I started reading Madame Dread today. Chris told me I would like it. I read about 1/3 it in one sitting. Kathie Klarreich is the reporter that interviewed us for a piece on adoption post quake in the Christian Science Monitor. We didn’t know she was Madame Dread until we were just finishing up. I really, really liked her.
As I’ve been reading I think the thing that has grabbed me is she has put into words some of the things that come with living here that I didn’t know how to describe.
The spell that Haiti spread over me was not easy to define. It produced a physical and mental metamorphosis. My body hardened, as if it was fortifying itself to fend off foreign elements. I looked at the world differently, too. I was still the same… born to privilege, but for the first time in my life I was confronting the elements. Haiti didn’t have a comfort zone I was familiar with and challenged me in a language I didn’t understand. Gracious as the country was, there were no footholds for me to latch on to. I had to be more confident in my instincts, which were initially what allowed me to see… that there was an opportunity for me to grow if I stuck it out in Haiti rather than go… I needed to rely on my powers of observation… Haiti also required a soul-searching trust, the ability to navigate in conditions that were far more dicey than any I’d encountered before.
And yet, just being in Haiti was liberating. While the lack of rules and social norms that I had grown up with transformed routine tasks into tremendous challenges, there was a freeness about Haiti that I adored. I didn’t have to respond to labels that nurtured but also encumbered me as I was growing up… Although I was proud of those associations I also wanted to be known for myself. As a foreigner in Haiti, particularly an American, there were some “given” assumptions about me – that I was either a diplomat or a missionary, presumably wealthy, and a potential meal ticket. But no one really knew if I was rich or poor, Catholic or Jewish, Republican or Democrat. They didn’t know if I was an only child or one of twelve, and because asking direct questions isn’t part of Haiti’s culture, I was free to decide what and how much information I wanted to divulge. I had the option of creating my own persona or remaining as obscure as I wanted.
It also provided me a chance to figure out whom, exactly, I wanted to be. It wasn’t a second birth, really, but an opportunity to pare down the clutter… It beckoned me to shed an armor I didn’t even know I wore in the States and define my new self with a thoughtfulness I’d never considered.
I liked my new anonymity, as it was, although I knew I was not really anonymous. In Haiti everyone eventually knows everything or at least think they do, and as a foreigner I stood out. I was referred to as blan – a word literally translated as “white,” but commonly used to identify any foreigner in Haiti… Every day brought new surprises and revealed parts of my personality that I didn’t know were there.
For a brief second I wondered if Haiti wasn’t too much for me, if it wasn’t time to retreat back into myself before I drowned in the country’s tumultuous sorrow. But there was the pull of the unknown, the possibility of pushing myself further than I’d ever been, that kept me moving forward. I didn’t think of it as brave or stupid, heroic or reckless. It was just my life, it was what I wanted to be doing, and knew I would continue to do until it didn’t seem right anymore.
When I first started with the mission back in 2005 I knew next to nothing about Haiti. I mean, I hadn’t spent time reading all sorts of books about Haiti and it’s history like many I met here. The other volunteers that were here when I arrived read almost nothing but books about Haiti. I think I was so overwhelmed with just trying to live in it every day that when the work day was done and it was time to relax the last thing I wanted to do was further saturate myself with all things Haiti. And you know what? 5 years later I’m glad I did it that way. I’m glad because it has given me time to just be. To be here and to learn and to experience without holding my experiences up to some other persons that I had been reading about. To not get bogged down in history and to be looking for all the connecting points. Rather, I’ve just been able to absorb and listen and try to understand.
Now, as I’m starting to dive into some of those books that others say are essential to read I’m reading them through different eyes. I can smell the smells. I can feel the frustrations and joys. I can see the hand gestures that go with certain conversations. I know what it feels like to watch people drink water from a dirty canal. To see children playing with barely any clothes on and amongst the garbage. To know how quickly a lump of fear can root itself in your gut when you hear yelling from the community because you know something happened, whether it was a radio announcement that people are not happy about or the threat of violence. I know the feeling of always looking over my shoulder, wondering how much I need to be ready for in any given situation. The feeling of knowing people will see me as white before anything else. That there is no such thing as privacy here.
I find the connections fascinating and encouraging. To know that I am not alone in my observations and movements and thoughts is freeing. It’s empowering. Others understand. Those who have done this, get it. I love my friends and family at home, but it can be so hard to try and explain the things of Haiti. Often I come away from conversations mentally and emotionally exhausted because you can only say “I don’t know” so many times before you feel frustrated about all the things that don’t make sense and can’t be explained or fixed in a few hours of talk.
If you haven’t read Madame Dread I would highly recommend it. Anyone that’s lived in Haiti will connect with it. Anyone that’s curious about some of the ins and outs of Voudou will find it interesting (I’m learning a lot!). Anyone who wants a good read that just flows… it’s good. I’ll leave it there.