To My Siblings, In Solidarity
The sun is beating down mercilessly on people who are already toasted varying degrees of brown and shades of black. The skies look like those on the Simpsons TV comedy: cotton-candy blue and white, and as I lay on my back, I can almost picture the credits rolling across the endless screen and hear the familiar tune playing. The sun beats down on my left side yet the gentle breezes from the right slowly caress and ease the heat of this equator sun, making it all worthwhile. The sound of a metal bell reminds me that some people are working even on this holiday. As the sound of the bell grows fainter and shifts to the background, it is replaced by the crowing of a rooster and the barking of dogs. Other sounds have become so much a part of the environment that one has to pay particular attention to be able to decipher what constitutes the cacophony.
Where am I? I’m sure you are dying to know! For Christmas, I gave myself the gift of a second pilgrimage to Haiti, Ayiti, the beautiful land of beautiful people where the great economic divide is as visible as the night and day that marks the passing of time and where suffering, as widespread as it is, never keeps the people from smiling back when you make eye contact. I had to return to Ayiti. It had wrapped its arms around me in May 2002 when I made my first pilgrimage and it had refused to let go. So I honored it, and all who were in it, by returning.
I am sitting on the rooftop, seven floors up, at St Joseph’s Home for Boys, affectionately called “Michael’s” after the director and founder. As I bask in the sunlight thoughts of snow, thousands of light years away, in my memory, I try to absorb all of Ayiti again—yes, I loved Ayiti, just as I loved my homeland, Ghana. I had fallen in love with Ayiti from the minute I exited the plane and had to make my way to the terminal on foot.
As I lie, I absorb all the sounds that are unique only to Ayiti and some of the other developing countries I have been blessed to visit: the sound of the vendors’ bells and voices advertising their wares, roosters crowing (although I am still unable to determine the exact reason since people have been awake since 4:30 am), music blaring out of speakers miles away echoed off the mountain sides, “tap taps” (local bus system) and taxis honking incessantly, engines of cars starting up, a PSA of some sort being run from the back of a pick-up truck with a make-shift megaphone, people calling out to each other in Kreyol, cats and dogs fighting for turf, and intermittent gun shots interspersing this orchestrated piece, poignant reminders of the state of the country.
The sun has dipped behind one of the many mountains that encircle Haiti although a part of the island is still bathed in sunlight and a shadow of light is thrown across the mountain. Sounds of nighttime are slowly replacing those of the day: generators kicking on (electricity is only available for part of the day), the crackling of firewood and the smell that accompanies it, as people prepare the evening meal, rush hour traffic with all its sounds, and radios and televisions blaring loudly.
The flight part of the journey had been uneventful and we had landed finally, after about 15-20 hours in airports (Ohio to Miami to Haiti), on the small farm runway that had cattle and goats grazing on it. About a half hour after landing, and squashed in the small cab of a pick up truck, with luggage competing for space, we were ascending and descending roads that were carved so adeptly out of the mountains. In the darkness, roads pitted with potholes filled with rain, gave the illusion of being smooth terrain until we were jolted out of our seats when our driver landed in one of them. It was pitch black, the kind of dark that threatens to swallow the dim, struggling headlights of the journeying vehicles. We had been driving for over 90 minutes when we had originally been told that the trip was a half hour max. There had to have been something wrong. I was convinced there had to have been rebels on the main highway and that’s why our guide had detoured. Who was to say?
Was my faith tested? You bet it was! I began saying the Rosary in my head and trying to remember any prayers I had memorized in my 20 years of Catholic school education. That having brought no comfort, I took refuge in making my petitions in my native tongue and just free-styling. At this point, I realized how ridiculous I might have seemed to any of my friends and family back home. I had made this trip after reconciling that “if this should be the end then so be it, I was going to Ayiti, come what may!” I smiled as I realized that this initial panic stage was natural when faced with trials. This thought surprisingly calmed me down enough to concentrate my efforts on watching the driver make it round each sharp bend in the two-lane mountain road, the lesser of the two evils. No sooner had I shifted my focus than we were arrived at our destination: the rectory at Plaissance.
