Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Poto Mitan: My neighbors, women of Mon Bouton

Generally speaking, across all cultures, countries and  ethnicities, women live longer than men.  What’s our secret?

Dr. Wally Bortz, my colleague here at Stanford, asks why is it that, long after we ladies no longer have reproductive capacity, women the world over continue to live and mostly thrive.  generally, we outlive men. What is the evolutionary purpose, he asks, of women’s lives after menopause?

Some clues are provided from observations of daily life in the hills above the plain of Leyogan, Haiti.  Older women continue to be actively participating in raising children, protecting and truing the next generations of rural Haitians.  

Indeed, even very old women may be seen “nursing” - providing a breast to quiet and calm a crying child - or grandchild.
Gran with Ti J., a grandson, age 12 months give or take
Gran is a model of the synergy of nurturance.  Well into her late seventies now, she trains the young (both boys and girls) in doing laundry, fetching water, maintaining a cooking fire and, of course, cooking.  Children as young as 3 years of age are already apprenticed in these careers.

We wonder, no, indeed we anguish, we visitors from Ozitazini, where childhood is assumed to be a human right, and child labor is decried as much as human trafficking. However,Haiti (and, I suspect, elsewhere)  a child’s formative years are for forming capable, card-carrying, water-carrying, adults.

My neighbors, Madame Yolanda, Madame Tijo, Maman Leandre and of course, Gran, are models of that Haitian Kreyol metaphor ascribed to women; they are “poto mitan,”  central pillars of the home, the family, the extended “mishpuchah” (don’t mind if I occasionally lapse into Yiddish - you’ll soon get it.)

Ah, Madame Yolanda!  My so-lively neighbor, a bit younger then mwen menm, just down the rocky path between our blue trimmed, uh, cottages.  She is perhaps the youngest of the trio of widows sharing my life on Mon Bouton.  It’s Madame Yolanda's entrepreneurial efforts that were a clue for me,  as I reflect on the role of meaning and purpose in life - not just her life, but my own also.  Meaning, that is, a la Viktor Frankl, not being a given in anyone's life. 

Madame Y. teaches me about enterprise, buying and selling, joy of  trying and succeeding in commerce.  

The anthropologist as participant-observer, learning from Madam Andre, selling rice  by the ti gode or gwo gode, up at Fort Kampon
My neighbors strive to eke out a few goudes profit after a day of buying, selling, cooking pate and gossiping up at the market at Fort Kampon.  Madam Andre instructed me how to over-fill the ti gode (small tin cups) and gwo gode (coffee can tins) to lure buyers to our goods.  We also sold klairin, the powerful home brew that serves as local rhum.

Young girls approach me for  "small business loans" - some maman lajan, some capital, so they can buy cheap in bulk down in Dabon, and sell high up in our hills.  Most are "schleppers" (now that's Yiddish, not Kreyol!), purveyors of goods, and not producers.

I mull over the existentialist credo, Nietzsche's summation, "He who has a why to live can bar with almost any how."

And: penny candy.

Madam Y.'s specialty - indeed her only product - is tablet kokoye,  a coconut candy (delicious with coffee!) and sets herself out near the cross-roads by Nelis’ house, with candy in a tin bowl with a cloth cover.  Toujou optimiste, Inez sits there all day on mountain market days, when passers-by will be most frequent. 

I get nibbles of what’s left over.

She will also frequently slip me a few bars, wrapped in flimsy plastic, in early morning, and waves away my 2 goudes.  Tablet kokoye  goes great with coffee - but then, anything at all goes great with coffee, if indeed there is anything ready to eat at all up here in early morning.

Here, in the mountains above the plain of Leogane, I learn what keeps us going, I learn from women who keep going.  I learn about family.  That is, I watch and reflect leisurely from my necessarily objective-one-step-removed anthropologist's perch.

Madame Yolanda is a new widow, one of three now up in Mon Bouton. Her two sons, Jacob and Destin, off seeking their fortunes (or some such) in Poprens. Yolanda’s web of family in the mountains consists solidly, reliably, of her oldest daughter, Makali - well-married to the indomitable, hard-working Dieulifait - and her youngest daughter, Katya (More about Katya and the gossip, the scandal, later).  Madame Yolanda several scattered plots of corn and bean (and beans and corn) are cheerfully worked by (hungry) young men in our neighborhood - Maxon, Tijo and  Djon among others.  Yolanda cooks for them, all her workers.  And myself.  I am served along with the rest.  I don't know (yet) if they receive a portion of the crop yield in addition to their meals.  That is, in all these summers, I still don't understand fully how the system works.

Somehow, everyone manages to live to eat another day - thanks, in part to such collaborations,and no thanks to any medical care, treated water or electrical power.

Sons and...lovers?

