On my third night in Haiti, I got a chance to visit the girls of the orphanage just before their bedtime. I wasn’t sure what they would make of a stranger in their midst but they didn’t give me very long to worry about it. As soon as I walked through the little gate at the bottom of the stairs, I was swarmed by a wriggling mass of puppyish affection in pyjamas and nightgowns. It was sort of like entering a child’s birthday party right after the cake has been eaten – it was all high energy and very noisy.
Clearly used to foreigners visiting from the guest-house above, they chattered at me in a mix of Creole, French, and bits of English. Immediately, a group of the younger girls seized my hands and arms and pulled me right where they wanted me – onto the floor in the middle of the room. They took turns sitting in my lap for a cuddle and playing with my hair. Other girls raced around in a game of chase, two little ones sat curled up on the couch watching a movie on T.V., and a half dozen older girls lined up in the kitchen to use the counter as a ballet barre. Since the earthquake, the girls have each been given access to two ballet lessons per week and they clearly love it. They didn’t have to ask twice to rope me into their evening practice. I stood at the back of the line and assumed the position (somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind my old, beloved ballet instructor was banging her cane on the floor, shouting “tummies in, backs straight, necks long, begin!”). We did the positions of the feet, the arm positions, our glissades, our relevés, our pliés. The oldest girl, tall and proud, was the only one eyeing me warily. She clearly wanted to test me to see what I could do. Turning at the barre, she pointed one leg high into the air, up beside her ear at an inhuman angle. When I looked sufficiently shocked, she threw back her head and laughed at me, and then with me too. And that was it – six little girls began showing off their flexibility. “You do it,” they shouted in Creole. “I’m old!” I shouted back. “Gade, gade!” they said, “Watch me!” One after another they slid into the splits, reaching their heads to their knees, turning to me with cheeky grins. When they couldn’t convince me to try that, they stood at the counter again and told me to lift one leg up to the side. Three girls grabbed my foot and pushed it as high as it would go. “No, no, no!” I shouted. “Wi, Wi!” they shouted back, laughing at my squeals of pain.
I knew it would hurt the next morning but this was definitely worth it.
I pulled myself away from the girls half an hour later and said goodnight. Back upstairs, I went through my notes from the day and thought about one of the most surprising lessons I had learned so far. At home, I would have thought of these girls in the orphanage as unbearably poor. Here, amongst the shocking gradations of poverty in Haiti, they were clearly blessed. They have three meals a day, they have a roof over their heads, they have two loving parents, and an education. They have toys, they have books, and they have ballet lessons. I can’t speak for any other orphanage than the one I saw myself but compared to the children living in the tents – the ones sleeping on the ground with empty bellies, the ones without school, without clothes, and without any way to protect themselves from rain, disease, and, God almighty, hurricanes as well – those girls in the orphanage are definitely amongst the lucky ones.
It may be a hard to swallow, but it’s the truth nonetheless.