Social history contests the construction of the past as the story of elites — a grand narrative dedicated to the actions of those in power. Our Lives seeks instead to make available voices from the past that might otherwise remain unheard. By foregrounding the experience of ordinary individuals, the series aims to demonstrate that history is ultimately the story of our lives, lives constituted in part by our response to the issues and events of the era into which we are born. Many of the voices in the series thus speak in the context of political and social events of the sort about which historians have traditionally written. What they have to say fills in the details, creating a richly varied portrait that celebrates the concrete, allowing broader historical settings to emerge between the lines. The series invites materials that are engagingly written and that contribute in some way to our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective.
A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri
John Leigh Walters
Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery
Helen Waldstein Wilkes
A Woman of Valour: The Biography of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle
Man Proposes, God Disposes: Recollections of a French Pioneer
Pierre Maturié, translated by Vivien Bosley
Xwelíqwiya: The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch
Rena Point Bolton and Richard Daly
The Teacher and the Superintendent: Native Schooling in the Alaskan Interior, 1904–1918
Compiled and annotated by George E. Boulter II and edited by Barbara Grigor-Taylor
Mission Life in Cree-Ojibwe Country: A Memoir of Mother and Son
Elizabeth Bingham Young and E. Ryerson Young, edited and with introductions by Jennifer S.H. Brown
Rocks in the Water, Rocks in the Sun
Vilmond Joegodson Déralciné and Paul Jackson
Rocks in the Water, Rocks in the Sun
A Memoir from the Heart of Haiti
Vilmond Joegodson Déralciné
An Essay on Haitian Politics and History
Glossary of Haitian Terms
Pawol Granmoun / Haitian Sayings
In the course of Rocks, Joegodson will describe from his perspective how this book came into being. Beforehand, allow me to briefly introduce ourselves from my point of view. My intent here is to answer questions that might nag at you and distract you from his story.
Joegodson and I met in Port-au-Prince in January of 2006. The city was, literally and figuratively, on fire. The popular classes were in a death struggle with the powerful for control of the country. The battlefield, this time, was an election. The poor won what turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Joegodson will describe the circumstances of our meeting in that context. He also describes how we exchanged our maternal languages in a fair-trade deal: English for Creole.
Four years later, the earthquake left Joegodson homeless and jobless. Everywhere there was work to be done. The Haitians had all the skills needed to rebuild their country to their taste. But there was very little money in circulation. Especially in the city, Haitians needed money to survive. The formal economy was organized around sweatshops subcontracted to supply multinational clothing corporations with merchandise for sale in the consuming countries, like the United States and Canada. (Joegodson will describe the wages and conditions there.) Meanwhile, Joegodson was a talented furniture maker. He had friends in desperate conditions who were skilled tailors and artisans. We considered the possibility of establishing a kind of fair-trade enterprise to connect Canadian consumers with Haitian workers. While he organized them into a potential workforce, I researched in Montréal the logistics of establishing an import business. This project had been thrust upon me, however, rather than chosen. The idea of handcuffing Haitian workers to a capricious foreign market seemed short-sighted to me. The Haitians would still be dependent on the wage for their survival, except that it might come more directly from Canada. But they were desperate.
In Canada, I worked with Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada to learn how goods are imported from the “least developed countries.” I discovered that products from peripheral countries are exempt from tariffs. The government claims that this regulation is intended to help the poorest countries develop their industrial base. It was easy to see, however, that the policy was a gift to the wealthiest multinational corporations that exploit the most vulnerable workers in the world. Not only do they have negligible production costs but the government allows those products to enter Canada as if there were no border. It is as if the production was located in Canada; however, they do not have to pay any of the social wages that Canadian workers had forced on the capitalist class over centuries of struggle. The environmental and social costs of production are displaced to the Global South, when possible. Nevertheless, and regardless of the real effect of the tariff exemption for products manufactured by Haitian workers, would it be possible for us to actually benefit from it?
We came up against obstacles in both Canada and Haiti. In Montréal, I researched the viability of retailing furniture, clothing, and art. For practical advice, I went to see an entrepreneur who imported similar merchandise from Africa. Several years earlier, I had purchased from him an attractive plant stand made by Moroccan artisans. He had installed in the boutique a video that showed the actual production process; I remember having watched how the Moroccans produced the stand. Now, years later, I found the shop had expanded. It was still full of attractive furniture from around the world, but no longer did the proprietor promote the fair-trade aspect of the enterprise. The store manager told me that few customers were interested in the production process. In fact, promoting merchandise in terms of fair trade could actually handicap items otherwise in demand. Price was the critical factor in moving merchandise. Ultimately, we would be in competition with the multinationals.
Meanwhile, there were bigger obstacles in Haiti, where it is extremely difficult to register a company. Moreover, the Haitian customs office is rife with corruption and controlled by powerful interests that operate in the shadows. Joegodson had already been forced to pay bribes to customs agents for things I had sent to him in Haiti. More ominously, the customs office was in the hands of the same people who controlled the assembly industry. In his first term as president, René Préval had unsuccessfully attempted to make Haitian customs accountable. Any successful effort to raise the Haitian workers to a decent standard of living would undermine the formal economy controlled by the people on whom we would be completely dependent to export products. Joegodson’s friends were not concerned with these complications; they just wanted decent wages. Beyond that, Joegodson and I would be on our own.
At the same time, Joegodson and I were already working together on a blog that we set up so that he could describe post-earthquake conditions in Port-au-Prince. A few times, people who followed his writings sent him money. In his text, he talks about how he put those gifts to use. It was clear that these readers were not wealthy and were making financial sacrifices out of compassion for his ordeal. They encouraged Joegodson. He liked organizing his thoughts to produce posts for our website. And so, we devised the project that has culminated in this book. It was the one thing that we could produce that, as Joegodson put it, “allowed us to exploit each other equally.” I was enthusiastic about the idea. The voice of the most vulnerable link in the global division of labour is silenced in the consuming world. Members of the growing global pauper class — slum dwellers with no prospective source of income — are systemically shut out of discussions about the future of the world. When they appear, it is through the voices of academics, journalists, authors, activists, and filmmakers. In Haiti, the literacy rate is approximately 50 percent. Even for the poor who are literate, like Joegodson, books and journals and Internet access are extremely rare. There are many reasons that the poor don’t enter into our consciousness. Sometimes, it is because we would rather not hear them. But even where that is not the case, no infrastructure exists to support their intervention in the world of ideas, let alone policy. How would Joegodson have written his narrative alone in the circumstances that he describes? Even the pens and paper would have represented a big investment. Where would he have sent it for publication? The cost would have been prohibitive even if he had found a potential publisher. How would it have been received? In the culture of celebrity, who would care about the lives of some nameless slum dwellers? Beyond all of that, we are speaking of a world that, until we began to post items on our blog, was simply not within Joegodson’s field of vision. Our world is constructed of many solitudes.
And so, Joegodson sneaks us into his social circles in Cité Soleil, Delmas, and Saut d’Eau, and we have a chance to see how life is experienced there. He is not speaking for Haitians any more than I am speaking for Canadians in this preface. We are both critical of our compatriots and reject the proposition that anyone could speak for everyone. Joegodson describes how Haitians act within the context of the choices before them. The value of appropriating the voice of the victims of global capitalism is that you can portray them in a way that serves your agenda. I find Joegodson’s story happily devoid of the sentimentality and romanticism with which opponents of global capitalism discuss the world’s most exploited classes. It is equally free of the demagoguery used by proponents of the empire to justify suppression of the subordinate classes that try to improve their position or free themselves of capitalism altogether. Those creations are instruments of a political agenda. Joegodson speaks about life in Haiti from within Haiti. Those familiar with the writings of Gary Victor, Danny Laferrière, and Edwidge Danticat may recognize his Haiti. He has not written fiction, however, but a memoir through which he has tried to describe his actual experiences, as well as those recounted by his friends and family, as faithfully as possible.
