I walked through the community, weaving in between houses and trying to keep up with my two friends who knew where they were going. Some of the walls we passed were brightly painted pink and caribbean teal, but most of them were that concrete grey. The direct sunlight hit right down on us and there was no shade around. We walked up a small hill, covered in white rocks, and yelled out the Haitian Creole phrase for "You there?"
We'd arrived at Georgette's house. She answered back with the phrase for "Come on in!" and we opened the two sheets blocking her porch.
Georgette has stood out to me since the day I met her. She has a look about her, you can just tell she has been through so much in her life. Her community surrounding her call her "Ti Fanm" affectionately, meaning "Little Girl," due to her short stature. Though she is little, she has so much life behind her eyes. I learned a lot, even that day on her porch.
She was upset. Her daughter, one of the kids in our children's program, was pregnant. The man was older. Her daughter couldn't attend school any longer. She'd just sold her bed to help send her daughter to school. She was without a job, without choices.
I remember how much admiration I had for my friend, Clelie, who was with me. She so calmly assured Georgette that her life would be ok, yet also spoke sternly to her, with love like a mother. I listened on, mostly understanding their fast paced Creole conversation and vacillating between wanting to burst into tears and just bottle it up. What a world this woman faced every day.
We left her house with a hug and a smile. We had a plan of how to help her and her daughter work through the 9 months that would follow. But, even more than that, we had a connection with her.
Georgette began coming to our ministry house randomly. She'd stop by for a little food, offer to wash some of our clothes, hang out with us, and share about her life. She'd shared about her old hopes and dreams. She'd bring her other, younger daughter by when she was visiting. The way she spoke was as if she was a 75 year old woman, looking back at her life. But, it wasn't until I started to know her more that I realized she'd lived all that life in a mere 32 years.
Heartache, disappointment, being taken advantage of, being told she was worth nothing without a husband, struggling to find something to eat, taking care of her children...feeling alone and desperate and in need of help all at the same time.
Georgette represents a large majority of women in Haiti, and really many women in the developing world. She has more rights than some, far less rights than others around the world.
As I got to know Georgette more, I liked her more. She became this hilarious light in my life and shared her broken and hard story with me. Even though there were times I was not in Haiti, she'd still write me (and writes me still) updating me with pictures of her new grandson, her life, and her work. Becoming friends with Georgette has unpeeled a layer of definitions that I always held close to my heart, being in this line of work. I had clung to words like "empowerment," "freedom," and "opportunity," but I had such conceptual and American views on what those words meant. Not that American women do not know struggle, but knowing Haitian women opened up an additional world to me.
I have always been passionate about the rights of the marginalized. Women's freedoms are (obviously) very personal to me. However, meeting Georgette and the women in her community showed me that being passionate about women's rights means more than caring about myself. It means so much more- sisterhood transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. It is about knowing that somehow, as Lilla Watson once said, "my liberty is bound up in yours."
I have realized, through my friendships with women in Haiti (and the DR, and around the world), that my life is different through knowing the struggles of the international community. My freedom has truly been bound up with theirs- and the staggering differences between my freedoms and theirs shocks me consistently.
This has been an inspirational cornerstone for me these days. Today, as the Women's March on Washington happened and I proudly (metaphorically) stood with my sisters as they brought attention to some issues that certainly warrant it, I also received a text from Ryan.
It was a picture of Georgette. Working on her bags with our small business, Fanm Konbit.
When I met her just over a year or so ago, she was angry and sad. She was hopeless and wanting out. She had given up.
Through the love of a community, through the efforts of many realizing their liberation being bound up with up hers, through the empowering and fearless and ferocious love of God, she has begun to come up out of her heaviness of hopelessness and into a light of liberation.
Let's not just throw around these catch phrases of empowerment and freedom, without realizing what painstaking work this is. Giving someone else freedom might mean losing your own privilege or what you believe you deserve. But, its worth it.
Because what happens when we aim to empower and help free those we see in shackles, something interesting happens: they free us from the chains we don't realize we wear.
The Love of God is such that He gives us this fellowship- this love and devotion- that we would set folks free and in the same breath become more free ourselves.
