10/27/92          9:10 p.m.   Today, the group broke into two subgroups: One, with John, Beth, Gary, and Mev, is leaving for Cap Haitien, today; the other, with Gail and me, will be traveling to Verrettes (in the Artibonite Valley), tomorrow. After the others left, Gail and I spent the day at the Hospice. But, we weren’t inactive: We had an intensive afternoon of interviews. Gail took notes while I questioned. Matthieu and, later, George translated.

The first individual was Patrick Numas, the General Secretary of OGITH, Organisation Generale Independante Des Travilleiurs, Trailleuses D’Haiti and CODDHUS, the committee that deals with specific human rights abuse of the workers. His documentation was primarily concerned with the Haitian workers—the lack of work, the miserable wages and working conditions, and the repression and intimidation of those who were able to secure working positions.   He provided multiple pages of documented cases—in French.

And, he spoke French. I was frustrated by the language barrier. But, we developed a technique around it. Even though a translator relayed our parts of the conversation, we never once looked at the translator. We kept our eyes on each other. That allowed us to see facial reactions and body language—that subtle element of communication so important for true understanding of intent. From that afternoon on and during the years to come, Patrick and I would remain in contact—still in need of a translator but no longer bound by language.

The next interviewees were two men from MGL, a youth movement centered in Labadie—a place the cruise ships visit—when the local (paramilitary and repressive authorities guarantee safety), a place that wears the façade of lovely “native village” featuring “native crafts.” We are witness to the ugly reality festering beneath the tourist brochure. I am humbled and frightened and strangely energized by these testimonies and stories and with the hopeful confidence, the extreme trust these people put in our determination to put out the word of what they are suffering and what is really happening here. I am awed by the responsibility this places on us. They believe we will speak for them—they spend their time—they risk their lives talking to us. We must honor this trust. And, it scares me that we might fail them for one reason or another.

The interview started after lunch. The two young men, two translators, Gail and I arranged six chairs in the small chapel. We sat in a relaxed circle—the two young men facing Gail and me at a bit of an angle. The windows provided excellent natural lighting so we didn’t bother with the overhead light.

We began with introductions. The young men spoke softly, almost shyly, heads slightly inclined. As the interview continued, I found myself moving forward in my chair—more and more until my rear was resting on the edge of the chair and my arms and sometimes my elbows rested on my knees, my head craned forward toward the speaker. Gail took notes and I presented the questions.

As the afternoon progressed, I listened less and less to the translators and found myself relying more and more on a strange rapport. I did not pale Kreyol at that time—in fact, I don’t speak it all that well now. But, that afternoon, I understood Creole. One of the young men, Jean (not his real name), mirrored my posture. The afternoon light dimmed; time passed unnoticed; I listened to Jean. All else ceased to register in my consciousness—only Jean repeating the horrific stories of his own firsthand experiences and of the experiences of the peasants with whom he and his group work—the beatings, the rapes, the forced rapes between family members, the homes burnt to the ground, the property and money extorted to prevent beatings, the imprisonment and murders, and, finally the forced displacement, separation from the land which is the only source of livelihood. Of those left alive, many are left without home and income.

At some point, during the afternoon, I realized that the exchange between us had transcended language—we simply understood each other. It was like a strange gift of tongues.

Later, I asked Gail if she had understood what was being said—especially since she was charged with taking notes on a conversation that was ignoring, to a large extent, the translators, and she indicated that she had experienced snatches of the same understanding. It was as though everything disappeared but the empathy of the correspondents. When the spell finally broke, we realized the light in the room was now the dimness of twilight and the afternoon was gone. And, when the two young men left the Hospice, I felt as if part of me was leaving with them—not metaphorically, but truly. It would not be the last time this happened. Before my sojourn as a human rights observer was over, Haiti and its people had become a part of my being and my soul. I could never, again, view its suffering or its history as something separate from my own life.

numas

 

2 thoughts on “Empathy as Language

  1. Wow! What a heart rending experience. Have I said before that it’s a wonder you don’t have PTSD? I can see how you would be forever changed by your time in Haiti.

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