From a logistical standpoint: we wrote Rocks in the Water, Rocks in the Sun in Haiti in the fall of 2011 into January 2012. Joegodson formulated the story by choosing experiences from his life and the lives of his family and friends. They cooperated. We changed their names for obvious reasons. We spoke in Creole or French and I wrote in English; in that way, we could both express ourselves most freely. We both thought it best to publish in English. We went over every passage together. I tried to minimize my role as mediator as much as possible. However, the fact that we discussed our project constantly over the months of its creation means that I played some indeterminate part. If he had worked with someone else, the emphasis might have been on other aspects of Haitian life. In other words, this is one of a number of memoirs that Joegodson might have produced. There are many more books to be written by each of us.
A number of people and organizations have contributed to the realization of our book. Funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada made possible our initial encounter and intercultural exchange in Haiti in 2006. Although that postdoctoral scholarship had originally been granted in support of a very different plan of study, the committee accepted its conversion into a transnational project. After the earthquake of 2010, Cy Gonick and James Patterson posted our reflections on the situation in Haiti on the Canadian Dimension website. Soon after, we decided to create our own blog, www.heartofhaiti.wordpress.com, to introduce many of the issues that we would develop in this book. We were motivated to continue by readers who supported our analysis and approach as well as those who rejected us. Those articles that most pleased some readers invariably outraged others; all responses educated us. Once we decided to write this book, we needed material support. Joan Jackson helped from Canada in a number of ways and kept our project alive at crucial moments. In Haiti, Yves and Wilberta Gardel opened up their home to us. Antonia cooked, cleaned, and took care of Joenaara, which allowed us to write the manuscript. Back in Canada, Alvin Finkel saw the value in our work and encouraged us to submit it to Athabasca University Press where Pamela Holway made some important suggestions relating to its organization. After that, and most critically of all, Connor Houlihan oversaw its maturation to its final form; he kept it from going off track. Two anonymous reviewers made insightful observations that improved the manuscript. Ann Klefstad helped to make the text clearer. Megan Hall captured the spirit of our book in the graphics arena. Outside of AUP, Louise Velazquez was our most perceptive friend. She read the manuscript before anybody else and engaged us at every level, probing the boundless meaning concealed in daily life. On a different plane, Joegodson gives thanks to God, who granted him the ability to accomplish the book and who never lost confidence in him.
MY DAD WAS BORN IN 1963 in a village called La Hatt Polikap in Ville Bonnet, a few kilometres from Saut d’Eau, which means “the waterfalls.” Water abounded there. The local peasants knew how to exploit all the different types of soil in the area. Some parts were dry, others swampy, still others well drained. The mixture meant that the cultivators could grow all kinds of crops and raise livestock too. The local rivers were good for crops like rice, sugar cane, bananas, and some legumes.
The peasants stayed in the countryside. There was no need for them to go to the capital where they were ill at ease and mocked for their lack of refinement. Even if they wanted to visit Port-au-Prince, it was difficult because agricultural work took all their time. To migrate to the capital meant a complete change of life. Migrants depended on the support of their home communities. Family and friends would bring provisions to them while they tried to adapt to life in the city where they needed money. Peasants saw little money and lived well without it.
There were no fences in Saut d’Eau. There were little pickets placed at the corners so that peasants knew which plots they were responsible for cultivating. People respected each other’s land. Everyone knew which plots belonged to which family. More important than expanding claims in relation to their neighbours was maintaining order in the system that supported the community.
The section chief was responsible for keeping order. He didn’t carry a firearm. To demonstrate his authority, he had a baton and wore a special cap. He too would be a cultivator who walked around barefoot with his shirt unbuttoned, just like everybody else. Sometimes the section chiefs had whistles. It was the whistle and the baton that could instill fear in inhabitants, because behind those symbols was the Duvalier regime.
The peasants worked together all the time. To cultivate the soil, they organized what they called a konbit. As Haitians said, Men anpil chaj pa lou — many hands make the load lighter. A konbit was a group of cultivators who came together to work the land of one of the members. Working together, they would motivate each other. Also, there was more pleasure in working together than alone. The peasants loaned their time and effort to the cultivator whose land they worked. He or she would pay back the loan by working the land of each of the others in turn. A konbit was a full day’s work. The peasants assembled at sunrise to work until the sun had almost completed its arc across the sky. The family that benefited from the konbit was responsible for feeding the workers. The women of the family would take care of that. The other women worked in the konbit, but the work was divided according to gender. Men worked with the heavy tools like picks and hoes. Women followed, gathering and twining the cuttings or planting the seeds, depending on the season. A mera was the same as a konbit, but it was only a half-day’s work.
When a cultivator organized a konbit, he sought out the most reliable workers. He would prepare so as to make the best use of everybody. The peasants would trade their days to each other. So, if I worked for your konbit, then you would work for mine in turn. Each person needed to work well in order to expect the same of the others.
The inhabitants controlled their days and their work. No one had a clock or a watch. They wouldn’t have had the time to check a watch. The shadows that the sun cast were the hands of their clock. By following the trajectory of the sun across the sky, they knew how much time remained in their workday.
Their horses were reliable means of transport if they had to travel outside of their community. The river was their source of life. It offered them clean water whenever they needed it. They bathed in it and used it for cleaning. The springs offered pure drinking water.
Peasant life was simple on the surface. But if we dig a little, we find an infinitely complex world. So, let’s dig.
In his youth, my father, Deland, was impressed by the nice clothes that people wore. He wanted to be a tailor. He shared this goal with his young friends: “Someday, I’m going to learn how to sew and I’ll make nice clothes for us all.” Such a goal separated my father from most of the other peasants. He didn’t renounce the cultivation of the land, but he wanted to master tailoring as well. Few of the peasants dreamed of mastering another skill along with agriculture.
Deland was motivated to succeed as a tailor for a number of reasons. His parents were separated and his mother was raising her five children alone. Not only did he want to make her proud but he hoped that if he was a successful tailor, her stature would be elevated. People would say, “There goes Suzanne. She is the mother of a fine tailor.” She too encouraged Deland. Parents who raised a child who contributed something useful to the community were respected. Deland wanted to help his mother Suzanne; she wanted to help him. When he became a respected tailor, each would be helping the other.
In my father’s youth, all the young people in the community worked hard in the fields every day. Sometimes they courted while working together. At night, the young men would gather together and if someone had a flashlight, they could travel around to visit the young women. The parents did not prohibit these nightly visits, except where a youth had a bad reputation. In that case, they refused to allow their daughter to see him. Reputations counted for a lot. Each family tried to maintain its good name by respecting their responsibilities to the community. It took only one member to behave badly for the entire family to lose its reputation. And so people watched their own behaviour and that of their relatives.
Even when two young people fell in love, the final decision about their marriage belonged to the parents. Timid boys could escape the fear of approaching the object of their attraction by asking their parents to arrange a meeting. In fact, it was a perfectly legitimate and respectable way to court a young woman. The parents would get together to discuss the practicality of the marriage. If one set of parents had an objection to the union, they would stop the courtship before it started. Otherwise, they would arrange for the youths to meet.
Families that had been marked as thieves as a result of the actions of only one member, or those who were known for domestic violence, had a difficult time finding partners for their children. This was not a local custom; it was similar in all the departments of Haiti.
