Part I, Chapter 1 "That's The Way It Is"
The mountain chains left and right of the village rest still and worn, streaked with cloud cover now, but always a silent presence. They seem to bear witness to what happens between them and form a corridor enclosing the appropriately named Cul-de-Sac Plain, a deep geological depression between the country's central and southern mountain ranges. In time purple yields to lavender and soon the mountains become the palest blue; while muted in tone, their outline is starkly clear. The sky is tinged with pink and orange until bright sunlight begins to gain energy, finally breaking through to dominate with a dazzling, sparkling new day. Foolishness and anxieties can be swept away, leaving only the bare bones of life, finally free from fat and fluff.
The stillness of night's heavy silence begins gradually to split with the buzzing of birds, their chirps and squawks. The roosters are most noticeably up first, heralding the approach of light, lifting the lavender haze from the mountains. Tropical night was so thickly dark and almost solemnly hushed, a feeling of rolling in black velour, or taste buds saturated by too many cognacs, syrupy and oppressive. No electricity provides relief. There was the communication of crickets breaking the quiet, so it was hardly deadly still; in fact, it was strangely alive. There was disturbance. The night had a faint but definite pulse, the sounds of voodoo drumming off somewhere and the echo of singing voices, an awareness fringing consciousness and creating a feeling of disquiet. In time these sounds in the night become very familiar, their frequency almost a comfort. The gods are being taken care of. The spirits are never far from thoughts or actions; devotion is constant, as is terror.
With daylight come the soft sounds of hens clucking. A donkey brays loudly, some distance away, but the cry is still distinct and harshly unattractive. Closer and sweeter, the baby goats, all soft and sweet, suckle with obvious delight, tugging at their mother's teats, almost violently, jerking and putting for nourishment and position with all their tiny might. Stoically oblivious, their mother calmly munches on a few strands of straw. Now the babies begin their morning cry for the human breast, struggling for it, protesting when they are not immediately gratified, the selfishness of instinct, the will to live vividly heard-in the healthy ones. When the baby's demands take on the bleating whine of the baby goats, that is when there is danger and death hovers near. A child is being scolded, gently-but then it is still early. People cough. Almost imperceptibly, they begin to use the path outside, their bare feet treading earth . . . gently. Isolated sounds. Actually, it is quite serene around "la cour," the central courtyard of a loose grouping of huts and outbuildings occupied by blood relations. The wind is so forceful and incessant it carries all noise away, controlling sense, quieting life. That is what is most striking.
Gental is off down the path to fetch water from the water hole, about twenty minutes away, likely longer for a four-year-old, particularly given the necessary balancing act on the trip back. He is a familiar sight with that water bucket on his head and unsmiling face beneath. The spillage flashes in the sunlight, painting some parts of him black while others remain brown, a cross between a glossy and a mat-finish photo- graph. The heavy metal bucket brimming with water trickling down his face weighs a lot and the strain will show in his tense expression and taut neck and back on his return.
Haitian children seem to be cherished in infancy and begin a life of hard labor, unappreciated and unrelieved work, at around Gental's stage. As surely as the work comes the continual berating for their non-existent laziness, and frequent beatings for alleged disrespect and disobedience-more honestly, displaced hostility onto defenseless children. There is much anger here-with good reason; parents are severe lest their children be "mal eleve," badly brought up. "You can always strike your child ... even if he is fifty years old," one mother said. "It is a parent's right." She refused to be restrained even by the threat of summoning the corporal.
Gental wears only a short white shirt, his genitals bouncing along as he swings the water bucket to be filled. The shirt is no longer big enough to button over his huge belly, for Gental is occupied territory -- a paradise for worms. He is a survivor-second-degree malnutrition. Every- thing about him betrays his struggle for life: his spindly arms, his knobby knees, that belly, his height of a two-, maybe at most a two-and- a-half-year-old. The sugar cane he sucks on with his left hand offers some short-lived caloric energy, but none of the protein he so desperately needs to grow and have a healthy existence, now and in his future years. His head is greatly outsized for the stunted growth of his little brown body, always a chalky color with dust because of his nudity. In addition to his strange head, Gental's lower lip protrudes. People think of him as ugly; frequently they make fun of him. His extreme sensitivity, his profound melancholy at the age of four, are heartbreaking to observe. The slightest tone of ridicule sends his big head burrowing for shelter in those skinny crossed arms. Like any hurt child, he is very, very good-too good-eager to please lest he displease and experience more rejection. It is with great speed that Gental responds to the command to get water.
Gental is doomed. His family lives off to the right and are very, very poor, even by these standards of poverty. Consequently, he will never attend school because school costs in Haiti. His family cannot afford to buy him the green-checked school shirt, the dark green shorts, and the plastic sandals-the uniform he needs to attend the school, a forty-minute walk down the Haitian-American Sugar Company railroad tracks to the nearby market town. He will not get the uniform, the books, the rote education, even though he is demonstrably highly intelligent. Gental can thread a film projector, a totally foreign object, confidently making his way through a maze of gears and gadgetry -- after watching the operation once. Gental can construct multi-story buildings with toy blocks -- when he has never played with blocks before nor observed multi-story buildings. He has extraordinary spatial and manual abilities; he could be an engineer, an architect. He will be a farmer, as is his father, as was his grandfather. Thus is Haiti's destiny perpetuated in another generation, illiterate and confined to the ever-weakening topsoil.
