Last Friday Ydson and I traveled to Cap Haitian in the north to visit a special school, Footprints of the Son, for children with special needs.

Legally Ydson cannot travel without a letter from the hospital releasing him to travel with me to Cap Haitian for one day and a letter from a judge saying the hospital has the legal right to allow Ydson to visit another facility and that the hospital has appointed me to be the person who takes him. These are the “letters of transport” we needed, which sounds a little like what Peter Lorre was hiding in the film “Casablanca.”

Dr. Fredina, head physician at the hospital, was happy to write his letter–although it was not yet in my possession on Friday morning. But I don’t know a judge. I needed to call in a favor. One of my students is a former mayor of Anse-a-Galets and I asked if he knew a judge that could help me. All of the previous judges were fired after the horrible fiasco of the double murder in Ze Twa. The newest judge is not from La Gonave. But my student, former mayor Dahme, said, “I am still a big personality on La Gonave and I can help you.” And he did. He arranged a meeting between Ydson and the judge for last Thursday at 10:00, but I was to pick up the judge at the courthouse and bring him to the hospital. Dahme went with me.

The courthouse is an interesting mix of Greek temple and social services office. The building has a courthouse facade (it’s called the Tribunal) and a central courtyard. The clientele ranges from guys in suits on official business to the righteously indignant looking for their fair share of something. But the judge, the judge was a serious, thoughtful and ultimately a thorough individual. I doubt he wants to go down the way of the previous mishandlers of justice.

He made us wait almost an hour before seeing us. Then he called the hospital and spoke to several administrators. After that he was ready for his fact finding visit to the hospital. Accompanying the judge was his entourage which included a secretary, a couple of under secretaries, security personnel and a watch dog with UNICEF’s child protection program. How he got in the picture I don’t know, but the hospital was astir with excitement when we arrived.

And now the entire group – the judge, the secretary, the undersecretaries, the security squad, the watchdog – was followed by the hospital administrator, most of the nurses, all of the cleaning ladies, every parent whose kid was on Ydson’s wing and any patient who could walk. Everyone wanted in on the event; all claimed to know intimate details of Ydson’s past. (Li we; li pa we; he sees; he doesn’t see; his mother was 13; no she was 15.) The judge paid no attention whatsoever to the crowd, made his investigation, dictated the letter to the secretary, took a picture with Ydson (now a rock star) and explained that the letter would be ready the next day ( the day we were to leave) at 10:00. Given the speed at which anything is done in Haiti, that was cutting it a little close.

The next day at 10 I showed up at the courthouse foolishly expecting to be handed a typed official letter, signed and sealed. An undersecretary explained that the secretary was in a meeting. Wait 10 minutes. At 10:50 I said, and not really politely, that it was time to knock on the door and tell the secretary that I’m here for the letter now. The secretary came out and I knew immediately that the letter did not exist. He had the hand written copy but did not have time to type it and the court doesn’t have a printer. So we hopped in the truck and drove to a copy service shop where he dictated the letter to a guy with a laptop. Their printer had a hard time with the official paper on which it was to be printed but after several botched attempts we had a letter. Now it was noon and the letter still needed two signatures.

We drove to the hospital, got the administrator’s signature, found a hospital seal, sealed it, grabbed Ydson and his suitcase. Nurse Marcia got the letter from the doctor and Ydson’s chart; I picked up my bag; the nurse, the boy, the secretary and I piled into the truck. We slid into the Tribunal office as the plane was circling the air strip. The judge signed his name.


Ydson getting on board

And the trip? Ydson was a fearless flyer. The school and everyone connected to it was loving, intelligent and organized. If a foster family can be found that will love and care for him unconditionally, Ydson will be able to be part of their program. He’ll have play therapy, music, health care and friends. That’s the next piece. I’d like to be able to say in the very near future that the little boy who was near death and abandoned on December 25th, who fought back to life, can have just that–a life.

with love and affection from La Gonave–Nancy

Ydson likes the smooth hold.

On Christmas day a woman came to the hospital here on La Gonave and asked to speak to someone. While the receptionist left to look for the person, the woman left her son, a boy of 3 or 4 years, without a word or, as the Haitians say, even a suitcase. He was malnourished and covered in rashes.

Ydson has cerebral palsy. He is very small, maybe 15 pounds. He cannot see except for light and shadows. He does not hear. He cannot walk and his arms and hands often seize involuntarily.

Ydson is adorable. He has a little face and a soft head of curls. His gaze often follows the breeze when he is outside, and if he sits on your lap facing out he is relaxed and his hands unclench. His favorite activity is to go for stroller rides.
Ydson-the smooth hold
Ydson is cared for by the nurses of course, but also by other hospital staff and even some of the moms who are there with their own children. Everyone thinks she knows best. “He can see.”  “He can’t see.”  “He hears.”  “He can’t hear.”  ” He’s thirsty.”  “Don’t give him water.”  And the debate continues as well meaning folks clap their hands in his face or snap their fingers in his ears.

One day I was walking with Ydson in the hospital’s breezy hallway. Some nurses and some curious visitors came to look at the little boy ki pa gen moun (who has nobody). I was holding him in my arms and he was stretched out across the front of me, his little head peering out from my shoulder. People were doing the usual yelling to make him hear and shaking him to make him react; he was neither hearing nor reacting but that didn’t seem to daunt anyone. Fre Michelet, a hospital administrator and one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, came over and said, as he gently rubbed Ydson’s head and shooed the curious away, “Ydson likes the smooth hold.” And sure enough, the muscles in Ydson’s arms and legs relaxed and he released his grip on himself as Fre Michelet continued to speak softly to the little boy.

Haitian mothers are capable of some tough love and for very good reasons. I’ve seen them take a switch to a child’s legs for running in the road, but that’s because children get run over by reckless moto drivers. I’ve seen them hold their kids mouths open and stuff them like a foie gras ( I’ve even seen nurses do this to Ydson) but that’s because many people go long periods of time, days, between meals and you’ve got to eat it while it’s there. When you grow up in Haiti a daily scrub in cold water with harsh soap, a dig through the trash for something with which to make a toy and complete unsupervised play are your daily life. The strong and the quick survive. But Ydson is neither strong nor quick and it is nothing short of a miracle that he has survived for as long as he has. It is perhaps a testament to what his mother could do for him; even her decision to leave him at the hospital may have been made in the hope that others could help him in ways she could not.

