Haitian Culinaria

Haitian cuisine is truly special. Its dishes are spicier than most other Antillean cuisine’s. Besides the strong African influence – there’s also French, Arabic and Amerindian – and every manman has her own secrets, inherited from ancient times and refined over generations!

Gathering lunch

Vegetables on Hispaniola are extremely tasty – and part of any dish. Furthermore, meals are based on seafood & fish, meats as goat (cabrit) and pork (griot), but also chicken and beef. Rice, with or without beans, accompanies every meal. It’s called “nourriture” – a meal without rice is not considered to be a meal.

Meat is usually cleaned and marinated in bitter orange juice, fish in lime juice.

To meals one can drink beer or fruitjuice.

STARTERS

ACCRAS DE MORUE – codfish pasties

The name accra is said to come from “akara”, which means “pasty”  in Éwé, a Mandinga-language spoken in Ghana.

Codfish pasties are a typical dish made up of potatoes, bacalhau (codfish), eggs, parsley, and some other minor ingredients. The bolinhos or pastéis de bacalhau – as called on the Portuguese coast and in Brasil, where they are very popular as well- are deep fried and served before meals or as a meal itself (usually served with rice).

  • 300g dry codfish, desalted for at least 1h.
  • 300g potatoes, previously boiled in saltwater
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • black pepper, garlic
  • optionally: clove, thyme, parsley, chilli, 1 tbsp. of vinegar
  • breadcrumbs or “pannade”

Desalt the codfish in water, drain it, clean bones off, shred and mash it together with the potatoes. Mash with beaten egg, garlic, pepper. Shape into small balls and roll in breadcrumbs. Fry in hot oil.

You can use flour instead of potatoes, in this case add a cupfull of water and some baking powder.

Serve with raw vegetables as starter.

COD CHIQUETAILLE

The word ‘chiquetaille’ means ‘shredded’. As refrigeration is still scarce on the island, fish is often salted for conservation reasons.

©cookinginsens.wordpress.com

The fresh version

  • 200 g salt cod fillet
  • some flat leaf parsley and thyme
  • 2 – 3 chives (or green onions)
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 lime
  • chili to taste
  • salt and pepper
  • oil

Soak the cod in cold water for 15 minutes to rehydrate it and remove the salt; fillet it, removing the bones if necessary; flake the meat with your fingers.
Finely chop the onion, garlic, chives, herbs and chili; blend into the cod;
drizzle with lime juice and oil.
Serve it with baguette; alternatively in an avocado half or with lettuce-tomato salad. Or, like in the pic, with some green beans and carrot.

The time-costly method, more adequate for conservation

  • 450g salted cod
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large shallots, finely chopped
  • 5 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, very thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 cups of young green beans, cut in half, vertically
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 yellow or red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 green jalapeno with seeds or 2 scotch bonnets, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 3 or 4 whole cloves
  • Salt and pepper

Soak the cod in cold water in the refrigerator for 24 hours, changing the water 3 times. In a large pot, bring to boil enough water to cover the fish and boil for about 20 minutes. Drain in a vegetable strainer and when cool, remove skin, bones and any unsightly fish parts. Shred by hand.

Mix the shredded fish with the vegetables, olive oil, cloves, salt, pepper and vinegar. Refrigerate for at least 4 days. Serve spread on baguette slices for cocktails or as a salad with lettuce, tomatoes and hard boiled eggs.

SOUPE JOUMOU – pumpkin soup, the national dish

Slaves were not allowed to eat this nourishing soup. On the 1st of January 1804, they cooked soup Joumou (from “Giraumont” – a pumpkin type) for the first time. It became the national dish. It is served on National Day, Sundays and special occasions.

