June 6, 2010
by Joegodson and Paul
A change has come over Deland. People see it and come to sit with him in front of what is left of his home. His children, friends, and neighbours notice that everyday he is thinner than the day before. Everyone is losing weight, but they are afraid that Deland is losing hope. It is when people weaken that those around them realize just how strong they have always been … how much they have cared … how important they are.When his friends come to sit with him, Deland talks about the past. He talks to his son Joegodson about the hopes he once had. He is speaking of hope as though it were something he once knew.
The earthquake did not shake his faith in his belief that he could help his family. But we think that his world has come tumbling down with the knowledge that he can’t. What happened?
Deland was born in 1954 in Saut d’Eau, a beautiful and poor rural enclave in the central plateau of Haiti. He and his sisters were raised by his mother who had seven small plots of land in the area. Peasant families have always preferred to diversify their land holdings since they can cultivate different crops in different areas even within one region. Mountains, valleys, irrigated and arid plots can be planted to harvest distinct crops in different seasons. Like everyone in Saut d’Eau, Deland was born a peasant. But Deland’s mother decided that her young son would learn a skill that might allow him to complement his agricultural work. With a skill, he might earn enough money to buy the necessities that were not produced locally. She raised a goat that she offered to a local tailor in exchange for accepting Deland as an apprentice. And so Deland developed a useful skill.
Deland was surprised to find himself the object of the attention of the prettiest young woman in Saut d’Eau, the daughter of a family better off than his own. Many local youths presented themselves in their best clothing, hoping to make a good impression upon Cecile and her parents. However, Cecile had decided to marry for love and Deland had already caught her attention. She boldly invited him to come to meet her parents. She pointed out the faults in the other suitors until her parents came to see that only the young man from the poorest of Saut d’Eau’s families was left. But Deland was ashamed of his poverty and was – and remains – timid by nature. One day, Cecile’s parents went to Deland to ask why he had stopped visiting. He nervously replied that he felt unworthy. They told him that they had decided he was a good and decent man. To the great joy of both the youths, they encouraged Deland to continue to court Cecile.
Deland’s family was nominally Catholic, but in practice they were vodouist. While Deland was still courting Cecile, he and his older sister were possessed by a vodou spirit. They were driven crazy and babbled incomprehensibly. Deland’s mother went to many vodou priests, houngan, searching for a way to relieve her children of the spirit that had taken control of them. Already poor, she lost everything in the fees that the houngan charged for the remedy. For instance, one houngan told her that he would have to make a remedy out of an internal organ in her goat. While the remedy didn’t work, the houngan kept the meat from the goat for himself. And so on. Finally, his mother went to the most powerful of the local houngan who told her that vodou had no cures for the insanity that had overtaken her children. He advised her that the only answer to her predicament was to enter a Protestant sect that had some followers in Saut D’Eau. And so Deland’s mother swore to God that she would become Christian. Deland and his sister recovered their sanity and became, along with their mother, followers of Jesus Christ.
Throughout this ordeal, Cecile continued to love Deland and to believe that he would recover. They married in Saut D’Eau in 1981. The following year, their first child, Jhony, was born. In 1983, their second arrived: Joegodson. As his mother had assured that Deland would have a skill to complement his farm work, he now began to consider what future his little boys might have in Saut d’Eau. He and Cecile would never have much land to offer them. Moreover, in Saut d’Eau, there were no schools. Deland had great hopes for his children. He dreamt that they might enter the professions. He saw them as doctors and lawyers. Cecile was as proficient a couturier as Deland was a tailor. Together, in Port-au-Prince, they might establish a business that would allow them to educate their children. Having never known anything but peasant life, it would be a great adventure. Both agreed that it was worth the risk. So, in 1988, Deland put Johnny and Joegodson into the straw sack that hung from the back of his donkey. On the other side of the donkey’s back were his provisions. He set off for Port-au-Prince to establish himself as a tailor. After a short while, when it seemed that he would not necessarily fail, he sent for Cecile and together they made the only home they would ever know. It was in a little neighbourhood in Simon, on the edge of Cite Soleil.
