To call Fondwa a village is misleading. It has no central point of organization or population density. It is defined by a road that snakes through a valley 40 miles southwest of Port au Prince. Scattered along the road are a Catholic church, a number of Protestant churches, a school and an international guesthouse that also contains the region’s sole clinic. From that main road, a network of footpaths connect white wooden houses that dot the valley in every direction.
The houses are the size of a large living room in the States. Haitian families are not small—there are typically seven or eight children in each. When the children marry and have their own children, they may share the parents’ house. Our house in Fondwa is almost as crowded. We share it with two Cuban men, a French woman, a community of nuns (two sisters and five novices) and four Haitian women.
Our biggest problem thus far has been our inability to talk with our neighbors. We’d been told we would be given an “immersion course” when we arrived in Fondwa, and it was exactly that—our teacher didn’t speak a word of English. We used our time with him to practice pronunciation, and the rest of the time we huddled over our Creole textbook and made halting attempts at conversation during dinner.
At the end of the month, six of us were painting chairs for the preschool classes in preparation for the beginning of the school year. It was the best morning we'd had in Fondwa, mostly because we were involved in an activity that didn't require language skills. While we were working, a man in his 20s walked up and introduced himself as Wilkens. He asked if there was an extra paintbrush. It took a few seconds before I realized that he had asked in English.
English had been one of his favorite subjects, he explained. He had come to register his younger sisters for school, saw us working and thought he would help. “One must always work a little to help one’s community,” he said.
He asked if I could meet with him every week—I could practice Creole and he could practice English. I jumped at the opportunity. And so our friendship began.
In many ways, Wilkens is not a typical Haitian. He has finished school in a country where only half of primary age children attend classes. Most can be seen working in the fields, leading animals along the road or just sitting around because their parents cannot afford to buy books and a uniform. Of the children who do go to school, fewer than one in three will complete sixth grade. In Fondwa there are more than 80 first-grade students, but only 11 students in 11th grade. Many of the older students are more than 20.
In other crucial ways, though, Wilkens' situation is typical. Despite his high school education, he has few opportunities. A university has opened in Fondwa, but it is difficult for entering students to find a sponsor to help with tuition and living expenses, and jobs for college graduates are scarce. This year his father began having heart trouble, and Wilkens now shares responsibility for cultivating the family gardens (their primary source of food and income), as well as for arranging his younger siblings' education.
When Wilkens and I began meeting, we had only one book with translations in both Creole and English—the Bible. We began with Philippians, because it is one of my favorite books. When I was a teenager, one of my favorite verses was Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I was surprised to read the Creole rendition of this verse. “In any situation that appears before me, I can degaje , thanks to Christ who gives me strength.” I had been expecting to find fè , the Creole word for “do” or “accomplish.” Degaje has a different meaning. For instance, if you don’t have the right screws to mount a pencil sharpener to a desk, you can use nails or wire or even duct tape. You degaje it.
The Haitian understanding is not that with God’s help we can make any dream come true. In this culture, such an interpretation would amount to a lie. Rather, with God’s help, we can expect to degaje . We can get by; we can make life work.
In Fondwa we see endless varieties of resourcefulness. No family can till or harvest its own land. The job is too big, and precious time would be lost. So neighbors join together, going from field to field, banging their machetes, singing ancient songs of fertility and tilling the hard, sloped earth with picks and shovels.
Whenever a house is built, neighbors put in just as much work as the family who will eventually own the house. When the women wash clothes in the river, they share the work among all who gather—without respect to the size of the wash loads. What the Haitians lack in infrastructure—electricity, running water, roads, health care—they make up for with their closely knit social structure.
But there are also dangers in this art of survival. Farmers have stripped the tropical forests, sold the wood as charcoal and converted the rest of the land into farmland. Without the trees, the top soil seeps away during the spring rains, and productivity declines. Farmers are forced to surrender more trees in order to clear more land, and a vicious cycle continues. Only 5 percent of the land in Fondwa remains forested—a not-so-hidden part of degaje living.
Recently Wilkens and I were translating the sixth chapter of Matthew, which includes the injunction to “consider the lilies of the field.”
Wilkens asked, “Do you believe this?”
Do I believe that just as God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, he will care for humans?
“Well, Wilkens,” I stammered, “I don’t think it is as easy as this makes it sound. Clothing and food don’t just drop down from the sky—we still have to work for these things. I think the point is not to worry.”
Wilkens waved me off. I had missed the point. “I know we must work. I mean, do you believe God gives everyone what they need to live?”
I took a moment to look around at the surroundings. We could see almost the entire valley. Across from us, the hill was covered in patchwork fields and terraces, and where the peasants had recently tilled, the soil was a rich, dark umber. We could see the first traces of green pushing up in places, and knew these would become the beans and the corn that people would survive on in the coming year. Off to the left, though, there was nothing but erosion—huge slopes of red earth unrelieved by a single spot of green grass. The water run-off had marked the land with deep valleys and rivulets. I wondered which would prove more powerful in shaping the future of this valley—the carefully arranged terraces or the wild rivulets of erosion.
I could see people on footpaths snaking in between the fields and houses. Men were returning from their fields, their bare feet caked with dirt, their hoes or machetes slung over their tired shoulders. Women were climbing the slopes with backs held straight under huge baskets of freshly washed clothes. Children dressed only in oversized T-shirts were outside playing.
Wilkens was right. It is not a question of work or diligence. And yet his question hung in the hot air and in my heart and mind. Would these people receive all they needed to live? “I’m not sure, Wilkens. What do you believe?”
Wilkens moved his finger to the title the translators had given to the passage: “Place your trust in God.” Wilkens lightly tapped the sentence with his finger, and then raised his head to give me the full force of his gaze. “I believe in this part.”
David Williamson and his wife, Jamalyn, both D’03, are missionaries with Family Health Ministries, a nonprofit organization working in Haiti since 1993.
Copyright 2004 Christian Century . Reprinted by permission from the June 29, 2004, issue of the The Christian Century. Subscriptions: $49/yr. from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097.