Haiti: Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle

Kent Annan | Author | Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Haiti: Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle

EDITOR'S NOTE: Author Kent Annan and his wife, Shelly, moved to Haiti in 2003 to go into ministry. They spent their first nine months living with a Haitian family with no amenities -- including running water, electricity, and privacy. The following is an excerpt from his book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously (IVP). This chapter chronicles their first few months of culture shock as they learned more about Haiti's people, land, and culture.


This morning Shelly and I lie under a mosquito net and whisper as pigeons scratch and coo on the corrugated tin roof. Cocks crow, mangy dogs bark and a grandmother with a tattered dress and a nine-tooth smile sweeps fallen mango leaves from the ground just outside our door. The ecstatic drumbeats from an all-night Vodou fete had stopped. The seven insect bites on my ankles itch, and I worry the mosquitoes might have injected into my bloodstream lymphatic filarial parasites (tiny worms, basically) that would trigger the extreme enlargement and deformation of my scrotum—a malady apparently not uncommon in this region.

Today, a Friday in January 2003, I turn thirty. We've been here for a couple of weeks since first landing in Port-au-Prince and then, twenty-four hours later, settling into this eight-by-ten-foot room with a bed, chair, small table, gas lamp and a three-gallon water filter. The room is one of four in a square concrete house that we share with three generations of a Haitian family. The decorations they've provided for us include a calendar with slinky pop star Shakira in leather pants holding a Pepsi, and two identical cloth prints of a porcelain-skinned Jesus with reddish hair holding a tiny lamb.

Minutes after stepping outside this morning, I hear activity in a nearby field and walk over. Laughing boisterously, a neighbor named Frefre hands me his six-foot-long hoe, its smooth handle made from a tree branch. Suddenly I am working in a farm field for the first time in my life, preparing holes that would receive three seeds of pwa konni (a type of bean). With each swing, the soft skin of my hands feels a harsh, rewarding tug.

I return home for breakfast prepared by Grandma and the two sisters: coffee ground by mortar and pestle, and spaghetti noodles with a thin, oily tomato sauce. I give my last bites to Frefre's nephew, an eleven-year-old boy named David who had just helped teach me how to swing a hoe. All food is shared here, the plates passed around during a meal until family, friends and even animals have eaten.

After breakfast I accept from Frefre two plump fransik mangoes: a thank-you, I think, for my clumsy labor in his field. Wearing only a blue-and-white-checked school shirt, a rambunctious four-year-old boy sprints past with his penis bouncing merrily along. He is going to fetch a gallon of water at a pump a hundred yards down the dirt path. He's the second-youngest member of the family we're staying with. Their yard (called a lakou) is a quarter acre of dirt and pebbles with many tropical trees—coconut, mango, lime and others. Lush shades of green give the illusion of prosperity.

In addition to the concrete main house, the lakou has a second house of woven wood and an outhouse of palm leaves. Six turkeys, three chickens, two roosters and four guinea hens peck away incessantly in search of seeds. Tied to the trees are a goat and a calf, which I'm told serve as investments or insurance policies, to be sold when money is tight. Two dogs and a cat hover at mealtimes. The family includes a grandfather, grandmother, two adult daughters, a son-in-law, an adult niece, four grandchildren between four and twelve years old who belong to daughters living elsewhere, and the niece's baby.

Woshdlo, our tiny village, is a few hours outside Port-au-Prince. We chose to come with Beyond Borders largely because of this first requirement of living in a rural Haitian community as learners. Then we can integrate into the organization's work in education, literacy, teacher training and children's rights—supporting Haitians' efforts to improve their own lives. I've had enough experience elsewhere to know too many organizations and missions consist of foreigners coming in with the power to make decisions about people's lives before knowing anything. This way is more humble and realistic—and interesting. Hopefully it pays off in the long run with better understanding and thus more effective helping. But right now the intense, thorough immersion leaves little time for reflection. Though at least once a day something I see jolts me to think, I can't believe how poor they are.

Late this morning Frefre invites me to help him take a small bull to get water, and I keep control of the animal though it pulls me through a muddy canal. Then I take his large female cow (with horns) to get water. When the cow suddenly starts running, I sprint to keep up, yanking futilely on the rope. Frefre starts screaming something to me in Creole. I can't understand and have no idea whether releasing his cow will send it on a child-maiming rampage, lose the cow forever, or be perfectly logical and harmless. The rope is burning my hands and the cow is running too fast for me to keep up, so I have no choice but to hope his cries of "Lage l! Lage l!" mean "Let it go! Let it go!"

