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.