February 10, 2003

I am upstairs in the school, in a dusty unfinished room with a couple of soccer balls, a hodgepodge of textbooks whose flimsy high-acid pages might disintegrate in the humidity any second, a broken printer, a couple of near-dead batteries connected to a solar panel, and the inverter. I can hear the school day starting beneath me. I've stolen up here with Chris's computer. Sarah (another American woman, 27 years old, teaches English, been here four months) will send this out for me when she rides the motorcycle to the bottom of the mountain (45 minutes on a rocky, cratered, muddy road.) She plugs into the phone line at the police station in Ansagale and can usually get a connection long enough to send and receive a couple of emails. So that's the picture of the from-me-to-you. The e-communication out of here.

Three weeks ago I arrived in Matènwa, this village in the mountains of Lagonav (near Nankafe and Masikren, for those who know their way around the island). I'll be here for four months, building my language skills, working some in the community school, and helping with a gardening project. After that, I'll have a better idea of what I might "do" here. If things work out, I'll return in the fall.

I am connected with the Lekol Kominote Matènwa Pou Devlopma. (The Matènwa Community School for Development). This project--or institution--set up with the practically limitless energy of Chris Low, a Chinese/American woman, in conjunction with AAPLAG (Association, peasants, activists, Lagonav...not sure how all the words of this acronym string together). Anyway, next month, on International Women's day, we'll celebrate AAPLAG's 15th anniversary of working on Lagonav to build and support centers focused on literacy, community education, raising consciousness, and promoting sustainable development.

It's hard to begin to describe what my life is like. I feel like I've been inserted into a psychology experiment. The whole inaudible background hum of what I once thought was the ordinary sings completely different songs. See? I can't explain it.

So....about my surroundings. Matènwa is the name of the "zone" that I live in. People call the places here zòn as opposed to towns because there aren't really city centers, per se. (At least not that I've seen. Maybe in Ansagale where the police station and wharf are, but I haven't been there since the day I arrived, and boy, wasn't that a blur!) Matènwa is a sprawl of houses, connected by footpaths. The road is navigable only by tough high-riding vehicles. None pass though regularly. Last weekend was the first time a truck was here since the one that dropped me off.

Most of the houses are made of cement block, and the rest of wood or sticks. Houses are one or two rooms. For sleeping and storing the few possessions people have. The kitchen is separate. A 3-rock fire in a small enclosure usually made of woven palm fronds.

I live with a family that has two 2-room houses which face each other, about 15 feet apart. I have the front room of one of the houses. A grown daughter of the family (Joziann) lives in the other room with her two children, and 3 others who come and go. In the other house live her parents, Ina and Tikiye. (Ina is short for Brijina, and Tikiye is a nickname that means "Little spoon") They live in one room, and the other stores food, tools (a sickle, a hoe, a machete, not much else) and an array of buckets and basins. Maybe more. I've only peeked inside. I've not seen the inside of anyone else's living quarters, though everyone does take every possible chance to get a good look at mine.

Ina and Tikiye amaze me so. I could just watch them like a TV all day. Sinewy toothless Tikiye in a battered straw hat. Solid, laughing Ina, almost always barefoot, with thick, tough hands and feet. I have no idea how old they are. Perhaps sixty? seventy? ninety? No, not that old. They work all day every day. The first night, as part of getting acquainted, Ina patted her belly and said "Fourteen children came out me of me. From right here." They are all grown. All but one is still alive. A handful still live in the community, a few in Port au Prince, the rest in the diaspora--US and South America. Without financial help from relatives living abroad, most Haitians couldn't survive.

The last of the pwa kongo ( a round red bean, an important staple of everyone's diet.) are ripe and dry on the bushes now. Ina and Tikiye go out to the parched, searing hillside and pick them every day. When a small mountain of them has accumulated, they beat them with a stick in the yard. For hours. This breaks the light dry hulls apart from the heavier beans. Dusty, dusty work. Then they sweep and shake and kick about the pile to get the beans to fall to the bottom and the hulls to rise to the top. They gather armloads of hulls and carry them back to the fields. When a dusty pile of beans, pebbles and only a few hulls remains, they pick out larger heavy residue by hand, then put the rest into a sack. On a breezy day, they'll pull out those beans and toss them in the air on screens to make the dust and other light waste blow away. Then, one last time, they pick through the beans by hand, tossing pebbles and badly formed beans to the chickens and goats.

Ina has explained the whole process to me numerous times. We act it out together so I can practice all the vocabulary. Finally you turn the dried beans into sos pwa, bean sauce. Wash them, cook them with spices, smash them up, put them through a seive. Eat with rice.

That's how it is in Haiti, Ina explains. You work all day every day to get something to eat. That's what kind of a country this is, she says. Not like your country at all. (I just wonder what her image of my country is. Have we started our crazy war yet?)

I've started a vegetable garden at the school. Lots of digging in the rocky soil. I work all morning, eat something, and have to take a nap and wait for it to cool off before I could go back for a second shift of digging. Ina is understanding about my need to rest, but it's not something she would do.. When it's cold, we're stiff and can't do anything, she tells me. When the sun is hot, she says, it feeds us. Our bodies open up and we can work and work and work. (I think...is that how these people survive? On sunshine?) I tell her that I'm just the opposite. On the few overcast, somewhat chilly days that we've had, I am really ready to get out and work, but when it's hot I collapse. When I say stuff like that, she looks at me like I am so strange that it doesn't really register.

