When my family moved back to Haiti when I was fourteen, I was a reluctant missionary’s daughter. My father did not want us to live on the missionary compound, surrounded by other Americans. He wanted us to have Haitian friends.
So Dad hired a young man named Manno, who was a few years older than I was, to be our Kreyol language teacher. When Manno knocked at our door for the first time, I was immediately smitten by his brown eyes and curled eyelashes, not to mention the confident thrust of his shoulders. The infatuation lasted about a week. Then I started to complain that learning Kreyol was ruining my French accent. I was too tired after a day of American high school correspondence courses to memorize a list of Kreyol verbs: rélé, to call or be named; kouri, to run; degagé, to make do with what you have.
I made excuses to disappear every time Manno arrived. Exasperated, he finally asked my little sister, “Do you realize your parents are paying me to do this?”
Nothing was working out as Dad had planned. His reforestation projects were thwarted by drought. Most of the tree seedlings he had planted died, along with the vegetable gardens. A few months later, Mom was offered a teaching job at the missionary compound. There was a gas shortage in the country, which made the four-mile commute to the missionary school unpredictable, so we abandoned Dad’s experiment in Haitian community-building and moved back onto the compound.
Dad might have felt defeated, but my sisters and I were euphoric. There would be no more awkward afternoons with our Haitian neighbors—Dad telling jokes that didn’t translate while my sisters and I kicked each other under the table.
We disappeared effortlessly into the quasi-American hum of the compound: teen nights on Wednesdays, movies in the lounge, sleepovers.
Manno came to visit us at the compound only once. I was sitting at the picnic table under the labapin tree, surrounded by the other teenagers. My girlfriends and I were fixing each others’ hair and giggling about some visiting American boys on a tour group. Manno drove up on his new motorcycle. I tried not to make eye contact but everyone looked at me and grinned. He’d come to ask if I wanted to go for a ride.
At the time, Manno represented everything that I despised about Haiti: his swaggering masculinity, his pompously long pinkie fingernail, which—as I’d heard it explained—suggested that he thought himself too good to work in the fields. I didn’t understand, at the time, that I scorned Manno because I saw myself in him. I, too ,wanted desperately to escape my surroundings. I was mortified that anyone should label me as a missionary kid.
I don’t remember what I said to Manno that day. I would like to think that I was not unkind. But Manno understood that I had rejected him in front of my friends and I suspected, even then, that he would not forget it.
A few months ago, I went back to Haiti to collect stories for the radio show This American Life. It had been twenty years since I had seen Manno and in that time, he had become a doctor, the medical director of a small, Haitian-run clinic. Manno’s clinic is less than one hundred yards from the house where he once tried to teach me Kreyol. His long pinkie fingernail is gone, but his impatience and confidence have served him well as a medical director.
Ever since the earthquake, he has been driving down to Port-au-Prince to do relief work. When I met him again, with a microphone in my hand, I was relieved to realize that we had both changed. This time, I saw him as a man with stories that I wanted to understand.
Parts of this essay were published on the Oregon Humanities blog. For more, visit: www.oregonhumanities.org