©kreyolcuisine.com 

  • 500g cubed beef stew meat
  • 500g beef shank or chicken
  • 250g smoked lard
  • 1 ½ cups rigatoni
  • 1 giraumon pumpkin, peeled and cut (or 1kg frozen)
  • 1 turnip, diced
  • 1 small cabbage, leafed
  • 3 large potatoes, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
  • 1-2 onions, sliced
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1 leek, cut
  • 2 cloves
  • Salt, pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1-3 limes
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Wash meat with lime and water. In a large saucepan, boil the shanks and beef and lard cubes until each piece is tender. Add the giraumon. When the giraumon is cooked, puree and return to pot.
Add vegetables, pepper, salt, cayenne to taste, cloves and rigatoni. Pour the beef broth by covering everything. Bake until rigatoni and vegetables or tender.
Add oil, vinegar and butter. Simmer 20 minutes over medium heat.
Serve with baguette.

SEAFOOD

LAMBÌ BOUCANNÉ – Buccanneered conch

  • 1 lambì
  • lime, salt, hot chili sauce

Lambì is a conch that seems very hard to find outside the Caribbean space. Nevertheless, should you find one – clean it first: remove the ‘lid’, then the intestine; wash in plenty of water, until not sticky anymore. Clean all dark spots and hard parts away with a knife. Rinse again with bitter orange juice (or sea-water, if nothing else around). Then just place it over a fire until it gets cooked. Season with lime and chili sauce (e.g. tabasco).

Can be served plain – or with rice or plantain.

Alternative: cooked lambì

Same ingredients as before, same preparations required. This lambì was cut to threads, then cooked and seasoned with salt, lime and hot chili sauce.

BUCCANEERED LOBSTER

Oma boukannen ak banann peze – Buccaneered lobster with plantain

  • 1 lobster
  • salt, garlic, lime

Cut along the spine, grill. Add lime and garlic if desired, serve with fried plantain – banann pese (see below) or white rice.

POISSON GROS SEL

  • 4 pink fish, i.e. red snapper or sea bream
  • 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • hot pepper to taste
  • 4 cloves
  • juice of one lime
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 2 peeled tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 cup water

Clean, shell fish and remove the bones and entrails. Rinse with cold water and rub with lime. Prepare the marinade by placing  mashing shallots, cloves, pepper, lime juice, minced garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl.
Make incisions in the fish to rub the marinade and let marinate for at least 3 hours.
Heat oil in a deep skillet, add onion, minced garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme and parsley. Sautéd well. Add the remaining marinade, followed by water and bring to a boil. Add fish and simmer 20 minutes over medium heat.

Serve with rice and beans (see below) or plantains.

POISSON ROSE – Red snapper

  • 4 pink fish, i.e. red snapper or sea bream
  • 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • hot pepper to taste
  • 4 cloves
  • juice of one lime
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 2 peeled tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 cup water

Clean, shell fishes and remove the bones and entrails. Rinse with cold water and rub with lime.
Prepare the marinade by placing the following ingredients in a salad bowl: shallots, cloves, pepper, lime juice, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Mash everything together.
Make incisions in the fish to rub the marinade and let marinate for at least 3 hours.
Heat oil in a deep skillet, add onion, minced garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme and parsley. Sautéd well. Add the remaining marinade, followed by water and bring to a boil. Add fish and simmer 20 minutes over medium heat.
Serve with fries or Diri kolé ak pwa (see below) or boiled green plantains.

MEAT

GRIOT – fried pork

©kreyolcuisine.com

  • 2 kg boneless pork, cut into pieces
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup lime juice
  • ½ cup sour orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 coarsely cut green pepper
  • 2 teaspoons chopped parsley
  • 3 finely chopped shallots
  • 4 cloves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ cup oil, for frying

Rub the pork in lime juice. Rinse with warm water.
Combine remaining ingredients, except for oil and orange juice. Let the the pork soak in this mixture and marinate in the refrigerator (4 to 24 h).
Place in large saucepan over medium heat and add the orange juice. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
Remove the meat, drain. Fry the pork in hot oil, turning the pieces occasionally, until they are crisp.
Serve with pickliz and fried plantain.

