Leita Kaldi’s Five Favorite Fiascos in Haiti, part 1: Fano Filo
(from Kaldi’s memoir, In the Valley of Atibon)
My gardener, Fano Filo, advanced from the periphery of my little world into its center. His name sounded so lyrical to me that I had to force myself to call him Fano instead of rippling “Fanofilo” off my tongue, which might have sounded mocking. There were so many whimsical Haitian names: Facil (easy); Sasufi (that’s enough); Surpris; Bienfait (well made); Petit-Frère (little brother); Louisfait (made by Louis). Mrs. Mellon knew brothers named Hydrogen and Oxygen. There was Mavius Marvius, and towns called Limonade and Marmelade. Anyway, Fano Filo always wore a hat with a wide round brim that turned up at the edges like a straw bowl. His hat was part of his face; I couldn’t imagine what he’d look like without it. He had been assigned to me, and […] Fano spent the day in my garden, though I couldn’t fathom what he did for eight hours, for it grew wild. He scratched around with his rake under the vines and candelab, and sometimes I’d see him just standing, leaning on his rake, staring into space.
One evening, as I was leaving the hospital around seven o’clock, I saw Fano in the waiting room with his daughter. She could not be mistaken for anyone else’s, for she wore the same sweet expression as her father, and the same kind of straw-bowl hat. Fano told me she was sick and, indeed, she had a fever, but looked well-fed with bright eyes. She tried to hide behind her father as I touched her forehead.
“Poor baby, you’re going to be O.K.,” I assured her. “What’s your name?”
She mumbled something I could not hear.
Fano interjected, “Filomena Filo!”
And he had another daughter named Fanny Filo!
When I got to my house and opened the gate, I was appalled to see the flowering tree by my door, a bower that blessed me with dew or evening rain, harnessed by a coat hanger, its wild branches twisted and skewered to the ground. A ten-feet tall hibiscus on the other side of the path stood with its branches tied tightly around each other, stiff as a stalk. In horror, I wondered what had possessed Fano. I twisted the hanger off the branches, shaking free the orange berries and purple flowers, fanning them out again overhead. I unwound the hibiscus branches until they also swung free. My arbor restored, I slipped into the house.
Next day, when I came home at noon, I could not believe that Fano had repeated the performance and trussed up the flowers again. I tried to explain in Kreyol that I liked it spreading wildly over the path. Pointing to the tree, I asked him to please take away the detested coat hanger. “Get rid of it. M pa ramnen sa-a! I don’t like that.”
His eyes slid from me to the tree and back again, his mouth slightly agape, his arms dangling at his sides. “Ah, ou pa ramnen sa?” he repeated.
Assuming he had understood me, I forgot the conversation before I reached the hospital. When I returned that evening, my mind clogged with events of the day, I noticed only peripherally that there seemed to be a lot of light on the path. When I reached the door and put the key in the lock, however, I saw why it was so light. The tree was gone. Fano had chopped down the flowering tree, my morning wonder, my evening prayer. I stared at the empty, ugly spot. My heart tore as painfully as if a person had been taken from me. Then my own words came back to me. “M pa remnen sa.” I realized that Fano thought I meant the tree instead of the hanger. The tragedy lay in language, of course; this misunderstanding had cost me my beautiful tree.
Leita Kaldi Davis has worked for the United Nations/UNESCO, Tufts University (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy), and Harvard University. She has also worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years. At the age of 55, she joined the Peace Corps, travelling first to Senegal, and later to Haiti, where she volunteered at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. She retired in Florida in 2002.
In her memoir, In the Valley of Atibon, Kaldi chronicles her experiences as a middle-aged white woman who goes to Haiti filled with good intentions to manage Hôpital Albert Schweitzer and its community development program. What unfolds for her, however, is a hell filled with young revolutionaires and vagabons who threaten her life, and the very existence of the hospital and the program. Prompted by these experiences she delves into the mysteries of Voudou, and learns first hand about the undercurrent of terror that drives rural Haitians. In contrast with numerous shocking incidents that occurred during her five years in Haiti, Kaldi also tells of tender adventures of her daily life, and of being inspired and comforted by many of the Haitians with whom she works — the doctors, nurses, agronomists, her housemaid, and others who teach her surprising lessons in dignity, faith and forgiveness. Also providing joyful respite are visits from Kaldi’s son that culminate with his marrying a woman of the Haitian elite class, which provides a keyhole for Kaldi through which she observes the dynamics of class and prejudice among the layers of Haitian society. Entwined with her story, Kaldi narrates the uplifting story of Dr. Larimer Mellon, and his wife, Gwen Grant Mellon, who founded the hospital in 1956 and spent their lives serving people in the Valley. Theirs too was an experience fraught with problems that demanded their courage, resourcefulness and dedication to the Haitian people.