Parents in local communities would watch the youths closely as they grew. They noticed boys who were lazy and unreliable and girls who were untidy and rebellious. Arrogance and disrespect were also unattractive attributes. Infidelity in girls was especially badly viewed; virginity was highly regarded. If a family knew that their daughter had already had sexual relations with a man and the parents of a courtier should arrive with a serious offer, it was best to acknowledge the truth. If they lied, the entire family could lose its status and possibly be required to compensate the family that had been misled. However, if a youth seduced a young woman with promises of marriage that he renounced the moment that his sexual desires had been satisfied, the family could hold him responsible. If they succeeded, not only would he be imprisoned, but the young woman would have her reputation restored. Sometimes, a family had no interest in the courts but would accept nothing short of marriage. If the young seducer refused, he might find himself the object of magic that could result in his death.
Sometimes, parents could take note of a young man whom they considered an especially good catch for their daughter. They could take the lead in the affair, courting the young man in the place of their daughter, doing what they could to bring them together. Young men would be very cautious in these circumstances, knowing that magic could be used not only to avenge a seducer, but to assure a seduction. When he entered the home of a family that he suspected of trying to entice him into courting their daughter, a young man was cautious about every move. If he sat on a hexed chair or drank from a charmed cup, he knew that he might fall under a spell designed to bend his will.
Parents could use sorcery directly on their daughter so that a certain man would be overtaken by desire when his eyes fell upon her. On the other side of the ledger, young men who were maladroit or timid could use enchanted perfumes to make them irresistible to the object of their desire.
Deland did not come from an intellectual family. But his mother taught him what was important: respect for others — especially his elders, working for peace in the community, and helping people in trouble. Deland lived up to her standards. He learned from her that the most important principle in life is to help others. He believed that good actions would always, somehow and eventually, be repaid.
I remember times when I personally saw how Dad put into practice the lessons that his mother had taught him. Once, my father was in a state hospital visiting my brother James who had had a serious accident. I was on the way to meet them, a few minutes away from the hospital. Inside was a young man who was in a terrible state. On top of whatever sickness he had, he had pooped his pants. He sat on a bed in utter humiliation as the patients and visitors in the ward distanced themselves from him, making theatrical gestures to register the smell and their disgust. My cellphone rang. My father said, “Come quickly, my Godson, we have a job to do here.” I hurried to meet him. He was helping the hapless young man remove his soiled pants. I started to assist and was overtaken by a need to vomit that I successfully resisted. But my father kept working until the young man was cleaned. I saw that his hands were covered with the young man’s feces. It didn’t bother Dad. When everyone else had rejected the young man and added to his humiliation, my father acted in love without any hesitation. He was always like that.
This kindness marked Deland in everyone’s eyes. In his youth, all of the parents of Saut d’Eau aspired to have their daughters marry someone like Deland.
In his travels in Saut d’Eau, young Deland found himself visiting the family of Cécile Robert, of whom he was very fond. But he was deflated when he thought of how her family was better off than his own. He decided to stop visiting, but without explaining why to either Cécile or her parents.
But Cécile’s parents had been impressed by Deland. One day, they confronted Cécile severely, saying “What has happened to the young man who used to visit us? What have you done?”
“I have no idea. He didn’t say anything. He just stopped coming.”
When Cécile next saw Deland, she told him that her parents were holding her responsible for his sudden disappearance. Deland was too ashamed to discuss it. But Cécile insisted. She said that she refused to leave until she had an explanation. Finally, Deland was forced to explain. She was surprised. She had heard nothing from her parents but praise for Deland. Now, he was telling her that he had withdrawn on purpose because he judged himself unworthy.
The Roberts were as surprised as Cécile had been. Finally, they told Cécile to bring Deland to them. Bashfully and against his will, Deland came. He felt that it would have been a sign of disrespect to refuse.
“Deland, we are not looking for wealth. From the first time you visited us, we could see in you the results of the education that your parents have tried to instill. Money does not make a man. We think that wisdom and goodwill are the most valuable traits and that they always take a man in the right direction.”
As usual, the Roberts were respectful. They seemed to have already chosen Deland for their son-in-law. They invited him to dine with them. Then, in a small sack, they packed rice, beans, and avocados to take home for his mother. They had a couple of their young sons accompany Deland back to his home, another sign of respect and goodwill.
When he arrived home, his mother was overjoyed by the gift. Her land was planted, but it wasn’t ready to be harvested. So, the bounty from the Roberts assured that the Déralciné family would eat well that evening. Later, when her harvest had come in, she sent to the Roberts a healthy package of her produce.
One day, Deland told Cécile, “We must hypnotize our parents. You must do everything possible so that my mother sees you as her own daughter, and I’ll make sure your parents call me their son.”
The two families started to collapse into one. Sometimes, Cécile would come by to do the laundry for her future mother-in-law. Deland responded by helping Mr. Roberts in his fields. They started to turn their marriage into an inevitability.
Meanwhile, Deland followed his dream to be a tailor. He encouraged Cécile to learn to be a dressmaker. In that way, together, they would be able to clothe both sexes. They both committed their time to develop their skills. They were taught by other cultivators skilled in the needle trade. Sometimes, Deland told his mentor, “If sometimes you have some work to do in your garden, you only have to ask me and I’ll help out.”
The cultivator judged that Deland was ambitious. He decided to hide none of his skills from Deland. He taught him all of the little techniques that he usually kept to himself.
As Deland was spending more time learning his new trade, he had less time to work his mother’s fields. She was working harder. Deland’s sisters were taking care of the domestic chores. But with less produce from the fields, there was no surplus to pay the cultivator who was mentoring Deland in tailoring.
Normally, Suzanne took the harvest from the family’s land to the market to sell. She would load up her mule with the produce and lead him to the local market where, like the other peasant merchants, she laid it out on the ground for sale. This was the only activity that brought cash into her household. It was with that money that she paid Deland’s tailoring teacher. The problem was that, without Deland’s help, there was less to sell and less time to sell it.
Finally, because of these sacrifices on everyone’s part, Deland came to master his skills. Cécile, for her part, made much progress as a dressmaker. Sometimes, they sat together to share the techniques that they were learning independently. Deland was eventually able to sew both men’s and women’s clothes.
July 16 is a great fête in Saut d’Eau. Haitians come from all over the country. Even members of the diaspora — Haitians who have emigrated to other countries — come back to Saut d’Eau. For Vodouists, July 16 is the most important date of the year, and Saut d’Eau is the spiritual centre of the celebration.
What Haitians celebrate on July 16 depends on their point of view. Both Vodouist and Catholic Haitians converge on Saut d’Eau at the same time for their shared but distinct celebrations. Vodouists celebrate at the waterfalls and Catholics in the local church. Why should there be two versions of one event?
While the Vodouists congregate at the waterfalls, the Catholic church in Saut d’Eau overflows with Haitians from all over. In the church are statues of the Virgin Mary. Several stories circulate about the origin of the miracle that occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century. Some say that the form of the Virgin appeared in a rock. Others say that she appeared in the leaves of a palm tree. Still others say that it was in the bark of a tree. In any case, while the Vodouists commune with the spirits at the waterfalls, the Catholics come to the church to ask the Virgin for help. Others lay bouquets of flowers at her feet in thanks for prayers that she has already fulfilled. There are different ways to ask the Virgin Mary for services. The church has built a special room so that, for fifty gourdes ($1.10 US), the faithful can light candles to Mary.
