On a Sunday afternoon in October, we headed out into our Cazale neighborhood, my husband and I, with a few dozen invitations in hand to distribute. The invitations were for a Bible School event for kids, to be hosted by an incoming visiting team from our church, to be held the following Saturday. We weren’t sure if we’d find enough kids in our immediate neighborhood to give them all away.
Our first stop was right next door to our front gate.
Stevenson, one cool kid.
The home has a couple of children, but their friends always come to hang out in their yard as well, so it’s a busy place. They are funny, pesky boys….and we love the stinkers. The day after we moved into our house last fall, they dug out holes in the concrete block privacy fence that separates our yards. Giggling voices could be heard calling to us through the tunnels, and occasionally a little hand would be seen sticking out, waving to us. And then a little flower offering was left behind for us to discover. This ignited fascination and delight with my daughter, who immediately began gathering treasures to place in the tunnels. The interaction was something that made me laugh while simultaneously making my heart feel warm with acceptance and appreciation for childish wonder and creativity. It all annoyed Josye (our helper) greatly, feeling that the kids were being disrespectful and damaging property. He fussed at the kids to stop anytime he caught them. By the next afternoon, Josye had the holes packed with rock and fresh cement, and was quite satisfied with putting an end to that silliness. I’ll admit, while I was glad that the situation was back under control, I was a little disappointed. I couldn’t have imagined a better welcome to the neighborhood.
The day of tunneling. Dusty chins and peeking through.
So we handed out a few invitations to the motley crew of barefoot, grinning boys. Figuring we’d find more of the kids at the make-shift soccer field behind our house, we proceeded on.
We cut through the little banana grove on the other side of our house, walking up the beaten path to the field.
Brennon walking through the bean field-turned-banana grove, just below our kitchen window.
A few kids were there, kicking around a worn-out, hide-less soccer ball that had to be re-inflated (by mouth) every few kicks. The ball was only a week or two old. These kids LOVE soccer. The field is on a flat plain on the mountainside; it has a slant to it that allows the ball to escape down to the banana grove with any over-zealous kick (in which case, the smallest kid is usually the one selected to retrieve the ball, begrudgingly). The grass is worn away from being trampled by bare feet, flip-flops, and the occasional pair of weathered Crocs. Some kids play only wearing shorts and no shoes, while a few might be seen wearing only a pair of flip-flops and otherwise nude. (We assume it is laundry day at those kids’ homes.) Young kids piddle around with the ball, but are quickly shooed off by the bigger kids. Serious games are played with much intensity. Tall, lanky teenagers battle with the ball as if they were competing for the World Cup. It’s a place to forget about the harshness of their surroundings and just focus on making that ball do magic things with only the skill in their moves and swiftness of their feet. And as quick as a game of seemingly epic proportions comes together, a parent calls for the kids to come home or the heavy rain settles in, and the game is over, leaving behind a barren plot of dirt and a ratty ball.
Photo credit to Brennon with his iPhone, the handiest tool in Haiti.
This afternoon there were only a couple of kids playing on the field. Immediately beside the field is a home to a family of five. The mother was home, and called out to us, waving and smiling. Rachelle has the most beautiful smile. Her chubby baby was on her hip, as usual, and would soon be reaching once again for his momma’s breast. The family’s meager home has walls constructed from woven coconut tree leaves and sticks, a dirt floor, and a tarp for a roof. It was a nice, new tarp, I noticed and discreetly pointed out. My husband reminded me that it used to be ours. Oh, yes…during the last big storm, the thread-bare tarp that they were using was damaged beyond repair and the Rachelle’s husband asked if we had one to spare. It looked like he had gotten it secured well onto their tiny two-room home. We exchanged pleasantries with Rochelle and her children, and then discussed the upcoming Bible School event. Her oldest child, a boy around 10 years old, was wide-eyed and eager to have an invitation in his hand. Somewhat shy and exceptionally respectful, Jonsle happily affirmed that he would most certainly be attending, along with his little brother. The brother was unimpressed with the idea and a little weirded out that white people were hanging out at his home. But then I offered to take their pictures, and the level of excitement rose a few notches.
