First Place Award in Creative Nonfiction, Alabama Writers Conclave. Jeannette, Haiti: Summer 1996
The women were coming in ones and twos, through fields of mayi and pitimi, alongside old French ruins, past the clinic and cistern, on winding dusty paths that would soon converge where I was standing, just below the crest of the hill, on a small plot of bare red earth between church and school—the heart of Jeannette.
On dirt trails not much wider than a footstep, heads turbaned in pink, yellow, blue and white could be seen above scraggly stalks of corn, and emerging from behind wide-leafed banana trees. The women were coming in their Sunday best to attend English classes as decreed by Père Lafontant, the old Haitian priest who, less than a decade ago, opened Jeannette’s first school.
A cerulean blue dress materialized from around the corner, then a faded yellow one appeared from behind the church. With downturned heads and purposeful steps the women arrived and gathered in the shade of the church, a few feet from where I waited outside the school, watching and wondering whether to go inside or not. I would have felt more at ease if I had a lesson plan and could have marched into the classroom with a piece of chalk in my hand, ready to write the day’s lessons on the board. But I didn’t know what the lesson was going to be, as I stood there watching them take form and draw near.
How would I teach these illiterate women to speak English? And why?
The unpresumptuous gray and white church perched at the peak of the hill behind me was not as big as the barn on the farm in Southern Illinois where I grew up. Slightly below, the cream-yellow grade school, frequently mud-slapped by tropical storms, wore a skirt of rust-colored stains. Teachers lived in an unpainted dormitory behind the two buildings. Tucked into the hill’s decline where was a half-green cement block two-roomed clinic, closed because there was no medicine inside and the nurse was gone.
Those four buildings made up the whole town. Jeannette had no stores, electricity, running water or telephones, and no cars. It didn’t even have its own dot on a Haitian map.
I’d been working all day and was hot, tired, and used-up. First, I’d taught a pedagogical workshop in methods and techniques for the instructors, then classes in music theory, then choir for both children and teachers. All were held in the church because there were too many people to fit into a classroom. In mid-afternoon, unable to bear the oven-hot sanctuary any longer, I told the recorder group to take their chairs outside, and taught them under a tree. Even in the comfort of an air-conditioned classroom back home, the high-pitch cacophony of beginning recorder players would be set my nerves on edge. Here, after a day in the oppressive heat, it was nearly intolerable.
All I wanted to do was to head down to Père Lafontant’s house, get a bucket of water, rinse the sweat and dust from my skin, and sit in the shade with a cold drink.
First, though, I had an English class to teach.
So far, only four women had gathered in the shade of the church. I was expecting several more. With the back of my arm I wiped drips from my forehead, then took a long drink from my water bottle, thinking that I should go over and make small talk with them. “You do what you have to do,” was a family creed, and normally, when I thought I should do something, I did it. But now, I couldn’t. The effort required more than I had in me to give, and for one of the few times in my life, I couldn’t muster the energy to obey the should-voice inside.
I stood there by myself, dizzied from the heat, feeling disconnected, and closed my eyes for a moment, the closest I could come to being alone.
Six years earlier, on my second day in Haiti in June of 1990, I made an important discovery: I loved culture shock.
I was forty-one years old, in Jeannette, with fifteen and thirteen-year old daughters, Angela and Adrienne, and my husband. Now, Adrienne was in college and Angela had just graduated. My husband of twenty-four years had left for his new lease on life, and I’d moved out of the family home I could no longer afford to make payments on. After renting a room in a fellow teacher’s home, then house sitting for a year, I felt homeless and adrift, in spite of the roof over my head and job I went to daily. Although I’d had a music teaching career most of my married life, making a home for my family had been such big part of my identity that I had lost my sense of purpose, and of self.
Floundering, ready for adventure, on my own for the first time ever, with an overblown sense of compassion and need to be of use to someone, I turned my mothering instincts toward Haiti.