Lately Ydson has been able to have an occasional furlough from his hospital home. He can come to the mission compound where he is greeted warmly by staff and visitors. A physical therapist worked with him yesterday to relieve some of the spasticity in his arms and legs. He’s had a couple of field trips to my chicken coop and back porch where, after lunch and a warm bath, he’s been able to sit and feel the leafy breeze. It’s a kind of smooth hold from the universe.

It is difficult to imagine what the future holds for Ydson and other children like him. There aren’t enough places for the more than 300,000 orphans in Haiti now, let alone places for ones with special needs. For the present, Ydson’s life has inspired both curiosity and great compassion from people who otherwise have never seen a child with such great need. He reminds me everyday that the smooth hold is exactly what all of us crave and shouldn’t be stingy in giving.

Pase bon joune my friends. I’m sending out a smooth hold. Pass it on. Love to all–Nancy

The picture above is of Ydson on his outing to the eye clinic.  We’d gladly like any leads you might have on a way to find Ydson a great facility that would love and care for him and bring him to whatever potential he has for whatever his life may be.



The wedding was scheduled for 3 p.m. At 10 past 3 the bridal party left the home where they were dressing here at the mission. My friends and I headed for the church. At 3:20 we arrived at the same time as the wedding party. The church was empty. We found great seats about half way back — not too close to be in the way of family, not so far back we’d miss the action. At 4:30 the wedding began. Right on time for Haiti.

By 5 Joel and his bride Madenise were still a long way from taking their vows. The ceremony began with an MC welcoming us to the wedding. Then he introduced the first couple in the bridal party. They are called the prince and princess and they proceed slowly down the aisle in a series of romantic dance steps that suggest something between reverent love and club moves. Several other couples follow suit in a choreographed pageant topped not by the bride and groom, but by the little flower girl and her escort dressed as a pint sized happy couple ( all the girls in the wedding party wear actual wedding dresses) that could almost stand atop a wedding cake. The little bride at Joel’s wedding was two and a half year old Maria, daughter of the mission secretary.

Finally Joel and Madenise made their appearance together. They walked hand in hand and about halfway down the aisle they stopped. She knelt down, took the mic and sang a little love song to her groom. Very touching.Time check. We’ve been in the church two and a half hours now and no one is even close to married. My nephew Nicholas (who was visiting me that week) has taken a break outside and the guy in front of me sent a kid down the street for cokes.JoelMadenise

Next up were the preachers–10 of them. The couple hails from two different churches so preachers from each one represented. The MC introduced each with a bit of fanfare. Between each message, or “meditation, ” there was entertainment from the two choirs and a young La Gonave pop singer who seemed to enjoy a celebrity status. People were standing, cheering, clapping–it was beginning to feel like an episode of Showtime at the Apollo without the hook.

At long last the vows began. Nicholas returned from his break fraternizing with the locals and people began crowding to the front of the church to get a good view. After their vows, Joel and Madenise exchanged rings and then the groom unveiled the bride. This was a big moment played to a hushed crowd. After a beat the preacher nudged Joel to kiss the bride. He did. The crowd went wild. And as they started back up the aisle the couple was mobbed by family and friends hugging and congratulating them. Time check. 6:30 p.m.

As we made our way towards Joel and his bride a slender old man in a shark skin suit stopped us and introduced himself as Joel’s father. He was overflowing with joy for his son and wanted to thank us for coming to the wedding. He embraced us warmly and introduced us to the rest of Joel’s family. Finally we saw Joel. He had tears in his eyes as he hugged each of us from the mission. It was a wedding that almost wasn’t and I don’t think I have ever seen a man so happy to be hitched.

Joel is a mild soul. He is the gardener here at the Wesleyan mission and a gentler man never put hand to earth. He arrives each morning at 7. He waters all the trees and plants. He cleans up the palm fronds and leaves that fall after wind or rain. He rakes grass clippings from several acres of property and tends our little garden of tropical trees, pumpkin, peppers, swiss chard and spinach. He and his old side kick Fre Merison run errands at the market in town for guests and other folks at the mission, and once a month he helps me clean the layer of dust from my louvered windows.

Joel (pronounced Jo-el) is uncomplicated and wise. He does not have much formal education, probably through eighth grade, but he is very knowledgable about what he does and he earns a steady regular pay check at a job many unemployed educated people wouldn’t do. One cloudy morning after a severe evening storm I asked Joel if he thought it would rain again. I was going up to the mountains and didn’t want to risk the trip in bad weather. He said, ” I know that it rained last night, but only God kows if it will rain today.” That is the way Joel regularly schools me about living in the moment.

Last spring he was helping care for my chickens when the horrible chicken disease hit and several of them, including the fabled rooster Guiness, died. We looked for a cause; we scoured the hen house with bleach; we buried the dead. It was a dark time and during those days Joel confided in me that his plans to get married seemed put on hold. Maybe he didn’t feel he had enough money or maybe Madenise was having second thoughts. But he was quite down and he asked me to pray for him and for his marriage. However, in September all was on again and in October he proudly handed me the invitation to his December 6th nuptials. His wedding present? A rooster and two hens.

May they all live happily ever after.JoelWedding

And the same to all of you. Avek anpil afeksyon–Nancy

Pictures are of Joel and Madenise and little Maria and her escort. I couldn’t get his photo because when I stood in front of him with the camera he took one look at my white face and cried!

…or how I spend my weekends.

