The Important Question
One of the questions I get here a lot is, “Do you like Haiti?” Normally I choose the easy response and say that yes, I do like Haiti. It has good food, nice people, and it always has sun. In reality, the answer is so much more complicated and deserves a different question, a more important question.
Living in Haiti and being a missioner is not a glorified lifestyle. In fact, I often think… God, why am I here? This is not saying I want to go home but I certainly don’t feel God’s blessings constantly shining down on me while I righteously do the work of the Lord (read that sentence as sarcastic please). Certainly, I am very blessed in many ways, including this wonderful experience in Haiti, but what are my true feelings toward Haiti?
Let’s see. Every day on my walk to and from Grepen, my worksite, the sun beats down heavily and the humidity is savage. The morning is much better than the afternoon though. On the route, I constantly hear calls of “Blan! Blan!” white, white, and “Nou gen kowona, nou te pote li nan peyi a,” you have Corona, you brought it to the country, or something along those lines. Those remarks get old after a while. Sometimes Abby and I, my beautiful housemate and fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioner, try and deflect them or make a joke out of them to keep our spirits up. If we’re already in a bad mood though, it doesn’t make a difference and we just become sour. It’s not a great start to the day. It’s part of the culture though, as one of my Haitian co-workers explained to me. It’s called a fawouch, or a tease, fawouche meaning to tease. Personally, it seems a little more sinister than teasing, and I generally prefer teasing from people I know, not random people on the street.
To reiterate, the heat is also a lot. The mornings are bearable but recently the afternoon heat has been lingering well into the night and you just kind of lay there sweating for a while, turning the impossibly loud fan on you to help cool you down and hope you can hear your alarm clock in the morning. It more recent days though, it’s started to rain in the evenings, bringing with it cooler weather. Hallelujah! (side note: one day Abby and I washed our hair in the rain and it was GLORIOUS)
When it doesn’t rain it’s very dusty. There’s always a fine layer of dust on things if you don’t wipe them down every couple of days. We also don’t have unlimited water. Sometimes in the shower, I just want to keep it running and running because the water just feels so good and makes me nostalgic for the St. Lawrence River where my family and I often visited in the summer. I don’t though. Keep the water running I mean. In the past, there have been some plumbing issues and we ran out of water on a Saturday morning. The water guys don’t work on Saturday. They were gracious enough to come in the evening, God bless them, though they probably thought us white people were silly little things.
The language has been tough too. Kreyól is a relatively easy language to learn, but I’ve been struggling to understand Haitians when they speak. They can talk so fast that at some point my brain just stalls, not even trying to comprehend the jumble-de-gook happening, until I can ask them what they just said and to say it slower or in a different way.
Hearing this, it probably sounds like I don’t like Haiti at all. I didn’t even mention that my family isn’t even here! But that’s not the way to look at it. Yes, life in Haiti is not a dream or a paradise, it’s raw and dirty and people are just trying to survive. Certain aspects of the culture are difficult to accept but people live so differently here. Again, it’s survival. I can’t be living here and hating everything in my life and wishing for something else. You have to let go. And what happens when you let go? You see the blessings.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the local hospital for a stomachache. While it wasn’t particularly bad, it had been persisting for a few days, I missed a day of work, and I was barely eating. The nurses and doctors were nice and competent, but as soon as they stuck a needle in me for an IV and left me in a little cubicle with a small cot and some chairs, my brain started going haywire. It was then I understood why everyone said that going to the hospital is no fun. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read or listen to an audiobook, I wasn’t hungry enough to eat, I was tethered in one spot without a pillow or other source of comfort besides Abby, and I just wanted to go home. But this home I wanted to return to wasn’t home-home back in Ohio. It was just my Haitian home one block over on Rue Palais. That’s all I wanted. Luckily, I did not have to spend the night and was free to go at 7:00, at which time I joyously returned and laid down in my own bed in my own room in my own house.