What of Guy and Fanfan, eh? Yolanda's oldest son, Guy, is well-married to Chedline, a skilled seamstress with a steady job in a textile factory in the capital. Fanfan, the rascal son,  the comedian, the man with the music and dance skills - he enjoys life somehow in the city but hasn’t settled into anything much.  

I wonder: How does Fanfan get by?  

Neither of her boys is of much use working in Yolanda's ti jaden fields - both fled to the capital to avoid a destiny as tillers of earth.  Guy studied auto repair, at least.  Last I heard, Fanfan wants to study for a license to drive a bull- dozer - part of the booming construction effect that is having considerable “trickle down” in Poprens.

So, that's it for the sons.  And as to the lovers, well, the widow's love and sex lives remain (still) a mystery to me after all these 14 summers.  The three older(if not elderly) widows seem more engaged with commerce and nurturance, and training of the young.

Indeed, after 14 summers, I recall only one adulterous affair  in our community (b ut, I am ony there during summers...) Now, this was with absolutely the ugliest - the most incredibly hideous, toothless - fellow.  Some years back, the discovery (Toothless and Madame Leandre, going at it in the next room, woke up her young American student guest!  Next day, shocked smirks and giggles from that summer's ekip, the team of Stanford students...getting life's lessons beyond the books in the hills of Haiti.

Stay tunes for more gossip and news, as the mountain turns!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Childhood in Rural Haiti

Gran Dodo with infant Nana

As elsewhere in the world (we in the U.S. and much of Europe are the exceptions),  the community, led by older women, trains the young in doing laundry, fetching water, maintaining a cooking fire and, of course, cooking.  Children as young as 3 years of age are already apprenticed in these careers.

Here is the boy next door, 8 or 9 year old W. (No one is tracking age here.) A frail orphan, left with his maternal grandmother  here in the hills, W. assiduously does laundry, and looks after toddler cousins.  As visitors from a country where childhood is sacrosanct, we are aghast.  What is the take-away?  Are there appropriate responsibilities, expectations for our own children, in the context of our schooled, technology-driven economy and world?  Something lost as we move up and away from dirt floors, hand washing, barefoot trekking in cornfields...?

Everywhere I look in the mountains - and indeed, throughout the coastal towns of Haiti and its capital, Port au Prince as well - you can see W., all the W.'s of the world, in fact - thin limbs, protruding tummies, reddish hair.  Over time, this threatens to numb me.

Watkliffe learns responsibility for a cousin
Watkliff is the man in charge

Monday, March 9, 2015


Travay - Work

The table rocks as I write - the dirt floor is uneven, and the bits of cardboard, paper and folded pages of a New York Times placed under wobbly legs never seem to balance right. 

Excuses, excuses.  Uninspired litany of phrases on my yellow pad. A glossy oilcloth table cover I’d brought to this part of rural Haiti several summers back was another distraction.  My mountain retreat is my “Walden,” up here above the plain of Leyogan, where all the chickens are free range and folks take a bath once a week whether they need it or not…

But, I pushed on.  As an anthropologist - a writer? reporter? - I felt morally, academically, ethically obligated to write, to record, narrate the minutae of daily life, the dramas that paraded in front of my wooden doors, that peered in through window shutters, that called, “OhneOhne?” and demanded the response, “Respe, Respe,” according to Kreyol expectations.

Honor.  Respect.  “Anyone home?”  “Yes, come on in,” is the call-and-response of formality, but most of my vwazen, my neighbors, don’t bother.  Mostly folks just come in  and pull up one of Sinelon’s rickety chairs and sit around.

While I try to concentrate, write and record, and still stay polite at the same time.

When I am not polite, I am excused.  After all, I’m a blan, a foreigner, a visitor.  What can you expect of us brash clods from Ozitazini, the United States?

I’m a guest here, but this small bungalow of sorts I always rent from Mesye Sinelon is my “permanent” vacation home, so to speak.  The tin roof is fairly new, as Sinelon never fails to remind me, and it doesn’t leak.  The sound of rain on the roof, now that alone is worth the price of admission to my mountain aerie, 3500 feet or so up from the flatlands near Leyogan.

I write, record, trespass in and among their lives.  My astonishment endures at the leathery bare soles of feet, feet as thick as an elephants, feet that fit no shoes.   

My wonder at how Haitians get by, living on air, it seems.  The stuff they don’t have, don’t need.  The stuff I thought I, we, couldn’t live without.  My realization that three meals a day are culturally prescribed, not mandated by biology nor mandated for health.  How little water they drink, use!  How cauldrons may be scrubbed with sand, gravel,  leaves.  

How superfluous is soap, shampoo, toothpaste! 

In these mountains, my neighbors make their own soap - probably in a fashion dating back to the 18th century.  They acquire - buy, beg or borrow - grey bars of soap substance, then work it, form it into a ball. But they covet our soap, scented, smooth and above all, modern.

