“L ap vonmi!!!” came the ever so tactful cry as I stood next to the garden… throwing up. It was my fifth and last day into my first homestay and my stomach decided that it wasn’t feeling all that great. Young Beverly was just telling me “M ap sonje ou”, I’ll remember you, since I was leaving the house that day and in just over a week would depart from GwoJan to GwoMòn where I would (and will) live the rest of my time in Haiti. Myriam came up next to me with a bucket of water and asked me to take off my glasses. Letting down my hair too, I stared at the blurred image below me of my spaghetti breakfast as cold water was poured over my head and dribbled through the strands to the ground. Shaking myself, I turned and put my glasses back on to find a small audience witnessing my stomach’s rebellion. I had come to know them over the past week and they were concerned for me. Ever hospitable, I was offered some home remedies to help my body cleanse itself. The first, given right after I turned around was a shot of… something very alcoholic. For those who don’t know me, I don’t really drink. It’s not a moral thing, I just don’t like the taste and burn and bubbles that come with many of those kinds of drinks. But I’ll try anything once, though I still don’t know if the burn in my throat was because of the drink or stomach acid… probably both.
Some other remedies include non-diluted lime juice with honey, which was quite tangy and sour, and leaf tea, which was kind of salty. Over the next couple days I was given easy and plain things to eat like bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, salted fish and a fish broth of sorts. I only threw up once more the night after and then everything seemed to go back to normal.
Being the weekend, I wanted to call my parents to talk about how the homestay went and what was coming up for the next week, but due to internet and data problems we couldn’t communicate very well. They knew I was fine but with a stomach-ache. I was supposed to talk with my siblings too about a book we were reading together but couldn’t… *sigh* sa se lavi, that’s life.
Later on in the week I was able to finally talk to my parents in the evening and update them, I was just fine. Then, that night, my stomach wanted to prove me wrong. I think it was the amazing (it was really good) hot chocolate I had in the evening of my third homestay. It was a little worse than the first time, waking me up at 2am and keeping me up (mostly in the bathroom) to 6am when I threw up for the second time that night and my tummy was satisfied everything it didn’t like was out. I felt much better and I am completely fine now. No hot chocolate for me it seems. Se lavi.
The homestays overall were great! In my 7th and 8th weeks, I spent five days and five nights at lakay Myriam, Myriam’s home, two nights at lakay Mackencia, and two nights at lakay Sarah (these are all staff members of Na Sonje where I’m learning Creole). From 9-12 I had classes and then I returned to spend the rest of the day and nights with their respective families. They were very hospitable to me. They gave me a room to myself and made sure I had privacy if I needed it and were open to spend time with me and talk to me, which was the purpose of the homestays. To spend time with only Creole speakers and practice my Creole. It also gave me a chance to observe Haitian life as well.
Myriam’s home was by far the largest space-wise. In her lakou, translated to yard, there were two homes to fit the random assortment of her family with the yard space connecting them. All living together were Myriam, her husband Junior, their daughter Sayisha, Junior’s daughter Beverly, Myriam’s aunt Bertine and mother Dodo, her other (I think) aunt Bibi who’s deaf, her uncle (I think???), her brother Renal and Renal’s girlfriend Naomi, Naomi and Renal’s baby girl Reydashka, Mavince… who’s a little boy but I’m not exactly sure how he’s related or who he belongs to, and an assortment of animals (pigs, turkeys, ducks, cats, chickens, teenage chickens, chicks, and a dog name Komandant). There were almost always other people hanging about though and I came to learn why.
While I knew that socialization and making jokes was a huge aspect of Haitian life, it wasn’t until my homestay that I truly understood. There is nothing else to do. Before, I was struck with how hard the women work in Haitian society. It can take all day to do laundry and they can spend the entire day cooking as well. They have to sort through and clean all the hole-riddled beans, bad grains of rice, and wilted greens. The beans themselves then take hours to cook, the process often sped up by the use of baking soda. I spent what felt like an eternity picking through grains of rice to get rid of the bad ones, probably took an hour in truth. When you buy meat, there is a process of cleaning them that you never have to do with US-bought store meat. On beef and pork and such, there is a filmy, booger-like substance in the folds of the meat. You have to grip the slippery and slimy booger thing and cut it off. Then you clean it with sour oranges or limes. They often squeeze fresh juice (passion fruit, mango, grapefruit, cherry, tamarin, etc.) as well to go with the meals (which is amazing!!!).
BUT! If you’re not cooking or cleaning you sit there. Most families don’t have a TV or a smart phone (even if you do, cell phone coverage and data is spotty even on the best days… thanks Digicel), having books is a luxury let alone books in Creole (although many people in the Port-au-Prince area know French), no arcades or theaters (that I know of), no videogames or handheld gaming devices, no jobs (it’s easier for a foreigner to get a job than a Haitian)… just other people. Or nothing.
