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28139: Craig (news) The Country Between Us (fwd)
From: Dan Craig
From /The New York Times/ Magazine Section
Sunday, March 19, 2006
The Country Between Us
By KATHIE KLARREICH
There was no earthly explanation, when I first went to Haiti as a tourist in
1986, why it felt like home. The maze of market women and the taxis, like
mobile artwork that moved through piles of rotting garbage — it was nothing
like the tree-lined, manicured streets of the Cleveland suburb where I grew up.
But I smiled back at the people who smiled at me, a white woman walking and
sweating just like them.
Two years later, I returned to buy handicrafts to sell at my store in San
Francisco, but instead of wooden trays and papier-mâché, the Haitians were
dealing in bullets and machine guns. I had inadvertently arrived during a coup
d'état, and my plans changed. Instead of staying for three months, I ended up
staying for 10 years, eventually becoming a journalist.
My Haitian community began with the street kids, skinny, intrepid boys with
unusual names: Wawa, Fatil, Eril, Ayiti, Ti David. I didn't have children, and
they didn't have parents, so we became a family of sorts. I bought them
mattresses and shoes, and they taught me Haitian street smarts and Creole. On
the days that I felt homesick, they made me laugh, though I was the one with a
roof over my head. They were living in the charred courtyard of St. Jean Bosco
Church, best known for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the bespectacled priest who
embodied the hope that one day they could know a life better than the leftovers
they survived on. But the priest let them down, and the kids scattered.
Soon I fell in love with a Haitian musician and Vodou drummer, Jean Raymond. We
married and had a son, although not in that order. Kadja, who is named for a
Vodou chant, considers himself black. When he was young, his Haitian
grandmother made him breakfasts of fried spaghetti with ketchup or bread dunked
in a syrupy coffee diluted with milk and sugar. When he wanted to get my
attention, he said, "Mom-mom-mom-mom," like the rat-a-tat-tat of the gunfire
that I was worried would wake him in the middle of the night, or worse. Now,
when he has something important to say, he just calls me Kati, the way the
The year that Kadja turned 7 and that I had a gun held to my head for the third
time, we moved to safety in Miami. But Kadja, now 14, respects his roots. On
Haitian Flag Day, he wears a Haitian bandanna to remind people that he is not
as white as he appears. He speaks Creole when he wants to say something private
in front of his Hispanic friends and French if he must. If he doesn't do his
homework, he says, "Se pa fot mwen," a Creole expression for "It's not my
fault," as if this has been done to him rather than something he should take
responsibility for. He unconsciously taps out Vodou rhythms at the dinner
table, an inherent gift from his father.
We still maintain a home in Port-au-Prince, where Jean Raymond's band and music
school are based. Jean Raymond comes and goes; I go and come — I've been there
three times in the last 12 weeks to cover the unstable political scene. But
Kadja hasn't been there, hasn't seen his Haitian grandmother in more than a
year and a half. Before a trip last month, Kadja wrapped his strong arms around
me and said, "It's O.K. that you go, Kati, because you love Haiti, and it's
your job, but if you don't mind, I want to wait for the kidnappings to stop
before I go back."
I nodded, afraid that I would start to cry. It breaks my heart to agree with
him, but he knows how volatile Port-au-Prince continues to be. And I am
thankful that he doesn't face the challenges — the poverty, drugs and political
violence — that young men his age in Haiti have to face.
I had a very difficult reminder of this on another recent trip: I ran into
Wawa, one of the boys I helped and who helped me nearly 18 years ago. He is now
a strapping man with a son of his own. When he saw me, his beefy arms lifted me
up and twirled me around. "Kati, Kati," he smiled. He is making his living as a
pickpocket; his deft hands defy his bulk. "Se pa fot mwen," he said. The news
about the other boys wasn't good. Eril was dying of tuberculosis. Ti David,
Fatil and Ayiti were already dead.
I don't know what will happen in Haiti. I don't know when Kadja will go back or
exactly how his connection to his roots will grow. It's better for now to
protect him from the potential danger in the country that is his birthright,
but I dream about returning with him to the place I love. It's beyond my
control, se pa fot mwen, but I have to hope.
Kathie Klarreich is the author of "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and
Civil Strife in Haiti." She has reported on Haiti for Time, The Nation, The
Christian Science Monitor, NPR and NBC.