And honestly? It’s a nice house. Nothing really compared to other Haitian homes I’ve viewed and for that I am guiltily grateful. I don’t know how I would have fared long-term in a Haitian household, or if I even would want to return there after my hospital visit. Their lifestyle is just so different. It’s nice to have a place that I want to return to, with a wonderful Maryknoll family. We always have electricity thanks to the many solar panels we have on the roof and there is space to find time to be alone. Privacy.
Recently, I took a trip out to Gonaive with Abby on two motos, driven by our local friends TiJean and Obenson. What was initially intended to be a quick morning trip turned into an entire day f waiting, from 8:00am-6:00pm. Not once did TiJean and Obenson complain. We talked a lot, I got to work on my Kreyól, and we taught each other different card games. While it was certainly a trying day, it was made all the better by the company of Obenson and TiJean. Sitting behind him on the 45 minute trip back to GwoMón, I suddenly felt a sense of peace. While watching the scenery pass by and with Tijean flying us over one of the few paved sections of the road, I felt like I was home. That Haiti was home to me.
I further got that sense after crossing over a bridge on the same road. TiJean looked back at me and informed me that the road ahead was underwater. Apparently there had been some rain while we were away. Lo and behold, we came upon the part of the road underwater. There was traffic and lots of people wading across and helping each other carry motos and goods across. Some people were just watching the show. I saw one couple where the man carried the woman across. Catching eyes with Abby, the couple both smiled at us when they saw us watching. Looking around, there was a lot of laughter and smiles. Everyone was taking it in stride and good humor. People were making jokes and applauding the people who made it across without falling in. Abby and I got applauded ourselves as we suspended the items we bought in Gonaive between us as we crossed. Most people were yelling that we were going to fall but when we made it unscathed they clapped a bit. While it’s a weird thing to be thankful for, I am thankful for that experience. For once, I felt like part of the group, not just a blan. While people certainly saw we were white, we were hardly the spectacle to watch at that moment. It was nice.
There have also been two very important Haitians that have made me feel welcome and at home here. One of my co-workers, Rosemon, and my tutor, Lamaj. Rosemon is just a year older than myself and he’s so happy to not be the youngest one at work, and he’s so happy to have people his own age to talk with too. When I was on my own one day, he came to me and asked me so many questions about relationships and whether I liked Haiti. He was the first Haitian I responded to completely honestly. That it’s a different lifestyle than that I’m used to, but it’s one that I can live. I don’t have many friends and my family is not here, but the friends that I do have are joyful and caring. Rosemon has been teaching me to drive his moto too. I only have two lessons under my belt, but in the second one I was able to go out onto the road for a little bit and could do obstacle courses that Rosemon set up. I could also finally crank the engine starter by myself! Woohoo!
Lamaj has been a ray of sunshine as well. I’ve never known him to not smile. He invited me to his birthday party where we danced and he would absolutely not accept our attempts to buy our own drinks, let alone for him, telling us in some slightly drunken English that it makes him feel bad and he wants to take care of us since we do so much for him. I don’t know about everyone else, but I owe him so much. He’s the type of person who makes friends with everybody and makes them feel welcome. On the way back from work one week, he spotted Abby and I on our route and called us over. He bought us drinks and introduced us to his best friends who were visiting from Gonaive. We found out they had only met a couple months prior. But that’s who Lamaj is. He is a wonderful man who loves others and sees the good in others.
So, do I like Haiti? I think that is a simple question that needs a simple answer. But I don’t have a simple answer. All I know is that I’ve had several homes in my life, and there will be so many more in the future. Right now, my home is here in Haiti. Here with Abby and Sami, Rosemon and Lamaj, all the people teasing me in the street and those who gather around a flooded road. So perhaps the better, though still imperfect, question for my imperfect answer is, have you found a home in Haiti?
Yes, yes I have.
All of you have been in my thoughts and prayers during this time. I hope you are all well and in good spirits. If you are interested, I added a link to Abby's blog below. She is a wonderful writer and very thought-provoking.