Pataje

Every morning on the way to school, one of the kids runs up and offers to carry my things. I gladly say yes and hand over my water bottle, Creole/English dictionary, and whatever else I am carrying for the day so as to free up all hand and arm space for IMG_0013pushing wheelchairs and leading the blind. As I was making sure the kids got settled in their respective classrooms, I turned around to a loud crack and the sound of many surprised intakes of air. My water bottle (a Nalgene, which for the record claim that their bottles are next to indestructible) had fallen and cracked open, spilling water everywhere. I calmly walked up, quiet out of surprise really, and picked it up to examine it. Thinking I was angry, the kids all started pointing fingers and placing blame as to who had broken it. The second bus had just arrived and so I was anxious to get back to my classroom to make sure the kids weren’t starting to get into too much trouble.

An hour later, a middle schooler was lead into my kindergarten classroom by two teachers. She tearfully apologized for breaking my water bottle. Overwhelmed by her tears, I said it really wasn’t a problem and tried to reassure her that I was not even remotely angry. When I walked back into the room, I saw that one of the kindergarteners had left one of the little packs of water they all drink on my desk.

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Medjina and Damenly gifting me flowers

This is an idea that Dr. Susan Nelson – long time volunteer and board member for St. Vincent’s – talked about recently in an interview. It is part of Haitian culture to share what they have, no matter how little they might have. It is why I am more often than not cajoled into eating too much, accepting the cookies, bags of the Haitian version of Cheetos, or even entire meals that they insist I eat no matter how full I already am. It is a means of showing their respect and appreciation for you – one of the highest forms of flattery in any culture – sharing with someone you care about.

It is not just for me. If I have chocolate to share, they all make sure I have enough for everyone, sometimes even asking for another to give to their friends or parents.

 

This sharing what they have is also why I have been spending the majority of my school IMG_0010days working on crafting masks, crowns, and little heart shaped bags out of paper for Carnival and Valentine’s Day that fall at the same time this year. Myrlande and Gamalene, the two kindergarten teachers I have gotten to know the best, insist that we make enough for all of the kindergarteners, their teachers, and all of the student residents living at St. Vincent’s. They use their time and money on the weekends to make sure we have enough supplies and chocolate to share with everyone. 

In a country that purportedly has so little, it speaks volumes that their ultimate goal is always to make sure their friends are taken care of.

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Back to St. Vincent’s

After nearly five weeks in the U.S., I am back in Haiti for another three months. It almost feels like I never left which is both comforting and also a testament to the unshakable community that makes up St. Vincent’s. After all of the initial screaming and hugging, I settled back into life here as if my absence was merely a weekend trip.

img_1606.jpgI cannot tell you how many people asked what I brought back for them. I had anticipated this and when my mom and I brainstormed what I could bring back for all thirty-plus residents of all ages, we settled on Christmas Crackers – small, unisex gifts that would be a fun display of one of our Christmas traditions. Children and adults alike were bewildered and frankly somewhat underwhelmed by the little games and paper crowns. They were not into the force it takes to pop them and instead unwrapped them carefully. Their slight disappoint was evident, but if there are two img_1653.pngthings that I know are universally loved, they are chocolate and Shakira, so I put on Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) and started handing out the millions of Hershey’s miniatures that I brought. This cheered everyone up and most of them even put on their crowns.

The chocolate sparked a long discussion about food because they all wanted to know what the crunch in the red wrappers was. I explained that it was dried rice and they all thought I was being ridiculous. They all wanted to try the rice chocolate and asked if we also put corn in our chocolate. I said no, but we do put hot peppers in it sometimes and I think they still don’t believe me.

IMG_1624.JPGBecause of the heavy rains that are highly unusual for January, there has been flooding across the country that make roads impassable. School attendance has steadily increased through the week but it is still sparse. Despite many missing students and teachers, everyone is happy to be back at school with friends and looking forward to the upcoming semester.

 

Today is the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Many of my conversations yesterday were about the residents’ and teachers’ experiences during the earthquake. Nearly everyone has a story to tell, can show you their scars, or knew someone who was seriously injured or even killed. Despite losing their houses and most of their belongings, people are still hopeful for the future and proud of their country’s, and their own, resilience.

