(2/2017) As part of the Honors Program at Mount St. Maryís University, I am working to complete a senior research project. For this project, I chose to engage in a study of creative nonfiction, a relatively new genre with no standing definition yet, and its place in the poverty narrative.
Creative nonfiction is just what it sounds like: telling absolutely true stories, creatively. This genre opens the doors for history to be told a little differently than before. This genre upholds the idea of nonfiction, striving for accuracy down to the smallest details and the spoken word, but strives to fit into a narrative format. For the project
itself, I am writing a series of creative nonfiction essays about my experiences in Haiti in an attempt to study this genreís capacity for telling these untold stories and revealing a little about this world. This is the first in a series of four essays.
Burns donít stop at the skin.
They donít stop at the skin.
They penetrate deeper;
They infect the mind,
They scar the heart,
They mark the personality,
They traumatize the spirit.
Burns disfigure the whole person,
And they donít stop.
The first time I met Nikaita was about two years ago, a couple weeks before Christmas, as she was sitting on the front steps of the Christian Light School Childrenís Home, long before it became the Rev Home. She was 11. She was the new girl. She sat on the steps holding Jean Wilson.
I found Nikaita there when I walked out of the side door of the home around to the front of the house and was headed out the gate for the night. It was my third day at the home, and Nikaitaís second month there. I heard her name a few times over the past few days but the only interaction I had with her were a few snarled glances on her face as she
closed a door or walked away.
That night, when I saw her on the steps, she was smiling as she fed Jean Wilson. He sat next to her on the steps and she kept one arm around his back the entire time. He was capable of sitting up on his own, even of feeding himself on his own, but she let him do neither. I watched for a quick moment and as I turned to leave, she looked up at me and
literally growled. Not knowing what to do or say, I simply waved and left.
The next day at dinner, I asked a couple of people about Nikaita. Everybody at the home knew very little about her. What I did learn was that she was a refugee from a nearby town where she had lived with her older sister and mother. Again, nobody knew why, but she had fled to her friendís home in the middle of the night a few months ago. The family
knew a local pastor and brought her to him. The pastor brought her to the home. When she arrived at the home, Nikaita was sick due to fresh third degree burns covering almost 20% of her body. She came with no clothes, no birth certificate, and no idea how old she was or where exactly she was from. What everyone was able to piece together was that she was "mean," violent
towards the younger kids, and only ever spoke around the older boys.
That night as I laid in bed, sleep eluded me as I kept thinking about Nikaita. Something about her was so different than every other child at the home. She didnít cling to my arm before she even knew my name like Magdala had, she didnít run around playing soccer with the boys, she didnít help the older girls do the wash, and she certainly never smiled.
Well, unless she was holding Jean Wilson. And she growled as if she had been raised by wild animals.
This was two years ago.
Today, Nik got baptized in the pool down the street with her friends, Vidlon and Rosemarline. She hid her face in her hands as Reese dipped her beneath the water and only opened them to smile wildly in my direction as she stood herself up. She walked slowly up the stairs of the pool straight to me and sat on my lap; soaking clothes and all. As Nik sat
on my lap, she giggled as she watched Vidlon make the same promises to God that she had just finished pledging. Once Vidlon emerged from the water, Nik stood up and ran towards Rosemarline who was standing shyly in the corner of the concrete backyard. Rosemarline was terrified to walk into the pool for the first time in her life.
I watched as Nik petted her hair, whispered words of encouragement, grabbed her hand, and led her to the pool.
Today was a good day.
Yesterday was not.
Yesterday I got to the house around lunchtime and was immediately concerned by the uncharacteristic calm that permeated the air. Nobody was running around the yard. I couldnít find anybody in the front rooms. There was a silence that is, on most days, impossible to create in a house full of almost 40 children and teens.
"Whatís going on?" I said out loud, to myself.
Soon I found Kervenson and Vidlon laying on the floor of their room. Vidlon looked up and his first words were "Can we go get Kanips?"
