Une, deux, trois … cats, cholera, and chickens
I know enough French to know when someone’s making fun of me. That’s a surprise, I didn’t think that I remembered any French from four years of French in high school but I wasn’t even on the ground before I realized that my brain has a dark store room of French vocabulary that I hadn’t opened up in years. On the plane I was surprised that I could read everything on the French side of the customs form (admittedly a fairly predictable document) and I could answer simple questions from the woman sitting next to me on the plane. She was so scared as we took off and landed that she held my arm tight enough that I was sure that she’d leave bruises.
Once I was on the ground I could read most signs, but could only catch a word here or there of conversation. I shocked Cristelle and Ricardo (ages 7 and 10) on the first day we played cards when I showed off my ability to count to twenty-nine in French. Since then they have been my language tutors. Christelle answers my questions and laughs at me when I get things wrong since her English is impeccable. Ricardo sat me down with one of his school books, pointed at each picture and made me repeat the word for it; monkey, bird, chicken, school, really just the essentials.
Margaret, the Deacon at St. Simeon’s, speaks beautiful English and often eats meals with us. She is good company and a good sport about answering all our questions. The first question I asked, sheepishly because I suspected the answer, was “Do the cats have names?” There are three cats that live at the rectory. A small white cat with a grey smudge on her head and one blue eye and one yellow eye, and her two small kittens, one white with a red string around his neck and one orange on the top and white on the bottom. The kittens are weaned and all three are very vocal about their hunger at mealtimes. The mews are ignored because Carmel says they need to go out and eat mice, not people food. None of them want to be touched even if someone is brave enough to reach a hand to their dirty heads (when I say that they are white I mean that they are white in the way that my oldest kitchen towel is white – meaning grey). I knew the cats didn’t have names but I was trying hard not the make assumptions and trying hard to make lunch conversation so I asked. Margaret could barely hold it together long enough to say “No, they don’t have names.” Then she called to the other girls in the house and in French told them of my question – the repeated word “chats” in between peals of laughter was a dead giveaway. Hilarious to them, not so much to me.
From this incident I should have been prepared that a little knowledge of the language that no one knows you understand may be a far worse fate than complete ignorance. Pere Val introduced us to the congregation on Sunday and I swear there was a crack in there about my name being Kellaura, not Cholera. It got a good laugh. Pere Francois at the seminary was kind enough to make the joke in English, “So you don’t kill people” – well played, Pere Francois. After Cadieu, a friend of Christelle and Ricardo, was shocked (in French) that I was named after a deadly disease, I took the step that I should have thought of before I left… just call me Kelly.
The cholera joke is an old one, I’ve heard it from more than one second rate punster in the States. I should have thought of the Kelly move back when I got my shots at Passport Health. The nurse informed me that cholera was a big problem in Haiti but I needn’t worry because she was giving me an antibiotic prescription to take as needed the moment any symptoms came up. As long as I stayed hydrated with the help of Gatorade and took the antibiotic my system should flush the cholera right out. What?! Cholera, deadly, scary cholera could be “flushed out” with Gatorade and an antibiotic? I was almost furious about this fact as I drove to pick up my prescription and buy some Gatorade powder. If it is that simple to stop this disease what aren’t we shipping Gatorade and antibiotics all over the world? Why do people have to die of something that can be cured by things that can be found in every neighborhood drugstore in America?
Carmel is a nurse and is very careful about everyone’s health around the rectory. Hands are washed before every meal, salad vegetables are washed with Clorox to remove any spare germs, and thanks to the Diocese of Alabama and the Rotary Club there is enough clean, fresh water from the well to keep all of us hydrated and have enough left over to sell at the water store by the gate to the church. Cholera is still a big threat to people in Haiti without access to clean water or adequate medical care. Today, we drove past Canaan, a community of 8,000 tents and tiny houses at the foot of a hill where people made homeless by the earthquake, 3 years ago, have made their home. About a mile from the outskirts I saw three women walking up a dusty track carrying buckets of water on their heads. I asked Carmel where the people in Canaan get their water. She looked at me gravely and said that some people have rainwater collectors and sell the rain and other people – she just shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
Those women with the buckets on their heads were on my mind as we drove back through Croix de Bouquets, past the men selling little sealed plastic bags of water in the street and past a couple water stores like the one at St. Simeon’s. Once we got to the countryside on the other edge of town, I saw a group of seven people sitting in irrigation ditches doing their laundry, and I wondered where they got their drinking water. When we arrived at Double Harvest, workers were watering plants of all sorts with long orange hoses and water was pumped from a holding pond into irrigation canals. As we stood by the raised aquiculture ponds filled with fish Carmel, thinking of the possibility of raising some fish at the future home of Lespwa Timoun, said “If we had the water then we could do it all.”
Friday is market day in Croix de Bouquets and this evening a man brought a chicken to the rectory. We already have one chicken who has so far avoided the cooks and she has a rooster friend who breeches the walls and comes for a visit some days. The new chicken is tied up outside the kitchen, one pink and white string tethering her leg to an iron latch on the kitchen door. Being interested in anything furred or feathered that doesn’t intend to bite me, I went to inspect my new friend/ probable dinner. She is dusty gold with black lacing on the feathers of her head and neck. Her open beak and obvious panting made me think that she had endured a long, hot, thirsty day at the market. Double checking that not one was looking I threw her a few pieces of rice from the dirty dishes and drew her a plastic cup of water from the water cooler in the dining room. I left the cup within her reach and I contented myself with the fact that giving a chicken a cup of water was all I could do today to ease the suffering of the world. No other changes were within my power.