Deland built their home according to the customs in Saut d’Eau. His new neighbours – also displaced peasants from other parts of Haiti – offered their help. His little home was typical of the neighbourhood. It had two rooms: a living space where Deland and Cecile both worked as tailor and couturier and a bedroom where everyone slept. Eventually, as the family prospered in Simon, they would share the small bedroom with their seven children. By local standards, they were doing well.
Both Cecile and Deland earned reputations as highly skilled in the needle trades. Fortunately, the local Catholic population had rituals demanding special uniforms to mark each child’s rite of passage into the sacraments: baptism, first communion, confirmation, as well as the popular celebration on December 24. Deland and Cecile worked for their neighbours who were, like them, having children. Cecile became renowned for her children’s clothing. Deland was specializing in school uniforms. While many people were buying pepe (second-hand clothing sent from North America that is sold on the street corners) at cut-rate prices, those who wanted something special would come to them. People would sometimes come to Deland and Cecile to have their pepe altered to fit their bodies. Never did either Deland or Cecile have to enter the sweatshops that Clinton promoted during his presidency and that he continues to promote in the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of Haiti.
Throughout the 1990s, the country was in constant political turmoil. Their own neighbourhood was the most affected in the country. It was consistently one of the global hotspots: a tiny, poor enclave where people innocently claimed the right to determine their own lives, not realizing at first that simply taking care of their families could provoke violent responses from those whose profits depend on the desperation of the poor. Cecile and Deland saw their neighbours attacked in the streets and in their homes for denouncing the military dictatorship that the CIA had sponsored. Many were killed. The Americans under Bush senior and Clinton, working with the Haitian oligarchy, opposed to the very things that had brought Deland and Cecile to Port-au-Prince: education and a better life for their children as well as a more prosperous economy based on the exchange of goods produced locally. While they tried to avoid the politics, their lives were the incarnation of what was understood in Haiti as a political goal: ”poverty with dignity.” They were working with their neighbours to develop an economy and a society that was based on love for their children and hope for their future. They were building their new homes in konbit: in cooperation with each other. Deland and Cecile thought they could hide from politics. But politics has found Deland.In 1999, Cecile and Deland were expecting their eighth child. They had succeeded according to the dreams that they had dared to dream back in Saut d’Eau. Jhony and Joegodson were in high school in Cite Soleil. They would be able to continue on their merit as exceptional students. The next three children were in primary school and doing well. Finally, they cared for a toddler and an infant at home. Cecile and Deland kept everyone on track while working full-time. Then, Cecile fell sick. She and the unborn baby died together.
In no time, Deland understood that the old hopes were shattered. They had dreamt their dreams together. Alone, he could not keep them alive. There was probably no way he could have prepared himself for the situation he now faced.
He could not afford to pay the school fees for Johnny and Joegodson and the three younger schoolchildren. He could not afford to feed seven children without Cecile’s income and domestic work. Johnny and Joegodson would have to leave school and learn trades, as had Deland decades earlier in Saut d’Eau. The two youngest, an infant son and a toddler Gloria, were sent to an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets. Deland kept the three middle children at home. They now had to help with the domestic chores while he continued his work as a tailor to keep them in school.
Everyone had to adapt to the new situation. But there would be no substitution for Cecile’s love and care. Like the earthquake, the death of Cecile was followed by aftershocks that complicated the adjustments that Deland had been forced to make. As he tried to cope with raising three children alone and tracking the welfare of the others who were now living outside the family, he received his first painful visit. In the arms of an orphanage employee was his little daughter Gloria, who had suffered a catastrophic fall and was now forever retarded in her infancy. Her needs were beyond the capacity of the orphanage. Having tried to find an equilibrium that he could manage, Deland instead found himself having to learn how to be both father and nurse to a child who would never be able to perform even the most elementary functions independently. He had come to Port-au-Prince to be able to offer his children an education. Now, he stood on his doorstep holding in his arms a little girl who would never be able to learn to speak.