Kanips are a fruit snack sold in the markets. The fruit has a sweet first bite, but leaves a lingering bitter taste on your tongue. They are barely larger than a grape, and sold in grape-like clusters. Kanips have a green shell, which is broken in half with the first bite, if you do it right. Once the shell is broken, the kanip goes into your mouth and
you can suck the sweet, orange layer until you reach the core, almost like a lollipop. The core then goes into the shell, into a trash pile, and you pick up the next kanip to start all over. With experience, a single kanip can last hours. If youíre me, they last about six minutes.
Kanips are typically an after dinner treat, so I asked, "Why?"
"We didnít get breakfast," Vidlon responded as he shifted his position so his whole body was facing me, "Can we go?"
"Hold on," I responded as I turned to find Amber.
I found Amber on the back steps on the phone. She explained that the propane tank had a leak and because of that the cooks didnít have any propane to cook with that morning. They had bread that the kids could have, but they were saving that for dinner.
In all those words, what she really said was if we donít get propane now, the kids wonít eat until we do get propane.
She continued, "Iím on the phone with Jonathan, we donít have money for propane."
Let me be clear, this was not, as of yet, an emergency. Nobody would starve. There was food in the school that could be shared and plenty of missionary families in the neighborhood that would offer support to avoid an emergency, but to hear the words
"We donít have money"
"There wonít be breakfast"
And "bread for dinner" meant something a little different to everybody there.
I nodded and walked away while she finished talking to Jonathan on the phone. I walked up the stairs to find Nikaita. She was sitting on the bench in the girlsí common room, slouched against the table with one arm slung across her stomach and the other hand holding three colors of nail polish. I walked to her, but she put her chin to her chest and
immediately turned away. I thought about leaving her alone for a minute to take Vidlon to the market, but something made me sit on the bench across from her and take the nail polish from her hand.
One of Nikaitaís favorite activities is painting anybody elseís nails, each a different color. Not her own, she would never be caught with something so embarrassing. But anybody with clean nails and the patience to wait while she paints each fingernail, only to change her mind, wipe it all off with her thumb, and start over, was a fresh canvas to
I took the polishes from her hand and asked if she wanted to paint. She calmly shook her head no. I watched as she began to slowly shed tears that ran down her cheeks and onto her arm that was still draped across her stomach.
"Whatís wrong?" I asked quickly.
"No," she responded.
In that moment, she crumbled. I say crumbled because I have never seen a reaction like this. She bent over and began to cry so violently that her whole body shook.
I moved beside her to hold her. She stood up, took two steps to the can in the corner, and threw up. Once, twice, and dry heaved a third time. Her pain was tangible, but she would not speak.
It took Nikaita nearly 20 minutes to look up, when she did, all she whispered was, "Iím hungry."
I realized then, slowly, that Nikaita hadnít been hungry in over two years. I realized that the last time Nikaita was hungry was when her family tried to let her die of starvation and malnutrition, but when that took too long, they burned her and left.
Downstairs was another scene. Vidlon was raised in this home, the most severe hunger that he ever faced was routine for the average Haitian, and only happened during storms, shortages, or accidents like a propane tank running out too soon. His hunger had always been fixed by someone else; his hunger had always led to food. So, when Vidlon was hungry
this morning, he asked the first person he saw for kanips.
Nikaita wasnít raised here. Nikaita was tortured, physically, mentally, psychologically. She was traumatized by a hunger that was meant to kill her, followed by burns to end her life, and finally abandoned by her family.
When Nikaita fled her "home" that night, she barely had the energy to get to her closest friendís home. She sat on the front step until somebody came home and she told her story for months.
For Nikaita, the words
"We donít have money"
"There wonít be breakfast"
and "bread for dinner"
sent her into a psychological anguish.
Today, though, Nik got baptized.
Today, she held her friendís hand and laughed as she walked up to a crowd.
Tomorrow, though, she might need a hand.
Read other articles by Leeanne Leary