Thursday, December 6, 2007

Walls: created in mortar and mentality

Here is one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a Chilean theologian, at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall.

We are aware that another gigantic wall is being constructed in the third world, to hide the reality of the poor majorities. A wall between the rich and the poor is being built, so that poverty does not annoy the powerful and the poor are obliged to die in the silence of history… a wall of disinformation… is being built to casually pervert the reality of the Third World.

I had an experience the other day that made me go ugh and really question what I am doing here.

Lovelyn’s hand.

I’ve been asking myself some serious questions lately. One of the first relates to the job offer I’ve received. It makes me question my values. In general, I try to espouse a minimalist mentality, and work for the good of folks other than just myself. But I also like to buy expensive plane tickets to visit my sister or friends in really far off weird places. And I like to have money to do a few other things like buy good books, or see an interesting movie. But mostly to travel. The difference between my lifestyle and the average Haitian is apparent when I look at my neighbors.

The woman who lives behind me, Isa, washes my clothes. I’d thought I’d take this one on myself, but after sloshing around in my pseudo-bathtub for half a Saturday morning when I first arrived, I was relieved when she offered to sell her clothes-washing services! (I have to say, I still wash my own undies, and once a week they are hanging all over my apartment, adorning every doorknob in sight. It’s just too much for me for somebody else to be hand-scrubbing my undies!)

Isa’s husband, Gustav, is the groundskeeper in the little compound where I live. Isa and Gustav have a couple really cute kids and one of them, Lovelyn, is about 4. Lovelyn and her sister Katilyn have in the past bounced into my apartment uninvited, when I really want to eat my dinner in peace, or do my goofy sit-ups on the floor without gawking Haitian kids. At first I hadn’t known what to do, so I just went about my business, while the girls sat on my couch or looked at my books.

Later during an evening with a few American acquaintances though, the subject of where and how to set personal limits came up. These other folks’ stories really took the cake! One American woman had a security guard who broke into her house and was making himself eggs in her kitchen. (The typical security guard here hangs out outside, and doesn’t have keys to the house!) Another chica came home to find the security guy of her house wrapped in her towel, lying in her bed!! I brought up my very-friendly neighbors, and received some encouragement from the group that it’s ok to nicely remind the girls that sometimes it’s time to go home.

So the next evening I got surprise visitors in my living room, I gave little Lovelyn and Katilyn a mini-explanation: “In my country, people do this.” Knock knock knock! “Then I come to the door while you wait, in case I was naked or busy or something, I open the door, and then you come in.” The explanation, which was in French and I’m not sure they understood, kinda worked.

Last Saturday, I went to drop off a few hangars to Isa. She and about four other women were in her yard washing clothes. As I left, I made a subtle attempt to avert future unexpected visitors, and was closing the gate between our two yards.

Lovelyn had followed me to the gate, stuck her hand in it, and I accidentally crunched her fingers as I closed the gate. She screeched and started crying. The ladies hunched in Isa’s yard stopped washing their clothes and looked at me. Of course I felt like ****. I profusely apologized in blobbery Creole to little Lovelyn and tried to explain I hadn’t seen her hand. But I was haunted as I walked away but what was I doing anyway, why was there a need to put a wall between me and them? And my favorite quote above eerily ran through my head. I haven’t seen Lovelyn since.

On the other side of the fence Isa and team continued to wash away, hopefully Lovelyn’s hand didn’t swell, and I wondered what they thought of privileged white girls who got to spend their Saturday’s reading books while they worked away.

1 comment:

Jerba Mate.. said...

Kate, this is beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing.