Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Death and Dying, Burial and Cremation

A Hard Death

When it was Maxo, 20-something son of my neighbors on Mon Bouton, it was sudden and striking news. Even now, months later, I have to work to keep tears from swelling up.

Maxo had been part of our team, "If Pigs Could Fly," since
he was a small boy. He appears in the films, and was a key subject in Mariejo's study of political notions among rural Haitians.

When I look at little brother Lom, I see Maxo's face. When I watch the film, "My Mountain," again and again, I see Maxo with us.

His death. It was in the summer. We heard as we waited outside a textile factory, where Emmeline was heading to work.

For myself, for his best friend and cousin, Dieudonne, for Emmeline and Elizar who had grown up with Maxo...we stood there huddled together on a street corner just outside of SONAPI as Soirilis got the call on his cell.

Our Maxo had succumbed to a sudden fever and a swelling. His head was the size of a basketball, they said. He'd had cramps the night before.

His Dad, Mesye Solomon, was with him, in one of the warrens off a main street, Delmas, in the rubble of the fallen city. Mesye Solomon did not believe a doctor would or could do anything. Medical care would be costly and useless, was the prevailing idea. Also, there was no way to transport feverish and rapidly ailing boy. It was said there was blood coming from his nose, from his eyes.

But, I was not there.

The family paid to transport Maxo's body out of the city and up back home, to their mountain land for burial. A decent tomb was built, cement carried, the body housed better in death than it had been protected in life.

Some days later, I sat out by the grave site - a
smallish, sort of cemetery area, out amidst plots (not fields) of corn and beans. Buried in the midst of plant life, green and waving, dripping slivers of corn silk, promising.

Bellagia followed me and sat down on an adjacent grave, lay down and stretched out. here, overlooking the valley, was where I could often catch a decent signal, collect and send email and news.

We were shortly joined by Mesye Salomon and Gistav. No one said anything, we all just sat or squatted in the corn. A calm, comfort was in this common silence.

There was nothing to say. We seemed all to be feeling the
same feelings, having the same thoughts. It was an odd communion of souls who surely had very little in common except this shared bond, this shared loss.

Some days later, Salomon and I find ourselves out by the grave site again. How did our conversation start? I think I must have said, "When I die, I wish to be cremated."
Salomon was shocked at the idea. "No, that's not for us. Not here. In Haiti, everyone must be buried. We want to be in our land. Our family can visit us."

"Maybe, Madame Wendi,--- I am called Madame Wendi by my neighbors because 1.. They have difficulties with the "R" for "Randy" and a. They think I am married to a "Mr. Randy." It has proven more trouble than it is worth to correct this over the past 10 years, so I go by the moniker, "Madame Wendi." "Maybe, Madame Wendi - would you be buried here? On Mon Bouton?"

I look out at the valley, the green-ness, the distance of it all, down and down and down, winding paths, no roads, all so far away. Indeed, why not have ashes scattered here?

I was touched, really, at Salomon's suggestion. When I mentioned having ashes scattered, he grimaced, said it wouldn't be the same.

You know, I did not say at the time that the fact is, I have no land here, I own no land to be buried in. Huh.

Land. As Mesye Gistav had told me, 'way back. It's about land. The secret is land. But he didn't tall me all this.

Later, still stranger thoughts: If I was buried here, would my children, my family back state-side, bother to visit my grave?!

Hey - what an idea, a way to boost "tourism" in the area?! My kids come, stay awhile with my Haitian community of which, after death I am irrevocably a part. Surely, some small income would accrue to the homes who host my visitors?!

Uh oh. Now I am really starting to think like an entrepreneur. My legacy. I can help generate some income for the mountain residents even after I pass....

Pretty good, eh?

Thinking, planning, hoping, joking, will get me through all this. Right?

Monday, September 27, 2010


Once upon a Facebook post, I was misinterpreted.
Ok, well, maybe more than once.

My family, students, friends from Palo Alto Friends (Quaker) Meeting and Congregation Beth Am and  have helped establish and support a small non-profit dedicated to Haiti, 100%.

If Pigs Could fly - Haiti! is not, was not and is not, about miracles or flying pigs. It was a young girl's wish, when she first learned of the debacle of the Kreyol pig - or the alleged debacle of the Creole pig -( terminology depending on how left your leanings) - it was her wish to replace the pigs and piglets, if she could convince her classmates and school, to save coins in their piggy banks, strategically placed in each classroom.

As a French-American child, Marie Josee was unfamiliar with the English skeptical idiom, "When pigs fly..."

So, it wasn't an attempt to be snide about what it would take to resurrect the Haitian countryside from erosion. It wasn't an attempt to joke about what it would take to educate, make education available, to poor, rural, remote communities. It wasn't sarcasm at what it would take for the 70% of literacy to decline, among Haitian adults, throughout Haiti. It wasn't hinting of miracles or acts of deity.

It was just a wish, on the part of one child, that she and her classmates could make a world of difference to the part of the world she loved and called, "My Mountain."

"Not because, " she wrote, "Not because the mountain belongs to me, but because I belong on the mountain."

That was almost a decade ago. The girl is now a young woman, the children she played with have grown up. I remember another thought she shared in her film, "My Mountain." She shared with us, her audience, her viewers, "If I come back to my mountain in 10 years, I wonder what will happen to the children of my mountain? Will they still be around? Will they be alive?"

Two are now restavek and living in tents in the fallen city, Port au Prince.
Two have died - a lack of access to a hospital was the likely cause in each instance. Only four children in the film have been able to continue in school - and only because of support from outside the community, support from If Pigs Could Fly - Haiti!

What else has changed? Well, "If Pigs" is now a genyouwhine non-profit, with and EIN, a board, a bank account, a website and a Face Book presence. The needs of course haven't changed, but If Pigs has built - with community participation - a home, rebuilt a school, furnished a classroom and built one of the all-around best school latrines with 20 kilometers!

If Pigs has: started a sewing boutik, supported the purchase of sewing machines, supporting training in piecework, and is looking for a market for embroidered artisan dresses. If Pigs has supported the women's Mammas Making Mamba peanut butter project, which serves locally made and home ground peanut butter to primary school children in two schools. If Pigs works because our team in the community work with us: Toma (Elisee Abraham), Kloteed, Destin, Madame Vab, Gran Dodo, Ti Eli, Pastor Diedonne Abraham and Pastor Felix Abraham. And others.

If you are so moved, please consider a small donation once in a while?  Like, on January 1, Haiti's Independence Day?  Or Haitian Flag Day on May 18?  Or, Christmas, in time for next year's tax season? Any time is the right time to do right, as my mentor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in more than one sermon.

In contrast, perhaps, to some NGOs, large NGOs, who have been criticized because their efforts have not been visible, If Pigs leaves more than a paper trail. You will hear from us, and see us, on Facebook. And you are most welcome to visit. Bring strong legs and a strong heart. No experience necessary. Again, as directed by Brother Martin, "Anyone can be great, because everyone can share." Come on up to Morne Bouton, the place my daughter, Marie Josee called, "My Mountain." You will see not just what we need, but what we got. What you and we, together, can build on.

Join us on the mountain top, and find the "Donate Now" button at

You will meet our resident team, lots of details about our projects, and non-profit effort.  We put the "non" in "Non-Profit," as 100% of all donations goes to the effort and the workers in rural Haiti.
--Please know that we have no administrative costs, no overhead, no office expenditures, anyen ditou to expense from your contributions.  Mesi anpil anpil!

Sunday, September 26, 2010



No one, and certainly not I, could add any words to Brother Langston's poetry.

He knew well our people in rural Haiti...

Sadly, there's little that's changed since Brother Langston's 6-month sojourn there, in the 1930's.

There is so much misery in the world,
So much poverty and pain,
So many who have no food
Nor shelter from the rain,
So many wandering friendless,
So many facing cold,
So many gnawing bitter bread
And growing old!

What can I do?
And you?
What can we do alone?
How short a way
The few spare crumbs
We have will go!
How short a reach
The hand stretched out
To those who know
No handshake anywhere.
How little help our love
When they themselves
No longer care.
How thin a blanket ours
For the withered body
Of despair!

Our community's needs and development are now supported by Facebook Causes Page: IF PIGS COULD FLY - HAITI! 

Thank you for reflecting on this post.  If you would like to help the community in the mountains of Haiti, please start here:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Here are photos from 2008 taken 2 weeks apart.

The urchin in the "before" has been transformed into the student with his art work in "After."

After what?

See, I made a unilateral decision.

Definitely not kosher, and certainly not a first in the history of well-intentioned blan in Haiti.

I decided what Watkliff needed was: School and peanut butter! As he was not yet 4 years old, I had to plead his case with our school Principal, Dieudonne Abraham.

So, after not too long a time, we see Watkliff, in the summer school, and with 2 weeks of peanut butter under his belt, hands on math and art projects, Watkliff has found his metier...See him here, creating with materials he'd never seen and then, how proud he is as his teacher, Principal Dieudonne, looks over his work.

The photos just to the left here are a year afterward. Watkliff has been a year in the Brothers' Abraham School. Tuition is only $55.00 US for the year!

The following summer, I see the Principal and Watkliff interacting, and I observe Watkliff studiously at work. There, he holds a pencil, a colored pencil, grasping correctly and writing, copying. Here, he explores shapes and sizes of geometric blocks.

Haiti, here is one of your future engineers!

Why not? Watkliff!

Principal and Teacher Dieudonne (John)explores measurement of length with linking cubes, (cubes and other stuff, all schlepped up the mountain on the backs of mules over these several years).

Watkliff is no longer a poster child for Darfur, he now has status.

