Creative Nonfiction: Pwomes

Stephanie Johnson is a writer and photographer for a humanitarian aid and development organization. She serves as a writer and photographer for the non-profit humanitarian relief organization Cross International in Pompano Beach, Florida.

After spending time working in Haiti and Johnson has returned with reflections from which she finds impossible to walk away. “Pwomes” (Haitian Creole for “promise”) is a creative journey through the ramifications of delivering aid in a broken country.

Johnson has also been published in The Chronicle Review.

By Stephanie Johnson

She’s screaming at us, hands slicing the air and eyes rolling heaven-ward like a dying animal. I bow my head—I can’t meet those eyes, or those of her silent sons and daughter, statues behind her. I catch words like anyen and timoun in her frantic speech. I can’t even begin to decipher her Creole. My childish vocabulary slows me down, plus her crying sends her words hiccupping out in jerks, splashes of words broken by sobs. But I understand her nonetheless: she’s at the end of her life’s rope.

I stand there and wonder what caused this breakdown before two white strangers—if it’s the leaky shack she lives in, or the putrid stench wafting up from the green water of the latrine in her backyard, or the rags drooping from her stick-figure body, or the dim hunger-drawn face of her youngest boy.

Or maybe it’s her drunk of a husband who won’t support her or her recently-deceased sister or the orphaned nieces and nephews she now has to feed on less than a dollar a day. Maybe it’s the child she sent away from her home in Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince to be a restavek, a “stay with” child destined to servitude and, God forbid but more likely than not, no education and lots of sexual abuse.

I wonder if she sees my white face and blonde hair and blames me for her life.

The translator, who has lived in Haiti for large chunks of his life, tells her why we’re here: to conduct interviews with people in the area about their housing situations and take photos so we can use the information to raise money from American donors and come back to build houses. It sounds fishy even to me. After she calms down she invites us into her one-room shanty that leaks when it rains. She explains how the floor turns to mud and everyone sleeps together on one bed or stands through the night while the thunderstorms rage.

Sitting with me in the musty house, her life story spills from her like a cup knocked over on a table. I sap it up with my notebook and pencil, greedy for her words that I can use to craft donor appeals. But I know—and she doesn’t—that she is already on the list to receive a house. We can’t tell her right now because of Haiti. We can’t tell her because they might kill her.

I soak up all of her tragic life with my paper until I’m fat with words, saturated with the enormity of her personal story, unable to absorb another word.

The sun submerges itself behind the hills of Petion-ville, leaving humidity behind that clings to my skin and sinks into my clothes. Light from inside the apartment glitters off the pool—otherwise I’m surrounded by the darkness of night in a city where electricity is a luxury. I smear brie cheese on a slice of bread and listen to their stories, Peace Corps stories, recounted under the umbrella-topped table. They are older than I am, in their forties compared to me in my twenties. I’m their exact age when most of these stories happened, before everyone had a cell phone, a computer and an iPod. But I’m captivated by the Haiti of their time and their bravery as the country boiled with civil conflict, murderous regimes and even deeper poverty.

I feel the Haitian rum swirling in my veins and I cram bread and cashews into my mouth, something to soak it up so I can keep pace with both their stories and the tipping of their glasses. I’m no newbie, I tell myself. It’s still early, only ten o’clock, but 105 pounds of me is no match for Barbancourt Rhum. I’m beginning to float like a dead fish.

A few hours later, we bounce in the car over the cobblestone streets that the earthquake thrusted upward and split open. We arrive at an open-air restaurant with a live Haitian band and sit at a long table. Strings of Christmas lights snake around the patio and mosquitoes bite my ankles under the table. I don’t remember what food I ordered—I only remember the rums mixed with bitter orange juice and poured into sugar-rimmed singles. Other former Peace Corps volunteers and a couple people within the Haitian government show up, and now we have a party.

Except I don’t know what they’re talking about—I have nothing to contribute to their shared history and I’ve only been in Haiti a few days. They slip into Creole when they don’t want me to hear. I swallow more rum drinks with sugary rims and imagine that all the dark Haitian boys are fixated with my blonde hair, that it’s beaming like an angel’s halo, and that my Midwestern feet could, if they wanted to, dance to this island music. I imagine I belong here among the tarantulas and starving children and voodoo and earthquake rubble and preske and Barbancourt and beans and rice and Roman Catholicism and corruption, corruption, corruption.

Later, we bounce across the rat-infested streets and I throw up out the passenger side window of the car in front of an earthquake survivors’ blue plastic tent.

