Before I left for Haiti, my boyfriend’s mother, who is from Port-au-Prince, called me to give me a quick lesson in Haitian Creole.
“Chita,” she said. “Sit.”
“Couche. Lay down.”
She paused for a minute.
“Ok. Now you’re fluent in Creole.”
I laughed. We both knew that I wasn’t fluent after knowing two words. But it’s funny how far those two words actually took me.
When I arrived in Haiti, I maybe had ten words in my vocabulary, those two included. My first few days I relied on smiling and pointing. And then, of course, the words I knew.
“Couche,” I said, for example, while pointing to myself when it was late at night. I’m going to go to bed. Now people had at least some sort of idea what was going on inside that head of mine (as if anyone else, English-speaking or not, really understands!).
In Haitian culture, having a seat is one of the most important forms of hospitality. You cannot possibly be hospitable without being able to offer your guest both food and a place to sit. There is a hierarchy of food- the guests eat first. Then the adults eat whatever is left of that. Then the children eat last. If you don’t finish your meal, it’s okay. Someone will eat it. Wherever we went, there were chairs pulled out of houses, chairs taken from bedrooms, kitchens, anywhere. Even in Darbonne, where all the homes had fallen to the ground where the earthquake struck most heavily, there were always chairs found somewhere. “Chita,” the people said to us. “Sit.”
Being able to sit in a plastic or metal or wood chair is the ultimate sign of welcome in a place where people often sit on rocks, on ledges, on the floor. Being given a chair is being offered comfort. Being told that you are important, that your clothes shouldn’t be dirtied, that we value you as we value your comfort and your appearance.
Chita means that even though there is dust and rubble everywhere, we still feel that you deserve the best.
This word was the magic word. It was my way of being grateful, of being equally hospitable to others. I could smile and pat the seat next to me and say “chita” and suddenly I would make a friend. Chita would be me telling them that I value them equally back, that I want them to be comfortable, that I want them to be happy, too. “Chita,” I could say with a smile. “Chita,” when I had no idea who that person was and didn’t even know how to introduce myself.
My Creole has been improving dramatically each day, yet “chita” is a word that I still use regularly. I look back on what Marvin’s mom, Gladyse, said to me after teaching me two words. “Now you are fluent,” she told me, with a laugh. I wonder if she realized how right she was. That the simple word “chita” could express so much in a place where comfort is rare, and comfort is everything.