Seventeen Gourdes

July 9, 2011

Yesterday, Joegodson travelled to Saut d’Eau for the funeral of his grandmother, Deland’s mother. It was an unsettling experience, and yet entirely predictable. After he had recounted it at length, I asked if he would like us to write about it here. He said yes, because the story has a moral. Moreover, our conversations often lead towards some variation of this theme, this lesson.

His grandmother was very old. She was blind. She needed an arm to hold onto even to move across the room. She lived alone. Her little house in Saut d’Eau was falling apart; the mortar that the peasants concoct to hold the stones in place had been disintegrating for some time. It was getting dangerous. Deland and Joegodson had planned to repair it. Then Deland died and Joegodson had even more pressing concerns when Joenaara was born. But the situation of his grandmother in Saut d’Eau has been constantly on his mind.

Burying her son Deland earlier this year was unbearable for her. She suffered a stroke recently and stopped speaking. A little over a week ago, she stopped eating until her body expired. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t speak. But Joegodson was afraid that she could hear. It was what she heard as she was dying that eats away at Joegodson.

She had six children. Five remain. The youngest daughter lives in Port-au-Prince; four live in Saut d’Eau. She has dozens of grandchildren. As a young woman, she bought a piece of land for seventeen gourdes – just a few pennies. Today it is valued at 14,000 Haitian dollars ($1,700.00) She wanted the plot to go to her youngest daughter in Port-au-Prince who otherwise would have no land in Saut d’Eau and would lose her connection to her birthplace. The other plots of land that the grandmother had owned are in the possession of the other children. However, this final plot was especially valued. Saut d’Eau is a very important cultural and spiritual centre in Haiti. Next week, Haitians will make the annual pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau to ask favours of the Virgin Mary (Catholic) or Erzulie Dantor (Vodou) who was said to have appeared there in the nineteenth century. A centrally located plot of land (fertile as well) in Saut d’Eau can be highly profitable. (Imagine owning an acre of land adjacent to Niagara Falls.) The eldest daughter, Joegodson’s aunt, wanted it for her family. And so the family divided into camps, each vying for the property. The struggle for the plot of land has become so acrimonious that no words pass between the two basic groups. When Deland was buried, his eldest sister watched the funeral from her yard because she refused to be in the presence of those who refused to accede to her claims to the property. Joegodson’s grandmother was too disheartened to enter the argument raging around her. Dis – heartened. Her blood pressure rose to cause the stroke. She stopped eating to stop her heart from beating.

She died two days ago. There are no morgues in the countryside and so the funerals have to take place soon after death. Such was the case with his grandmother. Normally, the plot of land should have been sold to pay for the funeral if no other means were available. But, the plot was neither sold to pay for the funeral nor left to the youngest daughter. Joegodson travelled to Saut d’Eau yesterday morning and returned to Port-au-Prince in the evening.

Joegodson couldn’t bear to see his grandmother disrespected in death. The funeral was stingy. There were two groups. One group of forty people was present as the body was buried. The other group, including the eldest daughter, was a distance away looking on. He knew that his grandmother had been aware that her children were fighting over the property as she lay dying. People were now at her funeral but were focused on the land. Not his grandmother.

There was no ceremony. He insisted that they sing the traditional hymns for internment. A couple of people were crying. They started hollering that it was the other group that had caused the situation. It was a mess.

Joegodson spoke an extemporaneous eulogy. He asked people to stop hollering recriminations. He told them that these were battle cries whereas they should be tears of respect for the matriarch. He chastised all of his relatives for their avarice and their inhumanity towards their mother and grandmother. He refused all ‘sides’ in the coming war over the land.

He said that they have divided themselves and they are all the poorer for it. They have taken a beautiful place and turned it into hell. No one denied it. No one said anything. Everyone looked at the ground until he had finished. Then they put his grandmother in the ground. No one spoke. At best, the words will remain suspended. But at least they are in the air.

Today, he is back in Delmas 33 with Joenaara and Antonia. He says that Joenaara is starting to show disinterest in Antonia’s milk. He thinks she’s preparing to join the rest of us at the mercy of the market for food. “She’s going to be sorry,” he says.

It’s hard to live with the tragedy of his grandmother’s final passage. After all her life, a simple gesture of paying someone seventeen gourdes for a plot of land overshadowed raising children and grandchildren, keeping them alive and healthy through sometimes desparate situations. Joegodson fears that she heard her children fighting over her little plot of land literally over her deathbed.

He remembers his aunt, separated from her mother’s burial and standing with her group down in a valley at Saut d’Eau. Her future, she thinks, depends upon that plot of land. She thinks that she can build a future that ignores the past. She is like the great majority of our species all over the planet. Joegodson thinks that the only future worth living can be accessed only through the past. People think that the future is in one direction and the past in another. They are wrong, because it is one direction only that leads to both the past and the future. It is reconciliation … honesty … humility … equality.

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