The first time I went there was in 1995. I got off the plane in Port-au-Prince with a suitcase and the address of a group of Haitian nuns who lived in the countryside, in Pandiassou, in the northeast part of the country.
The nuns weren’t what you ‘d expect. The leader was perhaps in her 40s and none of the others seemed older than 30. Their religious view was something like this: You are supposed to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was a peasant. Following Jesus meant pursuing a peasant livelihood and using your skills and opportunities to strengthen the ways peasant communities can thrive.
They wore blue gingham dresses. They worked hard.
I was the sole occupant of a small guesthouse adjoining the convent. I’d awake before dawn to the sounds of footsteps and quiet voices in the compound. By the time I was bathing from a bucket of cold water, the sisters would be in the chapel, drumming and singing a music at the intersection of Afro-beat and Gregorian chant. During the hour or so in which they sang, I swept out my room with a straw broom, then wrote a some pages in my journal, or added a few rows to the sock I was knitting.
When the music stopped, I went down to the main convent and swept the covered porch where we ate. I set the table for breakfast, which was usually spaghetti and a single tiny cup of coffee.
Most dinnertime conversation seemed directed towards a single purpose—to laugh until your sides hurt and tears streamed down your cheeks. You can laugh that hard without having any idea what people are saying, because it starts to be pretty funny that you don’t know what’s going on.
During a breathless lull, someone might go over the joke with me, inspiring yet another round of hilarious telling. Lonise got a ride on a motorcycle and they almost wiped out in the mud. Doriane made juice, set the basin on the ground, and the dog almost drank from it. It was the telling that made the stories so funny and the repetition that made them funnier.
After dinner we carried basins of water for the dishes to the big blue table. I really don’t like doing dishes, so I get real efficient about it, putting the task behind me as fast as I can. The first night, I dried a drinking glass in a flash and reached for another. Someone casually took up the glass I’d set down and dried it again slowly, with many twists and swirls. Spoons were buffed to a shine, plates caressed like faces. In order to fit it, I had to learn to dry dishes without thinking about what I would do next.
Each day I would follow one of the sisters around. I washed a lot of laundry by hand, pressed their blue gingham dresses with a charcoal iron, made peanut butter, went to the market, walked hills and trails to visit people and had bewildering conversations.
Most of the time, I had little clue about what was going on. I felt dumb and disconnected and hated admitting to myself how much I just wanted to go home. Every evening when the dishes were done, we sang and danced together until a little bell rang to say it was time for bed. I went to sleep feeling like I belonged enough to make it through another day.
I never returned to Pandiassou after the month I spent there. I’ve heard it has been much changed by reforestation, ponds, and enterprises in agriculture, art, and business. I’ve returned to Haiti many times, though. I wanted to know what it would feel like to fit into a place like this. That meant I had to learn to talk well enough to tell a good joke