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 I’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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would be lying if I did not admit that I was pretty apprehensive about my return to Haiti. I was shocked by how easily I adjusted to life in the U.S. – the abundance of anything I could need or want, the ease of communication, the return to my normal. That being said, I was almost immediately put at ease again when I entered the airport. While waiting for my ride back to the school, a taxi driver struck up a conversation with me in Creole and I managed to keep up! He even complimented me on how much Creole I knew. I am by no means good at Creole, nor do I know a lot, but it was affirming to hear praise from someone other than the people who are helping me learn day in and day out.
Upon my return to St. Vincent’s, I was met with lots and lots of smiles, hugs, and kisses. I even met and befriended a new resident – deaf, 16 year old Richardson. He and I communicated in English and Creole via a dry erase board. I managed to further solidify my popularity by bringing gifts of Oreos, soccer balls with bells, and dozens of fidget spinners (all generously donated by friends at home in the U.S.). One of the students in my kindergarten classroom noticed that I did not have my daily snack of a banana and told me that he would buy one for me.
I was tasked with interviewing students to help promote our Tuition Gap Fund with short biographies about the students. This, in and of itself, was daunting because of the language barrier, but I found that I could ask questions and understand their answers surprisingly well. I thought it would be difficult to find students willing to talk to me but I was sorely mistaken. I quickly gathered a herd of students who followed me around all morning demanding that I talk with them. I would like to leave you all with just a few answers as to why they love St. Vincent’s.
“It is helping me learn good life skills.”
“I always have fun going to school.”
“I have lots of friends here with whom I can easily communicate.”
“It is a special place where teachers, children, and teenagers all interact.”
“I like playing and working with the other handicapped children and seeing the progress they make.”
“It is a school that helps children who need help.”
On Monday we celebrated the move to St. Vincent’s new location in Santo. There was an open house to show the greater Haitian community the wonderful setting and people that make up the school. Many of the female students spent the day getting ready for the highlight of the event – several Haitian dances that they have been practicing for weeks. I spent the morning acting as dance mom, buttoning tutus, putting flowers in hair, and running around trying to find necklaces. A Haitian event would not be complete without some technical difficulties, which took place in the form of a loss of music during the first dance, but everything was smooth sailing after that. There were three beautiful dances, some musical performances, “barbecue” (a term that, as a Memphian, I loosely apply), a lot of dancing to Haitian pop, and even a few celebrity appearances! All in all, it was a wonderful schoolwide function that showcased the joy that perpetually radiates from these kids.
This is a bit of an abbreviated post since I left Haiti on Wednesday for a family function in Seattle. I haven’t quite fully slipped back into the “land of abundance” as Dr. Susan Nelson called it. Right off the bat I overindulged in fried food in the Atlanta airport and immediately regretted it. I have woken up at exactly 2 am every night because that is the regular 5 am wake up time I am used to in Haiti. I keep finding myself turning the shower down because I am not used to the hot water. I was not even remotely phased yesterday when another car recklessly cut in front of our car, mere feet from our moving bumper.
All of these minor incidents combined made me realize just how much I have settled into the Haitian lifestyle and my life at St. Vincent’s – and I look forward to a warm welcome when I return next week.
This week at St. Vincent’s was very busy with two rounds of visitors. First, a group from my high school, St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, TN, arrived Wednesday and spent Thursday and Friday enjoying the kindergarteners’ energy and affection. On Thursday, the five senior St. Mary’s students sat in on kindergarten classes and then practiced their sign language while the St. Vincent’s students waited for the bus.
Friday was incredibly lively and consisted of all of the kindergarteners running in and out of their classrooms while working on various craft projects, which included decorating trash cans with duct tape, making butterflies, and eventually jewelry, out of pipe cleaners and pompoms, and decorating the kindergarten classroom building with hand (and a couple foot) prints. I don’t know how to describe it in any other way than to simply say that there was not a single person involved who was not beaming.
On Saturday, I accompanied the St. Mary’s group to Kaliko beach – one of the premier beach resorts in Haiti. It was beautiful, fun, and relaxing for the whole group, but it is important to note that one of the girls later brought up the fact that she had felt a certain amount of guilt feeling so happy at the resort after seeing the poverty that most Haitians live in. The pristine beach and grounds of Kaliko are jarring even when juxtaposed to the adjacent public beach that is separated from Kaliko only by a small wall.