The story dashes through the village. I soon begin showing my palms to any who want to see how trying to rein in a runaway cow affects soft pink hands. I don't mind. Five hundred years ago Africans began to be imported to this island to bear the burns and calluses and burdens while soft pink hands counted the profits.

Back at the house, Shelly gives me a tin coffee cup for my birth-day—to drink our filtered water—along with a card that she'd decorated with drawings of everyone we live with, including the animals.


Lunch is dense, boiled plantains covered in another oily sauce with a few small chunks of beef. This area has relatively rich soil and adequate water. People are poor and struggling, but when the weather is right and there aren't any blights, they get by with their crops of sugar cane, corn, beans and plantains. But some families don't have good garden plots, and it's not hard to imagine a time when the rains won't come. When that happens, the people here in this area would be poor and hungry, like many other Haitians.

After lunch a middle-aged woman walks by on the path, a large kivet overflowing with provisions balanced atop her head. She is barefoot and wearing an attractive though slightly ragged cream-colored dress, cut just below the knee and not zipped up all the way in back. I imagine the dress being given to a secondhand store years ago by an American businesswoman. Used-clothing imports can make for funny juxtapositions, like a woman carrying a heavy load of vegetables on her head to the market in the hot sun, sweating profusely, wearing a shirt that says "It's a Hunny of a Day" under a broadly smiling Winnie the Pooh. The Haitian woman in the dress doesn't look funny, though. I can't imagine the dress looking more beautiful on anyone else.

Woshdlo has received us with a generosity, warmth and patience that we find somewhat embarrassing, considering our own country's inhospitality toward Haitians. By chance, the day I resigned from my job in Princeton to move here, the New York Times featured a front-page photo of some of the two hundred Haitians who had just survived a hazardous trip to Florida's coast on a rickety boat, only to be detained like prisoners to await being sent back to the very situation they were fleeing.

Not that everyone in Haiti has offered us a warm welcome. As we walk down the muddy paths and roads, we often hear cries of "Blan!" which literally means "white" but also refers to any foreigner. People say it with curiosity or derision—or a mix of the two. Yet pale skin can just as easily open doors to special privileges. Last night two guys told me that one of their nation's founding fathers was ugly because his skin was so dark—"triple blackout black." The elite in Haiti have typically been mulatto. This afternoon, however, the same two spoke derisively of an albino Haitian because he was blan. Each time "Blan!" is hurled my way, I feel vaguely ashamed and embarrassed. My weak return volley is "My name is Kent. What's yours?"

This afternoon I invite Frefre, whose field I had worked in this morning, to play a card game I'd just been taught called kazino. He is wearing a black, hole-riddled Orlando Predators T-shirt—the only shirt I've seen him wear. The rules of the card game are simple: if you have an eight in your hand, and there's an eight on the table, you put the two eights in your pile. But he doesn't catch on. The other guys tease him. I feel bad. While we are playing, he asks if I have blisters from this morning's work in his field. Then he shows me his hands. They are like leather, cured by a lifetime of farming with hoe and machete. At the end of the game he counts his cards—slowly and not altogether accurately—to twenty-nine.

Frefre has no education, can't read or write or even—as I just awkwardly learned—count well. But he has something I envy: quiet confidence in his work. He knows exactly what he needs to do each day and does it skillfully.

We sit outside after finishing the card game. The kids are playing and doing chores. They go to school in the mornings—when it's in session and there's no teachers' strike. In the afternoons they have little supervision and regularly play with fire and machetes. It isn't uncommon to see the four-year-old boy we live with dash by with a plastic bag over his head and a machete in his hand, after playing with the cooking fire. From what I hear, it would be normal for children to be punished occasionally with a switch, though I haven't seen that happen in our Woshdlo family.

I was quickly drawn to these children. They love to sing and dance and tell stories. They've taught me the Creole words for all the vegetation and animals. They daily fetch countless gallons of water. When I accidentally broke one of their toys, a small piece of discarded plastic, the seven-year-old tried for a few minutes to fix it and then ran off to find something else to play with. A dozen rusting D-size batteries, perhaps.

But the four-year-old, the most aggressively curious and hardworking child I've ever met, can't count to three. The seven-year-old, a charming schemer, can barely sound out words in a book. When he does read, it's to memorize passages from a 1968 textbook written in French—a language he doesn't really understand and likely won't ever have reason to speak. (The echoes of colonialism are difficult to silence.)

