Published September 16, 2010
When we drove into Carrefour one brilliantly sunny and already hot early morning, people had already started to move around, girls carrying buckets on their heads, men and women leaning forward in their focused busyness heading to the market or to work. We turned down a narrow dirt road, the car rocking and straining against the uneven surface. From a distance, I could make her out, a slight woman, with a light blue bandana, her skirt, too large for her, flapping in the breeze, her face beaming with unabashed joy and welcome as she waved us into the a strangely anachronistic parking porch hidden in the midst of cumbersome and crowded houses.
She greeted us with a firm handshake and an embrace, her eyes alive with pleasure at seeing us. This was our second meeting. At our first I was struck by how much like a teenager she looked—her small limbs, her bowlegs, her quick movements, her ready laughter, and the smooth finish of her face. The only signs of age were in the color of her hair, a shock of white and grey. Then she talked freely and earnestly about her life, about how she contracted the disease, about how she now lives. She is 46 years old, the mother of four children including a 17-year-old son. It is easy to tell that she is often hungry and that she deprives herself of food so her children can eat. She is the faithful volunteer staffer for Joel Sainton, traveling with him to visit the people living with HIV/AIDS who live in her area. He tells us that she goes around preaching safe sex and the importance of getting tested. She is not shy about telling people of her status.
She leads us through the maze of alleyways that take us deep into the complex of homes. We are virtually walking through people's homes to get from one area to another — people sitting in their open-doored houses cooking, plaiting hair, reading, listening to the radio, bathing, or just staring blankly in what little shade they can get. They greet us, and with mild interest follow us with their eyes. It is clear that Mrs. M's presence makes it fine for us to be following behind the pastor who is visiting the sick in their homes. She talks to Pastor Sainton, giving him some updates on people, and then guides him to the home of a woman who is HIV positive and who has been feeling unwell lately.
For days after my first meeting with Mrs. M, I could not stop thinking about this woman. I could not stop thinking about what she carried inside her over the years. I imagined that she felt guilt for having infected her two sons with the virus. I imagined that she felt some responsibility for their struggles. I imagined how hard it is for her to feed them and to care for them. I imagined the challenges of leading a home with half the family HIV positive and the other half not, and all living in the same two-room home. Her son had asked the question in an interview I had conducted with him when we first met, a question he said he often asked himself, in what had become for him the constant cyclical emotional pain of weeping, laughter and then more weeping. "Was it something my mother did?" he would ask himself. "Was it something she did to make this happen? Why did it happen?" I thought that if his questioning broke my heart, then how much more does it break her heart, again and again?
I also wondered how she beat back the resentment she must have felt at the thought of the man who gave her the virus, a man who knew he was infected and who had already been to HIV/AIDS clinics with other women in the past, and who tried to deny that he had the disease, even when it was clear that he had infected her. She left him, and then she became friends with another man with whom she had her four children—without telling him she was positive herself. This man was still with her. Somehow he, and their two daughters, had managed to escape infection. She explained that he said that they had a life together, children together, and he could not see himself living without her. The story of the disease is one in which victims can become antagonists even beyond themselves. It is a disease that often emerges because of human action. To restore a will in one's self, to keep on living without guilt, is one of the great challenges of those living with the illness.
The strength and nobility I have seen in Mrs. M are found not so much in her actions as in the character of her children, in what she appears to have deposited in them.
A day before we were to leave Haiti after our second trip, we went to visit her family. We had been trying all day to reach them by phone, but could not get through. We assumed that Mrs. M had run out of minutes for her phone. We decided to go unannounced anyway. When we arrived, we found out that Mrs. M was out and that she was not expected back for a few hours—long after we would have left. She was doing church work, we were told. The children were there. Her eldest daughter was cooking for the family, a large pot of seasoned rice, on a coal stove on the narrow verandah of the small box home.
Three days before, while we talked to her brothers and her mother, she had been busy washing clothes in the narrow alleyway in front of their house, rubbing the clothes with her water-blistered hands, and skillfully rationing the water as she transferred soaped clothes from one basin to the other, scrubbing, rinsing, wringing and getting them ready to be hung up. She is a strikingly beautiful child, with the same smiling eyes as her mother, and a gentle and welcoming spirit. When she saw us, she stood up from her coal stove and came up and greeted us with kisses on both cheeks. She smiled as she explained that her mother was away. She called for her brother to come up. He was coughing badly, and his throat was hoarse. He had been sleeping and he was sluggish, but seemed keen on seeing us. The younger boy stumbled in from around the corner grinning, lively and seemingly full of things to say.
