Many years ago, I met a woman from whom I learned many invaluable lessons. She was a powerful woman with rare stories that would seem unbelievable to some even, at times to me. Like the time she told me that when her husband was dying, he burped, and a bullfrog came out of this mouth and then hopped all the way down to the ocean and jumped in never to be seen again.
“Ti-moun” she called everyone. Everyone in the village of Doco Un was her child whether she had given birth to them or not. She was “Manman” to about 1600 people. After having lived one hundred plus years in the village she knew them all by name. She had never been taught to read but had learned everything she knew by remembering what she heard and then thinking a long time about each thing before committing it to her intangible book of wisdom. The centurion had forgotten little with the exception of her age. She decided to forget birthdays when someone said she was at least a hundred years old. She liked life and didn’t see a reason to have a conscious “countdown” to the end.
She was paid little attention until one needed advice about a cheating “husband”. Since a sort of polygamy is the norm in Doco Un, the term “husband” was rarely used seriously. The village Hougan or otherwise known as Voudoo priest coveted her allegiance as she was never ignored when important decisions for the village’s welfare were to be made. Young mothers often brought young children to her when they were naughty to be verbally disciplined and unconditionally loved. She rarely cursed but was very clear that “Prayer was her food” and Voudou was “CaCa!” A word meaning basically what it sounds like.
She loved God and liked herself. She owned nothing that I know of except the chair in which she sat. Manman, or Mama as I called her, said she would be my mother too which was the first time anyone wanted that job. I felt very fine that day in a way I never had before. Whether she meant it or not I held her in such high esteem that I gained a bit of pride from believing it.
It had been almost 2 months since I’d left Aspen, Colorado to visit our children at HaitiChildren Village. I spent several days in necessary staff meetings (we have 170 employees) and some days goofing off with the children, playing soccer, taking them to the beach, and one day in a group therapy session with our child psychologist talking about how each one of us feels when one of our very sick children go to be with the Lord. One of our oldest brothers had just died after years of battling sickle cell anemia. I really needed to have a day of prayer and peace. Every ounce of my waking conscience is devoted to problem-solving while in Haiti except when I excuse myself and head up the mountain behind HaitiChildren Village and into the clouds to see my Mama.
I was delighted to see her wearing one of my dresses that I had given to her when she complimented me on it during my last visit. “Mama!” I shouted as I quickly crossed the hard dirt “yard” and squatted down in front of her.
“Mama!” I said. “Koman ou ye, Mama?” She didn’t stand up from her little woven straw chair. Her knees were on a level with her head and her hands as if she were squatting too. She continued shelling peas without looking up. I always forget she doesn’t hear very well.
“Ti-Moun! Me zami!” she said and smiled my favorite smile that made her eyes dance. I loved it when she called me “Child” or in Kreole “Ti-moun”. She looked so pretty in the sundress from Aspen.
“Moma, how do you feel today?” I spoke loudly and close to her ear. “I brought a couple of the nurses from the orphanage.”
“I have pain.” She said, rubbing her lower back. Nurse Nicole had mentioned that she had been treating Mama for arthritis since I had been away and that she would have been bringing medicine up to her and all the other villagers who suffered from arthritis. We had parked the truck in front of the old cinder block church with a partially thatched roof as was usual and a good place to distribute 25 lb bags of rice and beans to the leader of each family. The nurses and volunteers began to set up an examination area inside the church. I had asked the Pastor if I could bring condoms and have the nurses explain to the younger citizens why they get pregnant and how to “prevent it.
“You’ll have to ask Manman…” was his reply.
“I have a great idea, Mama!” I explained that we had thousands of condoms donated to us and I wanted to give them out to all the men in the village.
She laughed so hard I thought she was going to fall out of her chair. She only barely got the basket of shelled peas as they slid off her lap. Now she began to talk so fast I had to have one of the kids translate her Creole for me.
“Oh! “Explained my translator. “I cannot translate that, Manman!!”
Mama was saying a few bad words in her effort to plainly tell me that the men in the village think condoms will make them “impotent” or “sterile”. They believe they are laced with poison.” She said pointed to the front door of her son’s home in which she lived. “My son is just like that!” she was gesticulating angrily “He is 85 years old!”
I was completely stumped. We had been coming to this village for over a decade and this was the first time I realized that this was a psychological issue. I had always wondered why I was always told “Another missionary group gives us many, too many, birth control”. Or “Pa bezwen!”. Meaning “I don’t need!” each time the subject was broached, and I’d be politely “shooed” away. I had never heard nor seen any “Blans” that far up the mountain. I knew for a fact no foreigners were handing out birth control. I also knew for a fact that each time I visited more teenage girls with swollen bellies stood in line for examination and prenatal vitamins.
On our last visit with our mobile clinic, we held a prayer service before descending the mountain. A girl who looked to be around 16 years old asked that we would pray that God would stop putting babies in her stomach. Of course, I could not leave without taking her aside with Nurse Gauthier to explain why that would be happening.
The only person that the people, especially the youth listened to was the Pastor and he deferred to Manman. Without exception, she deferred to God. “Bondye toujou di nou kisa pou nou fe si nou mande”
This I knew well. God always tells us what to do if we ask. No translation is needed. Well of course I didn’t ask what to do in this situation. It was common sense! Use a condom so you don’t make more babies that you’re not able to take care of. Everyone knows that! Right? Uh, not so fast.
After catching her basket of peas from falling and rolling all over the “yard”. She finally stopped shaking her head. She sat the basket beside her chair and reached for my shoulder in an effort to stand and then reached for an old stick that had a smooth sheen near the top where her crooked fingers had grasped it for decades after her knees and ankles had started to swell. She let go of my shoulder now confident with her stick to keep her balance. She started to walk down the path toward the church and our truck.
“Where are you going?” I followed her until she stopped at the passenger side of the truck.
She turned resolutely to face me. Every person in the village who could walk or be carried on a mother’s hip was now gathered outside the church to receive their monthly rations.
She looked at me without looking at anyone else. I didn’t like the way it got very quiet.
In what seemed to be the loudest voice I have ever heard, she said to me “Mwen jis te panse mwen ta ale lakay ou nan bouk ou”.
Ah! She wants to go home with me to my village! There was a pause before she finished.
“Ak ranje toot pwoblem ou you!” To fix all our problems…
Everyone started laughing. I felt marginalized. Small.
“If you want to help, Susie” she had never used my given name before. It was endearing coming from her. “Start with the women.”
Then I noticed the men stopped laughing. But the women started toward the church. Mama waited until they were all inside then I followed her inside. I sat on the back pew and listened to her talk for over 3 hours. I understood enough to know she was giving them an education regarding their rights as a gift from God that they had control over their body as his temple. Then she asked our nurses to come forward to explain their options as women if they don’t want to become pregnant. She walked slowly to the back where I sat over 500 women respectfully moved so that she could pass.
She sat down beside me there on the last pew and placed her walking stick between her knees. She looked as if she would expire. “I am a good mother.” She spoke. “And you are a good mother. Don’t rush so much, Ti-moun”. I kissed her cheek.“Ti moun, I am a very good mother.”