Juggler of words and children…collector of pottery shards
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way…….” Psalm 46:1&2
Almost immediately upon leaving the airport we pulled into the Port-Au-Prince version of rush hour gridlock. There are no rules of the road in PAP other than: He who is biggest or fastest wins. Occasionally, one will see the remnants of an ancient yellow line stretching down the center of heavily worn asphalt, peeking through faintly like some archaeological find from centuries past. These lingering vestiges of transportation law however, are wholly ignored. The traffic is a living thing, morphing into whatever gets the most drivers where they want to be the fastest. At times, what would have normally been a two lane road held three lanes of traffic, the vehicles on either side of me only inches away. People and animals stepped into the flow of traffic at random but the drivers never slowed. All around me, dark faces stared curiously at my pale, foreign one. To say the least, it was harrowing. I prayed a lot and held my breath a lot as well.
Finally, we pulled out of the congested center of the city and began our jarring ascent into the mountains on a dirt road riddled with potholes, washed out spots and huge puddles. We slowed and the driver turned into a short driveway and stopped at a large metal gate. We had arrived at the orphange’s guest house where I would be staying with my girls during the visit. The driver blew the horn and the gate opened to reveal Emmanuel, the keeper of the guest house. As I stepped out he took my hand, kissed me on the cheek and spoke to me in English.
He carried my bags inside and showed me to my room which was simple but meticulously clean. There was a bathroom attached. After we placed my luggage on the floor I turned to him and asked the only question that mattered…..
“Emmanuel, are my daughters here?”
“Yes, sister. They are downstairs. I will take you to them now.”
At the time, there were a group of babies and toddlers living in the basement of the guest house. The orphanage director explained to me that some babies just didn’t do well in the orphanage environment and that she had separated this group out, of whom my baby Roseline was one, in an effort to give them more concentrated care. Claudine, who had been separated from her sister upon their arrival, lived at the orphanage but had been brought to the guest house earlier in the day to await the arrival of her “Manman”.
My heart pounded wildly as we began to descend the wooden steps. At the bottom, I found myself in a basement area that was divided into several rooms. The rooms were lined with bunk beds, the mattresses bare. There were a few small babies in cribs and toddlers running everywhere, one of whom began to scream in terror at the sight of this strange tall, white woman before her and began to cling to the leg of her caregiver. I recognized her as my daughter, Roseline. Then, before me staring with solemn face, was Claudine. Her hair hung in micro-braids and I noticed immediately that she was wearing the pink and white gingham dress I had sent her for her fourth birthday. I was at the same time pleased to have the opportunity to see her in the dress and dismayed that she had grown so little. She was a five year old in a 3T dress. I thought she was absolutely beautiful and could not believe I was with her at last.
She hung back hesitantly as I knelt down before her. Emmanuel instructed her in Creole to go to me and I took her into my arms and spoke the Creole words I had memorized for the occasion:
“Ou tifi mwenmenm. M’renmwen ou. Ou tres belle.” (You are my little girl. I love you. You are beautiful.)
A shy smile flickered across her face and then disappeared. Roseline continued to scream in terror. Emmanuel graciously had compassion on my predicament and went and took her from her housemother and told me he would take us where we could get to know each other privately. I took Claudine by the hand, and stopping to grab a few toys on the way, we made our way to the roof where we could catch a late afternoon breeze.
Roseline ceased crying but sat lethargically in my lap as I tried to engage both her and Claudine. I showed them the toys I brought but there was no response. I brought out my digital camera and took a self photo of the three of us and showed Claudine. She glanced for a moment and then looked away.
Then, she began to cry. It began as silent tears streaming down her face but as I attempted to offer comfort, her cries rose into a mournful wail. Nothing I did helped and I did not know the words to talk to her about it so, I was forced to just sit near her and rub her back. Eventually, the tears ceased and she rose to look at the toys that littered the rooftop.
Emmanuel came to call us for dinner and let me know he would be leaving for the evening and replaced by the night watchman. He led us to the dining room where the I found to my surprise the meal was spaghetti with marinara sauce and salad. Roseline sat in my lap and Claudine begrudgingly took the chair beside me. I offered her food and she turned her head away from me, refusing me even a glance. I began to eat and simultaneously feed Roseline who ate hungrily but then vomited.
Finally, Claudine’s hunger and love for spaghetti, won out over her distaste for my companionship and she ate. Throughout the meal, if her gaze met mine she would turn her head away, avoiding my eyes. When the meal was over, she rose and left the table, then turned around and came up to me and said the first words I understood. (I had studied some Creole but understood little.)
“Maman Blanc, eske ou pa kab pale?” (White Mom, can you not speak?)