We talked about their work with the cameras we had left with them, and they told us what pictures they had taken. While we were talking, the daughter was busy with the housework while ensuring that we knew she was engaged and interested in what we were saying. I asked her if she looked after the family. She smiled shyly and said yes. I wanted to ask her if she had thought about what would happen if her brothers and her mother all grew ill, as they are likely to. How would she handle it? How did she feel about doing this? I imagined she would smile and say it would be hard but she would do what she had to do. I could tell that we were all wondering what would happen to this beautiful girl—would she complete school, would she find a good job, would she end up in the mess that her mother faced—depending on a man who betrayed her, and then having to carry a burden of responsibility for the rest of her life. Of course, these are all the kinds of speculations that we make when we lack clear answers.
A few minutes before we were to leave, several young people came to the house and asked for musical instruments. The youngest boy went inside and came out with several tambourines, a drum, a couple of graters and some sticks. The young people were about to leave when one of the remembered something and asked for it. The daughter went back inside and came out with another larger tambourine. I asked where they were going. They were going to church. Apparently Mrs. M's home is where they keep the musical instruments for the church. She is a woman who is clear about her position in life, about her mission. She is a woman whose faith is what is keeping her going. She is often hungry and decidedly tired, but she continues to be faithful to the work of helping other people. It is what she does.
And her children are also in the church. They talk about God, about what he is doing and why he is doing it. They have questions for God, as we all do. They are not pat about their faith. It is a complex thing. The eldest son walks out with us. He is nicely dressed. He is heading to the church where he takes classes. He is preparing to be a leader of sorts in the church. I remember that he wants to be a singer, a famous singer who can then change the life of his family and himself. I watch his slight body move with dignity—his shoulders shake as he coughs, leaning his head down and covering his mouth with his fist. He breathes deeply and tells us goodbye. There is a soft kindness in his eyes. He says he looks forward to seeing us again. The truth is that I can see in her children the story of Mrs. M. The energetic, daring, lively and witty manner of her youngest son who looks like a gifted survivor—he is the one who has won a cell phone in an art contest and who spends his days repairing radios. He is 13 years old, but is built like a ten year old. There is the inquisitive youngest daughter who walks in and out of the house accompanied by another young friend. These friends keep changing, and she is leading them, suggesting they go off somewhere else. She is hungry to see everything. Her eyes wide open, her body alert for some excitement. Then there is the watchful eldest daughter, her casual efficiency at managing the things she has to do, the calm sense of responsibility, the solid way she plants her feet on the ground, her elegant manner, as if she knows that there is dignity in her beauty; and her welcoming presence, it is confident and respectful. She is always watching the others, always watching the cats and kittens in the corner.
Finally, there is the eldest whose eyes seem to have already traveled to places so far from the world around him that it is always exciting to ask him to come back to tell what he has seen. He has questions, and he has doubts, but he is full of ideas. Things affect him, touch him, make him cry. He speaks slowly, thoughtfully, trying to pull the right words from his mouth. He will become a preacher, or he will be a man who will make us think about the world. I think of him showing me the map of Haiti and instructing me like a teacher how to pronounce the names of each of the towns, telling me to repeat after him and when I have it right, nodding approvingly with a firm, "bon" which sounds like "good," but means "next" as well.
For all of them, there is a life outside of HIV/AIDS, an identity beyond that—yet, as Mrs. M told me, HIV/AIDS is a constant in her life because poverty is a constant in her life. As long as she has to struggle to pay her rent, she must worry about HIV/AIDS. As long as she has to struggle to find the money to pay for the school fees for her children, she must think about what HIV/AIDS is going to do to her family. As long as she can't find the money to buy food for her family, she must think about HIV/AIDS. The disease is a constant presence because poverty makes it impossible not to think of it. She knows that in poverty the disease can easily kill. She knows that she and her sons can't take the medication if they are hungry. She knows that when her son is sick, she has to find the money to get him to a clinic for treatment for his cough or skin rash or chronic headaches, and all of this is exacerbated by HIV/AIDS. She knows that HIV/AIDS makes poverty more acute, turns it into something quite deadly.
Some days after I returned from Haiti, Andre Lambertson sent me a zip drive of images he had made. I quickly scrolled through to find the pictures of the family. I was looking for Mrs. M. I am haunted by a beautiful image that Andre captured. Deep inside their home, Andre found two areas of light—one a shadowy place where the sons were busy drawing, and the other a sun-drenched area in the living room where Mrs. M sat looking out, her face in repose, completely unaware now of the camera, and I could tell that she was contemplating her world, contemplating what was ahead of her. There is a certain sadness in her eyes, a quality of reflection and one feels the burden of life weighing on her. She is not defeated, just tired; very tired. You can see her body for what it is—a body, lithe, strong, but worn. She is thin, her low blue blouse is airy at the bosom and where there ought to cleavage, there are the lines of her chest bones. Her hands are folded in her lap—they are thin, the hands of a woman who uses them for hard work. It is a beautiful picture because of the way her beautiful features mirror the features of her sons. They are all gleaming with the heat. It is hard to forget this image.
Photos for this post shot by Andre Lambertson.