Saturdays begin as every other day does: with the chickens. Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. One-eyed Willy, my rooster, begins to crow and I’m relieved that the long and sleepless night is finally coming to an end. As soon as it is light I bring a large pitcher of water out to their little pen, fill their water trough and give them a big cup of their feed. If I’m running late, I hear about it. Recently one hen disappeared for a while and returned with about 10 baby chicks. That little wench, I thought, right under my nose! Those guys hop all over my feet until they’re fed. After they’ve eaten they take off to free range around the compound. At dusk they all return to their pen to roost as, apparently, chickens always come home to do.
At 8 I start my trek out to the Children’s Village where I give English classes to about 35 children. At 9 I teach the 10-11 year olds, at 9:30 the 12-13 year olds and at 10 the teens. It’s a lively two hours to be sure, but the adventure really begins on the mile and a half walk there. I pass through lots of neighborhoods in Anse-a-Galets hitting the countryside quiet of Baie Tortue–Turtle Bay–where the orphanage of Les Enfants des Jesu has a beautiful village for 80 children. Normally a white person walking around is subject to shouts of “blanc, blanc” which means “whitey.” It’s annoying but I turn a deaf ear. Sometimes kids ask for a dollar, which I never have. I’m sure by now they think I’m the poorest white person ever and they may soon have a fund raiser for me. But since I have been going out there each Saturday since last February, people are used to seeing me. Now I sometimes hear “bon jou” which is nice, or nothing, which is nicer. Once or twice I’ve heard people call me “Ayisyen” which means Haitian. That’s either a joke or a compliment. Lots of kids in town know me as “teacher Nancy” and will say hello and walk with me a bit. You get some street credibility if you are seen having a lengthy conversation with a Haitian, especially if some of it is in Creole, so I’m always grateful to run in to people I know.10620523_745768808834814_6785362340253732994_n-1
When I finish the lessons I pack up the chalk, paper, colored pencils and flashcards in my back pack and prepare to walk home. However, the 3, 4, 5 and now 6 year olds have decided they want a lesson too. The self-named “Katriyem Gwoup” (Fourth Group) is the most eager of all. By the time my back pack is zipped, 15 or 20 little peanuts are sitting at attention on the benches ready for the song or game they’ve been hearing to commence. Last Saturday they were so excited to have repeated every word of Dr. Seuss’ The Foot Book that one little girl, in a fever pitch of enthusiasm, fell off her bench. Another little one got up at the same time and accidentally stepped on her. A third one fell over both of them.The thrill of “Left foot left foot, right foot right/ Feet in the day, feet in the night” ended in tears. I felt kind of  down about that until one little guy, Darlensky, came up to me, stuck his hand out and gave me a firm hand shake as he said, “samdi pwochen”–next Saturday. Yes indeed Darlensky. Looking forward to it.
Saturday afternoons are reserved for cleaning and laundry and Saturday nights are usually quiet. But last week I was thinking it would be nice to get in the Christmas groove and watch White Christmas, which I have on DVD. I hung a sheet on my back porch and invited my missionary neighbors over to watch Bing Crosby dance in drag with Danny Kaye on the “big screen.” I was surprised to find out how many others love this movie. During the final scene we all threw inhibition to the wind and joined in the chorus with Bing, Danny, Vera and Rosemary–a perfect song for a 90 degree haitian night.
Sunday mornings mean one thing for the people of La Gonave: church. Everyone goes and everyone is dressed up for it. Little boys are in suits with jackets or vests, girls in frilly dresses with lacy socks. Men and women are in their best pressed outfits. Singing is heard from every church and every other building is a church. Most services begin at 6 or 7 and last 2 to 3 hours. It’s a full morning. Haitians, employed or not, consider Sunday a true day of rest and after church the day is spent with family. In fact Sunday is often referred to as “fet”–holiday. Here at the mission when we have visiting medical or construction teams we spend Sunday afternoons at sea. By that I mean we take an old sailboat, The Wesleyana , out to the coral reef and swim or snorkel. I like to simply float in the buoyant brine and drift with the tide until Ti Met, the boat captain, says “n’ap soti”–we’re leaving. I know many of you think life is tough in Haiti. The roads are impassable; water and electricity are unreliable; typhoid, cholera and dengue fever are a constant threat. That’s all true. But true also is the tranquil sea and the mild sky of a brilliant haitian blue.1506926_741574202587608_4065601720634032002_n
Pase bon semen–have a good week and a better weekend. With love, Nancy
P.S. Last weekend I went to a wedding! Pictures and story to follow. These pictures are of Katriyem Gwoup, Ti Met at sea and on The Wesleyana with Decaid medical team.

Edison Filias is 11. He and four of his siblings go to school in Bwa Chandel, the remote mountain community in which they live. Edison and most of the other boys his age are full of energy and mischief, more eager to play football than study on any given day. Last week some visitors from Indiana came with me to see the reality that is Bwa Chandel. The dental hygienist on the team gave a lesson in proper teeth cleaning and gave each child an exam, noting who might need to see a dentist the next time there is a clinic in Anse-a-Galets. Ten children were identified as needing extractions, a few with serious abscesses or infection. Edison needed four extractions.

Edison reminds me of my son Paul at that age. He is slender and not as tall as the others. He has a most winning smile when he lets you see it, and, although one of the smallest in stature of his age, one of the biggest in heart. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in spirit.

This past Saturday there was a dental team here from North Carolina. With money that was donated by the previous visitors, we arranged for some of the children to come into Anse-a-Galets by motor taxi to see the dentist. Four of the Filias kids, all on the same motorcycle, were among them. The clinic opened at one. The kids were here by 12. They were dressed in their best clothes. The youngest little girl had on a blue and white checked sparkly dress that had once been some american girl’s Dorothy halloween costume. She looked absolutely adorable in it with matching white bows in her hair and white lace socks.
After almost two hours of waiting, the children were taken into the clinic. One by one they had their teeth cleaned or pulled and were given a goody bag with a new toothbrush, toothpaste, stickers and some other surprise. Little “Dorothy” was so excited, I think she would have endured anything to have that loot.

