Updated: Mar 8, 2020
It's currently who knows what time and who knows what woke me, but the noise is still there. It's the scratching of tiny feet on a tin roof and the... WHAT is THAT noise?! is it chewing on something? Is it trying to get in?!? Will it fall on top of me?!?!?!?!?!
The nighttime in Haiti is full of mysterious sounds that wake me up and keep me up at night. It's been about three weeks since I've arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and took up residence at the NA Sonje Foundation where I've been immersed in language and cultural studies. While I know it was a rat on my roof that night (the entire night... chewing...), there have been other things up there and outside that I can't explain. During my first week, there were heavy footsteps and growling that I could swear came from a dog... but I don't think a dog could have gotten on the roof. Nevertheless, it kept me awake for a long time in my noise-amplifying room, needlessly scared that some thing was going to fall through and eat me. I've heard large thumps like a tree dropping a walnut, except there is no tree with walnuts that I know of here and there is not a single tree that hangs over the room of my building. Perhaps someone is throwing rocks? I also hear a lot of motorcycles and dogs fighting, some I know to be just below in the yard but really sound just outside my doorway... And on Friday nights, the Protestant church next door has late-night services that go on--you guessed it--late at night. Then early morning rehearsals on Saturday repeating the same song for hours ("Hoooold myyyy haaaaand.... Hold my--Hoooold myyyy haaaand, Hold my haaaaaaaaaand!!!-hooold my--Hooooold myyyy haaaaaand..." and repeat!).
But if that works for them... I guess you do you.
There's been a lot to get used to. The showers are cold and the electricity is usually on for 4-6 hours at unpredictable times in the day. Normally in the morning. That means there's not much light for moving around at night. Thankfully I was gifted with a solar light which has been most helpful especially when I take a late shower. The Internet doesn't quite reach my room at NA Sonje but it is hooked up to a generator and even if it isn't a fast or strong connection, there usually is one. Lizards startled me for a while because they have a habit of appearing in front of me when I least expect them (like when I take a shower... or go to the bathroom...). There are ants in my room but we've come to an arrangement. I don't leave food or dead bugs lying around and they don't invade. Real simple. So far I've been lucky and haven't had a large spider encounter yet, although the mosquitos are troublesome. I've also been getting used to the minor frustration of not being able to talk to people and express myself fully, or being misunderstood because I said something wrong... or being able to understand what people are saying to me.
For example, this past Friday I was over at the house of one of the staff and I was prompted to ask questions and use my Creole. I wasn't doing too hot (with forming sentences/asking questions/understanding answers) but I was managing until I asked "Ki kote ou te fèt?"--Where were you born? I've asked this question before. It was one of the questions I was confident I could ask correctly without sounding silly because I had asked it before. The two people I was talking to just looked at me like I was speaking French. Of course, had I been speaking French they probably would have understood me better than in English. Anyways, I tried to add on something to help them (and myself) out, "Isit la? Nan Gwo Jan?"--Here? In Gwo Jan? When they didn't respond I sat there scrunching my forehead thinking I had mixed up the word "fèt", which has several meanings, until the staff member who was in the other room asked me what I was trying say. We eventually reworded the question to "Were you born here?" They answered "wi" and the conversation lagged a bit. I still don't know if it was my accent or if I accidentally replaced "ki kote" with "kijan" or "koman" which would have changed the question to how they were born... that would be awkward...
Despite the normal troubles of living in a strange new place, I've been forming a routine.
From Monday to Thursday, I have lessons in Creole from 9-12 where I've been learning grammar so far and mixing in vocabulary along with a proverb. Then there is an hour break before going to one of the staff's homes for lunch where they have prepared a Haitian meal. I interact with the family and do my best to listen and form questions and answer questions. I don't always do that well. It is usually around 3:00 that lunch is finished and I have free time to rest, do the assigned homework, and read from one of the many books I've been given that guide me through the history of Haiti. So far I've learned about the Tainos who were the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands and have been mostly wiped out, Christopher Columbus and Eurocentrism, and my current topic which is slavery. Around 6:00 is dinner which is traditionally a small meal. The noon meal is the biggest meal of the day, aptly name "gwo manje"--literally "big food". At 7:00, there is a group of young adults who gather on-site for some silent meditation and I've been regularly joining them. By that time it is completely dark so I watch a movie or something on my computer or read and then go to bed.
