Growing up just over two hours away from the downtown center of Cap-Haïtien and along the coast was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we had access to the coast for food and most of the community grew up to be fishermen or farmers. We also could go to the city occasionally for additional goods should we need to or to sell fish and produce to locals and tourists. On the other hand, the coast had been inhospitable in the past and as I wander through the ruin of my home village, trudging through the muddy earth that remained of earlier flooding, I am reminded that this is part of the reality where I happened to have been born. The hurricane had torn apart most of the houses and so many of us were now sleeping under what could only be defined as a rooftop held up by two planks of rotting wood while others had sought shelter with family if there was enough space. There never was enough space though and if you came back late into the night, one had to watch their step so as not to accidentally stumble on someone who had been just a bit more unfortunate than yourself.
Aside from the coastal access, proximity to the city was beneficial for earning revenue. There was a van that one of the neighborhood uncles would drive to the city for supplies and to sell some of his produce each week and was willing to drive a couple people with him. This meant that occasionally one could take a trip into the city and see the foreigners that flocked to the marketplace as they took up residency in hotels, stuffing themselves with lambi and griot until they complained of how full their bellies were. While we didn't get to do much when we visited the city as children, sometimes people would hire you for odd jobs running across the city or vendors would have you pass out samples. The only thing we had to be mindful of was the van's departure at sundown, if we were late then uncle would leave us behind as he didn't like crossing into the countryside after dark, "the lights aren't good and I cant see the drop-offs well enough. If you don't want an old man to get his van stuck in a ditch you'll be back on time."
When I was little, my friend Anel missed the van ride back and the uncle left, cursing in a language I didn't understand but didn't sound Haitian or French. I know now he was speaking English, something he had picked up in order to sell better to the well-dressed tourists that visited a country with no knowledge of the language spoken there instead they expected the natives to adapt. Anel had been working for one of the fruit stands and they must have held onto the cash before sundown, something that happened occasionally if a merchant didn't want to pay for their day workers. His mom, Lovely had cried and begged the uncle to drive her back into the city the next weekend ahead of schedule and she had been lucky enough to find Anel waiting at the lot where the van normally parked. Most of us thought he wouldn't make it back, but he lucked out and the next month was spent with his mother breathing down his neck every time he left the house. His mother came back angrier than when she had heard the old man had returned without Anel. She didn't let him go to the city after that.
Anel was the first one that got sick that I knew, stories had floated around of course but it's different when you see it for yourself. After the hurricane, a strange sickness had spread its way across the northern part of Haiti. It suddenly appeared just a week or so after and Anel had come to visit me a few days before his fever broke out, telling me that he hadn't been hungry since the flooding decreased enough to travel. Every movement he made was accompanied by groans of pain. In the following weeks, the number of sick grew and those that were already infected got worse. Anel was bedridden and his mother had allowed a few visitors, but I wish she hadn't. When I arrived, his eyes seemed to bulge from his head, puffy and cartoonish with a glazed-over look, something briefly flashing of familiarity but when he opened his mouth to speak, yellow gums and a missing tooth distracted me from anything his gaze revealed. He was covered in wounds that all seemed to be oozing and an awful smell permeated from his resting place.
"It's so nice of you to visit, Mickey. Anel hasn't sat up in days." His mother said to me while staring at her now sitting up, albeit groaning, son.
"What happened? He was fine if just a little ill when I saw him last." I asked in a whisper hoping Anel wouldn't hear or notice what I was saying about him, despite my inability to tear my eyes from what was in front of me.
"I don't know, he went out fishing and to fetch some more tins of water right after the storm cleared because the flood water got into our storage and wiped everything, a few days later he was sick, and it got worse from there."
I saw the brimming tears in her eyes and gave her a brief smile before walking the rest of the way into the room and seating myself beside my oldest friend. He reached out a tattered and weeping hand to touch me, a familiar greeting where we would grasp each other's shoulders before bringing each other in for a hug.