But Edison’s situation was complicated. One tooth was abscessed and as a result, it did not numb well. Despite several attempts, the tooth would not budge. Part of it broke and Edison was in a lot of pain. Although he didn’t want to, he couldn’t help but cry. The hygienist was very sympathetic and when she hugged him he broke down and sobbed. But the infected tooth cannot remain, so the dentist gave him antibiotics and pain medication and explained that he should come back on Wednesday to have it out. I went over the instructions with the school director. We stuck exhausted little Edison on the motorcycle between two bigger kids and off they went to the mountains; they very likely arrived home two hours later, well after dark.

Yesterday I went to Bwa Chandel to visit the building site and to see how Edison was feeling and talk with his mother. I wanted her to know that she can come with him and that he will be well taken care of. He wasn’t in school because his face was still swollen. I asked if I could go to his house. The school director said yes and had his youngest sister walk me there. I asked if it was far. “No, not far.” Where have I heard that before? When will I learn what “not far” means in Haiti? Off we went along a narrow trail behind the school. It wound through a scrub brush field, then up a hill. The hill became very steep as the trail took us along a ridge high above the sea. That led to the edge of a ravine which we descended via a deep and narrow stream bed. The little Filias girl was hopping from rock to rock like a happy mountain goat. Occasionally she would stop and check on how sweat soaked whitey was keeping up. We crossed the ravine, walked along another ridge line and into a clearing where finally we saw his house where he lives with five brothers and sisters, his mom and his godmother. I half expected Edison’s mother to be furious at me for putting her son through this trial, without her consent no less. I was prepared to dodge rocks, but in fact she was a lovely and gracious person. Edison was outside and feeling better and even smiled a bit. I told his mother that she was welcome to come down the mountain with him but she decided to send his oldest brother. Arrangements for their ride were made and off I went, hiking out by a different route, equally steep with an equally beautiful view of the sea.

Early this morning Edison rose and dressed in a clean and pressed white long-sleeved shirt, pressed brown slacks and his best shoes. ( There is no electricity or running water in Bwa Chandel. His mother cleaned his clothes in rain water and hung them in the trees to dry. Then she used a heavy iron filled with hot coals to press the neat sharp creases in his pants and shirt.) He and his brother hiked a mile almost straight up the mountain to the place where they met their ride. They arrived at 9:00. At 9:30, after receiving hugs from all the hygienists and dental assistants, Edison was given a mild sedative and now, at 10, he is relaxed and ready.

Many of us consider the dentist somewhat of an ordeal. We have to call for an appointment, drive to the office, wait a few minutes for the doctor or hygienist to come in. The next time I drive the 10 minutes to my dentist’s office, wearing shorts, a tee shirt and flip flops, I’ll think of brave little Edison and his trips down the mountain. I’m on my way to the clinic now to see how he’s doing. Keep him in mind today, won’t you?Edison

Mesi tout moun e pase bon joune—-Nancy

The pictures are of Edison at home yesterday and “little Dorothy” Saturday at the dental clinic.


I once read this description of a virus: a piece of bad news wrapped in protein. For most of the people here on La Gonave the chikungunya virus was bad news indeed. The first cases of it locally began appearing in mid May. Within a week the hospital was turning away people as there were no beds or spaces left to put patients. The first symptoms are fever and intense joint, muscle and bone pain. That’s followed by a rash and then weeks or months of crippling joint aches. In fact the word chikungunya is Swahili for crippled or contorted, which is how people feel in its rheumatoid phase.

My first symptoms appeared in June, two days after I returned to the states for the summer. Fever, aches and a few days later a head to toe rash. After 10 days I began to feel much better and considered myself on the mend. But then the Doom set in. My neck hurt so much I could look neither left nor right; the joints in my fingers were swollen and painful and I dreaded even a handshake. What’s worse–I couldn’t pour my morning coffee! The doctor recommended 500 mg. of aspirin every 6 hours because other medicines had no effect. But the aspirin only came in child proof cap bottles. After a full hour of trying to press and turn with no strength in my hands, I finally found online the method for disabling the childproof mechanism in the cap. Really I was near tears. After two months, visits to the acupuncturist, lots of anti-inflammatory foods and encouragement from the infectious disease specialist, I began to notice that the pain was easing up and I could stand, walk and move my hands with greater mobility. My students, all of whom suffered with the virus last June, found it hard to believe I was so smitten with it, but when I imitated how I walked when at my worst they all laughed and said that was exactly how it was for them and many admitted that they still have pain in one joint or another. You can still spot people here and there with the distinctive walk of someone with “chikungunya feet.”

The disease is spread via mosquito and when the heavy rains started in late spring the mosquito population surged thus making La Gonave an island petri dish. The deep ravines in the roads just filled with water where the little buggers could breed. Contrary to what many people think from the sound of the name, chikungunya is not spread by chickens. In fact my chickens are doing very well, thank you One-Eyed Willy. Willy is finally getting his game on with the ladies and they are content enough to lay a few eggs. In fact, my girls are so healthy they have attracted two interloper roosters. Willy chases them out but they always come sniffing back around. In the morning when they try to steal food I throw rocks at them. They run away when they see me, but again they return if I am away. They remind me of Butch and Woyne from The Little Rascals: two bullies who are sneaky cowards at heart. One day my rock throwing will yield a coq au vin.

