A couple weekends ago, Ryan and I got a visit from a familiar face.... Marie Lourdes. She was my neighbor in Seguin. This is not the first time she has suddenly appeared at our doorstep. Two years ago, Marie Lourdes and her husband surprised us on Easter and asked that we take her immediately to the hospital because she was so sick. Last year, she and her husband showed up again, this time even sicker and in need of emergency surgery. She got the surgery, so this year, when she showed up unexpectedly, she was healthy and smiling and was accompanied by her oldest daughter, Maudeline.
There are a few things that happen to us with every visit we get from a Haitian who has travelled far to see us. The first thing that happens is that we are presented with a sack full of produce. Marie Lourdes was no exception. Even though she and her husband have lost their jobs this past year and lost their crops and livestock in Tropical Storm Isaac, she borrowed money in order to bring me a sack full of potatoes. She mourned the loss of another sack full of peas and yams that she had bought, but which was subsequently stolen from her on the tap-tap ride over the mountains. She was sad because she knew I love peas. I scolded her for borrowing money to bring me a gift and reminded her that she can show up at my house empty handed, then I thanked her and started cooking the potatoes. I knew she and Maudeline probably hadn't eaten all day, maybe not in two days.
The second thing that inevitably happens with our Haitian visitors from parts remote is that, after initial "how are you's" and some general shooting of the breeze, they nestle down into our couches and fall into a deep sleep. So, while Marie Lourdes and Maudeline caught some z's, I got busy cooking up a meal with the potatoes as well as any protein I could find, and some rice, since I knew a real meal isn't complete here without it.
After bellies were full, Marie Lourdes and I talked about what was new in her life. She admitted to me that her 14 year old son, Lifrane, is living with a family - strangers to Marie Lourdes - in the town of Peredo, a little more than one hour down the mountain from her by truck. The family agreed to take him in because they needed help around the house and with their small business. In exchange, they are putting Lifrane through school this year and giving him food and a place to sleep. The family was recommended to Marie Lourdes by her cousin and her neighbors, who know the family and say they will be kind to Lifrane. There is a phrase here in Haiti for a boy or girl who lives in such a situation - Restavek. It means "live with", and it is by no means an uncommon thing. In fact, most Haitians that I know, whether from Seguin or the countryside or from Leogane or Port au Prince, either have a restavek in their home, or have given one of their children to someone else as a restavek. Christians and non-christians alike engage in this practice. Some people treat their restaveks with kindness and compassion, as they would their own children. Others treat them with decency but show them little affection at all. And still others mistreat and abuse the children under their care. I imagine it's a bit like the foster care system in the States in that regard. Only this system is not regulated at all and has no safety checks. At any rate, little Lifrane, who used to knock on my door every day after I finished working (just as I was getting ready for my afternoon nap) and ask for cookies, is now a restavek.
I asked Marie Lourdes if she visits Lifrane. She said that she visited him once or twice, but that he cried each time she left, and the family requested that she not visit anymore, because it made him too sad, and he wasn't sad if he didn't see her. I suggested to Marie Lourdes that she visit him anyway, any chance she can get, and make sure he knows that she loves him very much and has not forgotten about him or tossed him aside.
Here is where the moral dilemma comes in. Marie Lourdes didn't really come to talk to me about Lifrane. She came to talk to me about Maudeline, and three of her other children (there are eight total,) who cannot go to school this year. She said, because of the financial troubles they've had, that she and Emmanuel cannot afford to send any of their children to school this year. Maudeline, the oldest (besides Lifrane and Dyekivle - who quit school long ago), was especially sad about this. Marie Lourdes told me Maudeline cries at night, begging to go to school. I know all of Marie Lourdes' children go without food quite frequently, as well. So, what's better? To be Maudeline, at home with mom and dad and sisters and brothers, but without daily food or schooling? Or Lifrane, to be away from mom and dad and siblings, but with a full stomach and a years' worth of school? I don't know. I do know this... I can't single-handedly fix the restavek problem in Haiti. I can't give every family the monetary help they need to keep their kids fed and educated and at home with them. I can't even give Marie Lourdes all the money she needs to keep her family well fed and educated and all together. In the end, I gave her what little I could, and hoped she would make whatever decisions she deemed best with it.
Marie Lourdes and Maudeline got showers that night with running water, and slept long on a mattress that must have seemed huge to them. The next morning I drove them to Port au Prince to find a bus to Jacmel so they could begin their journey home. I haven't heard whether they made it back safely or not, or what Marie Lourdes decided to do about school for the children, but I hope,whatever happened, that she at least stopped by the house where Lifrane is living to give him a little visit on her way back up the mountain.