I’m on the moon. I swear to God I’m on the moon. The land lies flat and white, stretching in each direction as far as I can see like Euclid’s never-ending line. Heat waves rise from the earth, making the people in the distance dance before my eyes. Even concrete homes are too luxurious for this part of Haiti—here in Gonaives it’s sticks and mud, maybe scraps of tin for the lucky few. Not a single plant risks the sun’s wrath in this neighborhood at the outskirts of town. Instead of gazing at lush farmland, I watch people lug wheelbarrows of salt across the barrenness. The only sign of modernity is an aluminum-sided square building glinting in the sun not far away, and surrounding it like landscaping are black dots of naked children.

We pull up and they swarm our vehicle. Dirty fingerprints smear across the glass and grimy hands motion for me to roll down my window, open my door. I don’t want to climb out—I can smell them from here—but I force myself outside of the Jeep. I walk into the crowd of children and I’ve never felt smaller. Little girls with ratty beaded hair grasp my hands and search me—I feel their hands against my thighs digging in the pockets of my khaki pants. Naked boys with dirt-crusted penises beg me to take their photo. Older boys of twelve or thirteen grab my arm a little too close to my breasts and say in English “my love” and “sexy” with not-so-innocent adolescent grins. I tell myself they’re not storing mental images of me for later pleasures, but it doesn’t work.

Mothers my age adjust sleeping two- and three-year-olds in their arms and gaze at the building’s locked doorway, oblivious to the screams and laughter and cries around them. They’re waiting for the door to open so they can thrust their babies into the sky in hopes the children will get some food. I can’t tell if the babies are listless from starvation, heat or both. From my taller perspective, it’s a sea of orange heads—the children are so hungry their vital organs are greedily sucking up the nutrients and leaving none for their hair. Most of their heads look as though they’ve been colored with an orange highlighter, one of the most noticeable signs of malnutrition.

And then the door opens. Little hands abandon my pockets and naked boys dash toward the door, little genitals flapping. The mass of human bodies presses together around the opening like cattle crowding into a gate. Screaming, pleading, begging—they jostle each other out of the way as I watch from behind. A little girl falls and shrieks when four or more pairs of feet trample over her before she can clamber up again.

A Haitian man stands at the door and bellows words I can’t understand. He snatches a child here and a baby there, shoving them behind him into the tin building toward the waiting arms of the white volunteers, who will feed them a meal of beans, rice and sauce. This man is the gatekeeper, the one who decides who eats today and who doesn’t.

“It must be hard,” I say to our translator.

“Must be hard to do what?” he asks.

“It must be hard to decide who gets to go in and who doesn’t.”

“It’s not as innocent as you think.”

At that moment, a colleague approaches me and says, “You’ll never guess what just happened. A little girl came up to me and she pulled at my shirt, like she wanted something. Then she opened her hand and showed me some crumpled up money. Isn’t that strange?”

It comes together in slow motion, like a math problem that you have to read graphs and study charts for before the pieces of information congeal into a single fact: the man at the door is accepting money from the children in exchange for letting them into the white man’s feeding program. The white man thinks he’s finally found a trustworthy Haitian to help with his God-given mission to feed the hungry in Gonaives. The white man recites Matthew 25:35 in his head as he watches the meals being served in Christ’s name. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…

After ten minutes, it’s over. About 200 get inside, maybe another 200 or more don’t—the white man can’t solicit enough funds from American benefactors to feed more children than that each day. The leftover children press themselves against the building and yell at their friends, presumably asking them to save them some food. And that man at the door, I’m guessing he ate that day. Maybe he has a son or daughter and a wife to feed at home who are every bit as hungry as the children he turned away. God works in mysterious ways, especially when he works through white people.

I’ll tell you a story, a true story, that was told to me over breakfast in Haiti. A Haitian woman once sold warm cakes and other baked delicacies at a village market located along a busy road. She arrived every day at the same time as the other village women who sold, and she made ordinary profits.

One day, the woman had an idea: what if she arrived at the market earlier than all the other women to catch the travelers along the road before everyone else and, since she would be the only vendor at that hour, charge more for her goods? This seemed like a great idea to the woman—she could not only sell food to people traveling before the market officially opened and thereby reach more customers, but she could also promote herself as the only vendor open during the early morning hours and could justify charge more.

So the woman began opening her shop earlier than everyone else at the market. She made twice the money as before and became popular with the many travelers of the road. The woman expanded her business and made more money than the other saleswomen. Her children had enough to eat for the first time in their life. They could even afford to pay the fees to go to school.

But the woman had broken an unwritten rule in Haiti, one that I can’t put into words. You’ll understand when I continue the story. The other market women saw the profits the woman made by opening her shop early and became jealous. The women gathered and plotted against the woman. One day, they arrived at the market at the same time she did. But instead of opening their own shops early, they surrounded her, bound her up with ropes, and murdered her.

