Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The last word

It took a couple of minutes to cross the busy street on its way out of Jacmel on the final day of our weekend visit.  Motos sped past in quick succession, not quite leaving enough room for us to scurry between them.  The tell-tale signs of a Haitian Sunday morning were all around us.  Little girls, all frills and bows, hung on to their mom’s hand and skipped a little to keep up as they walked down the street.  The mothers walked with purpose, even with heels and fashionable but modest dresses, always covering the shoulder.  Older men were out an about, too, shoes freshly shined, tie just so, and Bible in hand.  The wafting sound of Creole hymns floated in the air, which was warm, even a little before 9am.

We finally saw an opportunity to cut across the road, jogging a little to make it in time.  Turning off the main road, we walked down a dirt path, lined with banana trees and an occasional pieced-together barbed wire fence.  It was only a moment before the main road seemed far behind us.  Lush green foliage surrounded us, and, peering from behind a tree, we saw the bright blue trim of a building.  We had arrived at church.

A step or two led up to the door where an usher smiled and welcomed us in to the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Though we were a few minutes early, some singing had already begun and the church was filling up.  Start time is approximate here—sometimes before and sometimes after the appointed hour.  It was not hard to find where we should sit, as the ushers had roped off the back rows, and were directing everyone to start filling in from the front.  I took my seat and looked around.  The building was a long concrete rectangle topped with a tin roof and divided by a prominent middle aisle leading to the podium at the front.  The pews were benches or wooden chairs, depending on where a person sat, which were pushed close together to maximize seating.  People filled in every bit of free seating space, not afraid to sit shoulder to shoulder.  A breeze came in through the open spaces between the steel bars, where you might normally expect windows.  Even the prettiest stained glass would have stiff competition from the bright blue of the bars against the dramatic greens and siluettes of the tropical trees against the sky.

A pastor stood up to welcome the congregation and begin the time of prayer and worship.  The order of worship was vaguely liturgical, so I could keep Robbie posted in abbreviated whispers about where we were in the service—confession of sins, Gospel reading John 11, Apostles’ Creed, etc.  We sang a few songs, which sounded familiar but which I didn’t know by heart.  Everyone is responsible for bringing their own hymnal if they want one, called Chan D’Esperans, “Songs of Hope.”  I had just bought one a couple of weeks ago, but hadn’t thought to bring it along on our weekend trip.  So, I just smiled and let the music wash over me, making do with humming along and jumping in with some of the choruses.  A women’s choir sang in well-rehearsed a cappella harmonies, imploring the congregation, with lyrics and matching hand motions, to be unified in Christ and to proclaim the Gospel.

When it came time for the sermon, the pastor stepped up to his place in front of the church.  He read from John 11, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and started right in to the message, “God has the last word.”  He preached about how, even when we experience suffering—when our house burns down, or a loved one dies, or an earthquake destroys a city—we think that the story has ended.  The world seems to have come to a crashing halt.  All we see is hopeless and final darkness.  But, in fact, he continued, the story does not end there.  It is God who brings restoration to broken things.  It is God who speaks death back to life.  It is God that has the last word.  

This is a familiar passage and familiar themes, about which I’ve heard many sermons including one by Andy Stanley just a few weeks ago.  But, this time, there seemed to be some kind of difference in the message.  A different tone, or maybe a different resonance.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first.  It was not a new and unknown scripture.  It was not a novel teaching.  There wasn’t a fresh emotion laid on the subject.  But there was something more.  Afterwards, when I thought more about it, my mind went back to a philosophy class I took my freshman year of college.  I thought of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, his discourse about the art of persuasion.  In this treatise, he describes something called ethos—a means of persuasion based on credibility, referring both to the authority of the speaker, and also the character of the audience.  

That morning, in that little church, ethos brought the message and the passage alive in a whole new way.  It was different because this message, basically a response to the problem of pain, was not based on some distant philosophy.  It was not borrowed from a lofty theology textbook or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”  This message was welded together in the dark underground caves of suffering.  It was made of chunks hewn from death, and grief, and waking up sobbing in the middle of the night.  And yet, it was a message of one who came through this darkness with (could it be?) words of hope—a missive that death is not the end of the story.

