Her face haunts me.
I met this girl at Paradise Cove in Labadee, Haiti and though she tried to tell me her name three times, her Creole accent and soft voice made it unintelligible to my American ears. I call her Atabei, for the Taino creator, the original mother in the ancient culture of the Caribbean. It seems fitting as the power of her gaze fills me every time I look at the one good picture I got of her.
Atabei spoke enough English to tell me that she was seven and her brother was 14. She was simply hanging around on the beach where we visited, accompanying her father, who sold sea shells to the visiting tourists. I asked, but couldn't get a clear answer from him where the shells came from, but I gathered he bought them from someone else to sell. Most likely a merchant who paid divers in other areas for the shells. I think Atabei's father and his family decorated many of the shells with the word “Haiti” themselves.Of course I bought one without the man-made décor. This family seemed to include another young adult (uncle perhaps) who sold metal art a few feet up the hill from the shell merchant.
Neither man knew enough English, it seemed, for conversation beyond the practiced phrases to sell their wares to the tourists, which I assumed they did with the encouragement of the American owner of the cove, since it was private property. Perhaps mom was one of the women up in the simulated village, demonstrating how to roast coffee or make peanut butter from scratch (don't forget to add a tiny dash of hot pepper at the end). I didn't ask.
There were lots of questions I didn't ask of these people, especially of Atabei, who fascinated me. I didn't even take as many photos as I'd have liked—feeling unusually shy about imposing on their lives. I did ask for her permission to take her picture, but I kept feeling like the things I wondered about might be rude to ask. It was a weekday; didn't she go to school? Did she and her brother take off to help her father whenever there were ships in port (maybe one or two days a week) to help make the scene more picturesque, and sell more shells and metal? Was school simply unaffordable for them? Where was her mom? What did she want to be when she grew up? Did she even think of such choices? What did she like to do? If I'd known Creole or she'd known more English, if I'd have been braver about intruding, I'd have asked lots of questions.
Her face seemed so solumn in repose. I don't think I saw but a hint of a smile once, and then it was gone. Her brother too, didn't smile, though the father did a bit, as he encouraged me to buy something and gathered eveyone for a group picture. But they didn't smile in the pictures, I noticed later when I looked more closely. Bad teeth? Unfamiliar custom? Nerves?
There was a quiet stillness about this child that I found unnerving. She seemed able to remain quiet and unmoving, relaxed yet alert, in a way that belied her young age. The contrast to what an American 7 year old would be doing was astounding. Is sitting around and doing basically nothing the norm for her in her world?
I'm usually the one who can talk to children, from toddlers to teens, from any background, who can always find the right question to ask to get them talking about themselves and their world.
Here, in this poverty and sun drenched cove, I didn't know where to begin.