"Anel do not touch him." His mother chokes out and I watch his searching hand fall to the ground with a thud and he lays himself back down, turning away from me.
The next couple of minutes are spent with me telling him how the village was doing in wake of the storm. He asked about a few of our friends, if they were okay, if their homes had been destroyed, and how the rebuilding was going. I answered as best I could and I watched his fingers clench as I began to talk about the repairs that had started yesterday so we could get as many off the street as possible
"I wish I could do something to help." He strained.
I took my leave shortly after and told Lovely that I would try to visit again soon. I stepped outside and watched a few people gathered outside of the home that seemed to scuffle away as I made my way toward the road.
A whisper of "He's going to get sick now too, Lovely's boy is basically dead already and he walked right on in." Broke its way through the night and echoed in my head the walk home.
More and more people started getting sick in the following days and while I had been fortunate enough to still be on my feet, most of the village wasn't. Big vans and trucks had driven into town earlier in the week carrying a dozen or so people in long white coats. The logo was made up of blue splotches surrounded by a border of leaves. They were here to set up a station to administer treatment for the mysterious illness and find the origin. It was now Wednesday and the tent had been finished being set up which meant our town got a bit of an upgrade. Before this, a doctor had to be sent for from a neighboring town or you had to drive an hour east to arrive at a clinic, needless to say, it would be a pricey journey. Not anymore though, we had a group of trained professionals to help us through this sickness but as the days stretched by and more people got sick, the end didn't seem to be in sight. The sick didn't get much better either, regardless of the supposed progress they were making with the treatment, if you got too close to the tent you'd be knocked off your feet by the putrid concentrated odor permeated from the enclosure. The smell hadn't been nearly as bad when I had visited Anel but so many sick in one place was bound to make things worse.
On Friday, there was the first death, it was a young girl named Atie, she had only been sick for a week or so, nowhere near as long as some of the others but her little body was transported away underneath a cloth within a few minutes. The doctors said that the body had to be burned because they didn't yet know what had caused the illness. As the following Friday rolled around there was five new deaths that we knew of from the number of bodies we saw transported and a new van had arrived with a new set of doctors, not medical doctors like the ones in the tent but people that would go around to the healthy people and ask questions we didn't know the answers to. The sick tent started to fill as other villages shuttled their sick to the shelter, they surely had to have bodies stacked on top of each other judging by the size of the tent and the number of sick that entered.
That Sunday, I spent the day out fishing on the port, I was the lone person in my boat but I could see about five others on the water, a good distance away, very different from the crowded harbor I had come to know in my lifetime. Suddenly the sound of rolling tires drilling their way through muddy ground broke its way across the beach. A group of researchers arrived in a small car before climbing out and pulling a tarp off a shiny metal boat with a little propeller that rested at the doc. They sped out to the same distance from the shoreline as the rest of us and started fishing. Food arrived almost every week for them so I couldn't imagine why they would be fishing in our harbor; the fish had become more meager after the hurricane so we would be lucky to catch anything of substance. But after a few minutes, their high-quality bait garnered a hamlet and a few others that I couldn't make out as they were caught facing away from me and quickly placed in coolers. They then sped away with their quickly earned bounty before re-concealing their boat and hopping back into the automobile. I stayed on the water for a few more hours, until I saw the sunlight begin to shift to golden and the sky slowly started to be swallowed up by night. I reached the dock with three fish in tow and trudged my way home stopping by Anel's to leave a fish and a new tin of water for Lovely.
After knocking on the door a few times with no answer, I let myself inside the house. There was a retching sound coming from the backside of the home and I slowly pushed the back door open to find Lovely hunched over vomiting heavily. I waited until she finished, I didn't want to scare or risk her getting anything on me.
"Are you okay?" I asked quietly.
"I haven't seen my son in 4 weeks, what if they transported him out at night and no one even knows he is dead?" She cries with her arms wrapped around herself.