I can’t promise that this will be a weekly publication again as you have heard pretty much img_1622.jpgall of the day-to-day happenings, but I will write semi-regularly to keep you up to date on the big news. If biweekly isn’t enough for you, check out the Facebook page (facebook.com/centresaintvincent), Instagram (stvincentshaiti), and Twitter (@stvincentshaiti) where I will be posting updates and pictures of the happenings and people of St. Vincent’s. I am thrilled to be back for the next 90 days at St. Vincent’s.

Week Twelve – Goodbye St. Vincent’s

I have been back home in Memphis for nearly a week and finally feel that I have enough distance to write about my departure from Haiti. I did not spend the full 90 days at St. Vincent’s because I was asked to come back early to speak at a fundraiser. The short notice of my leaving and the uncertainty of whether or not I will be able to return in January made for a very difficult goodbye.

unnamedAfter sending my parents off with most of my belongings on Saturday, the kids were very upset about my inevitable departure. Despite the looming goodbye, Sunday was spent as any other Sunday – just hanging out. We had multiple dance parties in addition to a ping-pong tournament. It was a day just like any other.

Monday started with the same sort of ordinariness until snack time when all of the kindergarteners and teachers led me outside to the pavilion where there were balloons, handmade signs and crafts, and a giant cake. The residents were all there along with the entirety of the kindergarten. They then sang a song that mainly consisted of “Merci Grayson.” It was all very sweet and when I couldn’t stop crying they all tried to comfort me, which just made it harder. After many goodbyes through my tears, I was taken to the airport and ushered back into the American lifestyle.IMG_1400

And just like that, I am no longer living in Haiti. It is safe to say that St. Vincent’s has had an enormous impact on me and my outlook. I hope to spend another 90 days or so there starting in January. But if this is not possible, I know that I won’t be able to stay away for long. Mesi anpil Saint Vincent!

Week Eleven – Thanksgiving

 

In preparation for my family’s arrival, the favorite activity of the week was practicing English. This mostly involved saying, “Grayson, what is your name?” or “What is your name, Grayson?” and a lot of, “How do you say bonswa in English?” In addition to their

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Medjina in my Converse

language skills, there was a significant amount of talk about the new sandals that my family was bringing everyone. When they aren’t in school, they are wearing sandals, so this was a really big deal. They often make fun of me because I tend to wear my Converse all day long, but this week they all (and I mean every single resident under the age of 14) decided to go even further in their teasing by trying my shoes on and marveling at how big my feet are.

 

 

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Arianne, Medjina, and Damenly playing school

The excitement for my family’s arrival was slightly stifled by illness and visits to various Haitian hospitals. Not a problem though since I do NOT have Malaria or Typhoid thanks to the care of every single resident and many of the teachers at St. Vincent’s who gave me numerous Haitian remedies and concoctions to drink. After three visits to doctors near the school, I now feel much better and was even able to enjoy some turkey while I was out with my family celebrating Thanksgiving last night.

 

Once my family finally arrived at the school Thursday afternoon, it was lovely to see all of the kids (and teachers)

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Medjina, Phoebe, and Arianne

rush out of their classrooms to hug them, stroke their hands and arms, and marvel at how similar my sister and I look. Their excitement had not diminished at all and they were not even remotely shy about their profound interest and admiration. As one resident reminded me, they were excited to meet my “other family.”

Week Ten – Becoming Haitian

This week I have been met with mixed messages – “You are Haitian so you must forget English – only Creole!” and “We want to learn English! What is the English word for chair? For salmon? For corn? For mattress?” These messages, while flattering, are confusing. I am not sure what they mean by my being Haitian other than I have noticed IMG_9461I’ve started making new noises when I am surprised. Beyond that, I have found that my mouth and brain get confused switching back and forth between Creole and English. So much so that I often just repeat the Creole word they are asking for the translation of.

This confusion of my Americanness versus my Haitianness is further exacerbated by the fact that my mom, dad, grandmother, and sister are coming to Haiti in less than 1 week for Thanksgiving. The kids have been preparing for this visit by asking me daily to see pictures of my family and are doing their very best to try to remember their names (Teebee? CaREEsa? Daveed?) This will be my first Thanksgiving in a foreign country and I am very unsettled by the idea of not eating turkey…

This week it has rained every day, lowering the temperature by at least 15 degrees. At first I was enjoying it, but then, when I felt the urge to put on a sweater in 78 degree temperatures, I realized they might be onto something about me becoming Haitian. The

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Practicing their best dinosaur impressions

kids come to school bundled up in rain jackets, hoodies, button up chambray shirts – whatever they can find to stay warm. Despite the cold, the rain coming in through the windows and puddling on the floor (the school buildings are built for upper 90s and blinding sun), and the dreary grayness, the kids are all just as cheerful as ever – grinning as those who can see push and pull the wheelchair bound and blind along with them.

