I have just left Haiti after 6 months there. In Cabarete, in the Dominican Republic, I was sharing a cappuccino this morning with an Italian expat. He had worked for a while as a photographer, and had been to Haiti on several occasions. I was drinking up the delicious coffee as well as his open, calm energy feeling the stress of that other place leaving my body. At one point he looked me right in the eyes and said “Haití es una vergüenza para la raza humana.”
An embarrassment for the human race?
An incomprehensible embarrassment.
I can be such a naïve fool.
My thoughts drift to an afternoon several months ago. I was living in a remote mountain village in the North-East.
Remember when you walked with that young girl in Saint-Suzanne?…I ask my own memory. She watched you petting the starving horse standing near the gates of your home and office. Someone, presumably the owner, had left him there to munch on some wispy grass. I was fascinated with the horse’s reaction to my touch…he was obviously not used to affection. He kept waiting in nervousness for my hand to deal him a blow instead of the next soft rub. I kept at this for quite some minutes until he calmed down just a little. He kept his guard up – he’s no stupid horse and 10 minutes of petting wasn’t going to erase years of hitting – but he did relax just a little. At one point his eyes even started closing a bit in laziness. The hot haze of the tropics settled down on us. I felt that I had done something useful here, for once.
The girl watched me the whole time. Standing a few feet away from me and the horse her eyes roamed my moving hand, my skin, my face and her ears, just like the nag’s, pricked up to hear my soft murmuring in Polish. I was whispering sweet nothings in my mother tongue to the pathetic creature in front of me.
Suddenly, I stopped and looked at her. She looked at me. We moved and spoke slowly, and I said to her in a calm and clear Creole, Let’s go for a walk. I moved in the direction of the stream, but when we arrived there I saw to my dismay that the recent rain had eradicated my usual stepping stones used for hopping across and staying dry. My companion was bare foot but she understood my desire to keep my sandals intact. She pointed to the places where I could step to get across. I didn’t hesitate, choosing to trust her experience and intuition. She was right after all, and we were across.
We continued uphill, past the cabbage ‘plantation’ (about an acre of land in total) that my colleagues were caring for, and up the hill. We were on and passing tight, dirt paths that led to people’s homes, little huts built of bamboo rods with metal sheet roofs. They are all hidden among the hills, but you know they are there, even if you can’t see them. Quite suddenly we came across this little girl’s own home and family. They were sitting outside shelling peas. I stayed on the path and she went to them to exchange a few words. They stared at me in open curiosity, but my young friend soon came back and we continued on our walk. I waved a goodbye to her family.
We spoke a little as we walked. I asked her name, and she asked mine. She told me the local names of some of the plants on the side of the path.
And then she asked me for money.
Mind you, it wasn’t a large sum. Nope, it wasn’t about the money; it’s the principle in itself that bothered me. We had arrived at one of the main roads – packed dirt as before simply much wider – and began our descent back into the heart of the village.
So I started my silly discussion. In retrospect, I can only blame my inexperience and naivety. My discourse was silly not by principle but pointless because I was speaking of something that had no context or place in this girl’s understanding of the world. I told her that there was no value in the money if I simply gave it to her. I remember I was proud in that moment of my high-flung ideals and my continuously improving command of the local language. Initially, I gave myself a little mental pat on the back thinking, well there you go my dear, that is how spontaneous education happens. She looked at me blankly, having never before heard ‘value’ and ‘money’ used in the same sentence. She was hungry, and I could buy food, it was really very simple. Ah, but I continued my monologue. She could earn it, by rendering a service or a product, I explained. This would have value! I cheered in triumph. She looked at me in mild disbelief amazed that I was saying this. I could see that my words were coming across a blockage, a firm barrier in her mind – white man had money and therefore white man could afford to give money – that’s it. In her mind it was only a question of asking politely enough. Obviously, I could see that she needed it. She rubbed her belly and voiced her hunger as it to emphasize and very clearly communicate her situation. As if i didn’t know it already. I observed her and how desperately she was trying to please me, to do what I wanted her to do. She asked if I needed a service, what could she do to make that money? I racked my brains thinking fast and finally half-heartedly suggested cleaning, perhaps she could sweep my room for me? Not that my room needed it, but I was still holding fast to my principle. My supposedly lifesaving, in reality bullsh*t principle. But she wasn’t comfortable with this cleaning idea, and I already knew that the groundskeepers at the centre where I was living would be uncomfortable with a strange, 12 year old girl entering one of the white girl’s rooms. She perked up at a new thought and said ‘But I helped you across the stream!’ as if finally she had found the loophole in my law. She wanted me to pay her for that?
I thought we were friends, I voiced.
She said nothing and continued walking next to me right up to the gate.
I’m hungry, she told me again.
I can’t help you, I told her. Was I going to get into details to explain that cooks prepared our meals for us and I literally didn’t have access to food right at that moment?
Regardless, even if I did, she would eat today and tell all the other children and the next day we would be running a soup kitchen instead of a research centre.
I turned away and went back home. The grey horse was no longer at the gate.