I am in Haiti for the third time. Unlike the first two times, when I traveled here for work, this time I am here for pleasure. Though it’s possibly a stereotype, it’s possibly also true: I may, in fact, be the only white person traveling to visit family. And yet, here I am.
My fiance is Haitian-American, and before our wedding we have decided to venture down to Haiti together to visit family who may not be able to make the trek north for our big day. Visas are a challenge; age is another barrier. Us young and agile Americans make up the difference by taking our own pre-honeymoon to Haiti’s Caribbean waters.
My fiance has a friend in town who we visit on the way to Marvin’s grandparents’ house. Ames is an old family friend who merits his own stop. When we pull up to his house, lined with coconut trees and kids kicking cans down the street, our traveling exhaustion dissipates. We are instantly rejuvenated.
Inside the house are numerous children; two of them Marvin does not know. Their skin is darker than that of the other children. Their eyes face downward; they say little. When Marvin asks who they are, Ames waves the question away. “They’re just some kids we know from the oceanside…” he trails off. Marvin looks at me, quietly, as if to say, “get ready for a different angle of Haiti.”
We watch these children carry buckets of water much heavier than they are. They couldn’t be older than seven or eight, yet their little bodies are muscled and lean. As the day cools into evening, I take the little girl aside and show her the stash of nail polish that I have brought to Haiti. The pinks, silvers and glitter colors were a hit the last few times I was here. Marvin encouraged me to bring them again. The girl’s eyes glimmer when she sees the colors I’ve picked this time: hot pink, bright yellow, a purple that I’ve possibly never seen in the natural world. “Eske ou vle pentire zong ou?” I ask her. “Do you want to paint your nails?” She nods, quietly.
Marvin joins us in the kitchen and watches and I take her to the sink and carefully wash the dirt away from her hands. We sit down and my nail salon opens. As I alternate the colors on her nails, we hear the sounds of hand on skin out in the back patio. The little boy has grown so thin that his old pants have fallen down his waist, and he is getting punished for his attire. Each harsh slap rains down harder than the last. I brush a tear as I paint, and Marvin sees the look of horror that I try to hide from my face. When do you stand up for something that you feel in your heart is wrong? When do you sweep those feelings under the rug, knowing that they are driven purely by culture?
When we finish, the little girl’s nails are fabulous. She dangles them in front of her face and looks at them over and over. It becomes apparent that she’s never had a manicure before. I ask her which color is her favorite, and she points to the bright, almost fluorescent yellow. I tell her she can keep it if she’d like. Her face lights up. It is as if I have offered this girl a new car.
As she takes this bottle of polish into her small hands, you can tell she has no idea what to do with it. It is possibly her only possession. Her bed is a cot in the hallway that people sit on in the afternoon for extra seating while watching TV. She has no privacy. Where would she make room for her new belonging?
We know Ames runs a strict household, and we know children (his children; all children) can be cruel. We also know that Ames has a lot of respect for Marvin, and so we figure the best thing to do is to approach him about the nail polish and let him know that it was a gift from us and that we want her to keep it, in case there is any confusion.
When we tell Ames what we did, his face turns cold. “No,” he says, “That’s not acceptable.” He rants about how girls are flaunting their bodies too much, how they have no tact, how they wear makeup and paint their nails way too early and it’s unbecoming of them. Five minutes turns into ten as he rages on, exclaiming that he will scrub the paint off of this girl’s nails; that they will be clean by the end of the night. There is a part of me that is grateful for my limited Kreyol, as I know I don’t want to hear the bulk of what he says. Yet the anger in his voice speaks volumes.
That night, I cry for these two young children, who have lived without loving parents or family. In trying to make life better for them, I made it worse. In wanting to stand up for them, I did nothing. I was the bystander of the worst kind, and I felt helpless. Sometimes, even a bottle of nail polish can’t battle years of culture.
Though this aspect of Haiti is extremely difficult for me, I still love the country and its people. As a visitor, my impression of Haiti was as an exotic, exciting and entirely new world. Now I am beginning to see it through the eyes of a closer family member. I have a stronger grasp of its strengths and its challenges, and a closer, more personal connection to its culture. I do not assume I know everything; but rather, that I have so much more to learn.
To learn more about how you can help restavek children in Haiti, please visit a wonderful organization called Restavek Freedom. It advocates for the better treatment of domestic child servants who are often abused and, many times, withheld from school.