Saturday, December 5, 2015
Rose's Choice - "Send the children to school."
Oliver's mother and her large extended family grew up in Cabestore. For as long as anyone could remember they had all lived and loved and given birth and died along those steep, mountain paths.
As a baby girl, Rose would have learned how to carry water, on her head, as she walked to the nearest spring to collect water. Her cousins and sisters would join her as the mist rose from the countryside and the roosters crowed. Perhaps her Mama would yell at her if she took too long but this was her time to meet girlfriends and share news from the other hamlets. There were five other children and many cousins in her lakou, that sat half way up the mountain, with the corn fields forming a safe and comforting blanket around them.
Rose was born into the dictatorship of Baby Doc Duvalier. By the time she was five, Aristede had become the first democratically elected president. In the years of violence and secret police; of hope and hope destroyed; they had lost land and family members. They could not afford to loose anymore farm land and still feed their family. Large, fruit and nut producing trees were cut and taken by the government police. They stood by and watched; no longer knowing what a full stomach felt like. She sat, under the tree, and braided her sister's hair and told stories. When there was food to harvest, all the men would work together and sing and she would prepare a meal for them and bring it to the fields. At the ned of the day, someone would come and take much of what they harvested but still it was food and she was happy.
By the time, Rose was pregnant with Oliver, the best land had been taken and the fruit trees of her childhood were gone. The land, like her body, were tired and over used. You could only harvest so much without a rest; from a woman or a piece of land. When there was more land, they could let pieces rest but no longer.
Rose had never gone to school. No one in their extended family could read or write. For all the elections, dictatorships and occupations; no one had established public education. When the Catholic Church established a school, she knew it was not for her. She longed for a school uniform and matching ribbons for her hair but this was not for children like her. She quickly learned to cook and care for babies and to help while her mother was working the gardens or gone to market.
Her older cousin had joined a small house church which followed the teachings of Liberian Theology. He had returned home excited about the possibility for a new and equitable Haiti. Soon, the government appointed clergy came and said they had no title to their land. Her cousin argued that it had been in the family for hundreds of years; that the children would starve without it but the land was taken. They could still farm it but a portion of every crop would go to the church. The cousin was furious and said he would go,by boat, to the United States and earn money to buy land with a proper title. He said all the children must go to school. Even if it meant starving. The children had to go to school. He forbid everyone from the smallest pleasures; coffee and a piece of sugar cane; a little rum and betting on the roosters. We had to send the children to school; one child at a time. Rose knew this did not mean her as she was too old and was needed at home. She never drank coffee or drank rum or betted on roosters so none of these restrictions bothered her. One older boy was chosen to go to school. The older men argued that it would mean more work for them on the farm and that why was one son chosen and they all had to pay. Her cousin argued "Someone has to know how to read."
The hope of Arrested died when he was overthrown. Even out in her little hamlet, the news reached them. Aristide had been overthrown and there was the return of military rule. Her cousin sat under the last big tree and wept. The next day, he left for the farms but never returned. Some said he made his way to America and would return one day with money to buy land, with a title. Others said he was killed and his body thrown to the dogs.
Rose married a sweet man with enough land to feed a family. Rose made him promise the children would go to school, even the girls. He climbed a mango tree and threw down mangoes for each of them. They sat there and talked about their life; how it would be different for them. They would work hard and send the children to school. They would be careful. They would sacrifice everything for their children's education.
And so perhaps, when Rose had to choose the books for her children's school or the fees or the uniform or going to a doctor in town; she chose education.
They say it was "Bad Spirits." They say bad spirits have plagued that family for many years; starting with the cousin who joined the Liberation Theology Movement and down through the generations.
The oldest daughter stares at me and wonders will become of her. How can she ever finish school without a mother.
I wonder how it is that the United States occupied this country three times to assure democracy and never once in all that time, established a free education for everyone.
Let me explain, if a child goes to school without the proper clothes or books or fees; they risk public humiliation. They can be shamed in front of classmates and neighbors as a poor child. They are chased away and called names.
What would you have done if you were Rose? As you sit there breastfeeding baby Oliver and the children say they must buy books or be turned out. What would you do? You know you have diarrhea and have vomited. The clinic said you need to go to the hospital but you think- these things pass. Do you go or do you buy food for your children and pay the school fees?
Later they call someone in to remove your bad spirits but all Rose is thinking is - take care of my children. Make sure they go to school. She hands her baby to an older woman and shuts her eyes. His cry gets weaker and weaker as she sees her cousin waiting for her, there in the branches of the tree where she last saw him.
She calls his name. She whispers, "I sent the children to school. "
( These things all happened in Haiti but perhaps not to this one woman or her family. It is based on historical times but all can not be assigned to this family or place. )