Week Nine – Back at It

School started again on Monday, just in time for my sanity. Although I waxed romantic in my last post about enjoying the downtime, I had reached my limit by Sunday.

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My very first attempt – it got a little better after the 3rd time…

That being said, the highlight of Saturday and Sunday was learning how to do the kids’ hair. I have never had much interest in hair, but when one of the caretakers, Lisa, said she wanted to teach me, I could not turn her down. Hair is still not my calling, but the girls all beg me to do their hair and it is fun togetherness time. Thankfully it is going to be a weekend practice because, as Lisa told me, I’m not ready to do their hair for school yet.

The residents, and all of the students and teachers, were full of energy and happiness on Monday morning that school was back on after a week off. Everyday after school we listen to music. I was starting to get incredibly tired of the 15 or so Haitian songs I know when I was informed that they love Shakira. When I played Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)(The Official 2010 FIFA World Cup Song), everyone, and I mean everyone, immediately started chanting and dancing.

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Dance party

Following our dance party, everyone started climbing into my lap, cuddling with me, and calling me mommy. While this was just kids being silly, the kids and adults alike have started calling me pet names like “cherie” and “mon amour” – really making me feel loved and needed.

Following a tour that I led with Americans, I was joking about forgetting how to speak English. Everyone began teasing me about being Haitian. This idea was strangely solidified in the classroom the following day when another group of Americans gave candy and stickers to all of the kids, including me. I can’t be sure but since they didn’t give candy to the teachers it seemed to me as if they thought I was a 19 year old white girl attending Haitian kindergarten …

Two months in and my music, speech, and sometimes even my hairstyle, are now reflecting my Haitain life. Hard to think about going home in December, especially considering that I was cold in the upper 70s weather yesterday.

Week Eight – School Break

The students have been out of school for the entire week for teacher training and then a national holiday. I  have to admit that I was dreading this vacation. There is already a lot of “hang out” time in Haiti, and no school for an entire week sounded like it might set me over the edge. But yet again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I have not felt bored out of my mind – quite the opposite really.

 

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Arianne celebrating her 5th birthday with a new pair of sneakers

I have made friends with residents I had barely interacted with before. Fernel and Guerrier, both blind, have decided that they are my new best friends. They practice speaking English to me and I respond in Creole. Dr. Susan Nelson left me with a deck of braille playing cards after her visit in October, and we play cards for hours nearly every night. Jean Leonard is a new resident who moved in while I was in Seattle. He is deaf and has been practicing sign with me every day.

 

The days have been filled with music, manicures, lots of Uno and cards. I have played cards with a blind boy and two deaf boys – at the same time! In the evenings, after the power comes back on, I have gotten the opportunity to talk to Lindseska about politics. Lindseska is 10 years old and very opinionated. She asked to see a picture of the president of the United States. She had never heard of Donald Trump – something that caught me off guard since he is so omnipresent in American news.

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Lindseska enjoying some DumDums

She asked me genuine and intelligent questions about his policies and whether or not he had his own police. When I said no, he does not have his own police, she was amazed and explained that the Haitian president has his own police that cause a lot of problems. She continued to tell me about his policies and the president before him. We even covered the fact that American presidents are limited to two four-year terms, which she agreed was a good thing. We had a similar conversation the next night about the problems with the new president’s increase in taxation and even compared the pricing of items. When a friend gave me a Gatorade, she asked if people drank Gatorade in the U.S. all the time. I said yes, and she explained to me that Gatorade is 250 Haitian dollars, an enormous fee when compared to water, which is 2 Haitian dollars. She noted that the president increased the price of water from 1 to 2 Haitian dollars when he came into power, which is one of the reasons This is just one of the explains of why Haitians have been protesting his taxation for months now.

All in all, I feel that I have hit my stride in recent weeks in terms of communication. It has allowed me to make new friends and have deeper conversations, which then further improves my communication skills. Even without school, I have felt productive and important to life at St. Vincent’s.