The Orphans of Mare Sucren….

live in house on a hilly road in a village above Anse-a-Galets about halfway up to the highest point on the island. You can rightly assume that the road there is long and rugged. A young woman named Madam Wanna cares for 22 orphans who have nowhere else to go. She gets by on her little garden, donations from small organizations who happen to pass by and a good deal of prayer. Orphaned herself as a young girl and knowing full well what it means to go from one lonely household to another, she has dedicated herself to caring for other orphaned and abandoned children in her mountain community. I went there last Thursday with three people who were going to help fix her water catchment system that another kind soul had rigged for her a while ago. The PVC pipe was not at the low end of the house where it could catch the most rain for the basin, so we moved it to where it would do the most good. For me it started out as a day to visit another part of La Gonave and a chance to learn first hand how our system in Bwa Chandel will work once the school roof is finished. But those kids had another plan. Any moment I wasn’t holding up pipe or handing off tools I was providing “horsey” rides on my knees, singing songs, taking photos or wiping noses and bottoms. The youngest there is two months old. For reasons unknown to me the mother left him at Madam Wanna’s doorstep when she found she couldn’t care for baby number five. The poor little fellow had chronic diarrhea because there was no proper milk or formula for him, only unboiled water. But the rest of the kids were, for the most part, full of energy and mischief –mugging for the camera and making up games with the leftover PVC scraps. Although it was a good day in many ways, Madam Wanna, who was tremendously gracious, had wave of sorrow wash over her as she talked about the school situation for the kids. Of the nineteen who are school age, she has money for only five of them to attend. For the others she does her best by reading them stories from donated books and teaching them to count. What could we say to her except to have courage, which has in fact gotten her quite far. At the end of the day the water system was fixed, the kids had a meal, we sent up some baby formula and there was a lot of fun and diversion all around. And for Madam Wanna’s children, while there may be no immediate relief from the “poverty of bread,”  there is hope because there is absolutely no shortage of love.

Pretty Haitian for a White…

was what I actually overheard two women say on Saturday. I went to the western most point of La Gonave to a fishing village called Pointe Latanier. Although it is only about 25 miles from Anse-a-Galets, it took four and a half hours by truck. Again, am I ever going to visit a place that’s easy to get to? The road follows the coast so it’s fairly flat, but it was so full of washed out ravine-like holes oozing with thick black mud from the previous night’s storm I thought we’d be swallowed whole. We arrived in the salt flats of Latanier at about one in the afternoon with school books for 25 children who are sponsored by a Haitian community action program. Much of the town was a river of sea water and trash from recent flooding but that didn’t stop the people from turning out. Visitors are rare in Latanier. The kids, and there were hundreds of them, were clinging to us as we climbed out of the truck. Only 25 were sponsored but they all wanted a little attention. I thought I’d teach s few of the girls Miss Mary Mack. Then they taught me a couple of their hand games that made Miss Mary Mack look like the foolish white girl she is. Their songs were full of rhythm and jive, and when I was finally able to pick it up and finish a whole song- complete with dance moves- there was screaming and laughter and hi fives all around. After the children received their books they were each given a bag of rice, beans and cooking oil to bring home to their families. The bulk food had to be divided into 25 parcels. I asked if I could help and the two women doing it said yes, I could divide the beans. But there weren’t 25 small plastic bags, so one woman showed me how to make 6 or 8 bags out of one. Degaje. While working away I heard one woman say to the other “li se pi Ayatian pou blanc”  which roughly means “she’s pretty Haitian for a white girl.” I started laughing and they realized I understood them. I said “thank you” and then they laughed. One started comparing her dark skin to mine as if to show me what she meant. I said “Oh, I thought it was because I was doing such a good job with the beans, but thanks anyway.”

A Murder in Three Eggs…

happened last Friday. Ze Twa (Three Eggs) is the next town west of Anse-a-Galets on La Gonave. Crime of this magnitude is rare on La Gonave. Nonetheless, it happened and proved the maxim: no one can hate you like someone who loves you. Apparently a woman from Ze Twa took a lover, a new partner, after her husband went to the U.S. and disappeared for a while. The abandonment of one partner, usually the husband, by another is not rare in this kind of poverty. But to the woman’s surprise, the husband returned and so she resumed her marriage. This so enraged her new partner that, machete in hand, he set out to kill the husband. But he was nowhere to be found. Some said he left for the states again. Rather than let his rage go unfulfilled, the partner took it out on his lover and, and this is true, beheaded her with the machete. The people in Ze Twa called the police in Anse-a-Galets. There were two cops on duty (for the entire island) this weekend. They picked him up and brought him to a cell in their station here in town. I heard rumors all Friday night that he’d be dead by morning. But in the morning he was still in jail while crowds gathered in the square. They grew in numbers and in passion. The two cops called for help from Port-au-Prince. Before help arrived, the angry mob, a mob with a learned distrust of the judicial system, stormed the station and the cops fled. The crowd tore down the cell wall and beat the man unconscious. They dragged him to the square and threw him onto two old tires soaked in gasoline. Then they burned him. When help from the capitol finally arrived by boat it was too late to do anything but disperse the mob with gun shots and tear gas. After that, a deep silence. It was not the kind of justice one would expect from a community so couched in christianity. All the Sunday psalm singing and hallelujahing held no sway with the mob. It was the ruthless justice born of darkness. And it’s a darkness born of the cruelest kind of poverty, the kind that’s created when one selfish government after another makes food, water, sanitation, health care and most important, education unattainable for all but its cronies. My heart breaks for the woman from Ze Twa who faced a final horror alone, for the husband who abandoned his family rather than face the shame of not providing, for the angry lover who also faced his final horror with no hope of reconciliation  and even for the police who perhaps now wrestle with their impotence and guilt. It’s been a week of light and dark.

100 Beats a Minute…

is the rate at which Wubens’ heart beats. Many of you know Wubens because you follow the work on the little school in Bwa Chandel. Wubens at five is one of the most faithful little students up there. He used to be frightened and shy around me when I’d visit  the school. Now he playfully runs out one door while I come in another only to stop and flash me a wide grin. Two weeks ago a group of nurses from Pennsylvania came with me to Bwa Chandel and did a health assessment on every child in school. Now there is chart for each one and that will be used each year to track growth and general health. The kids were unbelievably cooperative, the older ones quietly waiting for the nurses to finish with the younger grades before seeing them. I was sorting their charts by age and gender when I saw Wubens’. 100 beats a minute seemed to me the perfect number for that little guy who never misses school and always wears his favorite shirt. That same week a truck load of sand on its way to the building sight went down the mountainside. Miraculously no one was hurt and the driver offered to go again (for a bit more money but hey) as soon as his truck was repaired. Now we have sand, water, cement and lumber there and walls are going up. With a little luck, grace and generosity, Wubens will finish elementary school in a real classroom.  Yes it has been a week filled with some deeply disturbing events and realities, but my students, people like Madam Wanna and the little boy whose heart beats at 100 beats a minute are the lights by which I see in the dark.Wubenscheckup
This is Wubens’ smile while he gets his checkup in the school room. You can see the chalkboard in the background.