Well, that’s not exactly true. They have games like Kay, a mankala board type of game with 12 holes and played (at least when I learned) in the dirt, another game similar to Kemps, Dominoes, chess, and other games that people and children create like guess who hit your hand when your eyes were closed type of thing. One of my homestays had movies too, but they were only available with the power on… I had the pleasure of watching the first ten minutes of the Netflix movie 6 Underground in French before the power went off.
I spent a lot of time sitting and watching the animals during my first homestay. Of course I talked with people and helped with laundry and food, but my vocabulary is still limited and coming up with new and engaging topics is hard! I also observed an odd discrepancy between work and… not work. There are certain people who are always working, like Myriam. She does all the laundry for at least four people and cooks a lot. She is always doing something. Some of the older folks don’t do much of anything, they did their turn when they were younger I guess. The men… also don’t do much of anything. Myriam’s husband Junior has a degree in engineering but again, finding a job is hard. He gets contracts occasionally but I honestly can’t tell you how in the world the family gets enough to feed everyone. It is a HUGE mystery to me. It’s likely that they don’t eat every day. Who knows? Junior does cook occasionally too but that is abnormal for most Haitians. It seems to me that many of the men wander about, talk to people (usually other men), play dominoes with each other, maybe try to find ways to get money, or just sit around. My brain has trouble reconciling these things most of the time. Reconciling how some people work so hard and others not so much.
Around and during the time of my homestays, I learned a lot about the people around me. We finally reached the point where I could understand what they were saying if they spoke slowly enough and dumbed down their words for me… or use words that are cognates to English. I learned a lot. Mackencia, who’s become such a close friend, told me that she loves to help people. She studied nursing not necessarily to become a nurse, but to be able to care for the people in her community. She says she doesn’t actually care much for nurses and doctors, the health system in Haiti is more about business than about healing people. A medical professional’s “bedside manner” is often lacking and condescending. Renaldo, Sarah’s husband, told me he went to school to learn to be a teacher. Now he’s an actor, but his real dream is in archaeology. He wants to travel and discover things. Schopenhawer, a guy I met at a book club, shared that he works in transportation but his real passion is for music. He wants to help Haitian artists, especially with getting the royalties to their songs that radio stations are playing without paying. Dieuny, my primary teacher, shared that he has a passion for education and ensuring a good education for children. He doesn’t want to be a teacher though, he wants to help teachers (35%-ish of which are actually qualified to teach) become better teachers. Without children who have the knowledge and ability to change the country, Haiti is stuck with the leaders and society that they have.
They gave me their thoughts about what they love about Haiti and what they would change. From the beauty of the country to the love for their children, many of them would still jump at the opportunity to live in another country. In Haiti, the roads are bad, there’s violence, the education and health systems are not great, the economy is awful and life is hard.
When I asked Dieuny what he liked about his life in Haiti, he responded with an answer so different from any I had heard before. Ever the philosopher, Dieuny told me that he has two choices in life. Either he can leave Haiti like so many wish to do and live somewhere else (I think he could do it too, his English is amazing), or he can stay in Haiti and live in Haiti. What he likes about his life is that he chooses to stay. He doesn’t want to live in the United States or France, the Dominican Republic or Brazil. Perhaps life would be better and easier to live or find a job in those countries, but he doesn’t think he could live better at all. He doesn’t mean comfortably or with more happiness. He’s talking about living his life to make a difference in the people and the world around him. It’s not about the quantity of stuff he has or the most recent technology, but realizing a dream. A dream that people are not taught how we are different from each other, but how we are the same. How there is no black or white, rich or poor, feminists or masochists, but instead brothers and sisters living with each other. Respecting each other. Loving each other. Dieuny knows this is a dream and he could never have the impact he wishes this philosophy could make, but if he could teach this to even just five people, and they share it with five more, that would be a life worth living. And that’s a life he could live here, in his home, in Ayiti.
It’s only until now that I’m finally getting to know people and now I’m leaving.
Homestays weren’t the only things that I did recently. This past month, I’ve done a lot of different activities and experienced a lot of different things. In the middle of February, Carla was invited to a 10-year anniversary party for a grassroots organization called PDL. The day we left happened to be my one month anniversary to arriving in Haiti! Daniel, who was staying with Carla and I at the time, and me went with. We left a Thursday and came back Friday. The first evening we ate together and there was a presentation on how PDL started, singing, dancing, and a singing competition later on. It started really late and went on deep into the night. Some of the women didn’t sleep because they were working on food for about 200 people the next day. I remember sitting in a chair towards the back of the crowd, a little cold, watching all the people around me. They were all talking and happy, but I had no idea what they were saying. Carla and Daniel translated for me but there was so much happening and I couldn’t participate like I wish I could have. When I looked up at the stars which were so clear that night… I felt very lonely and homesick. At 10, I excused myself and went to bed.
There was a group from MCC, a Mennonite association, who were there as well. It was actually a bit of a relief to have some people to talk to in English. Everything else was very overwhelming, communication and making connections is very difficult sometimes. One of the members was from Mozambique and I had a nice time talking to him because Mozambique borders Malawi, where I spent 2 months in the summer of 2017. It gave us some basis on which to start talking and I love Malawi and love talking about it so I was happy.
