she gets home, at twelve or one or two, she starts cooking again, in a kitchen that quickly fills with choking, eye-searing smoke. She continues to labor all through the day, whether cleaning the house, preparing more food, or doing her daughters’ hair. She maintains her frenetic pace until eight or nine, then she goes to bed.
One more example: Byton, Bòs and Madanm Kastra’s younger son. He’s twenty-two. When I first came in 1997, he was still in school, a tireless student, up every day at first light, memorizing his daily lesson. When I would light my lamp at night to relax on my front porch, he would rush over and use its feeble light to read. He studied hard, really hard, all his days at school, and though he was the best student in our little neighborhood, he finally failed the national high school examinations. Twice, I think. So he gave up, and left school. It must have been a terrible blow. Now he works in Pòtoprens as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. He goes down five days-a-week. He gets no days off. If he misses a day, he makes it up on a Sunday. He’s paid nothing, not even the little it would cost to ride a truck down to Petyonvil from Malik in the morning or back up at night. So he walks the hour down from Ka Glo before and after work. He spends his days lugging wood, or acting as his boss’s human vise-grip, or planing hand-cut boards-learning his trade.
It’s easy to romanticize the work that people do here, how much they work and how hard. It’s easy to slip into the habit of admiring special reserves of physical and inner strength they seem to have. It’s easy to think they’re extraordinary in some way. It’s much easier to construct and admire that notion of Haiti’s poor than to face the facts. I recently helped Jean-Reynald and some other young men with a little job they had to do, and was reminded that they are neither especially stronger nor less strong than I am.
The very hard work that the people I know do wears them out. Just as it would anyone else. Madanm Mèt has an ulcer. Byton, young as he is, is already developing a bad back. Of course, if you ask him how he is, he always says “tre byen,” very well. That’s just his way.
People work hard here just to survive. It’s not because they like the challenge, or because they’re “workaholics,” or to stay slim, or to get strong. It’s not to make a pile of dough. They have to.