Cecile’s death could not put an end to her presence. Over the years, as the children grew in different parts of Port-au-Prince, they tried to help Deland. Whereas Cecile and Deland had sacrificed all for their children, now the children found themselves learning to sacrifice for each other and for Deland.
Before the earthquake struck, Gloria’s health had begun to fail and no one yet understands what is happening. Several times a day, she falls to the ground screaming, her body convulsing violently. It is painful for her siblings and for Deland, especially because no one knows what is happening and if there is a way to help her. Gloria has developed only a rudimentary consciousness and has never been able to communicate. Since the earthquake, her fits have become more frequent and intense, leaving everyone unsettled.Deland’s oldest daughter gave birth shortly before the quake, bringing another mouth to feed into the home. It was painful for Deland, as it was for his daughter, that he never met the father: a vakabon with no sense of responsibility. Worse, the second daughter is expecting to give birth soon. While in her case the young father acknowledged paternity, since the earthquake he has stopped speaking of assuming responsibility and seldom presents himself. Jhony now has a baby girl. Her mother has three children from her husband who is no longer present. Jhony now assumes the role of father for the children abandoned by another man along with his ten-month-old daughter.Last year, Deland began to see a woman from the church. It was the first time since the death of Cecile ten years earlier that Deland had begun to form an intimate relationship. Middle-aged, of modest income and a surfeit of children including a severely handicapped daughter, Deland did not think himself an attractive prospect. But he began to find comfort with a middle-aged widow of very modest means who had, co-incidentally, seven children. Finally, they abandoned any notion of forming a union, imagining that they would be simply doubling their problems that were already overwhelming.
The home that Cecile and Deland built twenty years ago in Simon did not fall in the earthquake. It was too solid. However, it has been crumbling away since. Now, the walls have mostly fallen away. There is no real distinction between the exterior and interior. The family now sleeps under tarpaulins that they have bought from the local street vendors. Jhony had returned several years ago to his birth neighbourhood where he has worked in difficult circumstances – along with many others – to try to achieve the kind of community envisioned by Deland, Cecile, and the other peasants who settled there a gernation ago. Before the earthquake, it was almost impossible. Now, it is much worse.
For the last ten years, Deland has suffered from hypertension. He survived a couple of heart attacks, always regaining his strength to imagine how he might help his children prepare the best possible future. But about a month ago, Deland became very sick. He is no longer able to work. Joegodson took him to see a doctor. He has rashes on his skin that are so irritating that he is not able to wear a shirt. Many people are sick and the doctors have offered no diagnosis or effective treatment. They gave him a oigntment that did not relieve the discomfort. Everyone wonders if the disease is related to the flies that have invaded Simon: species that no one has ever seen before. Moreover, there are more mosquitoes that anyone can remember seeing.Deland tried to imagine how to help his family after the quake. When months passed and no help came to his neighbourhood in Simon, he asked his son Joegodson if Paul might be able to help. Deland assumed that Paul, a white man from a rich country, would be able to alert some authorities to the desperate situation that he and his neighbours were facing. The earthquake had compounded the already difficult life that Deland has faced every day for ten years. Now, he has to do it without water, without the home he built, and with no money to buy food for his children and grandchildren. So, Joegodson and Paul wrote a number of articles detailing precisely the situation that Deland and his 3,000 neighbours face. We wrote repeatedly to the major NGOs operating in Haiti, to Canadian parliamentarians, to all of the major media. Repeatedly. That process began seven weeks ago. Nothing whatsoever has come of it.
Everyone is worried about Deland. It can’t be that he loses hope. Deland has carried on loving his family even without Cecile. He has tried his best to protect his children and grandchildren in the face of violence, scarcity, poverty, disease, and enormous disappointments. If Deland is really losing hope, then Haiti has no future.