This was the message that the pastor spoke to the church that had come together that morning.  A church that also knew suffering.  A church that had watched as brothers and mothers died when there was no money for a doctor.  A church that had seen their children stay at home idle when parents couldn’t scrape together school tuition.  A church that had pulled bodies out of rubble too late.  This was a church that didn’t need lofty philosophy, but real comfort and hope spoken into dark places.  As I sat in the congregation and observed the speaking and the hearing that was taking place, I had the sense that I was witnessing something profound and sacred.  Deep calling to deep, with the words that after brokenness there can be restoration, after grief there can be joy, and after death there can be life.  In the end, God has the last word.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

One year

One year ago, I was waiting.  With eagerness, expectation, and some of those butterflies that come when you stand on the edge of something vast and unknown, I was waiting for our first trip to Haiti.  My bags were packed a good two weeks early, and all I could think about was learning just a few more words in Creole.  We had our plane tickets, a vague sense of destiny, and a final destination of Jacmel.

This weekend, a year later, we returned to Jacmel again.  As with our first trip, all the details seemed to fall right into place.  Some friends from school offered us a ride, which made for great company along with the treat of some delicious finger bananas purchased from a roadside stand high in the mountains.  Daniel, who bought them, had a great line for negotiating the price—“300 goud? What do you take me for, a UN person?!”  I think I might use that one.  

We were a little concerned about the directions—we had asked Denea, the friend we were visiting, for the address or intersection for the guesthouse, called Isaiah 61.  She had messaged us back, saying that even her most reliable sources didn’t have any idea.  What followed in the message was a verbal description of the route, noting curves in the road and gas stations we would pass, but not a single street name.  Really, even if we had the street names it wouldn’t help much considering there aren’t many signs.  I comforted myself with the fact that we had her cell number and she could always talk us in.  Happily, we found it with no problem, even in the dark.  

We enjoyed a good dinner and caught up with Denea, whom we had met on the first trip.  She had also been here short-term at that point, only to return several months later as the interim director of CCH’s physical therapy clinic.  When the evening drew to a close, we walked her to her apartment, a few blocks from the guesthouse where we were staying.  While we walked, I noticed that there is something markedly different about the atmosphere of Jacmel, compared to Port-au-Prince.  I tried to put my finger on it, and couldn’t really do it.  Was it the concrete brick pavement rather than asphalt?  Or the French-style architecture?  Or the fact that it’s a smaller city with fewer people?  Or maybe fewer cars?  Or, was it the fact that homes opened up to the street and people were sitting out front chatting, without the huge barriers of walls and gates so prevalent in our neighborhood?  Or fewer tents?  Or less noise?  Or maybe a more intangible difference—a more welcoming attitude or the sense of pride that locals feel about their lovely city?  At the end of our walk, I still wasn’t sure of the defining factors.  All I know is that it just feels wonderfully different in Jacmel.

Yesterday, we walked around the art district, just as we hada year ago.  We spoke with some artists about their work.  They described how they created art out of broken things.  On pieces of stone pulled out of destroyed buildings, they painted memories of loved ones who had perished on January 12.  Out of cardboard and papers salvaged from a pile of trash, they formed papier-mâché birds and fish.  From their own experiences of the earthquake, they summoned images that were at once beautiful and devastating, hopeful and heartbreaking, true and unimaginable.

In the afternoon, we made our way to a public beach a mile or two outside of city limits, along with a couple of other volunteers and Haitian employees of CCH.  Lucasen, a driver, had graciously agreed to take us on his day off.  We pulled off of the coastal road, and into a parking lot.  There were lots of people everywhere, out to enjoy the beautiful sunny afternoon.  Under the shade of coconut trees that lined the beach, there were groupings of plastic tables, covered with bright mismatched plastic tablecloths, where we could have stopped for lunch, and where we were scolded when we didn’t.  Food vendors approached us as we kept walking.  Though we had just eaten lunch, we couldn’t resist a few skewers of grilled conch and some milk from a freshly-opened coconut for refreshment.  We kept walking down the beach, past the crowds and toward the fringes.  We spread out a sheet and settled in to the shady spot.  On the grey sand beach just in front of us, a lively soccer game was taking place.  Lucasen joined in, along with some other foreigners whom we didn’t know.  The players were so focused and intense that they hardly seemed to notice the differences in skin color or attire—Lucasen kept having to roll up his trendy jeans, others were in bright jerseys, most were barefoot.

Wading out into the water, and floating effortlessly in the waves, I thought about the beach trip we took a year ago, to a cove not too far from here.  I thought about the journey we’ve been on since then.  I thought about how much a year can hold, and what a surprise it can be.  Now, looking back, the whole journey has a certain progression, a certain flow.  But a year ago, it was hidden and obscure.  I couldn’t have guessed where it would lead—back on a plane, back to Haiti, and back to Jacmel.  Well, at least for a weekend.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Blan.  It means white.  As in English, it’s a word that also refers to skin color.  If taken literally, it’s as imprecise as using the word “black” in the same context.  The vivid descriptors of hardware store paint chips would more accurately reflect the delightful array of skin tones within any given community.  August peach.  Twilight rose.  Mocha cream.  Desert sunrise.  Amber honey.  But, of course, the words “white” and “black” are not poetry.  They are not meant to offer odes to the lovely tone of an individual’s face and shoulders when the sun hits them just so.  They are blunt instruments of history and class.  They spit and sort.  They define and exclude.  They lift up and push down.

