One morning last August when Andy and I were part of a building crew erecting transitional houses we came to a dusty flat midway up the mountain where there were two shacks, an open fire, a thin, pregnant women, a jaundiced husband and a swarm of children. As we were nailing the prefabricated frames in place Andy mentioned that you know you’ve been in Haiti a while when you start to differentiate the gradations of poverty. These people were very poor. The children’s bellies were distended, their eyes listless from lack of everything.
I stood on a ladder as we unrolled the reinforced tarp wall covering and when I reached down to my bucket of roofing nails with wide plastic washers a small black hand held three up to me. I had not seen this boy before; it was hard to believe he was of this family. He was small, for sure, but his smile was quick, his skin shiny. He was thin but his proportions suggested meals on a regular basis.
“Thank you,” I said, taking the nails, reaching up to bang them into place, finding another handful ready for me the next time I leaned over.
“Quel nom?” I asked on the third round, when it was clear that I had acquired a helper. “Jameson.” He called up at me with an eager smile.
I nailed my way along the top of the wall, double folding the tarp as Pedro, our crew supervisor, had demonstrated. If I dropped a nail Jameson picked it up and put in my bucket, but he was always ready with the next handful when I needed them. We communicated in perfect pigeon – a bit of English, a bit of French, a lot of hand gestures and plenty of smiles. It turns out that Jameson is eight, though he looks no more than six, that he lives ‘over there’ and that he goes to school. Every Haitian child tells every white person that they attend school, whether they do or not, but I believed Jameson. He possessed a confidence and authority that suggested experience beyond a simple shack and a charcoal fire. If other children tried to help me he nudged them aside. They shuffled off to help others, but Jameson was clearly the most adroit at the job.
When we finished the house Jameson tagged along to the next. We chatted along the path, a conversation more convivial than informative. I carried the bucket of nails; he gripped his tiny hand around the handle as well, sharing the burden.
When we returned to Mission of Hope for lunch Jameson disappeared. He was not allowed inside except for class or church services; the Mission would be overrun if locals wandered in at will. After lunch, he found our crew and became my assistant once again. And every day thereafter, whether we were building in the flat near the Bay or the hillside beyond the highway, Jameson sought us out and joined the effort.
I returned to Grand Goave in late September with Len and Bernie Gengel to witness the land for the Be Like Brit orphanage. As we descended the dirt road after surveying the site a familiar face popped out between two tents. “Jameson!” I called out. He ran to me and clung to my thigh. I put my hand around his bony shoulder and we walked tight against each other, chattering away with no greater comprehension nor lesser warmth than we’d shared a month before. We clung to each other until we reached the highway. Our group turned right towards the Mission. He darted his eyes both ways, slipped from under my hand and raced across the pavement to the flats.
I am not a person who holds many premonitions in life. But I feel quite sure that I will see Jameson again; and that notion is a great comfort to me.