Yes, Gental says, he will go into the "gardens," what Haitian peasants call their farmland. No, he says, he will never marry.
A generation older, Antoinisse has a slowness of gait and weariness of gesture this morning, as if he has not slept well. In fact, he has not eaten well, not yesterday, or the day before, perhaps for so long, maybe never, that he begins each day tired, lacking energy for all he must face, the cruel burden he must bear, his struggle against impossible odds. The day literally must be survived. So much adversity can strike ... drought, sudden illness, a hurricane ripping through his exposed fields and defenseless thatch hut. What can he really do should any of this happen? What can he fight for or against? There is firewood and there is water- what else is probable, for even these are not certain. The rhythm of this kind of life grinds along its own route, lugubriously, like an ox-drawn cart. It has always been this way for Antoinisse, as it was before him, as he expects it will be for his children and his grandchildren. As he says, "Ce conca sa ye" (That's the way it is,). There is nothing to be done save the living of it, so Antoinisse begins this new day, as he must ... but it is done slowly, without enthusiasm.
He is prepared, however, and has emerged from his "caille," his house, wearing his work clothes. On his head rests a beaten-up straw hat with its much-tattered brim rolled back a little along the edges, frayed from repeated removals to wipe the sweat from his brow. It is very hot under a tropical Haitian sun in an unsheltered field. The wonderment is whether the hat is ever removed, it is so perpetual a feature of Antoinisse. At the moment he wears an undershirt of some kind because it is still cool this early in the morning; over it is a khaki shirt with a military-surplus look, rolled up to the elbows, exposing the sinewy muscular development of his forearms.
Antoinisse has been malnourished all his life, but he has lived, following the basic tenet of biology -- survival of the fittest. He is stunted, only about five feet tall, but those forearms tell the tale of his tough, ness and how he has made it this far, into his early fifties. Typically, he does not know his exact age. His faded red trousers show the right pant leg in pretty good shape, but the left has a big tear at the knee and is short and tattered, exposing his painfully bowed legs, which add further insight into the story of his malnutrition. He is barefoot, and the callouses on his feet are thick as elephant hide and, like his handshake, testify to his harsh life.
He saunters off to urinate someplace, courteously not too close to a neighbor's dwelling. There are maybe thirty latrines in this village. Antoinisse is too poor to afford such a luxury. On his return he lets the other dancers were so bad compared with her ever-so-flowing movements, her entire body into it, pelvis oscillating in unison with the music, in effortless and enjoyed undulations. She is the star of the show. Her god is Guede, a most passionate "loa," and when he mounts her, her sensuality bursts forth; she grinds away like a Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Once in her frenzy she grabbed some hot peppers and mashed them into her genitals and noticeably walked a little differently the following day.
Her tendency to giggle can turn into uncontrolled, rock-a-bye, fall-apart guffaws, particularly when she attends an evangelical church service. The village boasts one such house of worship. She goes, not for religion, but for entertainment: the comedy of testimony, the pleasure of singing, the gleefulness of chance happening, like a mocker passing gas through the open window, smelling up the place, creating havoc- convulsing Tante. A beleaguered minority, the evangelicals spat back out the window, retaliating for the outrage. Tante rules her children with an iron hand, and this gentle, lovely lady can turn into a sadist in an instant, eyes flashing, grabbing a stick, striking blow after blow, not quitting for a long time. When she asks for water, her children run.
Today she wears her trusty pink dress with a sweater so old its original red has arrived at the brownish purple stage, but it provides warmth. Her dress is starkly simple in design, as are the dresses of all peasant women, homemade with just the essentials: a bodice, short sleeves, no collar, a gathered skirt of mid-knee length. Nary one ornamental button, bow, stitch-the skeleton of a dress, almost childish-looking, like a kindergarten school plaid. On her head is the characteristic bandanna of Haitian women, as required as the Haitian man's straw hat. Today her scarf is of green and white checked material, likely a schoolboy's discarded shirt but tied with that definite flamboyance and pervading ease characteristic of her strength of personality. Tante's inner space is a sane and healthy place full of savvy and practicality. She could make it in New York, where, perhaps baffled by the subway system, she would walk.
The two boys return with their tasks accomplished, firewood from one, fresh water from the other. The eldest, Bradifey, is seventeen. He looks twelve. Frisnal is thirteen. He looks eight. This is what malnutrition really means-retarded growth and everything else. Bradifey brings his father a white enamel cup filled with water and Antoinisse scrapes his teeth clean with a finger, repeatedly gargling and spitting until the cup's contents are empty. That done, Bradifey is waiting, exchanging the empty cup for one with strong, locally grown coffee, just brewed in the cooking outbuilding in back. Antoinisse begins his breakfast seated once more and pulls out a corncob pipe from a pocket.
This long, silvery piece of nature has room enough for four people to socialize and is a gathering place evenings, like a park bench. There is an aura of vagrancy about this man this moment, his wizened, ravaged face, prematurely and cruelly aged, a stubble of gray mustache and beard, more a goatee, surrounding his gap-toothed mouth. He munches on some cassava bread, disk-shaped and sour of taste, made from bitter manioc flour. On his face is a vacant expression as he surveys the scene of his destiny. He is physically present, but so very weary, kin to a broken man in Central Park with the might and armor of skyscrapers in the background, but no longer an active participant. Absentmindedly, he fingers the torn edges of his trouser knee, closing the gap, which shows wide open again with the slightest body movement. He covers the tear once more and pulls out a corncob pipe from a pocket.