Plaissance was one of the two reasons I had been itching to return to Ayiti. Located in the northern part of Ayiti, Plaissance for me was the French Riviera with all the mountains dripping with greenery. This was also where my host family lived and I could hardly wait to visit with them and catch up on 3 years worth of news…whew! Oh wait a minute, we can’t do that! The language barrier for me was my biggest struggle. Having had some elementary French in school, I could get by if people spoke French however, the Kreyol in Ayiti, a mixture of French and African languages, bore little resemblance to French. As I vacillated between excitement and disappointment, I began to piece together sentences in my head from the basic Kreyol I knew. Yes, I would tell them this or that, oh wait…how do you say this in Kreyol? I got ready for bed; tomorrow the words that eluded me now might come.
Gwo Jan was the other reason. This was where my other family lived. Two men and a lady! , Ari, Dja, and Carla. These three were my inspiration for some of the work I had gotten involved in since returning from my first trip. They had the arduous task of educating their own people, the people of Ayiti, about the history that lay beneath the brand name sneakers they loved to wear, the struggle with power, and the struggle against systems that was always in motion. They were also responsible for educating any tourists, who dared to enter their village, about the beautiful land of Ayiti and its people. These three, so far as I was concerned, were the heroes whose stories hardly ever got told. They had captured my heart and brain and engaged me in working for the struggle from the first time I had visited and though our communiques were few and far between we carried each other in our hearts and I couldn’t wait to see them again.
I look at the chaos that surrounds me. Sometimes I work well under pressure although this time all order and creativity has eluded me even though my deadline is but 24 hours away. The chaos, the order I strive for, the pressure which produces results, or so they say…all this is nothing compared to the thoughts that take residence in my head all day long as I go about the mundane tasks of my everyday life as one of the numbers in a big corporate institution.
These thoughts are far from related to my job or everyday routine. These thoughts are about the greater good, about service to all people, if I may be allowed to use clichés. My thoughts are with the people I met on my two trips to Ayiti (Haiti), my study abroad project in Morocco, my trips to Ghana, my working vacation in Egypt, my time at the Catholic Worker house in Denver, CO, or more recently and way less expensive, my chat with the unassuming man who everyone mistook for homeless. These are the things that occupy my head as I try to navigate my way through the numerous cubicles, edit letters, make copies, or prepare mail.
In these thoughts the perpetual question burns my innermost parts each time I can scrounge a few minutes to pause and reflect…what am I being called to do…in the long run, what really matters the most?
This question has come to me in various forms, and over the last five years since graduating from college I have processed this question in numerous settings: over dinner with religious discernment groups, in retreats, workshops, service trips, journaling, and mind you, this list is endless. If I have learned anything at all, it’s that, nobody else can tell me what my calling is because this is something that I need to discern for myself.
In journeying through this process of discernment, I have slowly learned more about myself, and my place in the grand scheme of things. I have come to cherish the heritage, the ancestry that makes me who I am today. I have discovered and embraced the similarities, as well as the differences, that make us all children of the Great Being.
It is with such a basic foundation that I returned to Ayiti for the second time. I returned not to donate time or money but to visit with the ones I had met once before, to sit in solidarity with my siblings, to share with each other the gift of our lives, despite the admonishment of family and friends fearing for my safety in Ayiti.
There is a quiet knowing…a sort of “I have arrived” feeling as I sit on my steps and crunch on some cereal. The “ChocoBalls” cereal I chose instead of the name brand one which cost 11/2 times more than this one. I may never get to live as simply in America as I do when I am in Ghana or Haiti but I can carefully consider my choices before making my small everyday decisions. I have been back two days now and I’m still buzzing with the energy and excitement that usually accompanies a return from a service trip where one has been made more aware and one has left with a resolution of some sort.