As much as I thought to reach out a hand or hug her like she had done for me and Anel when nightmares plagued us as children, offering comfort in times of darkness and fear, I couldn't bring myself to in her current state. I can do nothing if I am sick.
"They wouldn't do that, they would at least tell you, you brought him to the tent, so they know you are his family. Are you okay?" I attempted reassurance.
"They could have forgotten me; they might not know where I live. I miss him so much Mickey, after his father-" she stopped as she collapsed to the side, narrowly avoiding the pool she had created, sobs breaking their way out of her chest as I watched her ribs shake with every whale.
"I think you're sick. I can take you to the tent. Let me walk you there tonight before it gets too dark"
"Did you bring a fish for me? That's so kind of you Mickey. You always were such a good friend to Anel, a good influence on him. I wish I could see one more sleepover with you boys, one more night where you keep me awake with your stories or chattering about one of the neighbors. Just one more would be nice" she murmured distantly. The whaling had stopped but the strain in her voice was audible and the occasional whimper still punctuated the quiet evening.
"I can take you tonight, you can see Anel again." I offer.
"I can see Anel again if I go tonight?" She finally acknowledged. "He won't be long gone in an incinerator in who knows where? Mickey, do you promise?" She asked turning to look at me from her place on the ground, hope and trust flashing beyond her glassy look.
"I do." I lie. I had no clue if Anel was still alive, the only reason any of us new Atie's name was because of some eavesdropping children, and when a small body was carted out and Atie was the only child sick, we all knew. Anel could be dead for all I knew but something was telling me that he wasn't. I felt like he had to be alive still.
I helped Lovely sit up now that I had gotten a better look at her and knew that she wasn't covered in her own sick, I felt safer touching her. I was fairly certain that it didn't spread like that, otherwise, I would have gotten sick when I visited Anel, but I had felt fine. She wasn't able to stand so instead I lifted her up and carried her on my back, she had become frailer and more waifish than the last time I had seen her. The clothes she wore must have concealed the knobby bones that jutted out awkwardly and seemed to stab me with each step.
I dropped her off at the tent where they asked me a few questions, I told them that my mother had gotten ill and to contact me if she got any sicker. A small lie but if her fears about Anel were valid, I wanted to give them the best reason to contact me. As I passed Lovely to one of the doctors so she could be carried inside, she gave me a small smile and final wave with her ghostly fingers before the tent flapped shut behind her. I made my way the rest of the way home after leaving the fish intended for Lovely with the van driver and the other with Atie's family.
The next day, unfamiliar and painfully loud sounds woke me from my sleep. Outside there were people with expensive equipment, wheelbarrows of clay, and strange mechanisms that weren't quite familiar to me on the northern side of the village near the water pumping station. There was a pair of researchers that were going around to each house knocking on the door before exchanging a few words and leaving. At that moment, two approached my home and called out a good morning. They looked exhausted, their eyes dull and enshrouded by dark circles with a slow gait but nonetheless smiling at me.
"Hello," I respond. I wasn't the best with English, but I knew enough to make my way around the marketplace.
"We are here to tell you that we discovered the cause of the illness and will be taking care of it." They stated.
"What caused it?" I asked stepping forward, closer to the pair.
"There is a parasite in the water, but we will have a treatment plant in place by the end of the week, until then only drink water from the supply van that will arrive at sunset every day." They answered.
"Ok, thank you. Can I ask about some people who are sick?"
"We don't work in the medical tent, we only conduct research and overview for the construction, sorry." With that, they turned around and quickly walked away from the house leaving no room for further questioning.