Like a solitary line of poetry there is a fragile beauty about this village which the starkness of poverty cannot intrude upon. A few doors down, Maria, Antoinisse's fourteen-year-old niece, has brought out the sleeping mats to air. While clearly not cushy comfortable, the mats, flung against the side of the hut, provide a visual lyricism, a softness of color and texture: pale cornsilk yellow, long, skinny shapes bound together by broad, weaving lines of tied knots; resting against the whitewashed look of the hut's wall, metallic in the early-morning sun and shadows.
Typical of the housing in the village, the hut is of wattle-daub construction, a woven infrastructure of tall sticks, human-height with a bit to spare, branching out of the four main comer points with two other supports halfway down each side to make the interior division into two rooms. The sticks are intertwined with twigs and branches and the whole arrangement is called "clissage." It is filled in with a mud and limestone mixture. The floor is of pounded earth; the roof gradually peaks and is rounded off with layer upon layer of straw. Protruding from the front is a little sun porch supported by two more beams retaining the shape of their ancestry. This "tonnelle" is also covered with straw, flat on top and sloping toward the front. It is the minimum of a house, walls to shelter from the wind and provide a roof over your head, not all that reliable in a rainstorm and subject to the visits of Haitian snakes. They drop in from time to time, very thin, and fortunately, not poisonous.
When the houses are new there is an immaturity about them, the freshness of a young sparrow, all soft creams, grays, and browns; then, with the weathering of nature comes a mellowing. The thatch turns from brown to gray, gets bushy-haired and tousled, requiring that a heavy branch be placed here and there to keep the roof in place. Just like an expressive, lined old face with sagging muscles, the plaster chips and cracks, breaking off in hunks here and there, revealing the pock-marks of the "clissage." In time, the house gets to look very trembling and vulnerable.
The single front doors of the houses and their side window shutters fit into their rough-hewed frames, pieces of puzzle, crooked, curving and grooving into the space, planks braced by crosspieces attached with metal hinges. All are essential and closed tightly at night to prevent the intrusion of malevolent spirits, in the process trapping every virus and bacteria exhaled and coughed by the family, maximizing the chances of infection. Just as inescapable are the facts of sex. Haitian children learn early and naturally about this part of life. Sexuality is never denied or embarrassing, but it is postponed until late adolescence.
The saying goes there is not a straight line in 0 of Haiti, and hostesses of the capital are always fixing askew tablecloths, mumbling com- plaints under their breath about the incapacity of their maid of twelve years to line cloth edge with table edge. Here too. The doors, the shutters, the corners of the houses, the roof lines, the thatch edges--every- thing-is crooked, right out of the nursery rhyme ". . . they all lived together in a little crooked house." The houses are grouped in crooked circles, sometimes just a few, or as many as a couple of dozen, depending on the size of the extended family. There are eight such houses in Antoinisse's "la cour." Each leads off to another in jigjag fashion, repeating the motifs of blue doors, straw ... echoing each other in ever- diminishing line and color. Like a prism they subtly refract the hue of time. At noon the whitewashed limestone is ablaze with sunlight like a captured hearth, blinding, while in afternoon the huts assume a faint lavender, turning delicate gray with evening and coming up pink with the next dawn.
"If you see nothing outside, there is even less inside," one villager said. In the front room was a pile of rags in one corner and a branding- iron hanging from a nail embedded in the wall. Behind the inner mud wall relieved with a door space there was a single line of rope strung across with more rags, likely the family's clothes. In a corner on a straw mat was a baby bedded in rags, the tenth child fathered by this man, living with his third wife. The baby was tightly bonneted with two hats and heavily clothed not only to keep him warm, but to make him strong of body and personality in his years ahead. "My mother has pinned me up very well," grateful children say when they demonstrate energy and autonomy. The baby rested quietly in the windowless darkness and state air on a bright, sunny day.
Houses are for sleeping and for sex. Haitian living takes place out-doors. There is little privacy; there is great community. To stroll among these extended families, through these courtyards and along these foot- paths, is to experience lilting greetings of good day, warm arm waves of recognition, offers of hospitality, shy but interested company, friendship. The overweening impression is of considerable kindness and authentic empathy of people bonded by mutual suffering, relieved through togetherness, touch, and laughter. Women kiss noisily; men hug grandly; a hand reaches over to squeeze another with tender caring when the eyes betray the anguish of a sore soul. The faces are open and expressive. The eyes stare and look through, intimately seeing the spectrum of emotionality: true feelings of pleasure, anger, tiredness, sadness, joy, without sophisticated masking or complications of complexity. Often there is a strange repose and peacefulness of features. The physical beauty -- outright sensuousness --is a constant source of disbelief.
People greet each other with great gentleness and politeness, doffing a hat, offering a hand. Smiles come in a flash of big white teeth, strongly rooted in jawbone, according to one dentist, because of the chewing of sugar cane from an early age. And the smiles come easily. Any occasion to laugh is seized, the littlest thing: a child carrying four pieces of firewood and dropping one; a woman spilling water as she engineers the pot to her head; a slip in the mud. It is all welcomed with ready laughter. At every turn comes the extension of a straight-backed chair, or perhaps some water. They have nothing else to give but themselves, to share time, talk, togetherness.