During the last year, I’d come to Jeannette more than half a dozen times. I knew teachers and students as well as a visitor with limited language skills can. But my relationship with the women of the village still didn’t go much beyond courteous, distanced exchanges. Some of the problem was language-based. Their Kreyol had a localized vocabulary and slang, or accent that made them hard for me to understand them than their children. I could only guess that studying French, and getting a wider vocabulary, gave their kids a wider approach to making themselves understood by a blan. The kids were more open to me, too, than their mothers, who remained shy even when I tried to ask them questions or stir up conversation.
These women now huddling beside the church deserved far more than a week’s worth of vocabulary lessons in a foreign language, when they couldn’t read, write, or even speak the French their own laws were written in. Teaching them English felt little more useful than if I were them serving English high tea in a Royal Albert china cup.
I didn’t understand why Père Lafontant thought that teaching English to these women was important. He’d told me that it was to offer them dignity, as though I’d know exactly what he meant, but I didn’t. And, typical for me at that time, not wanting him to think I was stupid, or that I was questioning his authority, I didn’t ask him to explain.
I opened my eyes to see Marie Kam climbing the hill, her wiry body bent forward, a flowered apron tied around her thin waist, her blue kerchief bobbing. Over the last eighteen months, she’d helped cook each time I’d been to Jeannette, whether alone or with a group. Although I often went out back of the house, where she sat, cleaning green beans, or scrubbing shirts in a pan of water, I’d never been able to draw her into meaningful conversation. If that’s the best I could muster with the woman I saw most often when I was in Jeannette, I had little hopes, I felt, of making a connection with the others.
When a dozen women had assembled in the shade it seemed I could no longer avoid the inevitable. I invited them into the schoolroom and led the way.
No one followed.
I stood inside and waited a few minutes, then stepped into the doorway and again announced that we were ready to start.
Still, no one made a move.
Maybe they’d come only because Père Lafontant told them to, I thought, wishing I could suggest that they go back home if that’s what they’d rather do. But I didn’t know whether it would make trouble for them, or me, if we didn’t follow through with Père Lafontant’s plan.
Finally, Marie Kam inched forward and crossed the threshold. One woman followed, then another. Looking ill at ease, they slid onto the long wooden benches where their children and grandchildren had sat earlier this morning, and sat straight-backed, several with hands clasped. None smiled.
“M byen kontan ou la jodi-a,” I said. I’m glad you’re here today. I explained that we’d start by learning some words that we commonly used every day, and began at the top of a list I’d made the night before. First, I said the word in Kreyol, then in English, and asked them to repeat it. “Kay: house. Solèy: sun. Ti-moun: child. A few responded in voices so quiet I could barely hear. Others said nothing. I tried to offer typical teacherly-type words of encouragement like trè bon—very good. If they understood me, I couldn’t tell it. The hour dragged on.
Finally, it was done. “M’ap wè-ou demen,” I said. I’ll see you tomorrow, although I was unsure any of them would actually return. It had been an excruciating hour for us all.
The next afternoon I was surprised to see a few more women meandering toward the school than yesterday. This time I stood in the shade where, by then, I knew they would gather, and tried to make conversation as they arrived. The women stood in a huddle, saying nothing to me, or even to each other, their visceral discomfort making me yearn to somehow put them at ease.
An idea came from out of nowhere, and I went with it. “Fè yon sèk,” I said. They didn’t quite know what I meant, and it occurred to me that they’d probably never before been asked to stand in a circle. Through gestures, and a few guiding touches to shoulders, I managed to get them into a more or less round configuration.
I pointed to my hand and asked Marie Kam: “Kijan ou di sa nan Kreyol?” How do you say this in Kreyol?
“Menn,” she said.
To the group, I said “Menn: Hand,” and asked them to repeat it. Marie Kam said “hannnd,” savoring its sound. Dieula tried it out next. “Hannnd.” First one, then another joined, sending overlapping murmers of “hannnd,” “hannnd,” “hannnd,” sweeping through the circle.
Next, I pointed to my head and, with a lift of eyebrows questioned Marie Kam. She said, “Tet.”
I answered, “Tet—head.” Gaining in volume as their confidence grew, their muted percussive responses were reminiscent of Haitian drums playing polyrhythms of “hedd,” hedd,” “hedd.”
