Words Fail Me

“Are these from Africa?

The woman in the frame store jolted me out of my own little world with that question. I had gone back to Haiti and a little tented art shop near the top of the IDP camp. My hands ran over the framed pictures marveling at how different they looked in frames. In the artist’s tent the pictures on raw canvas are pinned to rope and wood wherever there is space. I had chosen the ones I wanted to buy more than a month before I made the purchase. I finally bought two, one folk art painting of kids playing in the camp, and a larger black and white one, a loose interpretation of Fet Gede (a voodoo celebration I had witnessed). I was wondering if I had made a mistake in framing them after all. Did the frames box in the life of them? Did I like them better frayed around the edges and hung with small wires from rope?

“Pardon?”

“Your pictures. Are they from Africa?”

“Oh. No. They’re from Haiti. I knew the artists.”

“Why were you in Haiti?” (Always the next question.)

But my mind had stopped again on “I knew the artists.” I did know them. They made me a gift of a third painting before I left as a thank you for always bringing people by to see their shop. It seems my mind is always overloaded when the subject of my past three months comes up. Like every conversation opens a tiny hole through which tidal waves of words push to move through.

“I was working with a nonprofit down there for three months.”

“Wow. I have a friend who just got back from Columbia. She said it is awful down there. Truly awful. I imagine Haiti is the same way, with all the earthquakes and hurricanes they have experienced.” And I start to nod my head in agreement. These are such simple quick conversations, I never really want to go into it with people I meet like this. I never feel able to go into it anyway. Besides, she is actually very sweet and is not really looking for deeper information, just being friendly. But then she says the thing that cuts me so deep I have no idea how to respond.

“What is happening down in Haiti is not the work of our Lord; it is the work of the devil for sure. Makes me wonder what is going on down there for them to deserve that.” And, I know she is not really wondering at all. I know she has decided that this nation has brought this upon themselves with their “ungodly” behavior. I have heard this before, unfortunately.

I stumble through some bits of information about slave debt and the monumental task of financing infrastructure under the burden of those conditions. I tell her that the entire world was appalled by their revolt at the time so finding support was impossible. But this rings as hollow in my ears as it must ring in hers.

The truth is closer to a conversation I had with a well-studied international aid worker and friend in Haiti soon after I arrived. He told me there were so many versions of the “truth” in Haiti that there was no sense in placing much stock in any of them, that all we can do is move forward.  But, when I am in back in the car, I cry. My failure to illuminate even a single aspect of Haiti’s worthiness and beauty to this misguided woman is becoming too familiar. And this time the failure comes too close on heels of seeing the faces of friends in the paintings and the memory of sitting on a small hill above the artist’s makeshift gallery watching them paint. I have failed my artist friends and Haiti. I sink into a funk that has become familiar to me ever since I returned home. I just don’t have the words, and that stings.

I met a woman once while working on a documentary shoot above the camp who told me about the days after the earthquake. She told me story after story. She told them to me as if they came unbidden. Like she had to tell them over and over. As if the telling would bring some sense to the world. As I drove home I remembered her story of the singing.

The dust had not even settled in Port au Prince. Aftershocks and trembles were still so common that people refused to sleep inside the buildings, afraid they too would become trapped or worse. Wails punctuated the shouting of people who were finding bodies. Unstable buildings still crashed along every street and in every neighborhood, keeping people wary of even the slightest crack around them. And there was weeping…always weeping. As she became accustomed to those noises, she began to hear singing. She followed the sound, looking for the source of the music. Eventually, she realized that it surrounded her. The people were singing. They were singing hymns. Pouring love, faith and prayers into valleys and hills surrounding Port au Prince. Thousands of voices, singing together. That moment gave her peace and hope. These people were not overcome. They still loved. They still believed. They still had faith.

Maybe I should have told her that story, instead of bringing up slave debts and old policies from governments long ago. That story does not contain the whole truth of Haiti, not by a long shot, but I have yet to find anything that comes as close as one simple story at a time.