The next morning food was served and another, more formal, presentation occurred with more people than the previous night. Carla and I made the mistake of sitting by the speakers and I felt my right eardrum just being blasted by the sound. Carla translated for me except for the couple of times when she had to get up for phone calls or speeches. Then one of the MCCers came and translated for me! It was so nice!
After the presentation, we had lunch and left soon afterwards.
Another cool thing I went to was a voodoo ceremony!!! It was hosted by Myriam’s aunt Bertine for the sake of thanking the spirits. We arrived and people were making food and playing chess. It reminded me a barbecue or home gathering in the US because you saw the women preparing food and looking after the children on one side of the yard while on the other side the men were hanging out. You know, often you’ll find women coming together in the kitchen while the men hang at the grill. Daniel played a few rounds of chess before we decided to leave because we weren’t really doing anything. Bertine asked us to wait because they were going to start prayers.
We went into a windowless room with two stone tables (alters) filled with cooked food. The only light was from a handful of candles. I missed a lot of the symbolism and stuff, but there was something about fish and throwing water. Above the alters were pictures of saints and Bertine began to lead everyone in prayer with an odd mix of Creole, French, and African languages… so neither Carla nor I knew what she was really saying. There were a lot of Catholic elements to it, Bertine is Catholic, and one of the first songs sung can be translated to “We are all angels”. According to Carla, there is a certain order to the songs and when they are sung to give the respect to the spirits. At some point I tossed some corn about… a sweet treat I think for a particular spirit. There was some symbolic dancing… the whole experience was interesting. I had no idea what was going on but I didn’t feel threatened or scared in any way. In fact, I could see how great a tradition and belief it is for Haitians. At least for this positive type of ceremony. I don’t know how to explain it though. With their history, it just felt right.
We left early from the ceremony since it was getting late. It was awkward because we were sitting deep into the room far from the only exit. And we were white. But we found a good lull, bid goodbye and thanks to Bertine, and climbed over the other guests to get out. Apparently, in many voodoo ceremonies, it’s later into the night that the interesting stuff happens. Like possessions and stuff. I don’t know but I’m keeping an open mind. They are things that happen in this world that I can’t explain and that science can’t explain either. So I’ll leave this topic for when I know more.
LENT HAS STARTED! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get my ashes on Ash Wednesday but I did fast. I was at a homestay that week and the one staff member who is Catholic said the church we go to doesn’t have a service. Then I forgot to abstain from meat on Friday. Then I had a stomachache Sunday and didn’t go to church. Which is fine since it was raining and when it rains here… church is cancelled. Yup. Se lavi. Well, my Lent is going great so far. I did finally learn the “Our Father” in Creole though. Woo hoo! And I went to Chemen Kwa, or Road of the Cross, otherwise known as Stations of the Cross this past Friday. Mackencia and I went down the road where it started and did the stations, slowly making our way back up the road and up to the church. It was cool because we were actually going uphill the whole way, mirroring Christ’s journey to Calvary.
Now, I have one more story to end this post since today, March 8, is my last day at Na Sonje. I’m trying to fit everything in that I can. So… at Na Sonje… there’s a dog. Her name is GwoRat. Meaning Big Rat. She is one of the happiest dogs I’ve seen especially when many of the dogs in Haiti don’t seem that happy. A couple weeks in, GwoRat had accepted me as part of her family. She must really like me because she follows me everywhere. She followed me to the different staff houses for lunch where she knows she’ll get a bone or something. She followed me to my homestays. She followed me when I took walks on my own. She followed me when I didn’t take walks on my own. And she followed me to church each Sunday. Now… she does offer me a bit of extra security but whenever I went to church, she always went inside the church with me (she doesn’t listen very well, she just looks at you panting her happy pant and wagging her crooked tail… so cute). Sometimes she laid under my chair. Other times she walked under other peoples’ feet. When she’s being particularly dezòd, disorderly, sometimes you could hear a wave of “Sht! Tcht! Soti! Deyò!”, Leave! Outside!, as GwoRat wove her way up and down the rows.
I’ll miss GwoRat. I’ll miss the staff here at Na Sonje, Carla and her other friends too. They have all been very hospitable to me. I am very excited to go to GwoMòn although I’m nervous to start the process of making friends all over again. It will take hard work on my part and reaching out to people so with God’s grace, I can make new friends and a beautiful new community.
I want to thank everyone at Na Sonje for everything they have done for me, although one thank you can never be enough. Because of their hard work, kindness, and openness I will be going into GwoMòn with a solid foundation of language and culture, although I’m far from perfect. M ap sonje tout moun, I’ll remember everyone.
Thank you Lord for the people you have brought into my life. Now I follow You to a new place once again. Grant me and all people who are transitioning in life, whatever that transition may be, and aid us in a new way of living that brings even greater glory to You.