We’d found our groove. I continued pointing to parts of my body, they taught me the Kreyol word for it, I translated it to English and they repeated it after me, word by word. We learned foot, arm, head, mouth, lips, ears and leg.
Then, with a basic vocabulary in place, I sang a verse of the Hokey Pokey in Kreyol, switching to the English word for the punchline.
“Ou mete head anndan, ou mete head deyò…” You put head in, you put head out. Pronouns were too much to handle, so I left them out.
They looked at me like I had two heads, clearly having no idea where this was going. “Kwè ‘m,” I said. Trust me. “Sa a se pral gen plezi.” This is gonna be fun. I sang it again, touching my head when I came to the English word and asked them to echo the whole song after me, one line at a time. Djeula grinned and touched her head.
Then I showed them the fun part. I waved my hands in the air, circled around and sang, “That’s what it’s all about. Hokey Pokey!” Mary Kam burst out laughing, her sister Christine grinned, and on the other side of the circle, across from me, Apelancia tried it out for herself, to the delight of us all. We sang and danced the whole song, then headed for the classroom with everybody talking at once. It was music to my ears.
Today they sat easier on the benches and their eyes met mine when I said “Bonswa! Kite a jwenn te kòmanse.” Good afternoon! Let’s get started.
The next day, I was in the classroom getting ready for class when the first three arrived. Mary Kam asked me if Angela and Adrienne were still in school, and I told her that Angela had just graduated college and had a job.
“Mwen byen kontan!” Mary Kam said with a clasp of hands to her breast. She was thrilled for good fortune that I almost took for granted. Maybe not a good job, but a job of some kind, had always been available to my kids and me. Her son, Genel, on the other hand was one of the 30% in Haiti who was employed. Some of her other children, and many of her neighbors, were among the other 70% without a job. I didn’t know how often Père Lafontant hired Mary Kam to work if Americans were not there, but probably not often. But although the ten days worth of work, four times a year, that she got during our visits wasn’t much of great job, it was better than had most of the women who were filing into seats behind her.
We began talking about home, and family.
“Sa-ou fè nan matin?” Christine asked.
“In the morning we feed our families, get the children ready to go to school, and go to work,” I said.
“Sa timoun-yo manje nan matin?” Dieula asked.
“My daughters like orange juice and toast for breakfast,” I said. “Mwen renmen café.” I like coffee.
She nodded with a wistful smile, and I felt suddenly greedy to have mentioned it. Their country was supplying nearly half the world’s coffee when, in ours, we were signing the Declaration of Independence. Now 98% deforested, it didn’t grow enough even for its own inhabitants. While I was deciding on yogurt or granola for breakfast most days, they were starting theirs with empty stomachs. If any of these same thoughts occurred to her, she didn’t mention it, and neither did I.
Our conversation soon became the lesson, as others posed questions and I answered, pulling out words from our discussion and turning them into the day’s vocabulary lessons: Lave—wash. Manje—food. Chabon—charcoal. Timoun—child. Kuit—cook. Diri—rice. Jwenn dlo—find water.
“Ki jan ou di chosèt?” Mary Kam asked. I didn’t know the word chosèt. She mimed, putting her hand on her leg, just above the foot.
“Oh, that’s ankle,” I said.
“Non, pa hokeypokey ankle,” she said. No, not Hokey Pokey ankle.
I didn’t know what she meant. Mary Kam kept repeating the same mime and I kept not understanding. Finally, she said, “Gade, Cahtee. Dress,” smoothing it as she said the word. “Shoe,” she now said, and touched her shoe. Then, she patted her ankle.
I got it. Mary Kam was using context clues! We weren’t talking hokeypokey body parts. We were talking clothing!
“Ah, koulye a, mwen konprann!” Now I understand! “Socks! Chosèt, socks.”
The room was abuzz with requests for me to supply the English word for articles of clothing, foods, daily chores. It me laugh to see how loud these same women who’d stood in silence outside just a day earlier, could be when they loosened up.