Just a little shy and a little unsure.
Photographs are a prized possession in rural Haiti. Getting photographed and seeing your image on a 1-inch square on the back of a camera is entertaining, but to have a printed photo to display in your home is a whole different creature. Brennon had purchased a small photo printer in the U.S. and brought it with us back to Haiti. I asked Rachelle if she would like a family portrait to keep. It was an ideal moment – the whole family was there and I had my camera. Oh, my goodness, was that momma thrilled! She abruptly stood her toddler on the ground and ran into the house to change into a clean shirt. Shocked and feeling abandoned, the toddler began to cry and followed after her. A pair of pants was tossed out the door to the younger brother, who didn’t know what in the world was going on as he stood there in his casual attire of a t-shirt and undies. A few minutes later, once everyone was dressed and ready, I lined up the family, trying to ease their awkwardness. A detail to understand is that in Haiti, it is the social norm to absolutely NOT smile for a photo. I don’t know why, but I have battled this custom with my plea for smiles and every goofy face and sound I can muster. But this was not necessary for Rachelle. Her smile, bright with her ivory-white teeth, lit up my lens. Papa and the kids required a little prodding, and it took a few tries to get (nearly) everyone looking at the camera. But we did it. A printed family portrait was promised to be delivered in just a few days, and the expectant excitement in that momma’s eyes will always be etched in my memory as she nodded yes to understanding the explanation we gave of the process to create this keepsake.
Fedi and Rachelle with their children.
Seeing that we had several invitations still to hand out, Rachelle asked if we wanted her help to find some of the neighborhood kids. Thinking she was just going to point us in the right direction, we were humbly awestruck as she began leading us down narrow paths to homes we didn’t even realize existed. She told us who lived in each house, and would verify with whoever was home as to how many children they had. A mixture of houses was along this maze of paths – houses constructed of sticks and mud, some of concrete blocks. A few had outhouses, some had a separate structure for a cooking area (quite an upgrade from open-air cooking in the yard), but all of the houses had families to call them home.
Renald in front of his family's home.
It was during this walk from home to home, neighbor to neighbor, that I had a profound revelation. This. This right here was what my living in Cazale was all about. And I almost missed it. Less than two weeks from departing Haiti to return home to the U.S., I found myself on a barely visible path, meeting my neighbors. Not just the curious ones that sought us out like the kids next door to us. These were our neighbors, the people within a five-minute walk from our back door. Some faces I recognized and a few were even people that we call friends. But we had no idea that they – let alone anyone – lived on this mountainside so close to us. Yet every single one of them knew us, knew who we were and where we lived. That. That realization right there nearly took me to my knees as I walked those paths.
With a camera in my hand, sweat running down my back, and a friendly smile on my face to greet each person we encountered, I realized that those incredible, ordinary people – our neighbors – were a treasure that I almost missed. With each detail of their lives that I was privileged to get to observe, my appreciation deepened for the hard, simple, beautiful life of the people in Cazale. With each step along those paths, attempting to avoid the mud and the animal dung, my heart grew so full that I could barely maintain my composure.
Needless to say, we handed out every one of those invitations. We shook some hands and had small talk, like neighbors do. I took a few photos and shared in the fascination of the kids as they admired their captured images on that tiny, digital screen. One lady in particular, a sweet friend of my husband’s, was ecstatic to have her portrait made at her home. In fact, she started whipping off her grungy shirt to change into a fresh one before we could excuse ourselves from her home’s main room. Childlike excitement combined with pride as she posed for the photo. So much fun….for all of us.
Rosita, proud homeowner.
Marilude and her baby boy.
Marilude's daughter, in the middle of getting her hair combed.
We thanked Rachelle and headed home. Through our gate and up our steps overlooking the soccer field, we went inside our house where my husband and I simply collapsed into a hug and felt the fullness of this gift we had just been given. It was just an hour during an average Sunday afternoon….and it will forever be treasured in my heart.