Bouzin. Veminn. Whore.
Call me what you want, what you need me to be. Call a fish a mango if it tastes better, I understand.
Just like I understand why Manman did what she did all the times the food was gone. Times when our bowls were nothin’ more than salt licks. Desperate, she’d go out in the rain and extract the clay… She’d butter and salt the mix, stir it in a bowl like it was cake batter, then she’d roll and cut it into neat putty-colored patties and into the oven they’d go. Biscuits, she called them, but we knew better. Still, we’d pretend with her. Pretendin’ because there was no use in not pretendin’. Deep down, we all knew how much it tore her to pieces, how much it must have killed her every time she watched us as we tried to kill our hunger with that evil food. The kind that eats you. But we ate it anyways, chouchou. Cause there ain’t nothin’ worse than an empty pit, chéri. Even a pit of worms.
Those biscuits taught me that there’s two things we can’t live with or without in this world, and that’s shortage and plenty. It makes liars of us. Like Manman. Tryin’ so hard to make sense of this nightmare we called reality, tryin’ to make it all okay for our children. And, when we were unable to do so, we lied. Buildin’ the wild idea that we got plenty when there’s shortage, that we got somethin’ when there’s nothing to be got. Because, chéri… it’s just too humiliatin’ to see plain… too painful to know you drew the short end of the stick, born to land tillers on the brink of extinction.
And it’s strengthened by the lie told by those who got it all… the lie they tell themselves and us that they got shortage when they got plenty, meaning they got nothing to share.
But they got everything, chouchou… both bounty and booty.
And so, we eat the mud and call it biscuits. And they eat lobster and call it rocks.
But deep down… deep down in our bones we all know that we’re foolin’ ourselves to make it all fit nice and good when it ain’t. Deep down we know… me… you… the world… We know even when we don’t.
“Your only duty is to not be seen,” Papa told us, his daughters, before he died. “Innocent or guilty, scandal is scandal.”
You may think that sounds hard, maybe even cruel, but you see, chéri… that’s how he learned to get by. Was all that he knew to teach us.
You’d know in his shoes.
Regime after regime… Living through Papa Doc, Baby Doc and all the invisible hands in between—you learn you got to pass by unseen.
He lived through times when even the trees seemed to have ears, when you were afraid that even your own shadow would betray you, accuse you of being Communist or being a voice that runs against the grain. Unable to trust anyone—doctor, priest, or hairdresser. Afraid that word will get around to the boogeymen, and they’ll come to take you away. They’d torture and rape you, your children. Make you drink bleach. Make you disappear into the night. Nights when we could hear the screams outside while we hid beneath our blankets, powerless to do a thing. Sometimes, survivors would surface into daylight, and we’d lower our heads out of fear and shame… people made forever old and broken in just a few hours inside those cinderblock sheds where men in boots conducted their brutal inquiries. Never knowing if you’d be next. Born into a world where the only two things that protect you is your status and, maybe… just maybe, your silence.
And so you submit and you keep quiet. And you teach your children to submit and keep quiet. Innocent or guilty, it all boils down to survival—to keep our descendants and ancestors alive in both the memory and bellies of our children.
So “Avoid being seen,” he would say. Meaning: be quiet and do your duty so that we can live on.
But when I grew to be a young woman, I learned quickly that some scandals were worse than others, the worst being the one that makes you a millet (a mule) or a lougawou (a witch)… In a peashell, a woman without child.
“Kombyen pitit ou genyen?” How many children do you have?
This is the first question people ask you. Call it a fever we have to reproduce against a hostile world, a frantic drive to carry down the fruit of our ancestors. Through centuries of enslavement, revolution and enslavement again, it’s what tallies a woman’s worth.
And so, from the moment I woke with my first red stain, I prayed for a baby. Someone to protect me. Give me status. All the while not knowin’ if I could do the same for him… or, Jezi, Mari, Josef… her… Call it my foli, the plight of an insecure girl lookin’ to fill the void that is her cunt. A void pressed upon us by the very world that holds us in contempt for having one. The mark of my humanity, my womanhood. Entirely dependent on my duty to make babies.
And until that day would come, I was a woman without standing, ruined and stripped of my rights… Condemned to be a child until I could produce one. Or when it didn’t, made to believe that I was bein’ punished by God and the lwa, the spirits, for a wrong I couldn’t name. As if havin’ a barren womb came down to havin’ a barren soul.
“Be fruitful and multiply,” they said. “Or create scandal.”
I didn’t choose to be fruitful, chouchou. I chose to not create scandal. Being inseminated was only the result of that. Choosin’ to fill my belly with child just like I filled it with Manman’s food—because anything’s better than the void, chouchou, and all the humiliations that follow it.
The seed was not the seed of a man who I loved… Erol, my husband… the man who loved me first. Not the man whose name they say means “noble.”
No. It was the seed of a traveling U.N. soldier. A man I watched from afar. My breasts swelled when I saw him, not for him… but at the thought of what he could leave me.
“You’ll know soon if your husband’s seed really is dried up,” says the mambo, wiping me down with sandalwood, the smell that makes a man go wild.
“Here, drink this,” she says, and places a calabash to my lips. “To help with fertility.”
Then she plucks a hibiscus flower, places it in my relaxed hair.
“Très bèl,” she says, with a smile. A sad smile. One that tells me that she’s very sorry that it has come to this.
I look away.
“Now you go, girl,” she says. “I’ll make another offering to Ayida-Wedo, and God-willing this whole affair will be behind us, and you’ll be free.”
As I leave, I’m suddenly craving Manman’s biscuits. Never thinkin’ I’d want to eat worms ever again. But then I do, cause I can’t suffer the emptiness… a hunger that this world has placed in me and won’t do a thing to quench it.
So make me who you need me to be to make it all fit. Eat that mud you call the script, call it food. It won’t save you. Call me a whore, an adulteress, without knowing the whole story. The story you never got, never questioned. The one built for your own sake and for the sake of your house. The one to which you’d rather honor kill me for who I’m not, than to honor me for who I really am.
So who am I? You may ask.
I’m a woman, I say. A woman bound to her history, bound to her scandal.