In Haiti, as in many countries, I suppose, the culture and politics of color, race, and ethnicity are complicated and deeply rooted.  Molded over generations of dynamic cultural and political realities, the simple words of “black” and “white” have acquired layers of meaning that I can only scratch the surface of understanding.  But, even in my infancy of cultural insight, the charged reality of race is inescapable and harshly overt all around me.  In the US, there is plenty of racial tension and prejudice, but in polite company, it is basically taboo.  Heaven forbid that a small group of well-meaning Caucasians talk about a racial issue amongst themselves—either an awkward silence will communicate discomfort and the topic will change, or someone will hesitate and ask in a hushed tone, “Should we even be talking about this?”  

Here, at least in some contexts, there is no such tiptoeing.  When we walk down the street, children follow after us holding out their hand and demanding, “blan, blan!”  When I slide under a beach umbrella on the corner to buy cell-phone minutes, the vendor greets me with, “Bonswa mon blan,” “Hello my white person.”  When I observe groups of children, I see how they hold their arms out to compare the subtle nuances of darkness and lightness, and sometimes even group themselves according to these perceived differences.  When I chat with young women at the market, they admire my “good” hair and say they just wish they could trade their black kinky hair for mine.

Even the definitions of “white” and “black” are different here than they are in the US.  A blan is not just someone with white (or should I say, “sand-dune”) skin, but any foreigner—even a “black” (or should I say, “midnight moonbeam”) and Haitian-born individual who has lived abroad and come back.  Several months ago, I was speaking with a Haitian-American college student about her own story and Haitian identity.  She grew up in small coastal town not far from Jacmel.  She smiled as she recalled the warm evenings, walking around and playing with friends in the safety of their community.  At age nine, she moved to the US with her family as her parents pursued the opportunity for American education for their children.  As we spoke, this insightful young woman, now excelling at Williams College, wondered aloud if she could ever really go home.  Would she be accepted?  Would she be welcomed?  Or would she be ‘other’ because people perceive her as wealthy and elite?  Would she have become blan?

In the US, “blackness” has generally been culturally and legally defined by having even a small amount of African ancestry—ranging from one fourth, to one eighth, down to “one drop” in the years of Jim Crow in the South.  Though there’s plenty of discussion about the nuances of this issue, even now, US society generally groups people with some African roots in the over-simplified “African-American” umbrella.  “Biracial” has been introduced in recent decades a slightly more descriptive way of explaining complex background, replacing the outmoded and almost offensive words like “mulatto” or “mixed.”  But even so, when asked to check a box on a college application, most bi- or multi-racial seniors will check “African-American,” even if it’s only one great-grandfather who brought his African ancestry into their blood.  

In Haiti, both the history and current realities are totally different.  Society is much more stratified, with lighter skin tone often accompanying higher socioeconomic status.  Many light-skinned Haitians would never dream of describing themselves as black, and have been surprised that American society does so when they move abroad.  This complex social structure has deep roots in Haitian history.  According to J.N. Leger in “Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors,” a 1907 history of the country, a multi-graded system of social division was established in Haiti during the French colonial period.

“At the time of its greatest splendor the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue were divided into three distinct classes: the whites, the ‘affranchis,’ or freedmen, and the slaves.  To these classes officially admitted, may be added a fourth one the maroons.  Naturally the whites had arrogated all the privileges.  They were the masters; their color sufficed to confer on them all the rights and advantages.  However, interest and prosperity in time divided the prominent class introducing four subdivisions... These groups were jealous of one another...

“The ‘affranchis’ formed the intermediary class between the colonist and the slave, and consisted of the blacks and mulattoes who had been able to obtain or to buy their freedom.  Through personal efforts and hard work they began to rise gradually from the low condition they had occupied from their birth.  They acquired urban and rural property; they appreciated learning; and their sons, sent to France at great sacrifice to themselves, had often more success at school than the children of the colonists.  The wealth and knowledge they acquired made the ‘affranchis’ feel they were the equals of the whites.  Therefore they were highly indignant over the prerogatives the latter had assumed at their expense... 