Then, Mari Kam asked the English word for ti bebe. I said that in my country it sounds almost the same: baby. We savored the similarity of our languages as the whisper of the word “babee,” “babee,” “babee,” swirled among us and softened the bare block room.
Before leaving, we put together the day’s vocabulary to the tune of Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, following the pattern of singing most of the words in Kreyol , then switching to English for the punch line. We sang, “Se konsa nou lave yon dress, and “Se konsa nou cook our rice,” adding verse after verse from the day’s conversation.
Christine asked, through gesture, whether we nurse our babies in my country. Yes, I said, and curved my arms as though holding a baby to my breast, and we finished the class by singing in Kreyol, their voices now a gentle lullaby, “Sa a se ki jan nou tete ti bebe nou an.” This is how we nurse our babies.
Afterward, when I got back to the presbyter, Père Lafontant was on the porch, apparently waiting for me. When I pulled open the iron grillwork door, a smile spread across his face. “Cahtee, how is your English class coming?” he asked.
“It’s great. I love it!”
He seemed pleased, and completely unsurprised.
On our final day of class, I again watched Marie Kam make her way up the path, her patterned skirt swinging in the breeze. Dieula, Marie Kam, Christine, Apelancia, Fidelia, Odette, Imercia and the others entered the classroom without being asked.
Dieula suggested we sing “This is the way we comb our hair,” and we did. Then she asked me how my hair feels. I was tempted to say wimpy, and my mind jumped back to seventh grade when we compared strands on a microscope. My straight blonde hair was the narrowest of them all. I wished I could show these women their hair and mine, side by side, magnified that way.
There was a better way, though, to answer Dieula's question. I bent down in front of her, ran my fingers through my hair, then took her hand and placed it on my head. Christine reached out and I leaned toward her next. One by one, I made my way among them all. Marie Kam suggested they braid my hair. I sat and they all gathered round, many hands joining in the work.
We talked back and forth like old friends, making-do in a collage of Kreyol, English and sign language. After class, we went outside together one last time. In the shade by the church we again sang and danced the Hokey Pokey, including as many verses as we could think of. We shook hands, legs, elbows, ankles, heads, feet and even our ears, laughing so much by the end that we could barely get the words out.
“There’s one more verse we haven’t sung yet,” I said.
“Ki sa li?” Mary Kam asked. What is it?
I sang, “Ou mete dèyè anndan,”—you put your backside in—and turned my back to the circle, wiggling my hips. We laughed so hard we couldn’t finish the verse.
Then, we straightened up and sang the whole song from the beginning, shaking it all when we got to the end. I was glad Père Lafontant couldn’t see us. This might not have been what he meant by dignity.
The circle broke up, we hugged, and yet they lingered, as reluctant to go, as I was to see them leave.
“Mèsi, Cahtee,” came from all sides. I loved the way they said my name, and wished I could bottle it and take it home with me.
I heard a giggle and Marie Kam nudged me. “Cahtee, gade.” Look.
I turned around to see Dieula doing a little shuffling dance, her hands above her head, swaying to the beat of the barely audible song she was humming. She sang a little louder and two more women began a similar rolling movement that seemed to start in their knees and move to their hips in one fluid motion. Dieula’s sway became more seductive and, emboldened, and one by one, others joined in, their eyes gleaming.
Marie Kam told me this is how they dance after a wedding, or at a party. “Eseye il, Cathee,” Mary Kam said. Try it. I did, and they laughed at me. I wanted to learn the sensual sway that came so naturally to them, but our time was over, and I’m not it was something that could be taught. To do the balansay like them, I’d need their music in my bones, as it was in theirs.
One by one they headed back down the winding paths from where they’d come, going home to cook rice for their children and scrub school uniforms in small pails of water carried home in jugs on their heads, their education done for now.
In the months and years ahead, we’d teach one another a few more English and Kreyol words, share meals, music, weddings and funerals. Some of our children would grow up and some would not.
Through it all, I’d remember the red paths on which they walked, the feel of their hands in my hair, how the air lit up inside the dark classroom when we started talking about the stuff of our daily lives, and how we danced together, that day in Jeannette.