A Haitian broom is a charming piece of folk craft; a sturdy branch about four feet long and an inch in diameter tied off at one end with hundreds of narrow leaves that bunch out unruly as a cheerleader’s pom. Over time, sandpaper coarse palms rub the stick to a warm luster; fingers massage the soft wood into a comfortable grip, the leaves splay horizontal, lose their tension and fan out like a chimney sweep’s bristles. It is a lovely, curious object, if not entirely effective for its purpose.
Every morning when in Haiti, I drive from my guest house in Grand Goave to our construction sites; we are building a school and orphanage. Dawn is emerging; though the roosters are long past awake. Dogs and pigs meander along the road. The few men with jobs are up and gone; folks with no agenda are just beginning to stir. Shadows pass in and out of shacks; dressing, splashing their faces with whatever water is left in last night’s basin.
The women’s first chore is to sweep the front yard, the hard packed earth that spans from private shelter to the public way. Some houses have only a narrow path defined by small trees; others claim a broad plane that provides the inhabitants a full view of the passing world. This is where families dwell until nightfall; interior space is used only to escape storms and catch sleep.
Driving along the rutted road in the dim light, I watch women stand with their feet apart, sway their hips counter to the rhythm of their arms, and sweep away whatever the wind cast down overnight. Back and forth they waver as if in a trance, shifting across their living rooms, half asleep, near zombies with two legs and a broom. Their sweeping was long ago chiseled into motor memory.
Every morning I am transfixed by their quiet, futile dance. The women sweep dirt from dirt. They raise dust, they push it away, and more dust rises in its place. Are they fools, scratching at Haiti’s tenuous soil, or noble in their quest to create a place of hygiene and order in a land that defies either? Are they trapped in a Sisyphus-like cycle of endless sweeping or might they someday achieve their desired objective of a clean world?
Contradictory human truths play out in these dawn movements. We are creatures of habit, of pattern. We do what we know, not always because it is best for us, but because it gives us comfort. Sweeping dirt provides the illusion of making things neat. If we sweep every day, long enough and hard enough, we can convince ourselves that sweeping makes a difference. These women never create a sanitary place for their family to live, yet their labor offers other benefits. When they sweep their yard they claim it in a more tactile way than any deed can bestow, just as anyone who puts effort into a patch of land both owns it and is owned by it. These mothers know their children need a clean and safe place to grow and thrive and they do all that they can to provide, despite the forces of poverty and disease that thwart their effort.
The futility of sweeping dirt might discourage me. Instead, it motivates me to create enough hard surface here to ensure that people can eat and sleep and learn and play without mud packing their soles or spiders climbing up their legs. We don’t need to replicate the blacktop parking lots that span America, but a little pavement has its benefits.
Haitian brooms have long handles; the woman stand upright. Sweeping is a dignified act, an act of caring, an act that says ‘I matter and my family matters’. But it is also an act of defiance against the trials of this land. Sweeping dirt denies natural disaster and physical deprivation, it ignores political instability and economic futility, it mocks every calamity grinding down on them. Sweeping dirt asserts that these women will do whatever they can, however little that may be, to create a sanctuary for their family on this earth. For humans everywhere strive to improve our lot, no matter how meager.
This article was published in the Cambridge Chronicle on January 12, 2013 under the name ‘We are Creatures of Habit”. I prefer my original title.