“The slaves were in a pitiable plight.  Not being considered as human beings, they were entirely without rights that a white man was bound to respect.  They were treated and sold like cattle, with which their masters confounded them in the inventory of their estates.  They were subjected to the most barbarous punishments.  According to the Black Code all fugitives were punishable by death; it was lawful to mutilate them by chopping off their legs and their ears.  The hounds were let loose on them, inflicting the greatest torture by their fierce attacks on the unfortunate creatures.  Flogging was the mildest chastisement inflicted on the slaves.  The honor of their wives, the chastity of their daughters were matters of the slightest consideration to their masters.”

At dinner tonight at the local fast-food joint, Robbie and I chatted about some of these issues over Haitian meatballs and rice and beans.  When I brought up some of this rich historical context, he kind of sighed.  “Look around,” he said, motioning towards the young Haitians also enjoying their dinners.  “Do you think that these people are really thinking about what happened hundreds of years ago?”  Well, no.  They are probably not walking around thinking about 18th century class structure all the time.  But, this historical context is what created a foundation for the subsequent development of Haitian society.  History created social structures and norms that were passed down through generations.  History shaped relationships and families.  History influenced, and continues to influence, attitudes, expectations, and behavior.  History is part of what makes street kids hold out their hands, merchants call out “mon blan,” teens meticulously compare the shade of their forearms, and young women yearn for long straight hair.  And for me, history is one part of what I just have to understand if I’m ever going to make any sense of this beautiful and impossibly complex country and what it means for me to live here as a blan (or, should I say, “golden hearth loaf”).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Saturday Quest

Saturday’s adventure was a trip up to Petyonvil to see if we could find the fruit and flower market.  The last time we drove past a couple of weeks ago, someone had pointed out one particular market from the car, claiming that it was “the finest fruit and flower market in all of Haiti.”  My imagination was captured by the idea of this lovely market, and I was ready to explore.  We shared our plans with a couple of other teachers, and they were also up for the adventure.

As we assembled the group and got ready to set off, Robbie’s eyes twinkled like they do when he teases me.  “You think she knows where she’s going?” he rhetorically asked our friends.  He playfully answered his own question.  “She doesn’t know.  Listen to her language.  ‘I think we just take the tap tap up to Petyonvil. I’m pretty sure it’s not far off the main road. I kind of know how to get there.’”  

Busted.  To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me until that moment that other people were trusting me to lead them, and I didn’t exactly know the way. I mean, I had seen it from the next road over.  Sort of.  In passing.  Vaguely.  I didn’t know the road name, nor did I know my way around Petyonvil enough to really have my bearings, or to be able to say it’s next to such-and-such, or across from so-and-so.  But I knew the general direction and had my imaginings, and that was enough for me.  And apparently, it was also enough for our compatriots, who did not seem at all deterred.

We crossed the busy Route Delmas, the road on which we live, so that we could catch a tap tap from the other side of the street.  Walking across the road is a little like a game of Frogger.  You have to be vigilant and hyper-aware of your surroundings—not my strengths.  I joke with Robbie that there is plenty of danger here in Haiti, but it’s not what you hear about on the news—my mom worries that we will get kidnapped; I worry that I’ll be hit by a motorcycle speeding around a car while I’m making my way across the street.  Thankfully, we made it across the street safely and without incident.  

A number of tap taps heading to Petyonvil passed by, but they were all filled to the brim.  Most of them had the last few people standing up on the open end of the truck bed, not at all alarmed by the fact that they were being jostled back and forth as the driver hit potholes and swerved around pedestrians.  One of them stopped for us, but didn’t have all five of the seats that we needed.  After a few minutes, a big white bus pulled to the curb to let some of the passengers off.  “Petion-Ville,” declared a clearly marked sign on the side.  And, since some of the passengers had just gotten off, there was plenty of room for our motley crew.  We gave our 10 goud each (25¢ US) to the driver’s helper, and off we went.

Now the question was where to stop—one potential difficulty in my “plan.”  Thankfully, the question was answered for me when we pulled into the final stop and the driver instructed everyone to get off the bus.  Just as we climbed down, there was a man by the side of the road selling Bibles from under a bright green beach umbrella.  One of our friends was looking for a Bible in Kreyòl, so we stopped to make the purchase.  Next to the stack of Bibles, I noticed another stack of books.  I didn’t see the title from my vantage point, but I knew just what they were based on the exposed edge of the pages which showed a number of sections, each with a different color paper.  Chants D’Esperance, the Haitian hymn book.  Just what I was looking for.  We bought our books and thanked the vendor.  I asked him if he knew where the big market was.  He looked puzzled for a moment, and then pointed us back down the hill on another main artery of the city, Route Freres.  Hm.  That didn’t seem like the same direction I had thought we were heading, but off we went.