Haiti, A Wide Road and Two Boys

At the top of the hill above the camp is the MASH unit style tent hospital. A wide dirt road runs in front of it, scored by the hundreds of vehicles that have passed this way over the two years since the earthquake bringing medical supplies, workers, volunteers and the sick and injured. There is not any other traffic on this road as it dead ends shortly after the hospital at what used to be the helicopter landing pad.

I met Elius and Thierry on this road (I have changed their names). We all do eventually, the volunteers. These boys are as familiar on that road as the doctors and nurses. They live in the tent city below the hospital and spend much of their free time hanging around that makeshift clinic above the camp.

Neither speaks fluent English, or much english at all really, yet both are extraordinarily comfortable around strangers and strike up conversations with more ease than seems possible given their life. It is clear that NGO workers have been a fixture in their life.

Elius appears to be the ring leader…maybe of everything. He pursues language with a thirst that I have never seen in a child his age. He speaks bits of five languages…the languages of the UN soldiers permanently stationed in the camp where he lives. When I first met him a woman in our group told him she was from Pakistan. His first question to her, in English – “What is the language in Pakistan?” and then “Do you have an Urdu dictionary you can give me?” He is as proud of his collection of foreign language books and dictionaries as he is of his new soccer ball, which he protects to the point of obsession. He is chatty and curious. I love the fact that every single interaction with him leaves me exhausted from the work I do answering questions.

“What are you writing now?

“Does your son eat plantains?”

“Do you have a car where you live?”

He always grabs my arm, conspiratorially, and leans in close as he asks me things. He is unlocking the secrets of the world. Every question brings him closer in a way I do not understand.

Thierry is quieter. His angelic face adds to the impression that he is some kind of spiritual puzzle to figure out. And, perhaps he is. But he is also mischievous and fearless…he boldly asks me for money to purchase books for school and academic contests. And I always give it to him. Always. I know I am not supposed to, but when he asks, I am a mom and he is a kid who clearly needs a new pair of shoes. Badly. I smile broadly the next day when he shows me his beautiful new Croc knock offs.

Thierry is completely captivated by my camera. He and I fell into a routine…he lets me take pictures of him and then I hand him my camera for him to take pictures himself. I always sit, far longer than I had intended, on benches made of solid sandbags stacked under a tarp, and I watch him and the boys that follow him around to see what he is doing with this giant monster of a camera. While he wanders around with it snapping mostly useless shots of motion blurred dogs and cars, I rest. And this is really the deal we have struck, even if it is only me who is aware of it. There is nothing I can do here at the camp without my camera and there are times when I need to just feel the body of the group here without a camera between us.

Learning that moving the camera creates a blur...

Over time, he improves and toward the end of my three months, I can usually count on three or four decent photos from the hundreds he shoots. He gets some interesting angles as he sits with friends and when I give him a task, like moving up through the crowds at church and get pictures of the little girls in the choir, he boldly moves in and gets those shots and more. I am able to sit with him, look through the shots and tell him the story I see in what he has taken. He beams.

Theirry's photo of the church

It’s funny how little I anticipated their impact on me at the time. While living your life, you do not stop to think “These moments will define so much of my experience here.” But they do. And, as I remember them guiding me through the camp to the church or the market, I wonder what kind of options there are for them there. I worry about the fact that Elius is smart as a whip and a natural born leader. Most of the easy options for a child like that involve doing things that are not legal or safe. Thierry’s angelic looks are becoming a handicap as he slips easily into the hearts of the international aid worker community and the recipient of their easy money…because the problems in Haiti are too damn big for one person to solve, but $10 for textbooks is doable. And I am not the only one who starts to feel protective around these boys.

They were on my mind as I boarded the plane for home. I imagined bringing them here with me and wonder even today if coming to America would be better. The opportunity we have here comes at a cost, which I did not really understand until I lived somewhere else. But the point is moot, I cannot bring them home with me, even if I could discern if that would be better for them. But knowing that doesn’t stop the wondering.

xo,

Kimberley