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.

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“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.

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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.

Bebe

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

 

BabyKristia

Holding baby Kristia, born Tuesday night. Her mama,”the sea shell lady” was selling crafts at the little market. Lucky me got to hold the baby while mom made a sale. Exquisite!

Bon swa — it’s the afternoon of a busy morning, one that began with a medical team performing surgery (chiriji) on a ninth month old girl who had a webbed hand. The fingers on her left had were fused together. She was with her family at the hospital several days ago because an older sister was sick . Someone on the medical team noticed that the baby had this hand abnormality. The doctors heading the team were Dr. Paul, a pediatrician, and Dr. Tim, a plastic surgeon. Good combination. 

 They scheduled the surgery for this morning and I asked if I could watch. The medical teams are always welcoming of observers and they often have med students with them. At 7:30 we headed over to the hospital. I was given a mask and a paper shower cap and was told I could stand anywhere. Nine month old Sachin was already in her little hospital gown that said “sleepy little tiger.” Mis Vero (nurse Veronic) was having no luck finding a vein for the IV. The pediatrician tried, no luck. The team’s pediatric nurse finally got the IV started after six more tries. After the needle was taped down, they needed to make a little arm board for her as there were none small enough. One of the nurses tore off a piece of cardboard from a box and, degaje, a splint was made. Little Sachin was crying, yes, but not kicking and wailing the way you’d think she would. Her tiny face and bright brown eyes searched the faces that were peering over her as if to say “are you all OK with this?”

After that she was taken into the OR and Mis Vero gave her an anesthetic via syringe up her nose. Sachin began kicking at this and a few of us held her and talked to her until she fell asleep. (my favorite part of the procedure) Then Dr. Tim injected lidocaine into her tiny hand. He took a slender scalpel and began gently cutting away at the webbing. There was quite a lot of blood, but the nurse continually swabbed the area with q-tips as he worked away at the hand. One of the pre-med students held the baby’s hand in the correct position. It was her first surgery. Pretty soon she began to sweat and sway, but Mis Vero got her a stool to sit on and she composed herself beautifully. The doctors joked that before long she’d be able to see a bloody surgery and go out after for a steak.

Once the webbing was cut away, Dr. Tim cauterized and stitched the wound between her fingers. It was amazing to see big hands perform such delicate sewing. And it was done. The medical team had one more surgery to perform before catching their boat at 10:30. These guys hit the ground running when they’re here and don’t stop until they’re on the plane going home. Last night they were called to the hospital when a woman in labor came in. She was hemorrhaging tremendously. The fetus was already dead. Med students and nurses began donating pints of blood. The woman’s blood pressure dropped to near 0/0. The Haitian doctors stepped away from the table unsure of what to do next. One of them called his brother-in-law who is an ob/gyn. He said to do a hysterectomy. With the assistance of the two American doctors (a pediatrician and a plastic surgeon remember) and the donated blood, miraculously, the mother was saved. I saw her this morning and she looked in good health as her family surrounded her in support.

Little Sachin’s surgery was nothing so dramatic or life saving, but it was life altering. Without the surgery she could not use her left hand. There are no modifications in schools for children with disabilities. And in Haiti there is little tolerance among children or adults for those who are disfigured. People with obvious differences are often ridiculed or ignored. This was simply a case of the right people, in the right place, at the right time performing a small surgery that will have a big impact on Sachin’s future. Glad I was able to see it.

A little foot note to the story is that Sachin’s big sister Aslande is now enrolled in my high school English class. I’ll be able to keep up with her recovery over the next few weeks. Her parents have invited me to visit them at their house. I actually saw them all walking home from the hospital this afternoon. Sachin was resting on her mother’s shoulder, her bandaged had tucked under her chin. I think she’ll sleep well tonight. You too–pase bon nwi. —–Nancy

Haiti does not have a lot of things, but it has no shortage of rats. Before Christmas I had seen a small one, it looked like a mouse really, scurry out from under my fridge and out the back door early one morning. I tried to tell myself that it probably was a mouse and that it was an isolated event. I knew I was lying. The rats here run throughout the trees like squirrels and jump onto the roof. From there they make their way into the attic crawl space to nest and play. Occasionally one will find its way further afield. 

After Christmas the little creature became bolder. It began making more frequent appearances. I saw droppings on my counters. A bit of one of my dish towels was gnawed away. My pizza pan was shat upon. Of course you know, this means war.

I asked my neighbor Julian if he might  have a rat rap. No he didn’t but he did have some good rat poison. As he and his wife had been recently kept awake by noises in the attic, he thought he’d use some too. I put a small block behind my fridge and Julian put one chunk in the crawl space and one on the back porch behind some batteries. About an hour later I peeked behind the refrigerator, curious to see if there had been a nibble at the bait. I didn’t see the bait. Had I not put it behind the fridge? Had I accidentally knocked it under the fridge? Had someone come in my house and moved it? There was absolutely no evidence of the rat bait. It didn’t seem possible that the little creature could either devour it himself or carry it off in any way. Was there an accomplice? A rat army I hadn’t seen?

That night was quiet and I saw no evidence of mouse or rat the next morning, but the following night there was a ruckus in the attic as if four or five boys were playing rugby. They were running the whole length of the attic at a furious speed with intermittent moments of rough and tumble sounds. Julian and I discussed it the next day and decided more bait should be tried before moving on to bigger things.

Monday night I again put a square of the green poison behind the fridge, making certain of its exact position. I walked into my bedroom to get my computer. I thought I’d watch a movie before bed. I came back in the kitchen and did a sneak peek at the bait. Maybe I thought I’d see the little varmint eating his last meal. The bait was gone. I was gob stopped–almost scared at what could steal this. Not the little mouse sized rat I’d seen. I watched the movie with an eye to the far wall and slept with an ear to the ceiling.

About mid morning the next day I saw the little rat sitting in front of the refrigerator. He wasn’t moving but when I approached him he ran behind the waste basket. I called Julian. We had one cornered. His long tail was facing us and as he stood so still it almost seemed as if we could grab him by it.  What to use? A salad tong? We decided on a big oven mitt which Julian donned and reached for his tail. He put up no fuss and I knew he’d eaten one too many nibbles of bait. We carried him outside where I whacked him with a broom, then tossed the body over the hospital wall onto the morgue side of the new building. We had two more similar encounters later that day on the back porch with Raty’s brothers and that was it. No noise last night, no evidence this morning, no bait taken. 

Last night I took a flashlight to all the dark corners to see if brother, sissy or nana rat might be dead or dying somewhere and Julian did the same. We seem to have won for now. I have no remorse since I don’t ever want to write an e-mail entitled “Journal of the Plague Year” or something like that. Everyone deals with rats here. Mikenson’s mom has a cat, although he says sometimes the rats are bigger. I have poison and an oven mitt. And for now, I have a quiet house and si Bondye vle, no rats. Love to all of you—Nancy