Of course when I "say stuff like that" who knows what I might be saying. Language is a real struggle. Sarah came here four months ago with no kreyòl at all, and she understands practically everything everyone says now. I've only been here 3 weeks, but I want the same for me. I know French, and that helps me a lot with vocabulary, but the way words are strung together is completely different. And when the kreyòl words derived from French are contracted, slurred and pronounced fast by Haitians, I usually don't catch them. But it's coming. I'm understanding more and more. People who have been to school and learned some French can understand me because the mistakes I tend to make are in the general direction of French. But the conversations are lumpy. I might say something that someone else understands, but they have to respond two or three times slowly before I can take it in..

Adding to the language-blender effect in my head is the fact that I am teaching French and Spanish in the junior high school. Because I know more Spanish and French grammar than anyone else. But yikes. All the foreign language words are in the same puddle in my brain and they rise up like popcorn in a popper when I am talking: Garbled kreyòl comes out by habit. French is what I'm trying NOT to use most of them time. Spanish percolates to the top on a sort of time-delay if I am patient. Sometimes I hear a garbled mixture of all three languages coming out and realize that what I am speaking is a "foreign language" to everyone..

About the garden. What a task! The garden is partially enclosed, which is to say, fair game for chickens, goats, donkeys and pigs. Right now it looks like the most flourishing crop is rocks with scattered weeds. Each class has a plot, and they've planted what seeds they've managed to scrounge. So you might be standing on the compacted rocky soil among the weeds and notice a wilted eggplant, a straggly carrot, or a withered cabbage.

I commandeered a plot in the garden for myself. That's been good. It gives me a chance to sweat and work and get my own hands in the dirt. And instead of trying to explain to people what to do, I can just do it, and they can watch or copy or not. The test, of course, will be to see how the veggies I grow do. What they'll be remains a mystery because we don't have any seeds yet. We have some leads and contacts and hope to come up with some in the next few weeks.

I've been double-digging my 4' wide garden bed. The first six inches down is topsoil--not too great, but at least it's made of dirt, and then next foot down is rocks or rocky dirt. We have a pick and a couple of tiny sandbox-quality shovels. I make a four foot trench, put leaves and straw that I've raked up from around the school in it, and manure on top of that. I('ve been collecting manure from the road in a wash basin. Kaka bourik. Donkey shit. Just one of the many activities where you give in to the fact that you are white and weird no matter what you do, so just go for it.) After the manure is in, we start the next trench right beside the first one, throwing the dirt that comes out of it on the compost I just finished putting in the previous trench. (Geez, I can hardly explain it in English. Would anyone who has never done this already know what I am talking about?)

Some of the older boys have been coming out in the afternoons to help me with the pick work. And the younger kids are usually good for an excursion out into the road to gather up manure. So the project inches forward.

I've been working with Sarah's 3rd grade class on garden stuff, too. We've got a couple brigades. One picking up plastic litter all around, another gathering straw, leaves, and other organic matter, a third digging a couple of deep holes to plant 2 trees someone gave us, and the fourth stacking up rocks along the bottom of the fence line in hopes of blocking the chickens from being able to walk in.

This is a crazy sprawl of a letter. A free write. It's the psychology experiment: all this new input has got me thinking in short, scattered bursts. I feel myself flailing for routines. Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed in the morning and face it. Who will you see? what will you say? When they talk, what will they be saying? Everyone knows my name, and I can't keep most people straight. Especially all these kids in their white shirts and blue pants (school uniforms). It seems like all the girls have blue and white plastic baubles in their corn rows and all the boys are handsome. I ask people over and over what their names are. And forget as fast as they tell me. Sarah is blonde with silky long hair. My dark hair is close croppped (yes, I cut it!), and Chris is Chinese. Lots of people mix the three of us up, so that business of "they all look alike" cuts both ways!

Cutting my hair was a good move. My water ration is 5 gallons every two
days for bathing and drinking. Strangely, it's plenty. When the bucket arrives, I filter a gallon into a jug for drinking and the rest I use up bit by bit
to wash with. Basic dust-removal ( a constant activity....ah! to have clean
feet for a whole day again! ) can be done easily with a cup of water. When I've worked hard and I'm hot and sweaty, and extravagant bath is a 10 cupper. Standard is 6 to 8. Here's how you do it: Go out to the "shower" (a U-shaped rock walled enclosure behind the house) with your bucket, soap, washcloth and towel. Wet the washcloth and suds it up. Lather your body all over. Use a cup of water to get your hair wet and shampoo it. Then, when you are covered head to toe with soap, dip the cup into the remaining water and slowly trickle it over yourself to rinse. Save a little to rinse out the wash rag. These days, when the first quarter moon is in the sky at sunset, that skimpy little bath in the outdoor shower is in exquisite pleasure.

OK.....gotta run to the third grade.

This is unproofed. Hope it's not too terribly scattered. Sarah is riding down the mountain this afternoon. No time to turn it into literature. Hope you made it to the end.


p.s. Fresh back from the garden with the third grade. They were so wild and out of control they made me cry. So it goes on Lagonav. Just have to wait. Something will happen this afternoon that will make me so happy I want to stay here forever. The sun will set in radiant colors and the waxing moon will be so bright it will light up the whole night. I'll take a walk on the rocky road, maybe? Or go with some of the other teachers to the house where a woman sells beer from a cooler on her porch? Something new? Each day has it's ups and downs. The "ups" are always a delight.

More p.s. It rained and Sarah fell off the bike in the mud so this didn't go out after all. Plans are so funny. When you make them, they feel so certain.

They say that when you travel, what you learn about the most is yourself. Kind of a let-down, but true. Here is how that happens: So many things are confusing. You are always trying to roll with it. But you can't roll with it all the time. You have to stake yourself some ground. What will it be? what do you need to be comfortable? How will you articulate that, in a foreign language, to someone who wants to please you but really doesn't understand your ways at all?

I wouldn't have imagined that I'd come all the way here, only to spend so much time thinking about myself.