To the stock comment in any culture, "How are you?" comes the reply, "Oh, no worse off than yesterday, thank God." Haitian peasants understand envy as well. Their greatest fear is to arouse the ire of another, to provoke someone into putting a curse on them, making their lives suddenly worse than Job's. Aggression is expressed through the intervention of the spirits, hostility's intermediaries, and physical violence is extremely rare. Rather, tenderness is the gestalt. It is not unusual to hear people humming as they make their way along a path to the laundry stream or out to the fields, a pleasant sound in the wind along a route bordered in orchidlike white Lillian blossoms.
Movement is casual. There is no hurry. People cluster in front of a house in different body postures, sitting, standing, kneeling, squatting, like live mahogany sculpture in the shade, making netting, gossiping, shelling beans, playing checkers, repairing a chair, or silently enjoying the presence of kindredness. A crow cries from somewhere, disturbing the profundity of silence. The external wind blows and blows. Time melts away from one day to the next, without urgency, and particularly, free of change.
It is always the same. A father passes by, trailed by his young son carrying the garden hoe and wearing a pint-sized straw hat. It is time for brown-bean planting and the next generation is learning its occupation. Goats, pigs, chickens feed freely, finding something here and there, getting tangled in scrub brush or the cactus patches relieving the village's limestone flatness. Almost obsessive, water constantly comes and goes, its necessity to human existence eloquently evident. A ten-minute walk to the Year of the village finds the laundry, with vigor the order of the day; washing, an act of purification and absolution, accomplished with incessant soaping and violent sounds of scrubbing, wringing out, and smacking of material against rocks. Back in the village, one of the few schoolboys sits on the ground, leaning back against his house to learn his lesson, parroting in French, which he only vaguely understands since Creole is his language. In singsong and mechanistically he chants- "Geography is the study of the earth and its inhabitants. We make a distinction between physical and human geography. The first studies
. . ."A few feet away an illiterate eleven-year-old threshes rice in a pot of water, grain sinking to the bottom, chaff rising to be tenderly cleared from the water surface. In addition, he has kept an eye peeled on his three-year-old sister, in keeping with the custom of giving an older child responsibility for the care of a younger sibling. Boys play soccer, not with a ball, but with a sock stuffed with rags and sewn tightly, while girls play "pinche," like jacks, eight or ten little rocks thrown into the air, to be caught in the open hand. The muffled tom-tom of millet being prepared for cooking, alternating thrusts of a "manche," a large log pestle in a "pillon," a hollowed-out end of a tree trunk, beat out a rhythm, a message picked up a few courtyards over, by another duo of brother and sister in perfect coordination. A villager repairs the "clissage" of the pigpen, struck down by an angry burro's kick, while another reupholsters the "matla" of his chair. Stacks of sugar cane are loaded onto the railroad car standing by the village for the daily ride into the capital's refineries. A woman in her vigorous late thirties quarrels with her husband, reaching over to hurl firewood in his direction, motivated by relentless rage. Next come a few rocks. A discarded and dented bicycle wheel turns and turns, absorbing the four men intent on their gambling, a simple form of roulette. An old woman in the brightest blue cotton dress, the cheapest material in Haiti, hits and kicks her donkey, immobile in a huge mud puddle. Suddenly she's in the muck -- and she laughs. A white heron sits among the lily pads of the river, maintaining a regal watch over his domain. A dog is kicked, incredibly skinny and even more pathetic. Women breastfeed babies. Children are rebuked. Courtyards swept. Millet threshed. Children scrubbed. Birds chatter.
That's the way it is in the sunlight and the wind. Day after day. That's the way it is with the hunger and the sickness. Day after day. A baby cradled by its mother has so little strength, the child's arm waves in the wind. A two-and-a-half-year-old rarely walks, because he does not have the stamina to support his body weight and venture a step. A five-year- old looks aged and pregnant, her belly so distended by malnutrition, her little dress sticks out like a cartoon of an umbrella; her hair like tufts of reddish wool also protruding from the roots. She walks with great fatigue and discomfort, suddenly losing bowel control with diarrhea, leaving a puddle behind which a pig quickly comes to lap up.
Any walk through this village easily reveals thirty to forty nude children with obvious and advanced malnutrition, their stomachs huge with it and with assorted intestinal parasites; heads outsized; shoulders negligible; limbs like pipes. There are runny noses from respiratory infections; swollen ears from poor hygiene. A two-year-old has the sad face and flesh tone of beaten old age, without the energy to reach for a toy. Kwashiorkor, a protein-deficiency disease, and marasmus, caused by lack of calories, and combinations of both are endemic, to the degree that health is the exception-not the rule. Very few children measure up to normal height and weight standards. An eighteen-year-old can stand four-foot-five inches; a five-year-old can weigh twenty-six pounds and look two; a three-year-old can weigh as much as a seven-month-old baby. There is diarrhea and vomiting routinely. Spitting and coughing from the burden of tuberculosis are matter of fact in many families. Illness and death are daily topics of conversation: "Edgar has been sick for two months." "That woman just lost her husband two weeks ago. She is left with six children."