At the waterfalls, the Vodouists parley with the spirits. They bathe in the water under the falls. I was marked once by the sight of a young woman who disrobed and entered the water under the falls. Soon, a lwa — a Vodou spirit — entered her and took control of her body. She writhed violently under the power of the lwa. Another woman came to help her to the shore, worrying that she was in danger of drowning, or being drowned by the lwa.
Spirits surround us all. When we idolize material things, we open ourselves up to be possessed by the spirits that can inhabit them. Anything and everything. Our obsessions and idols can make us vulnerable to the lwa. Once possessed, a person ties his life to the spirit. It is very easy to become possessed by a lwa, extremely difficult to liberate yourself.
The lwa look for our weaknesses. We allow ourselves to be possessed. For instance, the Vodouists who come every year to Saut d’Eau light their candles at the trunks of the huge trees all around the falls. They pray to the trees. So many people participate in this practice that the trunks of the trees have become dangerously thin. They are diminished by the fires of the countless candles that burn all around them. Currently, the trunks are unequal to the weight that they have to support, for the trees are mature and stretch to the top of the waterfalls. Some people idolize the trees, obsessed by the need to light the candles. But, in doing so, they can put themselves and others in danger of being injured or killed by a falling tree. The lwa that inhabit the trees have entered those who idolize them. Once they allow themselves to be taken over by the lwa, people can fall victim to the very thing that they adore. Trees are one example. The lwa can use anything at all to gain entry and to control the life of a person: money, alcohol, drugs, fame, the search for youth, pride, material possessions, and so on. Whenever we begin to idolize something, we become vulnerable. We stay free by refusing the temptations that allow lwa to enter us.
The main difference between the Catholic and Vodouist worshippers is their social class. The Vodouists celebrate outside in the waterfalls, the Catholics inside a big building. The Catholics are better dressed, but the spiritual practices are indivisible. The Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church is the lwa Erzulie Dantor at the waterfalls.
The Church did all it could to keep itself untouched and superior to the unrefined Vodouists who made such spectacles of themselves. The Catholic authorities insisted that the Virgin Mary was legitimate and her appearance in the nineteenth century a real miracle. The civilized priests resented sharing their symbols with the savages. But the Catholic followers could not always see the difference. Many of the pilgrims went from the church to the waterfalls. Only the snobs refused to see the connection.
My family was, at the same time, both Vodouist and Catholic. Where my grandmother lived, there were four other houses, or kay. In those kay lived her mother, her son and his wife, her eldest daughters and my father. As was the custom, once he reached his twenties, Deland began constructing his future home in the courtyard. The courtyard where the extended family lives is called the lakou in Creole. Since my family were Vodouists, they served a lwa. In the lakou was (and is) a huge fig tree. The lwa that my family served lives in that tree and so my family used to perform ceremonies at its trunk. They would sacrifice animals there, for instance.
The lwa had helped them in different ways. It cured a child with a mystical sickness; it helped their crops grow; and it assured abundant harvests. Their success as cultivators provoked the jealousy of some of the other peasants. The resources were limited and so, for our crops to flourish, our lwa had to sap the strength from other fields. Even if my family members were ignorant of the actual methods that their lwa was using, the other peasants understood what was happening. Their crops were floundering while ours thrived. But my family was unable to counter the actions of its lwa. In fact, it was a disturbing sign that the lwa began to steal from others to enrich us. It is known that a lwa fattens its servitors before devouring them. My family was being threatened by its success.
The day came when our lwa was ready to take its restitution. Deland’s elder sister awoke as usual on the morning of July 16, the day of the great celebration in Saut d’Eau. She went to the Catholic church and then proceeded to the waterfalls for the Vodouist part of the celebration. She spent several hours bathing in the waters and then started to return home. Normally, young peasant women buy things from street merchants for the family meal. She intended to buy pastries, mints, biscuits, and some marinad, a kind of seasoned dumpling fried in oil. But when she came out of the water, she was already mad. Instead of buying food, she filled her basket with inedible leaves that she collected randomly. When she arrived home, her mother looked in the basket and was stupefied.
“What have you brought us?”
Her daughter replied, “I brought all I could find.”
My grandmother tried to soothe her, saying, “It’s not important. It’s just the heat of the sun and the excitement of the fête. Go and lie down to settle yourself.”
After a few hours, the others saw that she was behaving strangely. They called my grandmother. Everyone knew that this kind of sickness was the result of a lwa acting on the victim. My grandmother tried to heal her, using a few methods that the lwa share with their servitors. But nothing worked. It was too late. The lwa had already begun its malevolent work, nullifying the powers that it had once delegated to the family. My grandmother was powerless.
Things deteriorated quickly. A few hours later, my grandmother received word that my father had also fallen victim.
Despite her folly, my aunt remained calm. However, Deland was stark raving mad. No one could subdue him and few were willing to try. He fought like a madman and showed no signs of connecting with reality.
My grandmother was bedevilled, struck by the fickleness of the lwa. After all their years of faithful service, the family was being destroyed by the very force it looked to for protection. When they understood what was happening, everyone panicked.
With my grandmother stymied, the other inhabitants came to the rescue. They looked for a way to save Deland from the spell. Several peasants were consigned to each of his arms and legs. Deland’s normal strength was multiplied by the power of the lwa working inside of him. But they succeeded in subduing him. Other peasants arrived with ropes and wrapped him from head to foot. They wrapped the thick rope everywhere, including his neck, and then pulled the ends, placing Deland’s life in real danger.
The lwa are extremely devious. This lwa had taken control of my father to provoke the peasants to harm him. The sneaky lwa was a spirit and, consequently, was suffering none of the effects of the human body of Deland. In fact, once it had provoked his friends to kill Deland, the lwa would be free to continue its malicious work.
Among the people who were pulling the ropes that were suffocating Deland were those who resented the recent agricultural success of our family. It was not that they were our enemies, but, nevertheless, the lwa was making use of their rancour. The lwa had very effectively set its trap. All the innocents were playing the roles that it had written for them in the drama. Meanwhile, Deland was at the centre of its complex machinations.
As soon as the lwa saw that my father was almost dead, it left his body to enjoy the drama from a different perspective. The peasants remained afraid of Deland and did not relinquish the tension on the ropes. Deland tried to speak. He managed to find enough air to say, in a tiny humble voice, “I’m choking.”
The peasants replied, “You want us to release you? What do you take us for? We’re not stupid. You will redouble your attacks as soon as you are free.”
Deland had no more air in his lungs. He fell silent.
One of the peasants was following the drama with compassion for Deland. He intervened and implored the other peasants to release the pressure on the ropes. He said that Deland was dying.
They replied, “You want us to let him go? If something happens to one of us because of him, are you going to compensate us?”
He said, “Okay. I’ll take the responsibility. Just, let him go because he’s dying.”
Against their better judgment, the peasants released their ropes and immediately lurched back to distance themselves from my father.
Deland was so weak that he could not remain standing. He fell to the ground, his arms and legs useless. The others who had been watching the event came to his aid. They took Deland and put him next to his sister, the two crazy people together.
Meanwhile, my grandmother went in search of an houngan or mambo who might have the power to counter the lwa that had turned against her family. When such things happen, the Catholic-Vodouists never go to the church. They know that the civilized world of the Catholic Church has no power to fight the lwa. Instead, they turn immediately to the houngan for help.
The cost of the cure would be high. Since the lwa was no longer a friend of my family, but the force that menaced its existence, my grandmother needed to sell everything that had come during the period of its beneficence. Everything now had to be sacrificed to free the family. So, the cows, goats, and chickens that were the family’s wealth would now be, literally, sacrificed. The time had come for the houngan to profit.