Who doesn’t want new things, unusual, different things that speak to modernity? Who doesn't want new things, things that say, “We’re with it, we’re with the program.”

I work, scribble furiously on my yellow pad.  I look up and the boys are still their. 

They work, tussle with animals:  Goats, pigs, piglets, cattle, a few sheep. 

 I work, tussle with words, Kreyol, translations, trying to find meaning in the mundane, the mediocre. 

Fanisse peers in through an open window, a gaggle of girls sits around at an open door.  I work - that is, I try to write and ignore them.  Adults will come in and set themselves down as well.  There’s no need for small talk, but, I feel awkward.  A need to fill the silence, to acknowledge their presence?

I feel badly, ignoring them.  

I feel badly staring at my lined, yellow pad, waiting for my notes, descriptions, thoughts.  The people sit and lean on my rickety chairs, they talk to one another loudly.  I eavesdrop, catching a familiar word or two, a word I recognize,  phrase I want to understand.  

But I continue to scratch at my pad.  Later for them, I tell myself.   I have to record.

How Haitians get by, I write, is on very little. “Nap degaje,”  “We make do, get by.”

I marvel. When there is food, Haitians eat.  When there is none, they wait until the next day.

An ear of corn, ready or not, can usually be thrown on a fire and eases some hunger pangs.

I have all this in my notes, but more than that, I have all this in my long term memory..  How could I ever forget?

More scribbling on yellow pad.  My guests lean back in their chairs.  They say nothing.  They just…chill.

I wish…they would go!  But I just ignore them, stare at what I’ve recorded, try to recall some additional factotum that would spice up the narrative.

They lean forward to glance at my writing.  They giggle.

M travay,”  I explain.  “I’m working.”

Travay?  Ki jan travay m jwen?" Work?  What sort of work do I have?

I look up from my pad.  Sorel and Sonel grin expectantly.  Sorel digs a toe in my dirt floor.  Sonel, somewhat older, stronger and tougher is a cousin, the son of Sorel’s father’s brother.  

Sonel has lived with Sorel (a cousin, I suppose) and his 8 (9?) siblings since birth; his mother died in childbirth and his Dad went off to find work in Guadelupe.  Sonel is like all of the other brothers except…He has a bit of a cruel, mean streak.   He is small for his, what, already 17 years?  Wiry, sturdy, strong.  He has held my hand and gripped me tight in many treks up and down these mountains.  He has been helpful.
And yet…

He sits and grins, smirks.  Waits.  Wants.  Food?

M travay, “ I say again, as if this explains my indifference. “I’m working.”

Toma, my young colleague, my aide-de-camp, my “culture broker” as I say about his role these past 15 summers - Toma later tells me, “Madame Randy, here, when we work, it is with a pikwa,  ak machet, ak digo, not with pen and paper.”

Writing, record, my “work,” is not work to them.  For them, work is done with a pick axe, a scythe and a machete.

I feel … shame? I am able to get by without the sweat of my brow, but rural Haitians only survive to dig, plant, weed and harvest in their teren, fields from day to day.

Sonel and his mean streak. Understandable, perhaps - he grew up without a mother, having to combat his way with his uncle’s 5 or 6 sons, all under the same rood. Local needs capitalized on Sonel’s strengths in this domain:  Sonel gets work as a butcher.

When there is a need to slaughter a goat or a pig, Sonel will be called in.  If an animal has fallen and broken a leg, Sonel will be called in to finish the job.  If a goat has been attacked by a dog, Sonel will step in to to slit the goat’s throat and apportion the meat.

He isn’t actually very good at it, Toma tells me, he doesn’t slaughter an animal in the most humane way, says Toma.  But that’s his work.

Sonel has his fields, and his specialized work as an occasional butcher - he’ll never starve.  Watkliffe, too frail to be much use in the fields, has been trained to do laundry.

And I have my writing, and a parachute... 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Kafe pou maten - Ala traka!

There must be coffee...These beans, we had to buy.  But, years back, we'd tried to grow it.  Some videos below show our efforts.

A group of children of all ages came to see and learn about coffee plants...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ti travay

I'm trying to remember that wonderful Kreyol proverb about work..."Nampot travay ki pa nourri met li" -? Is that right?

It was translated as "Any decent work is good work..." or something like that - and when you look at the shortage of ways and means to earn goudes in Haiti, you begin to get the full meaning of the words.

Preparing coffee is a major undertaking - a paid job for a lucky person in the summers, even if I am the only one on the team who MUST have coffee in the morning - and later in the day as well.,

Kafe - essential, and another possibility for paid work for a family in the Mon Bouton/Bo Kano region.
With kokoye and sik, Madame Inez is happily in business.  Our tiny non-profit,, keeps her going.

Caring for livestock is hard work
- a major investment of  time and energy that hopefully pays off - down the road.  In the meantime, everyone tightens the already-tightened belts.