Camil has been vomiting for six days, plus he has a cough and diarrhea, so now he is too weak to stand and his greeting is barely audible, more communicated with the movement of his lips than sound. His eyes are feverish, very yellow, and very, very sad. He fears for his life of thirty years and the impoverishment of his family, a wife and five children, the survivors of the ten he has fathered with this woman. The new infant is fat and healthy from the nourishment of her mother's breast, but the three-year-old has the telltale trace of orange in her hair from the herb teas, starchy gruels, and conspicuous absence of protein in her diet. The father looks as frightened as she this moment. He rests on a straw mat surrounded by cushioning rags, a sheet pulled up high to his chin, forming a tent-shape over his drawn-up knees. Helena sits with her husband, her eyes soulfully watching his progressive weakening with a direct ratio of alarm. She has notified the "houngan," the voodoo priest Joie, to come again tonight. Last night's treatment was not successful. Camil is worse.
On the third day of Camil's illness the village leaf doctor, Madame Londe, an expert herbalist, was summoned for her knowledge of stomach problems and inflammation. She charged one gourd for the treatment, twenty cents, to mix palm oil with rum, heat the brew over a fire, and massage it into Camil's stomach. No results. On the fifth day of his illness, the "houngan" was called, since the sickness appeared to be supernatural in origin, likely the work of a discontented spirit.
Camil's wife made the twenty-minute walk to Joie's "peristyle," the religious center for this village, easily accessible but just a little apart, appropriate to Joie's social status. The walk is often made by the fearful and the faithful, the sick and the vindictive. Like an after-hours place with all the hangers-on, amidst the goats and pigs wandering among the phallic symbols and forbidding voodoo crosses embedded in the hard ground of this compound, here could be found the potency of a widely respected inheritance of black and white magic, covering all categories of need. Here was Joie, an extremely big man, as if his "loa" had immunized him against the diseases of his milieu and the routine ravages of malnutrition. About six feet tall and big-boned, he tended to stand with his weight on his left hip, dominating casually, his left hand supporting the small of his back. His receding hairline edged away from a pushed-back forehead, flat like an Indian papoose. Beneath this strange physiognomy stared beady, laughing eyes, as if he knew all of life's little and big jokes; his mustache, relatively thick and trimmed; his wealth, showing in his black-rim glasses and wristwatch. He lived in this scattering of buildings, not all that different from any other peasant, but there was the "peristyle," a place of many moods and wonderments. He agreed to come.
That night he pleaded with the family spirits, promising to fulfill all wishes. The ceremony was simple: candles were lighted; mystical designs, "veves," symbols of the spirits, traced on the hut floor with cornmeal; the family led in the recitation of many Catholic prayers, hymns, litanies, and special chants. Then, a meal was prepared and buried under the threshold of the door for the spirits' appeasement and consumption. The climax came with Joie's loud pleading, his crying out in desperation, very dramatically imploring the spirits to "Please, loosen your hold on Camil! Set him free to work once more for his family! Whatever offense will be generously undone, any neglect of your will, speedily rectified, just so Camil gets well!!"
Today he is not better. The illness appears to be even more serious than a sulking family spirit and there is the beginning of real dread, even terror. An enemy may have sent a dead man to possess Camil. Tonight there must be an exorcism, which will cost many animals and be most painful for Camil to experience. He will be spoken to roughly, threatened, massaged with foul-smelling liquid called "beng," sprayed with rum, spit upon-all designed to displace the ghost residing in his body. Despite his weak condition, he will be forced to sit and stand, maybe even danced and jumped over and stomped upon, even prepared for death. His limbs will be bound with strips of white cloth; his jaw tied shut; a rope stretched above his body, with little pieces of red cloth attached. Food will be prepared in little gourds and passed over his body in an effort to entice the spirit out for a good meal. The same procedure will be followed with a live chicken. Next, the rope above will be untied for the ghost to exit from Camil and a neighbor hired to throw the food and the rope into a distant field or perhaps the cemetery. At that moment Joie will demand that Camil stand and identify himself, whose ghost he is, where he comes from, and which enemy sent him. Should Camil not know the answers, he will be threatened and scorned, a flame lighted under his eyes to terrorize him into revelations. There is much distress in Camil's house today. His eyes are round with fear and yellow with infectious hepatitis.
Life goes on. New life too. Three or four new lives enter the world of this village every month, their mothers aware of their pregnancy through the cessation of menstruation, more reliably confirmed from the massage test of midwives and card reading of Joie. Naturally, the husband is the first to know, quickly taking magical protective measures by buying certain potions to guard against the spirits that eat children. The potions mix herbs, insects, and animals with a high-class brew including a frog, so like a frog, anyone coming at night to drink the blood of the fetus will get a swollen belly and die. A horribly bitter potion is purchased to make the mother's blood bitter so any werewolf will gag and spit up the child's blood he has sucked; the mother gags too as she drinks the defense. In the third month, she begins to take a purgative called "lok," a mixture of castor oil, grated nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, sugar, garlic, bicarbonate of soda, sugar, and the juice of a sour orange. She will have three such treatments during pregnancy so her child will have clean blood and insides as well as health and beauty outside. Plus, there's a bonus: "lok" also prevents stomach pains and rashes in early infancy.