Some neighbours accompanied my grandmother, Deland, and his sister to the lakou of a local houngan. They spent several days there; it was a sort of hospital for the spiritually sick. Cures are not profitable for houngan. The longer the treatment lasts, the more the patient has to pay. On the other hand, houngan do not like to admit that they have no cure. They have to carefully coordinate the “cure” with the resources of the patient. As a result, it is the sick person who has to diagnose the houngan. If the houngan has no cure, it is best to make a clean break sooner rather than later.
My grandmother was experienced in these things. She quickly left the first houngan to try out another. Each houngan has his own diagnosis. One might determine that a zombie has taken over the patient and attempt to exorcise it by beating the body, bound to a stake, with a cane. Needless to say, some cures can be costly in a number of ways. And the patient may question the motivations behind some treatments. It is wise to dispute the treatment plan of a rancorous houngan or mambo who insists on beating the spirit out of the patient’s body.
My grandmother, Suzanne, went from houngan to mambo, mambo to houngan, looking for a cure for her children. She was reduced to financial ruin and her children were very close to death. She had sold everything that she had. There seemed to be no hope.
Finally, she sought the help of an houngan who was a member of our family. He gave her advice different from all of the others. He told her that no houngan or mambo could help her children. He too was powerless.
He explained that the lwa that the family served was very powerful. In fact, only that lwa had the power to help the family and, it was clear, it had decided to abandon us.
He counselled my grandmother to try one final desperate act. He said that she should go to the Protestants. Either the children would recover or they would die. If they died, the Protestants would help her bury them.
When she heard his words, she started crying. The most honest advice she had been able to find prepared her for the funerals of her children. However, since she had nothing left to pay for her children’s burials, she decided to accept his advice. But, before she did, she knelt down to pray before the peristyle in her lakou. “I have heard of You,” she said to God, “I don’t really know if You have the power. If You heal my two children, my family and I will dedicate our lives to serve You.”
Suzanne found a few Protestant brothers to pray along with her. She agreed to go to church with the children. With the aid of the other believers, and because they believed, my father and his sister were healed.
During the entire time of the insanity of my father, Cécile never once abandoned him. Some of the other young men used Deland’s descent into madness to court Cécile. She was deaf to them. Her parents also refused to allow other suitors to take his place. People told them that Deland would not recover. Moreover, Suzanne Déralciné was now ruined financially. But the hand of Cécile remained betrothed to a crazy man from a penniless family. They would have it no other way.
After his recovery, Deland discovered that Cécile had remained faithful to him throughout all of his sickness. And so he proposed marriage. In keeping with custom, Cécile left her family before the marriage to live with Deland in the house that he had been preparing in the lakou of his family. His elder sister, who had shared the madness with Deland, decided to marry at the same time.
In their new home, Deland and Cécile gave birth to my brother James in 1982. I came the following year. Both Cécile and Deland worked as cultivators and tailors at the same time.
As is the case with many lovers, Deland and Cécile found that living with their betrothed was very different than courting from a distance. Cécile started to have problems with Deland’s family members. Sometimes, her mother-in-law, Suzanne, would leave quantities of rice and other produce from her fields in her home. She would often store them under her bed in a big metal tub, a kivèt. Her daughters would enter and take what they wanted. However, they left the impression that Cécile was taking it. “Have you noticed that since Cécile has entered the lakou, things go missing from Suzanne’s house?” they would ask the other peasants. Before long, Suzanne came to believe that Cécile was stealing from her. No actual accusation had ever been made, so no denial was possible.
These kinds of machinations were unknown in Cécile’s family. They were respectful of each other and did not stoop to petty gossip. Cécile did not have the experience that might have helped her cope with her new environment. My father understood the difference and was ashamed. But he was helpless to resolve the growing tension between Cécile and his sisters who lived in other houses in the lakou.
My father worried that if Cécile’s family should learn of the way that their daughter was being disrespected in her new home that his own status would fall along with that of his family. His new marriage was on a train heading toward a disaster. He looked for a way to escape before it was too late. He decided that the only answer was to move with Cécile and his two sons far from the lakou. He planned to migrate to the capital. His main problem was that he had no economic means to leave. To begin, he would need to pay for a room in Port-au-Prince. He would have to find a way to support his family. His new path was filled with huge obstacles even before he took a first step.
However, if he was unwilling to accept sacrifices, he would have no right to expect to succeed. To prepare the way for the migration, Deland would need to go to the capital alone. That meant the worst of all possible worlds: he would be on a reconnaissance mission in an unknown place while Cécile was alone with her two babies in the heart of what had become enemy territory for her. Deland tried to build up her courage to make the sacrifice along with him.
My father walked three-quarters of the way to the capital until he found a taptap that took him to Carrefour-Feuilles. There, he stayed with another peasant from Saut d’Eau who had already migrated.
As soon as he arrived, Deland recruited his friend to help him find a job. Knowing that most peasants had some knowledge of sewing and that Deland was highly skilled, he led my father to a factory that made clothes for foreign companies. He would make nineteen gourdes ($3.98 US) a day. Even though the pay was unreasonable, Deland decided to accept it for lack of other options. He needed to get his family from Saut d’Eau to Port-au-Prince as soon as possible.
He began his new Spartan existence. He worked twelve hours a day in the terrible heat of the factory. He ate the absolute minimum; otherwise, he would easily have spent everything just on his survival. Nothing would be left to achieve his goal of bringing his family to the capital. He spent several months working in the factory until he had made enough money to buy a sewing machine. He still needed money to find a room. The rents in the neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince varied enormously. The only place that Deland could afford to live was Site Solèy. There, close to the Route Nationale, he found a room made out of rusted corrugated iron and cardboard. The floor was simply cardboard laid on top of the dirt. There was no water, no electricity, no toilet. The local inhabitants used a narrow ditch at the side of the street as their toilet. As a result, all human waste flowed freely through the neighbourhood. For privacy, some of the elderly people would hold a piece of cardboard in front of themselves when they relieved themselves. Most didn’t bother. People threw their dirty water in the same ditch to help keep the waste moving. Only the mosquitoes flourished in Deland’s new neighbourhood. But he paid a price that corresponded with its value: 1,000 gourdes ($209 US) a year. That was my father’s limit for the moment.
He had made a promise to Cécile that they would move to the capital. He would keep his word. But whether Cécile would find this preferable to her situation in Saut d’Eau was an open question.
He returned to Saut d’Eau to bring Cécile up to date. He didn’t hide from her the reality of their new room in Site Solèy. She agreed to follow him anyway. She said that she would prefer to live in a desert in peace than in the poisoned atmosphere of his family’s lakou. Deland sold the home he had built to one of his youngest sisters, underlining his intention to not return to Saut d’Eau.
He put my brother and me in two straw sacks that straddled the back of his mule. Cécile sat on its back. Deland led the mule over the mountains and down the valleys until he arrived at the big market called Titanyen just outside the capital. Peasants from all over come to sell their produce at Titanyen. From the summit of the mountains above Titanyen, we could see the capital for the first time. We could see cars moving back and forth.
My father left the mule in the hands of another peasant who had come from Saut d’Eau to sell produce. He would lead the mule back to Suzanne. Then he piled us all onto a taptap, the first time we had ridden one, to take us to our tikounouk, our little hovel.
When we arrived in Site Solèy, our new neighbours took stock of the peasants who would be living among them. Dad had paid a man ten gourdes ($2.00 US) to carry our sacks on a bourèt. Finally, my mother bravely entered her tikounouk for the first time. She looked around at the rusting walls and cardboard floor.
Because my father had returned from Saut d’Eau with provisions for us, he decided to quit his job at the factory and to begin working as a tailor.