Enormous love to you all, Nancy

Lundi nwit

Dear friends and family–Today I went to the bank. And by today I mean for the whole day. There are two kinds of banks here on La Gonave. One, my favorite one, is the guy on the street corner who can change your U.S. dollars to Haitian gourdes and also top off your cell phone account. It is quite bearable. There is never a line; you don’t need your passport or any i.d. for that matter; you get the latest exchange rate and in two minutes you walk away in broad daylight stuffing your cash in your pocket with no fear.

The other bank, the actual bank, is unbearable. Unibank is a well known and reliable Haitian bank. They have a small branch on La Gonave. There are two tellers, a customer service desk and a couple of bank managers. There is air conditioning and a flat screen TV on the wall above the tellers’ heads. It is either broadcasting the news, a soccer match or, most frequently, pop music videos that feature large and voluptuous caribbean women lasciviously gyrating and scantily clad in Baby Gap clothes. There is no drive up window or ATM. They don’t offer on line banking.

There are three armed security guards at Unibank. Two carry AK 47s and one sports a billy club. (Most large hardware stores are similarly secured.) Arguments often break out in the long lines. The guards don’t interfere but keep a wary eye on the combatants, ready to step in if it comes to blows. But, if your cell phone rings and you answer it— one of them is right there with his hand on the trigger watching you shamefully shut it down and put it away. Unibank is probably the safest place in Haiti.

This morning I started out at 9 o’clock. My intention was to arrive after the 8:30 crush of people wanting to be first in line when the bank opens but early enough to avoid the mid day crowds. I walked in to see just a few people in each teller line and only four people ahead of me at the customer service desk. That doesn’t always mean you’ll be in and out quickly as each transaction at Unibank can be quite lengthy, but I thought I could be out in an hour– a short time for the unbearable bank.

Why did I let myself have such a hopeful thought? I sat down in the one remaining chair by the customer service desk. The first person was finishing up his business. The next young man’s transaction took 40 minutes. OK–two hours, I’ll be out in two hours. Still not bad. The next two people took 45 minutes. By now the teller lines were getting very long and people were jockeying for positions at the customer service desk since all the chairs were taken. I could feel people eyeing my spot, thinking that maybe whitey doesn’t realize she’s next. I struck up a conversation in creole with the girl next to me and took out my bank book, credit card and passport. Oh whitey knows she’s next, and she knows who the next four people are after that too.

Since there is no ATM, if I want to withdraw money from the U.S. account for the building fund I have to go to customer service. The transaction is done over the phone via Visa and the main Unibank office. I take the receipt I’m given and my passport to the teller line and wait for my turn to get the cash. Today I also had to exchange it for gourdes because I was using it to pay off the cement bill at the hardware store. I know the woman, Madame Wilnor, who was working at customer service. She looked like she was in pain when she moved. How is your family? Everyone OK? She shook her head. No, they have fever; I have it too. Chikungunya had come to the bank.

I concluded my business with her –4 minutes– and headed for the teller line. There were nine people ahead of me in the short line (at least 29 in the long line). Each teller transaction takes between 5 and 15 minutes and there’s lots of stamping and signing involved. I was going to be there a while and was beginning to worry I’d not be on time for my 3 o’clock class. Haitians don’t have the same sense of personal space Americans have, so there is absolutely no air between you and the person behind you as if that somehow makes the line move faster. Once a man pushed me forward when it was not my turn. I whipped around and said Ou pa beswen touché mwen so STEP OFF. Then I continued to keep him back with my intermittent x-ray stares.

Today, as people waited, many not feeling well, ugly things began to happen. People in the back of the line began giving people in the front of the line their transactions. Others began complaining. The grumbling became louder. A man in the long line handed a wad of cash, probably worth close to 10,000 U.S. dollars, to a man in front of me. He wanted him to have it counted and deposited. People started shouting and shaking their heads. The teller began to count it; the manager yelled at the customer; the customer yelled at the manager; the teller finished counting the money; everyone shrugged; there is no justice.

Finally it was my turn and as usual my business was concluded in under five minutes. I said my good byes to friends still inside, thanked the guards for not killing me and headed out to a bright sunshiny afternoon. I had one obstacle remaining: the old beggar woman who sits outside the bank. She sits on the steps most days, her frail bones folded beneath her dress, holding a long cane. I’ve never seen anyone give her money and as the money I withdraw is not my money, I never have coins for her either. One day she whacked me on the shin with her cane. An accident? It happened another time. Last week she grabbed a hold of my loose pants and nearly tugged them off. This time I brought some coins to ward off the attack, but she was not there. Fever?

I walked to the hardware store and paid my bill. The hours of the day invested in securing the cash slipped through my fingers in one moment. I thought about how I’ll never get them back. I thought about the Haitians who have to give up an entire day’s pay, precious little pay, just to go to the bank. I passed a young man in the street I’d seen in the bank. He’s a simple guy who sometimes does odd jobs at the hospital. Someone tried to take his place in the customer service line, but I spoke up and said that he was in fact next. He shook my hand and thanked me for advocating for him. I walked home; the sun was still shining and I don’t have fever. Perhaps the day was not a total loss.

Pase bon joune tout moun—Nancy

nankanDear friends and family– I thought that there was no place more remote on La Gonave than Bwa Chandel– a place accessible only by foot power or donkey, a place with no roads, stores, doctors, banks, goods or services. But Monday I visited Nan Kann and discovered that there is a place even less accessible.

Two of my students, brothers Genel and Bazelais, are from Nan Kann and have been asking me for a while to come and visit their home. As Mikenson–who has been everywhere on La Gonave except Nan Kann–was up for a trip, we decided to go Monday morning. Genel planned to meet us in a place called Plan Mapu so that we could follow him the rest of the way.