As we walked, we passed all sorts of fruit, vegetable and used clothes vendors.  We even went by a long row of live chickens, tied together in pairs by their feet.  They lay feebly on the sidewalk, waiting for doomsday.  When we stopped for a moment so another one of our friends could buy some flip-flops, one of the chicken vendors came up to us with a pair of chickens in each of her hands.  “These are country chickens,” she explained with enthusiasm.  “They are much better than what you can buy in the makèt (supermarket).  They are fresh.  They have a good taste.  You can buy them.”  Prompted by my questions and curiosity, she offered a bit of explanation of how to kill and prepare these chickens, but not with enough detail that I could follow her instructions.  I guess I could have filled in the gaps with the help of my friend and teacher, Google, but I wasn’t feeling that adventurous yet.  Maybe later, I told her.  Instead, I bought a wooden mortar and pestle and a plantain smasher from the guy next to her. 

We kept walking toward the market, still not knowing how far down the road it was or exactly what we were looking for.  After a bit, it seemed that there were more merchants than usual on the other side of the street.  “Let’s cross here,” I suggested.  Sure enough, we found ourselves peering down a steep alley, lined on both sides and sometimes down the middle with vendors of all varieties of goods.  There were necklaces, perfumes, clothes, diapers, baggies of coffee, toothpaste, vats of rice and beans, fruits and vegetables.  At a glance, the whole market seemed to be alive, in movement, pulsing with color and sound.  

As white foreigners, blan, our presence was inciting some interest from the vendors, the machann.  The ladies called out to each other, “Look at the blan, here in the market!”  It was drizzling rain as we walked down the narrow path, now slick with wet dust.  When one of us fell on the slippery cobbled pavement, the whole place irrupted with laughter.  “The blan fell!  The blan fell!” Our friend, “the blan,” stood right back up and laughed along.  Unscathed, she kept right on going.  

I was surprised by how big this market was—a couple of city blocks all together.  We kept heading downhill, now passing vendors of fish and meat.  The path turned, and we continued around the big block.  I wasn’t intending to buy vegetables since there are so many closer to home, but I couldn’t resist when I saw such pretty cucumbers, peppers, and huge sweet onions.  I loaded Robbie’s backpack down with the purchases, and we headed up some stairs, sort of back up to the street we had come from.  

The area at the top of the stairs was still open air, but covered with a permanent tin roof.  Here, there was a whole aisle of used clothes sellers.  Some of the clothes were kind of ridiculous—1980s jackets with shoulder pads and loud polyester prints.  But some were really cute—nice skirts and tops.  I smiled when I saw one of my favorite brown summer dresses displayed, which I had picked up at Old Navy a few seasons ago.  I wonder how it made its way down here.

We continued up to a more open warehouse-type area, where the dry goods venders seemed to be concentrated.  Most of them had spices, oil, pasta, and big open bags of flour, cornmeal and beans.  The fresh ginger at one stand caught my eye—I hadn’t seen any at the small market by our house.  I chatted with the machann, the vendor, while I bought a small baggie of the ginger.  She was selling something else that I didn’t recognize—a dark brown ball about the size of a golf ball.  “What’s that?” I asked.  “Country chocolate,” she said.  Chocolate?  Say no more.  I’m in.  She explained that you don’t eat it, you use it to make a hot chocolate drink.  She didn’t have to try too hard to get me to buy some, along with a bunch of other spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon stick, and some little dry leaves with a bit of a licorice flavor) that you boil together to make the sweet treat.  “Now you can experience real Haitian culture!” she declared with a pat on my shoulder.  

We gathered our group and headed back up to the street to make our way home.  I smiled to myself as we walked towards Delmas to catch the bus again, because the trip had worked out so well.  I had found everything on my list (mortar and pestle, song book, plantain smasher), and then some.  My friends seemed to enjoy themselves and find what they were looking for, too.  But, the thing that was making me giggle was that the market we had found wasn’t at all the one for which we had been looking.  It wasn’t “the finest flower and fruit market in all of Haiti.”  I didn’t see a single flower there.  I think the flower market is all the way on the other side of Petyonvil.  This one was just a big market.  Much like every other big market all across Haiti. 

So, was this trip a success?  I mean, we didn’t actually get to our intended destination.  We never saw the fruit and flower market of my imaginings.  But we did have a little adventure.  We found everything we needed and wanted along the way.  We had some funny chats.  We felt enriched and satisfied.  And even though we never saw the flower market, the idea of seeing it was enough to capture my interest and start us off on the journey.  So yes, it was a wonderful success.
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