In Haiti, his status, his social capital, is now that of a "student," a "schooled" child, one who attends school He gets to wear shoes - when he goes to school. Support from has provided his family with a goat to raise. If they are successful, they can cover school fees and his shoes. Ideally, this is less of a charity and more of a modest step in the form of "jobs creation" for education.


Seeing Watkliff - not for the first time
Meet Watklif. Yup, nothing new under the sun. He could be the poster child for Darfur, Somalia, the you name the place malnourished child.

I know him. (So do you.)

Squatting there, watching him, “Why am I taking his picture?” I took it anyway, and a few others, then a short video clip. Objectifying him.

Not that I haven’t seen him and thousands others over the 12 summers and then some that I have spent in Haiti, agonizing over Haiti, agonizing with Haiti, living , among the farmers in remote mountains. Watklif is the boy next door; he’s Denis’s grand nephew or something. The grandson of Madam Dominik. Last summer he was the ugliest toddler, all large head, covered with scabs, flea bites. Now, he is an ugly child of maybe 3 or so. Nobody much knows or cares.

Suddenly, I do.

Will you?

"I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred..." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Haiti, summer 2010.

Yes, there are kidnappings, robberies. Killings. Young men and women walk, sit, carry water, sell, peddle, chat, argue in the camps, and in the streets, in the markets.
What is remarkable is that there are no riots. I am told this is because Haitians do not want foreigners to leave. They worry that if too much gets out of hand, the NGOs and volunteers will leave. Somehow, is this keeping a lid on things, on what would be, could be, a Second Haitian Revolution?

I am told: “Some years ago, one of the cell phone companies had a policy that angered many people here. That company wanted to charge for incoming, reception of calls as well as outgoing calls. Well, people attacked the offices of that company. They broke windows. That was for the cell phone company to change its ways. But the textile factories? People here are afraid if they destroy those buildings, those factories, then there will be no work here. So, they march, they marched, they protested, for better pay. But they did not destroy or beak anything. It’s different for the textile factories – people, workers, respect them.”

In July, everyone is absorbed in World Cup games. Cash for Work, run by different NGOs, has some fraction of the population harnessed, busy hauling rubble or garbage. Workers in brightly colored t-shirts or vests, neon green, yellow, shoulder shovels, pails and pickaxes. Slogans, proclaiming “project Concern,” “Habitat for Humanity,” or other slogans of the alphabet soup of non-profits --- and let’s face it, they are doing something, more than the rest of us are doing.

I stay in a cinder block room – share 2 rooms –actually, with an assortment of family. My friend, cousin of my rural family, Michelet, warns me about being careful. Don’t go anywhere alone (Of course, I would not dream of doing this), the capital is a very rough place. Even here – and he gestures towards the benign, if somewhat barren, hills of Jericho, and Jerusalem, the neighborhoods of these Kafou hills where we stay, even here. Be careful. Don’t go far.

But, he continued, do not think that all of these are bad people. The ones who steal, rob. They are not bad people, they are just hungry people.

Just hungry.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I sure am tired of the deprivation model of Haiti, the victim mode, the bezwens of Haiti - not wanting to sugar-coat anything, or, uh, "whitewash" it, but looking at what Haiti HAS, and not what it Lacks, may be a mindset needed to build on, rebuild on. the cup is half full, dang it! Zo blood!

Apologies in advance for some of my cynicism folks. It can get a little out of hand...or mouth, so to speak. But, let's face it: people EVERYWHERE understand, have a shared understanding, of what a hospital is and does, of what a schools is and does (or doesn't do), of what education is and means. And, there is general concurrence that these are good things. And, they are good ways, solid ways, in times of prosperity in donor countries, to fund projects in less-well of countries, i.e., much if not most of the rest of the world outside USA, parts of Europe, parts of Middle East, and select nations of Africa.

These days, even the pitch for hospitals, clinics and schools does not seem to be doing much for Haiti. Yet.

An article in the Miami Herald was excerpted recently, and quoted, "What Haiti needs is a major medical center in the Central Plateau that can serve complex medical cases. . . . Haiti cannot depend on and should not depend on aid groups to be able to provide medical care."

I like to write in terms of what Haiti HAS, rather than what Haiti NEEDS. The needs, the bezwens, could fill an ocean. You can't build on needs, or even presume to fill them. What you might be able to build on, to, er, capitalize on, are STRENGTHS.
What Haiti HAS are a good sized rural population interested in being trained as "barefoot" doctors - or, "sandaled paramedics" let's say --- You have an enormously talented, bright, creative population andeyo, in the countryside, who CAN learn to support complex medical cases, and to handle less complex medical cases. Most of these young people (20 -35 ish) are literate. A center that supports them, trains them and has them fan out, providing transport for severe emergencies, would be better than a good idea.

** Someone with more than a vision, i.e., with the moyen, that is, lajan, money, some Haitian Paul Farmers, for example, might try to initiate such hubs, toupatou. There is a wealth of resources in the countryside, human capital. They are ready. Are you?