“Qué es eso?” “Se yon bagay.” “Qué bagay? Guys, what’s this kid doing?” Three languages rocketed back and forth in the crowd of Americans, Haitians, and Haitian-Dominicans. We ran around chasing kids, giving piggyback rides, and trying to practice our Kreyol. “Mwen rele Brendan. Kouman ou rele?” I would ask each kid who jumped up onto my shoulders. Our professor Getro had suggested that we walk around the neighborhood after dinner to practice speaking with people. We should have realized from previous walks that any time Americans go anywhere in the batey they suddenly find themselves surrounded by children. “Americano!” follows us everywhere, but it always sounds friendly and is accompanied by a smile and a wave. We’re celebrities in Batey 9.
I’m spending a week in a batey in the South with a few other volunteers and a language teacher. The volunteers are here because we could benefit from having some Kreyol ability in our sites, and Getro is here to teach us. We’re staying in a dormitory above a preschool and taking class in a church. Class lasts about seven hours every day—that’s a lot of Kreyol. The class is conducted in a mix of Kreyol, Spanish, and English, since Getro speaks all three. Every once in a while I realize that I’m learning a new language in another language, and I feel awesome.
I had only ever been to bateys in the East, and I knew there was a difference between East and South, but I never imagined how great the difference would be. The houses in Batey 9 are almost exclusively made of palm boards and zinc. People bathe in spigots that empty into cement canals. And electricity—when it’s on—comes through thin wires criss-crossing the neighborhood. Pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs run around the streets. And any direction you look, you’re treated to a beautiful mountain view. The rustling cane fields that melt into hazy peaks give purple mountains and amber waves of grain a run for their money. Sugar farming started in the East before it did in the South, so the bateys there are a little more established and developed. Much of the sugar production in the East has slowed or halted, where in the South the harvests continue, and with them the importation of cheap labor from across the border. Batey residents in the South are primarily cane-cutters, while in the East the communities of workers are sort of left over with no source of employment. It’s a problem.
Bateys everywhere, however, are hotspots for international aid. USAID has a batey improvement project, the UN is involved in some bateys, and Save the Children is pretty active as well. In the batey we’re studying in, the President’s Plan Against Poverty (PPCP in Spanish) built a bunch of cement houses and a baseball field. And the day we arrived there was a team of American doctors doing consultations and dentistry. There was actually a dentist chair set up in our dormitory, with the tools resting on one of the mattresses. It was an odd welcome.
Outside of class, we were treated to a few cultural experiences. Thursday evening a Daihatsu truck full of men rolled down the main road. They piled out when the truck arrived at the school courtyard, and started playing a collection of drums and horns. Two of them wore colorful skirts and hats and danced to the rhythm of the drums while twirling batons and blowing whistles. Groups of people joined in the fun, swaying back and forth and chanting a call-and-response that I really wish I understood. This is gaga. The party made its way around the community, stopping every once in a while to give the dancers a chance to shake around. Then they hopped on their truck and were gone as quick as they arrived. After that, we happened upon the kitchen staff hard at work at a mill. They were grinding up hot peppers and peanuts to make manba, or spicy peanut butter. A few of us took a crack at spinning the crank while one of the cooks pressed the mixture into the top. What came out the other end was magnificent. Freshly made peanut butter, with a kick. I bought a jar to bring back to my site, and the first order of business is to locate someone who makes it in Bani. It’s delicious on biskwit, which is a Haitian bread that’s pretty dense and actually tastes like something, unlike the pan de agua that dominates the Dominican bread scene. Spicy dancing and spicy food—it’s a great combination.
So now that I have a week’s worth of kreyol under my belt, I’m ready to search out the Haitian population in my site. I’ve already met a family who makes peanut candies. I’m looking forward to practicing with them and getting a little boost in confianza when I greet someone with “Sa k’ap fèt?” It also helped me to understand more one of my favorite proverbs: “Dèyè mòn gen mòn.” Beyond mountains, there are mountains. It’s a beautiful sentence that has endless meanings, depending on how you want to twist it. Some are deep, some are hopeful, some are fatalistic. And if interpretation isn’t your bag, it can be used to describe a pretty killer landscape.