Before the arrival of the second group of American visitors, I accompanied Pere Fanfan to an award ceremony that featured the St. Vincent’s Handbell choir that is comprised entirely of blind, or nearly blind, current and former students. The Handbell choir played over half a dozen songs that they had learned from sound and committed entirely to memory.
I did not know until the presentation of the award that we were there to receive an award for St. Vincent’s. The award given by a Haitian institute for mental health was for the school’s contribution of inclusivity and accessibility. I was reminded this week of just how accurate this description of St. Vincent’s is in the form of a story about a resident – Medjina, a 5 year old living in the community of and attending school at St. Vincent’s. Medjina was born with two abnormally formed arms. She has the biggest smile I have ever seen on a child and only wants to cuddle. At her old school, they thought she was a witch. She was bullied so badly by students and teachers alike that her mother simply stopped sending her to school. St. Vincent’s took her in recently, and from what I can tell, she is absolutely blossoming. She is charming, has no problem making friends with all of the residents and visitors, and loves to dance, run, and play soccer.
This week, a medical mission from Memphis has been serving all of the students and most of the teachers. Many of the visitors have returned to Haiti and St. Vincent’s year after year. Their connection and love for the place is evident in everything they do. It is remarkable to hear them talk about the child sitting in front of them – how when they first saw her 4 years ago her iron was dismally low and now runs full steam or how he would barely make eye contact and now won’t stop chattering. The people who care about St. Vincent’s really care. The love of the students, teachers, other employees, and volunteers is evident in everything they do and they are what makes St. Vincent’s such a wonderfully inclusive community.
I must first begin by dispelling all rumors that the two funerals I attended over the weekend had anything at all to do with Voodoo. No Voodoo, whatsoever. That being said, both funerals were fascinating, just what Pere Fanfan hoped that I would experience from attending. I left the gates of St. Vincent’s Saturday morning for the first time since I arrived here nearly one month ago. I then was informed that I was not only going to the Sunday funeral in the mountains that I had been prepared for, but also a funeral in downtown Port-au-Prince that very morning.
I was able to experience both an urban and rural funeral. Neither event differed much from the traditional Christian funerals I have attended in the United States, the only notable difference being the ways in which close family and friends grieve — but I’m getting ahead of myself. The urban funeral on Saturday was held in a modern church that could easily seat well over 300 people, but was crammed to capacity with many more people standing against the walls inside and outside. The funeral was for Bernard Adolphe, a Haitian military man, and a full military band was there for the occasion.
The rural funeral in the mountains was held at the hotel of the brother of the deceased, Marie Udovia Septembre. The service took place in a small chapel but hundreds of people packed around the sides and looked in through the windows. There was also a brass band playing joyous music before and after the service. The difference in grieving I previously mentioned was what shocked me the most about the experience – numerous men and women expressed their emotions by scream crying, literal shrieks of pain that could not better exemplify the suffering that comes from losing a loved one. Immediately following the mournful service though, the coffin was lifted into the air by half a dozen men and carried half a mile further up into the mountains to the cemetery where the family and friends all gathered around the band to dance and lay down flowers.
My self-consciously perceived position as an extreme outsider was severely lessened by the fact that the 7 year old grandniece of the deceased had taken a liking to me and led me by the hand around the service and through the crowds of guests. She never failed to find me when I was feeling lost or out of place and immediately grabbed my hand with a friendly, if not slightly exasperated “Come on, Gracie!”
This is all to say that, the experience of Haitian culture in the form of funerals was a very enjoyable one. In addition to the exposure to culture, I also got to spend the weekend with Haitians around my same age that quickly developed into friendships and will hopefully allow me to spend time off of campus with people my own age.
Following my weekend adventure, returning to St. Vincent’s, the place that has become home over the past 4 weeks, I was met with excited cheers and hugs – yet another warm example of the unconditional love I have felt from the residents.
At St. Vincent’s school attendance has steadily increased, but it was just announced that a school for the deaf that has four locations in Haiti is closing two locations. St. Vincent’s has already been approached by over two dozen families affected by these closures whose last hope is St. Vincent’s. Unfortunately most of these families, and many of the other current students are unable to cover the cost of tuition. The tuition that St. Vincent’s must require, however so unwillingly, is very low compared to U.S. standards, but without it, the school could not continue to function. There is a Tuition Gap program in place that I wish you would all consider making a donation to in order to help St. Vincent’s help the students that so desperately need their help.