The child grows in one of the three sacks of the female stomach-the other two serve as receptacles for food and liquids -- nourished by menstrual blood fed through a hole in the midpoint of the infant's head, evident at birth by the fontanels. Like house-building, each day God adds a little more to the child's development as the woman sleeps; it is very dangerous for her to awake suddenly during pregnancy. Her pregnant cravings are speedily accommodated as the child's will; sexual relations continue, considered helpful for the open uterine canal at birth.
"Woy! Woy! Give me room to get through. St. Ann good mother! Everybody answer the song for me!" screams Clairinoi in her labor, occasionally turning against her husband, her face bitter and enraged, her voice high-pitched and hoarse, cursing, "Look what you have done to me!" She tries to bite and punch him but he jumps out of reach, accepting her anger passively but with alacrity. "Oh, God, help her. Help her! Have mercy on her," holler very close and sympathetic family and friends, permitted to participate, sharing her travail, ministering to her comforts as much as possible, urging her to "push" with each contraction.
Very old and completely toothless, the midwife Saincoila arrives in dirty old clothes, her shapeless dress falling off one exposed shoulder, revealing flesh with the consistency of original protoplasm. Her finger- nails seem particularly dirty. Only after the delivery will she bathe and put on clean clothes. This is the way Saincoila has been delivering babies for forty-five of her seventy-four years, a power, concentrated in her magic thumb, inherited from the spirits of her grandmother, also a widely respected midwife. A little sign outside her simple house advertises her many services. It reads: "Syrup for gaz, colic, bile, Madame Saincoila, sage, syrup for grippe. Takes care of children and prepares lok." There is something classic about this old woman, a mother long ago, grandmother of fifteen, with sunken cheeks and flabby breasts, the long "wisdom" hairs on her face like a Chinese sage.
She immediately calls for castor oil and a bowl in which she floats seven small candies to insure divine intervention in the birth; sprinkling water and asking God to open the way, spreading out an old sack in front of Clairinoi's now open legs. Then she prays to the "marassa," the god of the twins, the source of all her supernatural powers, for Saincoila has always known she was exceptional for this reason-a twin. She still gives food to her dead twin sister, now a goddess, very violent, temperamental and touchy, she often complains, requiring constant attention and thousands of precautions. It had always been like that, she says, with an accepting yet heavy sigh from her burden, quoting the proverb in a sad voice, "Twins don't get on." She shakes her head widely from side to side at all this difficulty, despite the fact that her parents had been so careful to divide their food equally, make their clothes identical, praise them both at the same time.
Saincoila sits in a little chair, her body posture really a squat, legs wide apart, as her "patient" screeches in pain. She encourages her out- bursts, considered therapeutic and helpful to birth. Bathed in sweat now, Clairinoi will deliver her fourth child as she has the others, in a sitting position in the front room of her house with all the doors and windows shut tight against cold and spirits. The midwife has dipped her hands in the bowl of now heated oil and starts to massage Clairinoi- roughly, eliciting protests, but it is necessary, although uncomfortable, to turn the child around from a standing position for entry into the world head first. The massage continues, as does Saincoila's chanting:
"Oh, St. Margaret, deliver her for me. Mother St. Ann, Virgin Mary, all Saints in Heaven, deliver her for me. Bring her through. Here is how I will shake her womb." She violently massages. Clairinoi hollers out in agony, writhing and moaning to escape the motions of those hands unmercifully clutching her abdomen. From time to time Saincoila leaves the hut and paces outside, passing the hours. Finally, shoulders emerge ... the mysticism of birth. A son.
He does not cry out. The onlookers grab plates for just such an eventuality, drumming with spoons, clapping their hands to wake the baby. He cries. Clairinoi is escorted to the rear room for a lukewarm bath, and only when she is resting on her straw mat is the baby's umbilical cord cut, so very carefully and without pulling, since it is the beginning of the baby's intestine. It is cut with a large door hinge, the length of the stump very minutely determined since it dictates the size of the child's genitals in adulthood. The stump is then covered with grated nutmeg and wrapped in a cloth soaked in castor oil. All of which welcomes the tetanus spores to germinate into a lethal bacillus, 100 percent fatal if untreated. The old midwife has squeezed a few drops of blood from the cord into the baby's mouth and poured down some "lok" to assist with his first bowel movement. Now she washes the blood from his body in lukewarm water, shaping his "broken" head and closing the fontanels, massaging the head with more grated nutmeg, finally doubly bonneting the baby and taking him to rest with his mother. Meanwhile, the father has dug a hole under the threshold of the door separating the two rooms, where the placenta is placed with hot charcoal and salt thrown on top, the first to insure speedy drying of the umbilical stump of the child, and the second to prevent odors and provide proper healing of the umbilicus. Clairinoi begins her five-day confinement in the house with her new son.
Antoinisse was born in his village, and except for a few trips to Port- au-Prince, forty cents by "tap tap," Haiti's public bus, this is life as he knows it. His father had two children with Antoinisse's mother, then left to cut sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, never to return. Later, his mother began living with another man so Antoinisse has a half-brother and a half-sister in a nearby "la cour." His mother died three years ago, he says, and the end was difficult because bad spirits had entered her body, causing her to walk around talking to herself like a crazy woman.