I thank God for Georgette and the work she is doing in Haiti. For the life she is living now. For the ways she has taught me to be more real and truer to myself; for the ways she's shown me beauty in weakness and defeat. I am most thankful for this sisterhood of wonderful women, all over the world, but especially in Haiti. What a family to have.
Today, 7 years ago, parts of Haiti fell. Certain parts of Port-Au-Prince completely crumbled. Cities far from the epi-center felt the aftershocks and cried out. People ran into the streets and searched for their loved ones. 7 years ago, Haiti encountered this horrific and defining moment in its history.
I wasn't there 7 years ago. Even if I had been there, I am sure my story would be different than many of my friends who were in the middle of the chaos and confusion those years ago. A few months ago, I sat around our lime green table and listened to our friends recount their own stories. Those stories are theirs and I would not cheapen them by telling them from my point of view. There is nothing I could say that could explain that kind of trauma that must have ensued in the minds and hearts of my friends. All I can do is look at them and learn.
Today, as I was texting with one of my friends in Haiti, he wrote that I had "anpil kouraj"- a lot of courage- because of the things going on in my life. What an ironic thing to hear as an American from a Haitian today! Yet, I begrudgingly accepted the encouragement. I know it's a little true. Being back in the US for 6 months has made me see the type of impact Haiti has had on my life. And, it has done nothing if it has not made me a braver, more warrior-esque version of myself. They are all walking displays of what it means to have this kouraj- through endurance and faith.
Sometimes when things happen outside of our bubble, we convince ourselves that it is not effecting the folks we see on the television in the same way it would effect us. If it did, we would be driven crazy with empathy. One of the first lessons I learned in Haiti was that these people were just like me- they had dreams for their babies; they had ideas and creative juices flowing throughout their systems; they had family dramas and issues; they wanted to get married or have kids or build a house. They felt the same as me. This was a breaking point for me: I could either go home and just ignore it (which was very tempting) or I could lean in and see what I could learn. Somehow, I ended up mostly leaning in and learning.
The people of Haiti, those whom I have encountered, are storytellers. They value these deep, visceral meanings of things and are not afraid of where this pain might take them. They know that no amount of pain will keep them from journeying forward. They have a saying "Kembe fem, pa lage"- which is infused in everything from worship songs to rap songs to talking points. The president even said it the day after the earthquake. It means "stand strong, don't let go." Because this philosophy is so deeply ingrained into the psyche of the minds of those Haitians I know, they are not afraid. They know they can hold tight-to their faith, their families, their loved ones- and they know that they will make it through.
I have not always learned to embrace pain. Growing up in the USA, we spend a lot of time focused on efficiency. You cannot accomplish much in your sadness, it would seem. Instead of meeting our feelings head on, we learn how to push them down and say we are "fine." Instead of dealing with the trials before us and learning to lean on one another and God, we say that "at least we aren't...." and focus on moving forward. We hide our sadness in drinks of alcohol and late night cry sessions in our rooms by ourselves. Don't disturb anyone with our pain, we tell ourselves. What we do, though, is end up missing out on what our pain can teach us. We end up missing out on these deep lessons we can learn. We miss out on meaningful relationships that help us through these seasons. When we deny our pain, we deny our story.
This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my friends in Haiti. Pain is not something to sulk in, but it is not something to run from, either. It is not something that we must be afraid of, but we have to lend ourselves to the process in order to come out of the other side. We have to dive into our feelings of sadness to reach the other depths of our faith and relationships. Embracing pain means developing more of that kouraj- that willingness to fight and endure. We keep moving forward, through the pain and through the sadness, to reach the other side.
I am so thankful for the ways my friends in Haiti have shared their pain with me. It has taught me that there are seasons for everything. There are seasons to mourn and to laugh. Seasons to dance and seasons to cry. Sometimes those seasons overlap and sometimes they don't. But, we don't gain anything by denying a season or feeling. We don't learn how to kembe fem- or endure- by merely shoving things down and not sharing with others. We grow through our pain. We endure through our sadness. We rely on one another and keep going.
N'ap kembe fem. Nou pap jam bliye. January 12, 2010- a day where they had to gather anpil kouraj and keep moving forward.
overthinker and under-planned; development worker, believer, friend, wife, sister, daughter; learning a lot every day.