It was 1986 and Jean-Claude Duvalier was fleeing the country as we entered the city.
Everything was in chaos. We would hear the tontons macoutes running through our neighbourhood, firing their rifles in the air to terrorize us. Our doors and walls were made of corrugated iron. The bullets passed through it without any problem. My parents would throw James and me under their bed when they heard the macoutes coming. Hiding under the bed, we came up against huge cockroaches that showed no signs of conceding the space. We had a choice: we could face the macoutes or the roaches. We took our chances with the roaches.
I called that period La Chasse aux Macoutes. Haitians who had suffered under the Duvalier regime were taking their revenge against the macoutes, who had been his personal police force. The macoutes used to kill people in the prison of Fort Dimanche and then throw the dead bodies in our neighbourhood to make it look like we were the savages, not them. Now, the tables had turned. When the people managed to find a macoute who was hiding for his life, they would place a tire over his head and slide it down to pin his arms by his side. Then the people would douse him with gasoline and light him on fire. That was common enough to be given a name: people called it Père Lebrun. (The practice was called “necklacing” in South Africa during the same period. It was a form of rough justice imposed by local ANC communities against blacks who collaborated with the apartheid regime. In Haiti, the same custom was called Père Lebrun after a contemporary tire commercial on billboards in Port-au-Prince in which the salesman, Père Lebrun, appeared with his head through a tire.) In some neighbourhoods, such was the hatred for the macoutes that the local people hacked their bodies to bits and left the pieces on public display for weeks.
When we were playing in the roads, sometimes protests would pass.
They sang, Grenadye alaso! Sa ki mouri zafè a yo! — “Charge grenadiers! Those who fall, that’s their own business!”
They meant to say that everyone was involved in the civil war. As such, each person was responsible for his or her own life and welfare. The protesters passed on foot but in great numbers. They carried machetes, pitchforks, and picks: their everyday agricultural tools transformed into arms of war. Others filed branches down to the sharpest points. Still others carried tires and gasoline.
When they passed, we kids were terrified. Even if we were not their enemies, they were telling us that if we were trampled underfoot, it would be our own business. They were pitiless and we were scared. If we were on our way to the ditch to pee-pee or poo-poo, we would turn in our tracks and throw ourselves under the bed until the protesters passed. We would wait until they passed and were out of earshot and then start out again for the ditch.
Once, we were out for a second attempt to relieve ourselves when we were surprised by the protesters who had turned around. They were on fire with excitement. I saw one protester brandishing the burning leg of a macoute, cheering. Others carried other parts. I stared for a second and darted back into our little house, launching myself directly under the bed with the poor cockroaches.
They chanted a new slogan this time:
Lafanmi Chilè siye dlo nan je’w,
Chilè pa mouri, se nan plàn li ye,
demen a katrè al telefòne’l,
al devan Sen Jan Bosko w’a jwenn Chilè.
Lafanmi Toto siye dlo nan je’w,
Toto pa mouri, se nan plàn li ye,
demen a katrè al telefòne’l,
al devan Sen Jan Bosko w’a jwenn Toto.
Chilè is not dead, he is at the pawnbrokers,
At four o’clock tomorrow you should telephone him,
In front of Saint Jean Bosco Church you will find Chilè.
Wipe away your tears, Toto family,
Toto is not dead, he’s at the pawnbrokers,
At four o’clock tomorrow you should telephone him,
In front of Saint Jean Bosco Church you will find Toto.
Chilè and Toto were two notorious tontons macoutes who had caused much suffering among the people of the capital. They had been involved in all sorts of crimes to enrich themselves under the Duvalier regime. That regime had been built upon terror. The people had been terrorized into submission. The tontons macoutes were responsible for controlling their sections. Some macoutes, like Chilè and Toto, had earned reputations across the capital. They knew that the Duvalier regime was behind them and so they could terrorize the people without fear of repercussions. News that they were coming to a particular neighbourhood caused crowds to disperse and people to run for cover. They killed young men regularly to show that they could. Not surprisingly, with the regime in free fall and Duvalier en route for France with hundreds of millions of dollars to soften the blow of losing Haiti, the local people took their frustration out on the tontons macoutes. Chilè and Toto were two of the most despicable examples of the regime of terror and so they merited a special place in the chant of the protesters. Now, the victims took their revenge.
IN SIMON, a district on the edge of Site Solèy, Deland found a little school called La Providence near our tikounouk for my brother James and me. It was a pitiful school but was connected to the Salesian Brothers, a Catholic congregation that helped us poor kids. They used to come to La Providence each day with two big sacks, one full of bread and the other of large hard biscuits. Their aid was very helpful because my father didn’t have enough money to send us to school and to feed us. James and I were saved by the daily visit of the Salesian Brothers. For us, school was more about food than education. The biscuits were especially nutritious. One single biscuit filled me up.
James and I learned to read before all the other kids. As a result, they used to come to us for help. In gratitude for our help, they used to share with us the bread and biscuits that they got from the Salesians. We would eat our own portions at school and then take what our classmates gave us home for Deland and Cécile. That strategy helped us to relieve the pressure on our parents and also made us good students.
Sometimes the teachers kept sacks of bread and biscuits for themselves. They could sell it to street merchants and pocket the profits or they could take it home and feed their families. As a result, there wouldn’t be enough for all the students. We students were affected differently, depending on our situation at home. For James and me, it was a minor catastrophe. The teachers would distribute a portion of the bread and biscuits. Then, we would see them start to tie up the sacks. Whatever remained inside was destined for the market or their homes. If we hadn’t got our portion, it was too late. We wouldn’t eat.
I used to cry when I realized that I was not going to get a biscuit. But I was too ashamed to tell the teachers why I was crying, that we were too poor to eat at home and my family depended on me. Mostly, I didn’t like to be hungry. If a teacher asked me what was wrong, I would invent scenarios to explain my tears. I would lie that one of the other children had hit me, for instance. Once, the student I accused of hitting me yelled that I was lying, that the reason I was crying was that I hadn’t received a biscuit. The teacher asked if that was true and I acknowledged that it was so. To keep me calm, if she saw me crying, she would undo the sack and find a biscuit for me. I wouldn’t wait for the tears to stop streaming down my cheeks before I dug in.
One day, my grandmother Suzanne came to Simon to spend a few weeks with us. Since we couldn’t eat the whole biscuit, we would keep a portion to take home for Suzanne. Sometimes, we managed to get an extra biscuit and we would give it to her. She started to get used to her daily biscuits, just like us kids. The first thing I used to do upon returning home was to greet my grandmother. After awhile, her response was, “Where’s the bread and biscuit for your grandmother?”
One day, when we were especially looking forward to the arrival of the taptap that usually brought the Salesians with their bread and biscuits, it simply didn’t arrive. All we school kids were crushed. School turned into hell that day. When we returned home, my grandmother was waiting for me at the door like a customs agent. She asked me hopefully, “Where are the bread and biscuits that you have brought your grandmother?”
I had already passed customs, but I had to take two steps back to deliver the bad news. I lied, “Mèmè, it’s not just for bread and biscuits that I go to school, you know.”
She was shocked by the response. I had always been a good grandson who shared his biscuits with his grandma. She never knew what I had to go through to make sure I returned with something for her.
“Okay, okay, my child,” she responded. “I won’t ask you anymore for a biscuit. I see that school also teaches you how to be mean to your grandmother.”