We wound our way out of Anse-a-Galets and up into the interior of La Gonave. The roads are rocky and rutted and, because of the recent heavy rains, alternately covered in debris or partially washed away. But in this direction they are not as steep as going to Bwa Chandel. Our quad was handling them well. About halfway to our destination we arrived in Plan Mapu, a fairly fertile plain in the central part of the island at the foot of the second tallest mountain on La Gonave, La Pye. The soil is a rich reddish brown; there appears to be water; mango trees are full of ripe fruit, and corn and beans are planted everywhere. Who would leave Plan Mapu?

Apparently the people of Nan Kann, after passing through Plan Mapu, thought oh, this is nice, but we long for something impossible to reach by vehicle and with no water or soil on which to grow crops.

We met Genel who was on his motorbike and followed him along an ever rising trail that led out of Plan Mapu and up La Pye. We finally had to park our vehicles at the base of a narrow trail that rose almost perpendicular to the ground and was covered in loose rock. Someday, I thought, someday I’d like to be invited to a place where there is a road.

We hiked up the steep trail, then along a plateau, then down another steep trail, then along a narrow ridge, then up and down several more steep hills until we came to the other side of La Gonave and looked straight down upon the southern shore of the island. We were in Nan Kann. The name means “in the cane” as in sugar cane, but no sugar cane grows there. Instead it is full of coconut palms that grow high above the sea, but this is Haiti so that actually makes sense to me.

Now the vista is both severe and breathtaking. Straight below is the white shoreline. The sea is bright blue and tranquil and from that elevation you have a splendid view of Haiti’s southern peninsula. But the houses in Nan Kann sit atop rock outcrops or are hanging on to hillsides. And in one narrow flat spot there is a little school next to a little church. It was full of children–four classes worth. They used the church for one grade and divided the school, built out of palm fronds, into three other rooms. Like Bwa Chandel, and indeed most schools in Haiti, there are no books, materials, chalk boards, paper, you name it.

Someone put a bench under a tree for us, and Mikenson and I talked with one of the teachers about getting Nan Kann involved in the Community Health program. Then I met most of the children who were adorable and shy. Although it defies logic, many people live, raise their children, go to church, survive and even thrive in Nan Kann.

About mid day it was time to leave. The community was very gracious and thanked us for the visit. I said I’d like to come back when I could spend more time. The sun now was very hot as we hiked up and down the steep trail out. Mikenson said he thought it was like being in the army on a forced march! We passed a young man cutting wood with his machete. He was very friendly and, seeing our sweat and effort as we walked, immediately cut down several coconuts and made a gash in each one. Inside was the coolest, most refreshing water I’ve ever tasted. I put my lips to that coconut and drank deep. I don’t even like coconut water, but this was something all together different and delicious.

That night when Genel and Bazelais came to class they brought me a bag with several fresh coconuts as a thank you for the visit. It was a generous gift from two kind and humble young men who travel two hours in each direction every Monday and Wednesday evening just to learn a bit of English. And that’s Haiti– you come here to be of service, to do what you think is good and useful work when in fact you are better served by the generosity, kindness and humility of the people here.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, one I plan to consider over a coconut cream pie.

Pase bon joune—Nancy

Chikungunya update: The relatively new mosquito borne virus has reached epidemic proportions in Haiti and now on La Gonave. The hospital has been turning people away for several days now as even the hallways are filled with fever patients–especially children. The fever and aches last 4 to 5 days and you have immunity once you get it, but as it is a new disease here, no one has any immunity to it now. While I have the benefit of screens on my windows and bug spray, most people here have neither, nor do they have access to fever reducer meds. I’m doing my best to avoid mosquito bites but it is the rainy season so that’s not easy. Hoping for the best, bracing for the worst.


“Ti moun yo” is how you say “children” in Creole. It literally translates as “little people” and nothing could be more true. Here on La Gonave the children have lives that include plenty of adult activities. One of the most common sights is that of very little children fetching water for the family from one of the public fountains. In the mountains young children travel miles alone with their donkeys to haul gallons of water. Very little ones, 4 and 5 years old, will carry home a gallon jug in each hand, and it could be a three or four block walk. Celine’s little boy, Keli, is a tiny 5 year old man. He sometimes likes to help me prepare for class by carrying my books or my white board. ( From the front all you see is a 2′ by 4′ board powered by two tiny shoes.) One morning he let me help him carry two huge containers of water home. I carried one; he insisted on carrying the other, but he had to stop regularly to hike up his pants that continually slipped from his narrow frame. He scuffed along in worn but too big flip flops while I held his free hand as we negotiated deep ruts and dangerously close motorcycles. He survives this everyday–without any help from me or anyone else. Most girls begin carrying 10 gallon pails of water on their heads by the time they are in elementary school, first by steadying them with one hand before they learn to walk tall and hands free with 30 pounds of water on their heads.


I have been cooking once a week for a young woman who sells crafts on market days here at the hospital guest house. I know her because her sixth baby was recently delivered by my friend, nurse Marie. Marie has since moved and Gildair seems lost without Marie’s kindness and generosity. I don’t have much extra cash to buy any of the things she makes but I usually have food and am happy to make a meal for her family .

The first time I visited them at their tiny home on the saline was a very hot day and I guess I looked a little sweaty. ( The saline is the poorest area on La Gonave. It’s called that because the mud and stick homes are very close to the sea, and the salty tide and its trash circles round the houses twice a day.) The baby and her five siblings were all sitting quietly at home. It’s a one room 8′ by 10′ house with a door and a window. There is a small kitchen yard where, when she has food and charcoal, she can prepare a meal. One bed, two small shelves and a wee table were the only furniture. There was nothing else in the house. When I arrived Gildair had all the kids get up so I could sit down on the bed with the baby. Then she had one of them find a piece of cardboard and use it to fan my neck. When it was time to leave she made the older daughters, ages 10 and 9, walk me part way home to get safely out of their rough neighborhood. They walked home alone.


