Leita Kaldi’s Five Favorite Fiascos in Haiti, part 5: Lost in Translation
(from Kaldi’s memoir, In the Valley of Atibon)
Walking through the hospital one day I passed the isolation ward, where people with contagious diseases like TB and AIDS stayed. I was dismayed to see well people in there. I found Miguel, who was in charge of housekeeping, and asked him to paint signs — “DANJE: ISOLASYO WOD” – Danger, Isolation Ward.
He smiled, “Oui, Miss Leita.”
Miguel was a humble, friendly man, almost sixty, handsome with a moustache and a Spanish look about him. A tenacious worker, he took pride in every task, even to the extent of washing floors twice, albeit with dirty water.
A few days later, Miguel proudly told me he had finished the job. I walked with him to the isolation ward, expecting to see signs painted on the doors, but there were none. Instead, he had painted all the walls, misinterpreting my instruction as “paint the isolation ward.”
When I explained what I had meant — that patients should be isolated in that room — Miguel looked shocked. He would never do that, he said, because the people inside would get lonely!
Dr. Marcella, an Italian who had been at HAS for fourteen years, happened to be passing by. She threw up her hands in resignation. “Non si puo far niente! It doesn’t matter. Families who come to visit people on the ward are already infected anyway by the time they get the patient here.”
I copied her Italian gesture, exclaimed “Oofah!” and thanked Miguel, who strolled away from us smiling with satisfaction.
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.