New Friend, Impromptu Lunch in Haiti

Haiti friend

Pouchaina, 11, pushes her 3-year-old sister, Ashlinda, down a street in Ounaminthe, Haiti, as she sucks on a frozen treat. Their home collapsed in the January 12 earthquake. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Pouchaina stood in the shade of the mango tree, legs crossed, surrounded by adults.

She talked to no one. And nobody talk to her. You could look right at her and almost forget she was there.

White barrettes swung from her pig tails. And like most school girls in Haiti, her hair is an explosion of ribbons. But she cut school today; she had more pressing issues, like picking up the food vouchers for her mom.

Pouchaina caught me off guard. Unlike most adults at the distribution, her French was immaculate; she rolled her r’s just right, and she could navigate the complex French verb tenses that I’ve never been able to master; it was astonishing for a girl her age.

When I asked her where she was from, she looked me in the eye and told me her story. I didn’t have to drag it out of her. I felt like I was talking to a college graduate, not an 11-year-old.

Her mom was sick, she said, and had gone to the hospital. That meant Pouchaina was now in charge of getting the $25 worth of food vouchers—similar to food stamps—provided by Catholic Relief Services and its partner, the Juanista Sisters.
So she stood there, listening like a grown woman to the man on the bullhorn, waiting for him to call her neighborhood. With the vouchers, her mom could go to the shops with the green poster out front that said “Program Koupon”.

Right there on the sign, in Creole, the local language, it said what she could buy: Diri (rice), Lwil (oil), Pwa (peas), Farin (flour), Mayi (corn), Spaghetti, Sadin (sardines), Sik (sugar). Pouchaina said they had a little bit of food left over from the last distribution. But it’s running out. Thank goodness CRS will continue food distributions for six months. With her mom out of work, this food is what Pouchaina and her sisters count on.

Food is great, but in the back of Pouchaina’s mind, I could tell other thoughts were percolating.

First, there’s Ashlinda, her 3-year-old sister. She gets out of school in an hour. And Pouchaina sure hopes the food distribution team calls her name before noon so she can pick Ashlinda up.

And then there was her mom. Pouchaina didn’t know which hospital she’d gone to or how long she was going to be in it, or even what her problem was. She just wondered if her mom was going to make it to Port au Prince Friday, a seven hour drive away, to pick up her dad’s body.

He’d died in Haiti’s January 12 earthquake. Pouchaina didn’t know all the details. She just knew that her dad was out in the city somewhere during the quake and never made it home. Now she and her three sisters and mom have come north to the border town of Ounaminthe, where the most popular activity is escaping across the river to find work in the Dominican Republic.

With her mom sick, the girls cram into her uncle’s one-room house. It looks like a garden shed. The uncle will sleep on the floor, and the youngest girls will all, somehow, fit on the bed in the sweltering shack.

When we picked up Ashlinda, a smiling girl in frilled socks with two rotting front teeth, she was busy steering her bicycle around piles of rubble.

Pouchaina, who had waited patiently for four hours at the distribution, hadn’t eaten anything all day. It was close to 90 degrees. But still she bent over and pushed Ashlinda for a few hundred yards down the toasting streets without complaint. We bought some frozen juice from a woman carrying it in an ice chest on her head. Pouchaina bent over, dripping with sweat, and reminded Ashlinda to say thank you to her.

“Are you going to be able to find your way back?” she asked me.

“Nope,” I said, “I’m totally lost.”

“I’m hungry,” I said. “Do you want to eat something?”

Within a few minutes, Pouchaina, Ashlinda, and my CRS colleague, Kassoum, and I were eating chicken, plantains, and spicy cabbage. Ashlinda gummed a few plantains, and recoiled when offered chicken. She was more interested in her vanilla shake.

“Ashlinda, what did you do in school today?”

“We sang!” she yelled out in French.

Then, in French, and without hesitation, she belted out a Christmas song for me. I clapped for her. But she wasn’t done yet and didn’t miss a beat. She burbled on for a good 30 seconds.

Pouchaina opted to save much of her chicken for later. We scraped the leftovers, including my half-chewed chicken bones, into a Styrofoam box.

She thanked me for lunch, offered some of her chicken to a passing friend, and then left the restaurant.

The last I saw of Pouchaina she was her pushing Ashlinda down the street on her little bike, heading for her uncle’s shack.

Lane Hartill, who is currently visiting Haiti, is Catholic Relief Services’ regional information officer for west and central Africa.

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