Leita Kaldi’s Five Favorite Fiascos in Haiti, part 2: Beware of Flatterers
(from Kaldi’s memoir, In the Valley of Atibon)
I had arrived in Haiti arrogantly convinced that I would make a difference. But the magnitude of poverty, the needs, the numbers, overwhelmed me. During my initial job interview Bill Dunn asked me how I handled stress. “I meditate,” I replied smugly. “I’m over being stressed.”
I had found a certain serenity in the African bush that I had vowed I’d never lose to any job, any place. Six months later, however, when Bill asked me the same question I confided, “I drink gin at night and smoke cigarettes.” (Haitian cigarettes proudly branded “Comme il faut” translated as “just right” were awful, but cheap.)
One night, sleepless with anxiety about the problems piled on my desk, I got up and walked outdoors. The night was warm and a million stars shone overhead. Chirps of night birds, or perhaps bats, filled the air. I lay in my hammock, gazed up at tree branches spread like black lace against the sky, and talked to myself. Myself told me that stress came from an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility that an overgrown ego had created, stress that stemmed from fear of failing and translated into compulsive behavior and too many decisions to make in one day. All of which fed an illusion, a delusion, really, of power. I could see that I was struggling not only with the dezòd that surrounded me, but with an encroaching dezòd from within. I climbed out of the hammock, thanked myself for the small revelation, shook my head in resignation and went inside to sleep.
Next morning, feeling that I had made strides in reducing my “overgrown ego,” I was again tempted into a sense of conceit by a wily beguiler. I found a letter on my desk from “Pierre Andregene, Theologien, Normalien, Linguiste, Comptable, Interprete, Traducteur, Directeur du ‘The Best for the Least’ English School.” Pierre stood next to my desk, bowed and doffed his baseball cap. He prowled around my office, reminding me of his existence “just in case a good job came up.” A good one, mind you, because he was an intellectual who wouldn’t do just anything.
He rested small hands on his paunch as he addressed me as “Honorable Administrator.” I must have been surprised to receive a letter from him, he added, eyebrows raised expectantly. He praised the changes in HAS since my arrival, especially the hiring process, though he said, “It is true that I am only a simple observer of the affair. Of course, I had eight years of experience as an administrator … so have a certain notion of administration.” He lauded my “administrative style” and added that the hospital sorely needed my “restructuration.”
He judged that I, compared to Rabelais and Montaigne, had “a head that was well made, but not swelled,” and predicted that within two years I would succeed in creating a “total, capital and radical change” in the hospital. In closing, however, he slyly cautioned me “…Do not forget the fables of LaFontaine and Molière … beware of flatterers who would set traps for you.”
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.