Fridays are reserved for practical lessons. The first Friday I learned how to wash my laundry by hand... and got a bunch of blisters on the top of my fingers for it. It took a few days to bend my fingers all the way again. The last couple Fridays I've been learning to cook bouyon which is a soup filled with a variety of stuff. There's onions, spices like parsley, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes (not like US sweet potatoes), yams (also not US sweet potatoes), different types of plantains (like bananas but have a more potato quality than US bananas--plantains are called "bannann" in Creole while the US type of banana is called a "fig"... I don't know what a US fig is called though...), epina (kind of like spinach), beans, sometimes boy (a dough dumpling thing shaped like and a little longer than a finger, not a small child), and a meat if desired. Some of those items aren't always in the bouyon and sometimes there are other things, like big pasta tubes or a radish looking thing but really tastes more like a potato... there's a lot of starch.
I do like the food though and a lot of work goes into it. The days that I was learning to cook we started at 9:00 in the morning and it was finished around 2:00... so it took awhile. We always made a lot too, not just for ourselves. There is a proverb, "Manje kuit pa gen mèt"--cooked food has no owner. Proverbs are a big deal here and this one reveals the nature of Haitian culture to share. If parents go to a party, the children always expect to get something of the food when they come home. Not everyone cooks every day because when one person cooks, the food is shared. Pumpkin soup, a form of bouyon, is a big deal too because when their ancestors were slaves, they were not allowed to eat the food of the masters... like pumpkin soup. So each new year, Haitians celebrate with pumpkin soup and share it with each other.
These aren't the only examples of the community and generosity that I have seen. I suspect I haven't even touched the surface of the kindness these people are capable of. While waiting in a grocery store for a friend buying bread, my eyes met with a little boy eating Doritos. In keeping with the proverb "bèl bonjou se paspò w"--a beautiful 'bonjou' is your passport--which is extremely important for me to instigate first as a foreigner to break down barriers between us, I smiled and murmured a "bonswa" (since it was evening) to him. I saw him mouth a "bonswa" back from around his hand and then he walked up to me and held out a Dorito chip, offering it to me. I was very surprised but I smiled again and accepted his gift with a "Mèsi". He went back next to his parents and we both ate our chips. It really surprised me and it was really touching.
Little actions like that cause me to reflect on myself. Do I have the generosity to share what I have with others? Would I have thought to share even a single chip with a friend, let alone a stranger, during lunch? Perhaps I would have, but perhaps I wouldn't have either. The Haitian culture is so close-knit with families often living in houses that share the same yard, same kitchen and prep space, same laundry lines, etc. They share with each other a lot. It's survival here I guess. You have to take care of each other because there is practically no government to speak of, so who else will take care of you? Sometimes, I can't help but think back to my own culture. Often, I think of taking care of myself before taking care of others. That's not quite what I was going for when I named this blog. I hope that I can change into a more generous and compassionate person. One that is attentive to others and their needs.
The weekends, so far, vary. In my free time I play the ukulele, read, do little pieces of laundry, do my homework, watch Stargate, and kill or strategize how I can kill the mosquitos in my room. On my first weekend here, Carla showed me around the garden and we planted some trees. I used a tool called a kouto digo, which is about the size of a machete and of the same material but the blade is shaped like a hook, to loosen the soil. There was no protective covering and at some point I looked down at my hands and saw a beautiful piece of skin hanging off the base of my index finger. It didn't hurt then but it definitely hurt the next day and had swelled a little bit. First the laundry blisters and now this! I'm very much in awe of the strong hands of the Haitian people.
So not only do my hands break at the smallest sign of work, but I have taken on some of the qualities of a child too. I listen but don't understand. I'm prompted to use full sentences. When going down steep roads I am constantly checked on to make sure I don't slip. When handling a knife, they all think I'm going to cut myself. Not that it's bad. I actually find it a little amusing and also a bit of a blessing. When will I be able to be like a child ever again? My limitations allow me to observe and question what's around me. While I can't communicate, I'm learning to put trust in the people around me and in God. I can see the good in people and figure out what kind of person they are.
Yes, it has indeed been a transition, and I'm still transitioning. I miss my friends and family. It's intimidating to know that in 5 weeks I'm going to be released from language school and start speaking on my own. It's intimidating to know that in about 5 weeks I will need to start a ministry. Here in Haiti, people are still asking me what I'm going to do here, in their country, and I still don't know. My best answer is that I'm learning and listening... then, we'll see. But, someday soon, I'm going to wake up and discover that I know what I'm doing. That I know the people and understand the culture of Haiti. That I have friends and connections and a home here. That I don't have to be afraid of walking on my own because I can talk to people on my own. I don't have to be afraid of strange noises and sights and what goes *bump* in the night because someday soon I'm going to sleep all through the night, wake up refreshed, and say "Bonjou" with confidence.
Thank you for your support. I am praying for you all. For strength for all people to overcome the challenges they are facing, for generous hearts, and that we all may go forward as children, looking with awe and curiosity at the world around us, seeing the good and hope in others.