Antoinisse has had his problems with the spirits too, he confides; he does not know why since he has done his best to venerate his ancestors and fulfill all his obligations, as much as he could possibly afford. He speaks pleadingly, as if the "loa" might be listening and receive the message, ceasing the poverty and ill fortune which have so constantly beset him and his family. He never addresses his future directly lost the gods be provoked by his expectations. "If God wills it ... if I am still here is the recurring parenthesis. His greatest fear is that someone will go to the "houngan" and put a curse on him, killing him with black magic, for which there is no defense. Or perhaps he could be put in jail if someone said he spoke ill of the government, something, he emphasized, he would never, never do.
Antoinisse began living with Tante when she was in her early twenties. Her precise age is unknown, but she knows she was born in the Dominican Republic, where her mother lived for thirty-five years, bearing eight children. Ultimately her mother returned to Haiti and has lived in the capital for twenty-two years now, in Portail St. Joseph, one of Port- au-Prince's five main slum areas, where she struggles to live, selling soap, toothpaste, pots and pans, and a few cooking utensils. There is no one to help her, and often she sleeps all night in the street to keep a prime spot in the market area.
When Tante was a very young woman she lived in another village with another man with whom she had three children. She left him, she says, because he was lazy and would not work; when the children were sick, he refused to spend money for the "houngan" to care for them. Only her first child, a daughter, lives. The second baby, a son, died at seven days, probably of tetanus of the newborn; the third child, another daughter, died at two-and-a-half months, of fever and diarrhea. Her first-born, Diana, has lived with Tante's mother since she was six be- cause it is so hard to care for children in the poverty of village life.
Now twenty-one, it was very bad for Diana two years ago last July, Tante recalls. Her body went all stiff, her skin yellowed, and she was in great pain. Her bone joints seemed to calcify and in time she could not even dress and had to be taken to the hospital. She had been having problems with a man, Tante added, and a few months later became pregnant. Hysterical paralysis is a form of mental illness among Haitian peasants. Diana no longer lives with this man nor does he provide for his child, a daughter, who weighs eleven pounds at thirteen months and is on the road to marasmus.
Tante was alone for a year and a half before she became "place" with Antoinisse. They would prefer to be married, he says, because God likes that better, but there never was enough money for the ceremony. Tante has been a very fertile woman and there are two other daughters living with a sister of Antoinisse's in the capital, doing chores in exchange for care, virtual indentured servants since they were sent to Port-au-Prince at the ages of five and three. They are now nineteen and seventeen. In the village there remain the two boys to help with the work, and a three-year-old daughter.
These have lived, but the others died and caused them both great sad- ness. All the children were sick as babies, with diarrhea and passing blood. They often speak of the dead children, they said; some had be- gun to talk and have their own personalities when they were taken from them. One son died at two and a half of fever and diarrhea despite every effort and cost to save him. They even tried taking him to Port- au-Prince to see a doctor at the hospital, but he died of dehydration on the thirty-five-mile trip and they turned back heartbroken and buried him. The next two children lived, but then a son died at four, all swollen at the end, his hair dry and red and falling out in patches-likely kwashiorkor. Then a daughter died at two of the same illness; the next child, another daughter, died very quickly, seven days after birth-tetanus.
Now the three-year-old is all swollen about the lower face and neck from advanced tuberculosis and Tante holds and smiles at this baby constantly, cheering her on, it seems, with a rush of maternal love, no antidote for the "microbes" eating away each day at her diminishing strength. If it were possible, Tante says, she would have preferred not to have had so many children because of all the worry and care they have taken, so often ending in death, six deaths out of twelve births. Perhaps soon the figure will be seven out of twelve. None of the children has gone to school because of the money.
For Antoinisse it was particularly bad about twenty years ago when the spirits sent him vomiting and weakness for five months. He was near death and Tante desperately paid four big pigs, twelve goats, their one mule, almost all they had, to the "houngan." Finally, the magic worked and Antoinisse became better, although never as well as before. The illness left him with very poor eyesight, particularly in his left eye, and also affected his hearing, totally in the left ear and partially in the right so Tante must do the negotiating for the irrigation and a lot of the talking for other purposes. When Antoinisse speaks, which is rarely, his voice is gruff and gravelly, voicing mostly complaints and demands. He is a frustrated and burdened man, lashing out at his children in an instant, particularly Bradifey, whom he sometimes ties to a tree and beats for an offense of the day before. Tante claims Antoinisse strikes her every day.
It all would be different, Antoinisse says, had he been able to use the inheritance of spirits from his "houngan" grandfather and train him for the "asson," the voodoo-priest rattle, comparable to the cardinal's hat of Catholicism. Antoinisse is a "houngan macoute," a paraprofessional of sorts, with definite supernatural insights and powers from beckoning spirits, but he lacked the funds to acquire the extended technical education into the names, characteristics, signs, tastes, and ceremonies of the "loa," their moods and vanities. Always, there has been no money.
Occasionally when Antoinisse has drunk too much rum he ventures into the home of his family gods, still-lifes at every turn, old rattles, crumbling pottery from ancient offerings, indistinguishable pictures on the walls, and bursts into spontaneous and finely patterned banging on the old yellow and red drum of his grandfather. He seems vigorous then, happy and spirited. But that is a rare mood. He is not drunk now and sits on his log, unconscious of his pampering and pruning of his closely cropped hair, finally moving ever so slowly, placing a banana in his straw shoulderbag for lunch, grabbing his only farm implements, his hoe and machete, for today's work in the gardens.