Sure enough, by the end of the week, there was a new building surrounding our water pump. It stood out as a stark contrast to the village it rested in, so different from the rusted steel flaps we used as walls and the gaping holes that constituted widows of some sort. The building was made of freshly laid brick and windows made of a strong see-through material that bent slightly when pressure was applied. I briefly wondered if this structure would hold in the next storm but based on how many people got sick every day, I couldn't imagine it would matter too much for us. When one went to get water at the new pump, instead of the hand-cranked dark metal that I had grown accustomed to throughout my lifetime, it was replaced by a gray pump with a large box on top that apparently helped with filtration of and stopped the parasite from getting into the fresh water. It tasted no different than it had in the past and the doctors said that the supply van would no longer be coming with water, so we had to become accustomed to the new system. They assured us that food parcels would begin arriving soon though so the drop off of sundown would still apply. I thought it strange that they would suddenly now be distributing food to us but thought not to question things too much since more and more my fishing trips turned up empty handed.
As I spent the following days walking around the village carrying water tins to those that were unable to do so themselves and trying to see where repairs were still needed, I was interrupted one morning by yells from the side of the village where the medical tent resided. I turned around and ran back toward the tent I had been to not long ago. Three doctors were standing on a few boxes talking to the crowd that had gathered. My thoughts immediately went to the worst, that they were finally releasing a list of the dead and had decided it was easier to announce things publicly instead of hunting down each of the listed kin. It seemed my fears had come to fruition as I approached and heard names of the sick being called off.
"… Roseline, Martine, Gaelle, James, Watson, and Lovely will …" the rest of the announcement faded from my hearing as my ears were filled with the sound of my racing hard and my body numbed. If I had known earlier, I could have done something, I could have taken her to the tent sooner and she might still be alive. My thoughts were interrupted by "… if a family member's name was called please come forward to help them back to your homes, while the parasite has been killed off, they need bed rest more than anything." As the tent flaps open and the sick make their way out of the brightly lit and synthetic smelling void, the miasma and vile odor that had staked their claim on the area are replaced by the sterile smell of gauze and antiseptics. Lovely squeezes her way through the narrow opening alongside her fellow ill and she searches the crowd before finally making eye contact with me and calling out. I shuffle around the reuniting families and friends to finally comfort her as I was unable to the night I brought her to the tent. She barreled into my chest nearly knocking me over, tears in her eyes as she grasped the material of the back of my shirt. I dreaded the question I had to ask, I had to know if Anel was okay or if he was just going to be another unknown body, smuggled out at night with no time for mourning or a funeral.
"I didn’t see him. There were so many people in there, Mickey. And the doctors- they wouldn’t answer any questions about the other sick people.” She interrupts not lifting her head to look at me.
I looked around at the crowd that had formed and all of the people that were reuniting with their loved ones after being separated for so long. So many people had come out of the tent and yet Lovely’s word echoed with faces of unknown victims. My eyes catch those of neighbors and strangers alike, expectedly staring at the tent opening with hope that gradually slips from their sight, as they realize that their loved would not be exiting with the recently healed. Some hadn’t been fortunate enough today to welcome those they care for with open arms and some may never find closure in the unknown.
“He has to still be alive, mother’s intuition.” She mumbles tightening her grip as if finding solace in the fact that she still had someone to remind her of Anel, someone to believe in him alongside her. I held her a little tighter because while I didn’t know yet of Anel’s fate, if she could believe in him then I had to as well. He was always there waiting for us, even if he was sometimes a week later than he was supposed to be.
Image Links (In Order):
20100120_haiti_6-1024x657.jpg (1024×657) (pressherald.com)
Sep-11-Port-International-du-Cap-Haitien-completes-digital-transformation.jpg (1707×1058) (smartmaritimenetwork.com)
Houses_built_on_the_mangrovein_Cap-Haitien.jpg (2592×1944) (wikimedia.org)
Cholera-clinic-May-2012-450x300.png (450×300) (lifegivingforce.org)
IMG_4537.JPG (1600×1067) (bp.blogspot.com)
Water-Pump-Haiti-530x354.jpg (530×354) (borgenproject.org)
Department of Health & Human Services. (2012, July 31). Scurvy. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/scurvy