And that situation is not unusual. A regularly absent father, a mother who scrapes together a little “kob” to pay school fees and buy some rice, and children who do all the rest, including caring for the younger siblings. At the little orphanage in Ter Rouge, the 3 and 4 year olds rock the infants to sleep.

It’s true that in American inner cities and poor communities children face rough lives. But in Haiti, with no free public education, no child protective services, no free or reduced lunch, no head start, no school social workers, no medicaid, WIC, or public health programs—–achieving adulthood is a bit chancy. This past month has seen its share of child and infant mortality. A few days ago a nine year old girl was hit by a speeding and careless motorcycle. She suffered severe head and chest injuries, a gash in her leg from top to bottom and lots of other lacerations. The doctors here gave her no chance of survival. When I saw her she was unconscious and struggling to breathe on oxygen. Her father sat next to her, head buried in his hands. She was eventually taken by motorboat to Port au Prince where she has not regained consciousness. Yesterday a mother died of a stroke after giving birth, leaving behind a parentless child. Today a premie twin began suffering from respiratory distress and there is no neonatal intensive care unit. She is not expected to live through the day.

And Haitian children are heartbreakingly adorable. If you’ve seen any pictures of little Wubens on Facebook you know what I mean. I wonder sometimes if they were made that way just so it can hurt more when they’re hurt. The ones that I know well are very affectionate and a source of a lot of joy.

On the home front here many of you have heard that Guinness the rooster died on Monday. He and several other of my chickens have succumbed to a poultry disease of unknown origin. It seems unrelated to the children, but I’m so sad about the chickens that I can’t help making the connection. The chickens are kind of my feathered family here. I see that they’re fed and watered and safe. They provide me with delicious eggs and –in a weird way–company. Their malady is a mystery to me and with no vet or chicken antibiotics the best I could do was disinfect their home and keep a watchful eye on the survivors. While there is absolutely no comparison between the loss of a chicken and the injury or death of a child, the situation is reminding me in a bold way how much the little ones here are at the mercy of the forces of nature and the larger world around them. The ones who make it? ….well that’s really saying something.

I’m off now to classes. I have my advanced students tonight and they are a grateful bunch. Yesterday afternoon my high school class got to Skype with a French Club in Kingston, NY. They were buzzing with excitement about the whole magical experience. In spite of life’s constant rough reminders of mortality, there’s much that is fun. It’s important to keep a watchful eye on that too.

I’m including a few pictures of ti moun yo that I know. Enjoy them. Have a good night. Avek anpil afeksyon—Nancy

The pix are of little boys in my class at the children’s village, baby Kristi (Gildair’s newest) and boys at a nearby water source who like to listen in on english class.


Good day everyone– Today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, but here in Haiti it is simply moving into summer. The days are getting hotter but not really longer.  People have finally gotten used to the time change, but not the other creatures. Sunday morning began with early Guinness. No, I wasn’t getting a jump on St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness the rooster started his crowing at 1:45–loud and strong. He begins with four flaps of his wings, just to get his oxygen going. That sounds like someone is stomping around in heavy boots. Then he lets go with a crow. Guinness is a Greek tragedy. He has a lot of children and they have children and they all live together. He is most possessive about his hens and rules with an iron fist. He once killed his own son for getting frisky with some of the sister wives. Sunday he began again, chasing and tormenting a young rooster who was eyeing the girls. 

That was it for Julian, my neighbor who actually owns Guinness. He snagged the young rooster, probably another son, and tied him by the legs. I mentioned that I hadn’t yet eaten any of our compound chickens (though their eggs are fabulous) and Julian asked if I wanted to cook son of Guinness. Yes I would and I’d love to learn how to kill and clean said son. With that Julian showed me how to hold the bird by the neck and wring it until it breaks. He (the bird) flopped around briefly before expiring. That worked so well we decided to kill an intruder hen who’d wandered in from somewhere else on the compound. Two twists of the neck and she was history. The next step was to bring them into the kitchen and chop off the heads. You have to be careful to chop below the craw where food is stored. After that we made a cut in the chest, just below the skin and carefully pulled off skin and feathers in one go. For these chickens, who have almost no fat, it’s the easiest way to remove the feathers. We removed the feet, wing tips and bottom end. The final step is to simply reach in and remove the innards. A little rinse and repeat with the other bird and we had two fresh chickens ready to prepare. I saved them for Tuesday when I browned them in olive oil, then slow roasted them with onions, whole cloves of garlic, potatoes, carrots, chicken stock and wine  Santi bon! It smelled good. Julian and family and I had a delicious lunch of the roasted chickens and homemade bread to sop up the sauce. 

But Sunday held even more than chicken chopping. After church, which is always a big event, there was time for a swim out by the coral reef. And after that— the grand opening of the new gas station on La Gonave: Chely-K Station Gaz. This was such a big event it was by invitation only!  For the past several weeks I have been seeing all the construction going on near the airstrip. I pass it on my way to the Children’s Village every Saturday morning. The building is an elegant two story deal with what looks like a restaurant upstairs and proper gas tanks in front. It was built by Mister Dor who owns the largest hardware store on the island. Sunday night was nearly a black tie affair. People were DRESSED– three piece suits on the gents, spike heals on the ladies. Julian, Marie and I, while we certainly looked clean, were decidedly informal. Who knew? The event began with a marching dixieland band. Then benedictions from several pastors, a speech of welcome and gratitude by Mr. Dor, a political speech about La Gonave being a free and independent country with the help of guys like Dor, singers and lots more dixieland music. What a night. 

So while the day began quite early, thank you Guinness, and ended quite late, thank you Mr. Dor, it was full in a good way. And it was on the bittersweet side too. My neighbors, Julian, Marie, Rebecca and Ella, are leaving La Gonave on Monday as their work here is finished. Julian was the project manager for the new hospital and Marie ran a women’s clinic. Their daughters were in my class last year and have been in and out of my house since September. It will be far too quiet and lonely with them gone. I plan to go into a deep depression followed by binge chocolate. And while Guinness may be loud and annoying, he might just be my only friend. 

I’ll be checking in again soon. Pase bon joune–Nancy