It is confusing to walk to Antoinisse's garden. First, he follows along the railroad tracks for about ten minutes, passing the rich and obvious fertility of other farmers' holdings, hearing their good fortune-rippling water running through irrigation canals. The corn luxuriates in the sun- light, pulled toward the sky, leaves lusty with growth. A peek down the rows reveals more than one villager shining in the sun, shirtless, rippling muscles developed laboriously over a lifetime in this wind, with those scraping motions of a heavy hoe digging at resistant earth.
Then, Antoinisse hangs a left past sugar cane growing greenish brown on the right and twelve-foot corn plantings on the left. Shortly, another left, then a right, through the zigzag patchwork of other gardens, passing another pedestrian, a five-year-old, it seems, with the inevitable water bucket balancing on her head. Here is the very best land of this village, almost black, dark with organic life and abundantly humid. Antoinisse owns only one carreau, just over three acres, divided into three locations-none of them here. His father's many progeny took each an equal share, equally unable to support their generation's families.
Antoinisse silently greets another farmer returning from the fields, putting an arm affectionately around his shoulder-connection, gentle touch-and moves along. He takes another left, passing an irrigation- ditch bridge made of cornstalks, in disrepair, and reaches over to grab some nearby water-crescent leaves for a refreshing chew. Finally, he has arrived.
This is his very best plot because accessible is a wonderfully clear waterhole, its mud bottom visible through the blur, inhabited by little fishes and surrounded by maisonbelles leaves and the snakelike roots of distant trees that have crawled all this way for moisture. The roots look ominous, almost treacherously tangled, but Antoinisse disputes that impression. The spirits that dwell here are all white and long-haired, he says. Damballah particularly is a good-natured snake spirit who likes to hang around waterholes, make rain, and climb trees; Simbi is said to be very well mannered and intelligent.
On the surface, Antoinisse's field appears highly productive, a melange of foods, but upon closer consideration, protein-low. There is sugar cane, of course, rice, hard bananas, plantains, and the corn that Antoinisse is planting now. Also, there are watermelon, pumpkins, lima beans, papaya, and some coconuts from a few palm trees clustered on the plot and singing in the prevailing wind. He also grows a little cotton, fresh with yellow flowers and good for stuffing mattresses, some tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, and a touch of shallot. The corn he works with is for eating because there is not enough land for a large planting to sell at the market. The sugar cane unfortunately must be shared with another farmer because Antoinisse has only one grown son to help him with the work and must pay another man to assist with the harvesting. Would that he had more sons, he says, noting that daughters, however, care for their parents in old age. He understands crop rotation and once the cane is grown will plant rice and sweet potatoes three times before he grows more cane.
Antoinisse works with his hoe, much taller than he, and seemingly more heavy than necessary. The iron plate is attached to the pole by a spike stolen from a railroad tie. He leans over to work more closely, the voodoo beads around his neck dangling near his land, this earth that supports and breaks him at its whim, nature from which all life and death cycles get their impetus. The eternal wind plays around the trees, through the cane and down the corn rows, almost noisy with laughter. Mocking. There are no other sounds save a lonely crow's cry. The mountain chain contorts colors all day long. Like marine fatigues now, all green and brown spots, patches of savage growth with lovely lavender flowers on close inspection, nameless beauty, juxtaposed with eroded land with only a stubble of trees remaining across the mountain tops, spotty and unattractive. A place rich in cactus so poor in water, pulsing with energetic sunlight. As afternoon approaches for a visit, the mountains wear pastel blues, almost aquas, speckled with navy from the clouds overhead, later putting on pinks and purples.
Occasionally Antoinisse stops for a smoke of home-grown tobacco, leans on his hoe, confronting almost eye level the scarecrow that does double duty, guarding his seeds from birds and supplying magical insurance against evil. The cow skull stares back with the multi-colored streamers it wears, floating nonchalantly in the breeze. Antoinisse sits almost suddenly, squatting, head in hand, a habit and posture that can endure for hours. He is in suspended animation, almost meditation, arrested in self and time, looking at his own mirror. His is a most integrated work-leisure day. Work spills through the day, easily accomplished in less time, or perhaps, more accurately, more concentrated work time. He lives each day this way, for Antoinisse has never taken a vacation from this way of life.
What is he thinking? "There is no money," he says, a practical peasant pondering. It is usually so-the water, the weather, the money, the children. He worries about them all, all the time, for Antoinisse is an anxious person. One of his big concerns these days is $10, finding $10- about 20 percent of his annual income. That is what a neighbor has demanded for a share of irrigation water that one of his plots completely lacks. He is very vulnerable now. The land is getting very dry, the crops beginning to wither; without the money, the planting will die, losing the life essential to produce the food essential to the lives of his family. He must get some money! The $10 is far beyond his means but never far from his thoughts these days. Antoinisse believes the price is excessive and quotes an old Haitian proverb, "A dog has four feet but he cannot travel four roads at once." He hopes to negotiate the price, he adds, suddenly absorbed in thought once more.
Another hour's work and he responds to the mountain's sundial, returning home with what he has found to feed his family, corn and sweet potatoes. Yesterday he brought bananas, beans, and rice. On feast days there may be chicken, but most likely not. Sometimes there is lunch, a little midday snack of sugar cane or fruit, a baked sweet potato or piece of cassava bread. More often there is only a morning and an evening meal. The reason is simple. There is no food. As Antoinisse puts it, "You eat what you find in the gardens."
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