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!


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