“Brace yourself,” Jared said as we exited Willio’s car and approached the door to the Sur Le Rocher compound where a security guard stood watch. On the other side of that wooden door waited a couple of dozen children, and more would be on their way home from school soon.
The door began to open and someone whispered, “Let the petting zoo begin.” Taken aback, I felt certain I was not going to treat these children like a petting zoo. But as they leapt on Gene with delighted shouts of “Gene! Gene! Gene!” and then came for the rest of us, I realized, I was the baby goat not them.
A dozen hands were on me, tugging, pulling, hugging. Anything that was not attached to me needed to be removed and examined. Sunglasses; the rubberband bracelet my niece made me; the little sterling silver ring I had found on the ground a decade ago and had oddly never taken off.
As music from brass instruments began to float down to us from the second story, I followed the crowd upstairs to where the older children were playing Christmas songs. We sat down and I was surrounded, two children to my left, two to my right, someone put a baby down in my lap.
The kids marveled at my moles, and looked up at me quizzically – spots of chocolate on my tan skin. As they poked at them with questioning eyes, their looks made me think I must look like an art project that God had left half finished; spraying paint on with the flick of a toothbrush like we did in elementary school art, but not quite finishing me.
My hair was also a matter of fascination. I was accustomed to the children on Eleuthera’s fascination with the hundred different shades of white and yellow and brown that the Eleutheran sun turned my hair as I worked out in the garden. I was not accustomed to so many hands in it though, and not wanting to stand out, I covered it with a hat – a hat which quickly became another removable piece to examine.
Reminiscent of similar stealth missions that my father had carried out when I was a child, Gene, Willio and Jared disappeared to smuggle Christmas presents out of sight while Elissa and I found ourselves alone with the children.
I suddenly realized I was beyond my depth. I did not know what to do. And we needed to find some game other than the ‘petting zoo.’ But with a Creole vocabulary that was limited to the number of words I could count on two hands, I was having a hard time asking where the soccer ball was.
I wished my friend Doris from Philadelphia was there. She would know what to do for sure; she would say “Bonswa Mama,” and be best friends with the women cooking rice and beans in the corner of the orphanage compound before I could put together a “Sak passe.” I had watched her do it before in a marketplace in Nassau. She was a marvel to watch. Why wasn’t she here now?
I wished my friend Brenda from Eleuthera was there. I felt confident that in her past visits to Sur Le Rocher, she must have had the kids marching around in circles playing the alligator hunt within five minutes.
Thankfully, Elissa from Pensacola was there and the mother of four did know what to do. Out came the markers she had brought while a child ran for the paper. Out came her Creole phrasebook and soon one of the older boys had fetched a ladder and was climbing it to retrieve a hidden golf ball that we could use to shoot through the basketball hoop.
As the frenzy calmed down, and the children began to separate into different activities – soccer, basketball, coloring – I began to be able to distinguish individual children from the mass of hands grabbing at me from every direction. I was able to have conversations, I learned their names. And as I have learned countless times before, I would learn again – once I learn a child’s name, they get stuck in my heart.
All of it was at the same time a delightful, overwhelming and confusing experience. I will admit that part of why I was struggling was that I was overanalyzing everything. I was uptight. A million thoughts were racing through my head. Books on paternalism. Articles by my friend Enuma Okoro. Joking with African American friends as they shared their disdain for those white people who just cannot wait to post a picture of themselves with a black baby. I was not one of those people, or was I? Were we delivering Christmas to these children, or were we reinforcing the message that white people have “stuff” and bring “stuff.”
Words raced through my head. Paternalism. Inequity. Poverty. Scarcity. Abundance. Wealth. God. I was scared of doing the wrong thing, I did not know how to do the right thing. I was supposed to take pictures to document the work of the orphanage so that we could help Willio continue to make sure that he could put food in the mouths of the 40 children he had taken into his home. But it felt strange to take pictures. But the children were begging me to take pictures, posing and crying out “Foto! Foto!”
And then as always, God interrupted. Like Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee, he spoke to my heart, “Peace! Be still!”… “Don’t you trust me”….”I brought you here for a reason”…”Love them.”
I realized that I was not going to find the perfect way of reacting, the perfect way of behaving in the situation. The world is full of complicated contexts; moments that are both painful and breathtakingly beautiful; and, after all, this is Haiti – and as Gene will tell you, everything is a little different in Haiti.
Enuma was not there. And Nadiera was not there. I would have to figure this out on my own. These children were just the same as my nieces and nephews, just the same as the children on Eleuthera, just the same as my friend Roslyn’s children, just the same as I was at their age. They wanted to be picked up; they wanted to be loved; they wanted to play and explore new friendships; they wanted to be accepted. These were children, they were not an ethical dilemma for me to solve.
So we played. I picked them up. I learned their names. I took their pictures and they took mine. I realized that they did the same things that children in New York and Washington, D.C., and Eleuthera, and Durban do. I was sure that my scholar friends would have some kind of term for the conflicted way I was feeling, but what mattered more at that moment was not what they would think but how these children felt. And they felt loved.
After we shared dinner together, we gathered inside the house and the children sang some Christmas songs and they danced and danced. Sitting on the sofa, one of the smallest girls came over and took my hands and pulled. Dancing is something I have done far too little of in my life, and it is on my list of things to change. So I offered no resistance to the tug of her little hands. Like the waters of Eleuthera, I dove into their dance. I lifted my feet high and hopped with my arms waving. I turned my head and, laughing with her, I followed the example of Junice, one of the students from Cap Haitien. I finally let myself be free and let myself be with them, rather than staying alone up in my head.
I danced and danced and danced. Junice smiled, and I smiled, and I do think God smiled with us.
As my friend Josefina Perez says, “When you dance with no inhibition you are only frolicking in the rhythm of your own life.”