I’m reminded of my trip leader’s numerous poems that she read to us at prayer time while in Ayiti. One in particular sticks out: “to my brothers and sisters in third world countries” it begins and then it apologizes for the insensitivity on our parts that allows us to spend twenty minutes picking out what sweater or shoe to wear when my sister halfway around the world, is putting on the only piece of clothing or pair of shoes that she owns. This prayer has stayed with me since my very first trip to Ayiti because somehow that is how I manage to stay grounded…to constantly contemplate the faces of the people I know and am now fortunate to call family, in Ayiti. To remember their joy and excitement when they don their Sunday best for church or throw on the same pair of shoes for work day after day. To recall their smiles as they share what little they have with everyone around. To let myself revel in the optimism and conviction of the people as they say “Viva Ayiti”! My family in Plaissance and Gwojan who keep the dream of freedom alive, and continue to live and tell their story despite all attempts to silence them. They are the thoughts that constantly plague me as I go about my routine tasks. They are the constant heat from the equator sun, absent in the dead of winter, yet ever-present in my thoughts as I ponder what the greater good and ultimate calling is.
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Cooking was a major affair in our household. Sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps, the coal pot, aka the kitchen stove, was essential to this process. Because it required charcoal it was always lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames to allow the kerosene-soaked coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, the stove was returned to the kitchen. Under heavy cooking, new charcoal had to be added often because the original chunks would turn to ashes. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. Once, Aunty Mercy took coals from one coal pot to begin a new fire and ended up losing the starter. Grandmother was furious.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had; she came to us after she had spent her life savings bailing out her only child who had been jailed for murder. She walked with a hobble because she had been the victim of a number of bicycle accidents. During a particularly bad Hamattan season, she was struck by lightening, adding a twitch to that hobble, yet she was full of life and had many stories to tell. She was warm and cuddly and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was.
“’Familiarity breeds contempt!’” Grandmother would exclaim dramatically whenever we would interact too closely with Aunty Mercy. More contact with the house-helps outside of duties blurred the boundaries she worked so hard to keep. Grandmother’s main prejudice centered on sharing food, eating Aunty Mercy’s food, was forbidden. Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. We joined her once and almost got caught.
The kitchen was warm and slightly cramped. Aunty Mercy squatted in her usual lopsided position in the middle of the kitchen floor tending to her meal. I scooted around, trying not to knock her over. The freshly prepared nkontombire froyi with koobi and ampesi made my mouth water even though I just had dinner. Something about the green leafy spinach leaves bubbling in the reddish liquid makes it more appealing. Salted tilapia was soaking in a bowl next to plantains from our backyard garden.
“We’ll join you, but Grandmother will be mad if she catches us.” I replied enthusiastically.
Sheela rolled her eyes and translated my response. “You know she doesn’t speak any English.” Aunty Mercy beckoned us closer to the stove. I saw the coal pot with coals almost turned to ashes. The fire was almost out.
“Looks like she forgot to add new coal,” Sheela commented.
Aunty Mercy pulled up two kitchen stools for Sheela and me, pausing to wipe both with a kitchen towel lest we ruin our clothes.
I stared into the pot. It smells great.
“What’s in it?”
“kontombire ahataw, anyiew ne tometo ne galic.”
Ok. But what’s that other smell? “What makes the sauce so red?”
“Oye ngo na.”
“This tastes different.” Sheela said. I turned expecting a frown on her face, surprised by a smile.
“Let me taste!” I squeezed my way in between them.
“sssh ma anti aba kyi hon!” Aunty Mercy cautioned.
I grin. Grandmother would be furious if she knew what we were doing.
“Why don’t you use this in our meals?” I asked.
Floorboards from the third bedroom creaked slightly. We heard Grandmother’s footsteps.
“Grandmother says Sheela is allergic to palm oil.” I looked over in panic at Sheela who seemed to be enjoying her pieces of plantain and nkomtombire. Was she really allergic or was Grandmother lying?
More erratic footsteps interrupted my panic. Aunty Mercy motioned for us to be silent. She quickly grabbed our half empty bowls and explained:
“Nso nnyi egroya ntsi wa ba egyadze ha befee bi.”
“Huh? There was no water in the bathroom?” Surely Grandmother wouldn’t buy that one!
Her voice preceded her.
“Sheela! Kuukua! Where are you two? You better not be in the kitchen! Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed!”
A bend in the hallway separated us.
“We are getting water!”
We dart across the hall, pick up our toothbrushes, and begin to brush our teeth. Close call! Who would have thought that Aunty Mercy had learned to count with Grandmother’s footsteps?