That is the story I tell people when they ask why Haitians can’t just “get over it and get a job.”

We visit the apartment of a white man working and living full-time in Haiti. He invites us for supper on our last night in the country at his apartment in Petion-ville, which is up the hill above Port-au-Prince and known as one of the rich quarters of the city. It’s where all the white people from the non-government organizations (NGOs) live who are working in Haiti. I guess it’s where I would have to live if I worked here.

The neighborhood sits perched on the mountainside and blooms furiously in pink, red and purple flowers. His apartment is nicer than my own in Florida. The split-level has two walls of floor-to-ceiling glass and a cobbled patio overlooking Port-au-Prince, with most of the amenities of an American flat at a fraction of the price per month. I picture my apartment back home and cringe inwardly at my jealousy when, from the patio, I see the lights of the city below sparkling like a reflection of the starry sky above.

Pa gen pwoblem. I can do this, too. Maybe someday I won’t be just a visitor in Haiti—by the last few days of the trip, I’m thinking maybe this is where I should devote my life. I’ve also discovered that’s the only way people who know anything about Haiti will take you seriously, is if you’ve lived there. And I haven’t—I’ve only been in country two weeks. So I, in fact, know nothing, or about as much as the representatives from the other NGOs.

Two weeks and I’ve only seen thousands of families living in decomposing tents (by the way, I parted the flaps of several tents and they were all empty inside. The quake buried all their possessions and they can’t afford to buy more). I’ve only seen the faces of hundreds of children who’ll never venture inside a school. I’ve only talked to mothers who sent their daughters away to be restaveks rather than starve. I only listened as widows cried over their husbands and children crushed under tons of concrete, their bodies never to be found but their ghosts whispering to them all the night long.

But I’m learning. Nothing is shocking in Haiti after awhile. It’s just life. I see that the white people like me and my colleagues, the USAID folks, the Catholic Relief Services drones, the UNICEFs of the world and all the others in Haiti before and since the earthquake are like tiny ants marching up a mountain whose summit is continually climbing higher into the sky, a peak that rises instead of erodes. The more they scurry around Haiti trying to put Band-Aids on poverty, the more poverty Haiti creates for them to clean up.

When I return from Haiti, I enroll in a Creole class offered through a community college and taught by a Haitian woman. She’s a few years older than me, probably in her late 20s, and three languages brighter. When I meet her, she is pregnant with her and her Wisconsin-born husband’s first child and working as a science teacher at a Florida public school. Some days she wears her black hair in neat, tight braids against her head; other days she wears it down but carefully styled so that it lies in smooth curls bobbing around her face. Her skin is like coffee grounds left over in the filter: dark, fragrant, glistening with health and youth.

She is what all of Haiti’s young people might look like if Haiti wasn’t Haiti.

I come to her class once a week to learn the language of her homeland. When I arrived in Haiti, I knew only a few phrases and words, plus whatever I could glean from having learned French. Now I’m aching to understand this language that sounds like French chopped up, tossed with a West African dialect, and smoothed out again. Creole is beautiful and ugly at the same time. If you see it as bastardized French, then it’s ugly. If you see it as the language of slaves who had the courage to overthrow their masters, then it’s beautiful.

She writes the words with felt-tipped markers on the dry erase board and rounds out their hollow sounds by saying them aloud. My college French classes give me the nasal sounds that make up the Creole language. The words feel natural on my tongue, like the taste of my fiancée’s kiss. We talk about simple things like food and days of the week. Rolling each word around my brain like a marble before saying it, my speech comes out like drips of water from a leaky spigot—word, pause, word, pause, word, pause.

My teacher grew up in Haiti. As a child she bathed using buckets of water from a hand-pump well, rode the tap-taps (merci Jesus) and ate goat meat in sauce with diri and banann ak pikliz. I don’t know how or when she came to be in the United States (I’m guessing by her lack of a vowel-y Haitian accent when she speaks English that she came in her teens). I don’t know why she isn’t sweating and suffering her life away in Haiti under a plastic tent like the 1.5 million other earthquake survivors. I don’t know whether it was God, fate or luck that melded our life paths, each a polar opposite of the other, so that we can be in the same classroom as teacher and student, a white girl learning from a Haitian woman in America.

Maybe it wasn’t any of those three. Maybe Haiti itself brought us together. Because I don’t think of Haiti as a place anymore—I think of it as a living land with an actual soul. It allows people to exist in its mountainous bosom or cavernous cities, but not without anguish. Not without poverty, death and fear, but also not without love for one’s neighbor in both word and deed, a hunger for a better future and the sense that God is here, right beside you. Not without a troubled past, but not without tomorrow’s promise.

Pwomes. I write the Creole word in my notebook. I promise, Haiti, if you will.


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