Deland learned through the neighbours that the only strength of our school was the bread and biscuits. It was not strong in academics. So, he sent us to a primary school called Le Progrès, also run by the Salesian Brothers, in a neighbourhood called Site Limyè in the centre of Site Solèy. There, they gave us bread along with a little carton of milk. The school only operated during the dry season, better understood as the dusty season. During the rainy season, there was so much mud in the area that the school had a difficult time operating. So it closed its doors until the worst of the muddy season had passed.
In Le Progrès, we made lots of new friends. I was lucky to make a friend named Molière who was in my class and lived near the school. There were many days when the Brothers did not hand out milk and bread and I had not eaten at home. But, before going to school, Molière used to prepare a pot of kongo or black beans and leave them on the rechau, a little oven that the local men made out of sheet metal. When recess came, he invited me to his home for a plate of rice and beans. I asked him wherever he found the money to cook beans each day. In my own household there was seldom a meal in the morning. He told me that his mother was a street merchant who sold agricultural products. She left him the beans every morning.
Deland was now using his own sewing machine to support his family. He decided to buy his own house instead of renting. He found a place in even worse condition than the one we rented, but which he could afford. He paid in instalments. He did his best to make the new place habitable, but there was only so much he could do.
Deland was trying to build a life for us in Site Solèy, but we seemed to be going backwards. The new place did not have enough space for his sewing machine. The only logical place for him to locate his business was on top of the ditch where the human waste flowed. It was about thirty metres in front of our new home. At the time, the road that led to downtown Port-au-Prince passed next to that spot. Deland wanted to attract as many potential customers as possible. So he laid plywood across the ditch and built a little shop with corrugated iron. On a board, he wrote the name of his business and affixed it to the new structure: “Bethesda Shop Deland.”
When my father began to build on top of the ditch, the neighbours and passersby thought he was crazy. But he continued. Finally, clients began to visit his new shop. Why? Because it turned out to be the best location. So what if human waste flowed underneath the shop? That was just a part of our neighbourhood. Inside the shop, clients did not think of its location. Not only did people reconsider their criticism of Deland, but many started to follow his example and build their homes and little businesses on top of the ditch.
Among them was a man from Cap Haitien and his family. He built a room of corrugated iron on top of the ditch not far from the Bethesda Shop. Olvè had no money, even to feed his family, but he wanted to start some small business. A friend lent him a little money to buy some oil, a sack of rice, one container of butter, another of tomato paste, and some beans. He divided his produce to sell to the poor who could afford only a small quantity at a time. He set up a table between the ditch and the road. Like Deland, he was visible and people took advantage of the convenience.
Everyone knew that Olvè was a Vodouist. One day, he decided to put the extreme poverty of his life behind him. “Better that I die than continue in this state,” he said.
He went to an houngan who was known to be very powerful. Olvè wanted a “point.” A point is a contract with the devil. One can enter such a contract, but with conditions attached. The devil can make someone enormously rich, but in return for years of life. The benefits that might come from such a contract — money, fame, youth, power, talent, protection — are unimportant in themselves. The devil uses human needs to trap his prey. The conditions are also diverse. You may have to sacrifice a member of your family, for instance. People always think that the devil is stupid, that he’ll take the black sheep of the family, whereas he can take your fondest and closest member. He can take an eye, a leg, or an arm in payment. These payments depend on how much you want and how badly you want it. People think that they can escape the contract. The devil knows better. As long as you live, you are in his service.
Some people make contracts to travel abroad. Each year, the person must return for a big Vodouist ceremony. Or burn a portion of his money in an intersection. When the contract includes the loss of an arm or a leg, it is not simply a matter of the houngan taking out a machete and lopping it off. Instead, you may be climbing onto a bus when it is hit by a truck. The other passengers might escape without injury, but you will be gravely injured and lose your leg.
For Olvè, less than a month after his contract, all of the neighbours were amazed at his success. No longer was he selling little packages of provisions. Now, he was receiving truckloads of rice, oil, beans, tomato paste, and butter. Everyone knew that he had taken a point. Olvè bought up the little houses that people had built on top of the ditch after my father had broken ground. He used these little houses as storage units. He announced that he didn’t need to hire security guards. He said that anyone who tried to steal from his storage units would be sorry. Everyone knew what that meant. His contract came complete with protection. Moreover, no one would accept any gift from Olvè, fearing that they might unwittingly be including themselves in the contract. People feared Olvè, but they did not respect him.
Olvè’s family changed their appearance, like snakes shed their skin.
After three years, Olvè was dead. His business disappeared overnight. His wife confirmed to us that he had entered into a contract with a lwa. She was frightened. She and the children fled to Cap Haitien. We in the neighbourhood never knew their ultimate fate. Since they were accomplices in the contract, we knew that they were marked.
Meanwhile, the Bethesda Shop flourished. The local Catholic school required that children wear uniforms. At the beginning of the school year, Deland was inundated with orders from parents to prepare their children. So much work came in that he needed to hire some apprentice tailors to help him.
With his new success, he bought another sewing machine for my mother. She joined him in making the uniforms for the local girls. Together, they worked night and day. As the business grew, they were able to rebuild a proper shop with cinder blocks. Behind, he built a real toilet: a concrete floor with a hole that opened onto the ditch. People crouched just as they did outside, but the concrete walls offered privacy. It was the only actual toilet in the neighbourhood. Not only his family and clients, but our neighbours started to visit his shop when they felt the call of nature. With this new luxury, they increasingly rejected the open public toilet.
In the heat of Port-au-Prince, clients appreciate any business that can offer cool drinks. So, my father sectioned off a small area at the front of his shop with cinder blocks. He bought some soft drinks and then covered them with blocks of ice that he purchased each morning from the ice factory in Simon. He protected the ice from the heat by covering it with old nylon sugar sacks. There were more and more reasons for visiting the shop. The Bethesda Shop became a focal point in the neighbourhood.
The school uniforms were the basis of my parents’ business. However, those orders came just before the school year began and they swamped my parents with work. My father wanted to attract business during the rest of the year, when he and Cécile were not overworked. So, he stocked the shop with linens of bright colours. He hung in front of the shop examples of designs that he and Cécile had created. Dresses, skirts, and shirts gave his shop a lively and attractive allure. Everyone who passed stopped to admire the samples. Although they could seldom afford to buy a new article of clothing, they could dream. Before long, they would be saving their money in order to buy the item that they had seen everyday hanging in the front of the Bethesda Shop. At the time, Deland was the only tailor to promote his work in this way. Only street merchants of second-hand clothing displayed their work in the open, for lack of a shop. However, Deland had the distinction of both owning a shop and displaying his original work for passersby to see.
Over the Bethesda Shop, Deland built an awning to offer passersby a refuge from the pitiless sun. Underneath it, he built a bench. Many people stopped for a few minutes to rest before continuing on their way. The shade only added to the appreciation that the local people had for my father’s business. It also helped to increase the activity around the shop, which could only help in the long run.
Deland and Cécile slept in the home across from the shop with the youngest kids. My brother James and I slept in the shop, on top of piles of soft fabric, along with the apprentices who now worked with my parents. One evening, some people came by to try to set the wooden door of the shop on fire. That might have spread to consume the fabrics and clothing inside, not to mention my brother and me. My father’s success was provoking jealousy and resentment among some of our neighbours.
Sometimes, we awoke to find vèvè traced in the soil in front of the shop. A vèvè is a Vodou symbol that is used to communicate with the lwa. Each lwa has his own vèvè. They are used to call forth a lwa, but there can be a number of intentions. Sometimes, vèvè can be traced out of white flour. When people see a vèvè before their door, they might respond with fear. In that state, they are more vulnerable to falling victim to misfortune. They know that a spirit has been called forth to act upon them; that can’t be good news. But Deland simply swept the vèvè away and carried on with his life and his business.