THE OAKLAND WORD PUBLICATION.
IT IS CURRENTLY UNDER REVISION.
The Coal Pot
The kitchen stove, which we call the coal pot, was of the utmost importance in my house. We used it at least twice a day. It was often the center of the day’s activities and sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps. It only used coal and had to be lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would have to ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames from the lower part to allow the coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, we would return the stove to the main kitchen. This chore was almost always handled by the resident cook. When we children handled the stove, it was under careful watch of whichever house-help we had at the time. Every meal I had as a child was prepared or heated on this stove. Most of my classmates’ families had long switched to electric or gas stove imported from abroad, but Grandmother refused to cave in to modernity. Besides, the coal pot needed to be monitored more closely than an electric or gas stove because it did not have an internal regulator. This was perfect for her because it meant we didn’t ever leave the kitchen (or her sight) for too long. It was not until well into my teens when she finally consented and got first, a kerosene stove, and then an electric two-burner hot plate.
Cooking was a major affair in our household. We usually cooked massive amounts of food to store for several days. Although we didn’t have a large household, my Grandmother was quite busy as school principle during the week days, and church leader on the weekends, and preferred not to spend a lot of time supervising the cooking each day. The stove needed to be replenished every so often because the original chunks of coal would eventually turn to ashes under such heavy cooking. New coal had to be added before the entire spread of coal turned to ash otherwise we would have to begin the whole process of lighting the stove anew. As I recall, this happened a couple times. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. I recall an occasion when one particular house-help was working. Aunty Mercy. She took coals out to begin a new fire for another coal pot and ended up losing the original one on which the main family meal was being prepared. Grandmother had a few choice words for her, but Aunty Mercy quite immune to Grandmother’s harsh words, just nodded and begun the whole process over.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had. She came to stay for a few years, earlier on in my life, and then left for a while because of a disagreement with the matriarch of the family, Grandmother. She returned when I was much older and stayed for a long while again. Aunty Mercy was from Asinmansu and had had her share of life’s challenges. Her son had been jailed for theft and she had spent her life savings bailing him out only to have him flee the country. She had been hit by a bicycle a few times so she hobbled along almost precariously as if at any moment she would topple over. She had been hit by lightening and this had given her a twitch in addition to the hobble. Despite all these, she was full of life and had many stories to share. She was also warm and cuddly; she was quite the character and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was. As I came to later learn, Grandmother, who was of Scottish and English heritage, could not bring herself to break the tradition of the “stoic” English women who had gone before her. We interacted with her peripherally while doing homework, taking tea, or when being chastised or punished. I recall spending a great deal of my time with Aunty Mercy or whoever the house-help at the time was; we changed them so often, I have quite a few in my memory.
Grandmother, as a three quarter mulatto, was extremely prejudiced that it took a thick-skinned person to live with her and take the constant barrage of derogatory comments. My first experience of extreme prejudice came when she punished my sister and me for eating Aunty Mercy’s food, which was not to be mistaken for food prepared by Aunty Mercy. This was ironic because she prepared all our meals. Since Grandmother set our menu each week, Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. My sister and I being the curious kids we were were always ready to try something different. On this one occasion, Aunty Mercy served us dinner and then left to clean up, and eat her own dinner because she ate her meals apart from the family. Sheela and I went looking for her later and found her cleaning up the main coal pot, and tending to her saucepan of freshly prepared koobi stew and ampesi, a local delicacy of salted tilapia stew with boiled green plantains and yams. She invited us but warned us about the wrath of my grandmother; she agreed to be on the lookout for her. Unfortunately, that night, luck was not on our side and Grandmother did find us eating Aunty Mercy’s food. Grandmother stood guard over the point where her race discriminations met our childish curiosity and being the adult, she always won. We were sent to brush our teeth and given a good talking to about the results of mingling with servants, and what Grandmother termed “familiarity breeds contempt.” For her, the more interaction we had with the house-helps outside of duties, the more they felt closer to us, blurring the boundaries she worked so had to keep. Although Aunty Mercy did not care for being in trouble with Grandmother, she also felt it her calling to prepare us for the real world where we did not have this bubble of protection that Grandmother’s skin privilege afforded us.