Guest: A lesson from Haiti’s forgotten children
Like so many experiences in Haiti, great and small, I appreciated the altered perspective the children gave me. There’s a simplicity to claiming something during use, without assuming the burden of ownership, writes guest columnist Paul Fallon.
Special to The Times
I BROUGHT a carton of books to children in Haiti, but they didn’t accept them as I expected. This was back in January 2011, when we were excavating a hillside for Be Like Brit, the orphanage I designed after the 2010 earthquake.
As an architect, I understood that the earthquake’s gruesome toll was largely due to shoddy construction and I wanted to lend a hand in reconstruction. Haiti’s exotic history and tragic present was infiltrating my psyche. But I couldn’t know then how Haiti would change my life. Over three years, I returned to the Magic Island 19 times. Eventually, I left my job to supervise construction of the orphanage as well as a school. I penned so many vignettes of this beguiling land that they evolved into a memoir.
My niece and her three boys, who live in DuPont collected the books I carried to Grand Goave, 10 miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter. It was my fourth visit — time enough to embrace Haiti’s charms and accepting nature; time enough for a young Haitian to “adopt” me as his “blan” (a term used to describe foreigners); time enough to realize that extreme poverty did not equate with extreme despair; yet not enough time to fathom the nuanced differences between American culture and our resilient neighbor.
I designed the orphanage for the Gengel family from Rutland, Mass., a building to honor their daughter Britney, who died in the earthquake during a service trip to Haiti. We were keen to start excavating the foundation before the quake’s anniversary, but Haiti-style delays stymied progress. We had to negotiate the site limits with abutters and then stake the road’s path with neighbors. The backhoe we rented from Port-au-Prince was delivered to a different aid group — they claimed it as mana from the heavens. When the machine finally chugged up our hill, more than a week late, I hoisted the books alongside. Construction in Haiti always attracts an audience. I planned to give “Goodnight Moon,” “No Place for Elephants” and “Harry the Dirty Dog” to children who came to watch us scrape and level dirt.
I gave directions in broad gestures and mangled Creole to the backhoe operator who wore a wool skullcap despite the heat. A quartet of women scurried across the site to snatch roots the bulldozer uncovered — it’s the basic ingredient of charcoal. Wannabe day laborers lounged in a circle — we hired two at $4 a day to hand dig the latrine pit. With construction under way as orderly as Haiti allows, I corralled the dozen or so children under a straggly tree and distributed the books.
I reserved “Ferdinand the Bull” for Dieunison, the 8-year-old boy who shadowed me every day. Dieunison was a conniving rascal, yet a useful helper — ever ready to hold the end of a tape measure when I needed a length. One day, he’d wear a starched white shirt and stiff pants, the next day rags. He said his mother lived “over there” with a nod toward town, but I never saw her. He was clever and strong, lazy and endearing. To me, all the promise and peril of 9 million Haitians were concentrated into his 70 pounds of unpredictable energy.
When we finished “Ferdinand,” I indicated it was Dieunison’s to keep. The boy looked at me in apprehension, and then set it on the pile under the tree. All day long, children looked at the books, but didn’t take any.
Our excavation grew deeper; our book pile remained tall. A child sat cross-legged on the dirt with a volume, pointed out letters and studied pictures. If another child elbowed in, kicking, clawing and screaming ensued. But once finished, he returned the book to the pile.
I thought children with so little would crave possessions, but their interest in the books extended only so far as actually using one. Perhaps they had no place to keep a personal belonging. Owning something can be more a burden than pleasure to children who lack their own room, bed or even pockets.
After a week, our excavation was complete. On the last afternoon, I placed a book in each child’s hand and they ran off. In 15 subsequent visits to Grand Goave, through sweat-soaked days of digging and moonlit nights of pouring concrete, I never laid eyes on those books again.
I don’t ascribe nobility to their disinterest in material possession. But like so many experiences in Haiti, great and small, I appreciated the altered perspective the children gave me. There’s a logical simplicity to claiming something during use, without assuming the burden of ownership.
Paul E. Fallon, architect and public speaker, is author of, “Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life.”
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 12, 2015, was corrected Jan. 13, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that ’s niece and her three boys live in Dumont, N.J. They live in DuPont, Pierce County.