Finally, Deland was able to rebuild the old shack where the family lived. He bought cinder blocks and constructed two rooms across from the business. That was now our family’s home in Simon, a section of Site Solèy.
Fortunately, Cécile was not materialistic. She was content with her two rooms and family. At the time, local produce was not expensive, and it was nutritious. Deland sometimes returned to Saut d’Eau to collect a part of the harvest that came from the land he still owned. He would return and stock our home with manioc, legumes, potatoes, corn, and other foods that had a reasonable shelf life. Moreover, it was what Cécile and the family were used to eating. During this period, when the Bethesda Shop was flourishing, my mother economized and we ate healthily.
Deland and Cécile were one in working for their family. Our home was separated from our next-door neighbours by a flimsy wall of corrugated iron. When our produce arrived from Saut d’Eau, Cécile used to share it with our neighbours. The two families often ate together. This worked as long as both families shared the same spirit as well as the actual things that passed between us.
Eventually, the administration of Site Solèy came by to mark all of the buildings built over the ditch for demolition. The Bethesda Shop was marked in red. We were told that city hall intended to enlarge the road. Those in the neighbourhood who were jealous of my father’s business were content. Some prepared to begin the destruction with the Bethesda Shop.
Some people were sanctioned by city hall to carry out the demolition. However, a number of others wanted to participate so that they might recover the iron bars and other materials from the wreckage.
One of our neighbours whose home was also marked for demolition was a policeman. He placed himself in front of his door with a gun, threatening the crowd, “The first person who advances on my house will be shot.”
The crowd backed up, deciding to leave the home of the policeman alone and to concentrate on the others. Makak sou konn sou ki bwa li fwote — a drunken monkey knows what tree he is rubbing against. Only the policeman’s home remained standing. In fact, it is standing today. He lives there still with his family.
No one was compensated for their loss. Everyone had to start over again. Construction began on the road six years later.
My father was discouraged and sad. He thought of all that he had invested in the Bethesda Shop. It was destroyed. He had little to show for all his sacrifices. He got sick.
He thought of returning to Saut d’Eau. But given the problems that had precipitated our family’s departure several years earlier, it seemed unfeasible. Moreover, my father had already sold his home there. But he decided to return to Saut d’Eau to work the land for a few months in order to return to Port-au-Prince with provisions.
Meanwhile, my mother took charge in Site Solèy. The house was still standing. She put her sewing machine in front of the house and continued to receive clients there. She managed to cope with the setback and to keep us all alive while Deland worked in Saut d’Eau.
Eventually, Deland returned with enough provisions to last several months. My parents decided that Cécile would continue to receive clients in our home while my father would go to work in a foreign assembly plant in the Industrial Park. He made fifty gourdes a day (about $3 US) if he succeeded in achieving the quota. Even if he made the quota, his pay was far from adequate to support his five children.
He intended to work for several months to earn enough money to rebuild his shop from scratch. Nothing had changed in the factories. He arose at five o’clock in the morning to walk a few kilometres to arrive at six o’clock. If he was fifteen minutes late, either his pay would be docked or he would simply be refused entry for the day.
In the factory, Deland was required to stand for the entire twelve-hour day cutting slacks out of the fabric. He was exhausted at the end of the day. When he returned home, he had to help my mother with her work.
After five months, he could no longer stand work in the factory. It was time to rent a room somewhere in the neighbourhood to rebuild his old business. He found a room for 5,000 gourdes (about $330 US) a year that was closer to the road than our house. Even with the money he had saved from the factory and that my mother had managed to put aside from her sewing work, he still needed to borrow from our neighbours to rent the room.
The new location was not as propitious for his business as had been the Bethesda Shop; it was not as visible. The same tactics that had worked so well to draw clients to Bethesda would not work in this new location. Even though the new room was not as lucrative as Bethesda, he made the same amount of money in one month that he had earned in five months in the factory.
After a year, my father decided not to renew his lease on the room. Next door to it was an old workshop that was in financial trouble. My father saw this as his opportunity and bought it. He transferred his sewing machine to get started even though the building was still arranged to make aluminium pots.
Over time, Deland was able to transform the old workshop into a tailoring business.
It was 1999 and Cécile was pregnant for the eighth time. As she was anemic and had developed varicose veins, the doctors had warned her not to give birth again. But it was too late.
One morning, my mother sat before her laundry tub washing our clothes.
She called me over to tell me that I had to finish it because the time had come for her to give birth. She packed her bags and left for the hospital. She never returned.
I was sad and cried a lot. I went to a friend of my mother with tears flowing down my cheeks. I had thought that she would be sympathetic. Instead, she was harsh. “What are you crying about?” she demanded in a severe tone. I didn’t know what to answer because I thought it was obvious. “Your mother is gone now. You are still here. You have to learn to live without her, so get busy!”
On our lakou in Saut d’Eau, there is a big fig tree. My family used to worship it because the lwa lived in it. A fig begins its life by climbing up another tree. It is dependent on that tree. It leans upon it. As time passes, it outgrows its host tree. It leaves it behind as it stands on its own.
Cécile left my father with seven children. He and my mother had been leaning on each other. Now, Deland had to stand on his own, like me.
Deland spent everything he had, and went into debt, to pay for Cécile’s funeral. When it was over, he decided that he could not manage the family without Cécile, so he had to find places for us. The fourth child, Roselèn, went to live with her uncle in Delmas 4. I would soon go to live with my father’s sister in Delmas 33. Only James and Christla remained with my father in Simon. He sent the three youngest to an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets.
Gloria was the second-youngest child, smart and pretty. In the orphanage, there were malefactors — people who delight in doing evil and seeing others suffer — who came sometimes to prey on the children. They gave Gloria a dreadful illness. She would be overcome by seizures and fall unconscious to the ground wherever she happened to be standing, sometimes several times a day. When the directors of the orphanage saw that she had changed, they called my father to take her back. Back in Simon, my father went to the hospital to see if doctors could help her. They couldn’t.
When she was thirteen, my father sent her to Saut d’Eau to spend her vacation with her aunt. They left Gloria alone in their tikounouk. She was overtaken by her sickness and fell on a fire. Although her hand was directly in the fire, she was unaware that it was burning. However, when she regained consciousness, she felt her flesh burning and called out. Some neighbours came in to see that her hand was already burning. They called my aunt who was still within earshot. She took Gloria to Saut d’Eau on the back of a donkey to look for medical help. The doctor couldn’t do anything but bandage her hand. My aunt brought Gloria back to Simon to try to find help. But it was too late. My father couldn’t afford the medical costs to save Gloria’s hand.
Gloria spent all of her life with her sickness and her deformity. Her seizures led to nasty falls. Her face, arms, and legs were constantly bruised and cut. She was only aware of the pain when she recovered consciousness. But my father felt every pain when Gloria fell. She was constantly in danger and always in need. She took up much of my father’s attention. He always hoped that she would recover and become healthy and normal. Deep down, I think he knew that she would never be well.
IN OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD, kids were expected to learn a trade even while they were still at school. There were lots of little businesses around us where the young could be taken on as apprentices: mechanics, furniture makers, ironworks, electronics stores, and, of course, tailor shops.
My parents had been arranging for James and me to learn trades even before my mother died. Our home had no furniture. And so, I thought it would be good for us if I could become a furniture maker.
One day, sitting in our barren room, I asked my mother which she would prefer, a china cabinet or an ofis, which was similar but does not have three doors in the upper section. I was dreaming, because I didn’t yet know the first thing about making furniture.
She replied, “My son, I will leave it up to you. You decide what would be better for us.”
I felt proud.