We haven't faced anything truly heartbreaking yet, at least among our immediate acquaintances. But during a tour at the nearest hospital, which I'm told is among the best in Haiti, I heard the receptionist telling mothers with sick children, "Come back tomorrow, and maybe you'll get to see a doctor, si Dye vle"—"God willing." That is attached to the end of any statement about the future, whether plans for a meeting tomorrow morning or the harvest in three months. In this place the phrase seems alternately a statement of stark fatalism, a bitter taunt directed toward the Divine or the most unsentimental confession of faith I've ever heard.

We're quickly coming to care deeply about Grandmother, Grandfather, the daughters, son-in-law, grandchildren, Frefre, David and others we've met. A faint nausea has settled in my stomach—the fear that one of them will become severely ill. Whoever it is won't get airlifted to Miami, as I would.

After fetching some water at the source, we sit back on the porch. A man walks by wearing only shorts and carrying a machete in his hand. His body is gleaming and beautiful, each muscle sinuous and hard. My various anxieties about living in Haiti have distilled to two potent fears: mosquito-borne illnesses and imagined threats to Shelly. This culture is more openly sexually aggressive than ours, and the looks men give her, along with their unsheathed machetes and the strength of their bodies, don't calm my fears.


At dusk Shelly and I walk with members of the family through the sugar-cane fields into town. The sunset is beautiful through the coconut and mango trees, and a gigantic full moon hangs waiting at the other end of the sky. Later we make our way home through the dark, puddle-filled streets. A few vendors remain open, selling fried bread or candies, with their small stands dimly lit by candles. I count these as my birthday candles. The life expectancy for Haitian males—with infant mortality, AIDS and poverty working their cruel subtraction—is fifty-one years. Not too many candles away.


After arriving home, we sit outside under the bright moon with the family. Grandfather says, as he has every day, "I put in a hard day's work again today. All day long. Hard, hard work. I have to work all the time." And he does work hard: I've seen him planting seeds by hoe and scaling a fifty-foot coconut tree with his bare hands and feet. But his lament feels forced. Maybe he thinks we can provide access to America's wealth. A Haitian we've befriended has told us that, whether they admit it or not, "All Haitians think this way." I don't believe this is true, though I don't doubt it would be true of me, were our circumstances reversed.

Despite Grandfather's impulse to impose his patriarchal will (particularly by making Shelly eat piles of rice), he is positioning himself to receive our help, because he imagines we hold some power over him. We hold the keys to the kingdom. Everyone is using everyone else, it seems. We're using the family's hospitality to learn the language and the culture; the son-in-law uses us to show off to his friends; the grandfather uses us as an investment toward a future payoff.

This might seem cynical, but it's just real life. Cynical charity uses innocent kids and preposterous statements about changing the world for loose change—nothing else required of you. Real charity, the kind that does more than just relieve one's conscience, is more complex, more demanding. I vacillate between despair—how could we possibly be of any use here?—and trust that we're in the right place, for the right reasons, with the right people, and whatever comes of it will be for the better.

While we continue talking with Grandfather under the stars and moon, the neighborhood children gather to sing and dance and play musical chairs. I get up and dance around the chairs for a while. During a break I drink a mixture of juice and milk cooled by an ice cube that may contain parasites that will make me sick. It tastes great and would have been awkward to refuse. I check the time, and immediately a circle of young boys surround me and make me light the Indiglo dial of my watch again and again. Then I go to the outdoor shower at the back of the concrete house and, with a yellow margarine container, scoop water out of a large bucket to wash away the day's grime. The water is cold, and the moonlight shines brilliantly through the fifteen-foot-long banana leaves fanned out overhead. I never envisioned myself here at thirty, but there's no place else I would rather be today.

After saying bon nwit to everyone, I go to my room. Shelly is already asleep under the mosquito net. Staticky dance music plays on the radio in the next room; the newlywed daughter and son-in-law turn it up each night to partially cover their urgent breathing.

As I fall asleep, I occasionally jerk awake to gasp for air. This started a few days ago, like a sudden onset of sleep apnea. It's unsettling. Irrationally I wonder if someone put a curse on the new blans in town.

Drifting further into sleep, I think of Shelly, who by request earlier in the evening had acted out for the tenth time, with her few Creole words, how I was pulled through the field by the cow while Frefre yelled, "Lage l! Lage l!" "Let go! Let go!" After she was finished, I asked one of the family's relatives whether a cow had ever pulled him like that. He laughed and said, "All the time." I seem to be laughing with less restraint than during the past several years in Princeton, though of course it's far from all being happy or easy.

Taken from Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously by Kent Annan. Copyright(c) 2009 by Kent Annan. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

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