TASSO – fried cubed beef/goat

  • 1 kg steak or goat cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup of chopped shallots
  • 1/2 cup of orange juice
  • 1/4 cup lime or lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp of parsley

Put all ingredients except the oil in a large pot and marinate at least 4 hours.
Transfer meat mixture to medium saucepan or pressure cooker and add water to cover.
Heat to boiling and reduce heat. Simmer covered until meat is very tender.
Fry meat in a large pan until crisp and golden brown.

HAITIAN STYLE CHICKEN

Mme Jesula preparing for a grand dinner

  • 1 chicken
  • garlic, salt, pepper
  • oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 12 cloves
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste

Cut the chicken into pieces, wash, season with the marinade made with garlic, salt, chopped pepper. Sauté the chicken in some oil, cover and cook for ca. 30 minutes on medium-high. Drizzle with water, so the meat won’t stick to the pan. When tender, lower heat a bit and add the chopped onion, parsley, cloves, tomato paste, dilluted in the marinade. Let simmer for a few more minutes and serve hot with rice and beans (diri kolé ak pwa, see below)

MARINADE for chicken, pork or beef

  • 1 cup corn oil
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon chilli powder
  • 1 laurel leaf
  • 1 sprig of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
  • 1 mashed garlic
  • 1 thym
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 minced onion
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together. Brush over meat and let marinate for 2 hours or more in the refrigerator.
Use only as much as needed for marinating, keep a certain amount to use during cooking.

KALALOU (OKRA) WITH BEEF

©kreyolcuisine.com

  • 500g okra (kalalou)
  • 450 g beef, cubes
  • 1 large chopped onion
  • 3 finely cut shallots
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • ½ cup oil
  • 1 whole hot pepper
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 3 cloves

Marinate the meat (see marinade recipy above). Heat oil in a skillet, brown the beef so it is well cooked.
Add okras/callalou to the meat and fry for about ten minutes. Add onion, shallots, garlic, salt, vinegar, oil, water, pepper, thyme and cloves.
Cover and simmer 30 minutes over low heat.

Serve over white rice.

SIDE DISHES

DIRI KOLÉ AK PWÀ – rice with red beans

©kreyolcuisine.com

  • 3 cups basmati rice
  • 1 cup red beans
  • 8 cups water
  • 5 tablespoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon margarine
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 cubes chicken stock
  • 1 hot pepper
  • 2 chopped shallots
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper
  • ½ teaspoon thyme

Cleanse beans and cook in a saucepan with 8 cups water 1 tablespoon oil. Beans are cooked when they are cracked. Remove from heat, drain while preserving the cooking water.

In a saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil, sauté onions, garlic, shallots, spices, red beans and cubes of chicken stock. Add 6 cups liquid from the cooked beans water. When the water begins to boil, add the washed rice and hot pepper, stirring.

Cook uncovered over low heat until the complete absorption of water. Add the remaining oil, butter and cover pan. Cook approximately 15 minutes over medium heat.

BANNAN PEZE – Fried plantain


  • 2 green plantain
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. Vinegar

Peel plantains and cut into 5 pieces each.  Place oil in a deep frying pan on medium heat. In a small bowl, add remaining ingredients and set aside. Place cut plantains in hot oil, cook them for 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Remove plantains and lower heat, flatten them using a tostonera (wooden press – you can use other objects to flatten the plantain. In need, I once flattened them with the bottom of a beerbottle) 

Soak flattened plaintains in water mixture and replace in oil on medium heat.  Turn plantains on each side until crispy and golden brown.  Place them on paper towels to remove excess oil.  Serve hot.

PICKLIZ

The best pickliz in the world – at Lakou Lakay in the North, next to the Citadel

  • 2 cups shredded carrots
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cups sliced cabbage
  • ½ cup green peas
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 garlic, minced
  • 6 jalapeño peppers, cut in half
  • white vinegar

Place all ingredients in a large glass jar, except the vinegar. Add enough vinegar to cover everything completely. Let marinate one week before starting to use it. Serve with meat or fish.

SWEET

JUICES

Haitians prefer making juices to eating the fruit whole. Use

grenadia (passion fruit), mango, bitter orange, chadèque (similar to grapefruit), corossol, cerise (acerola),  grenadine, goyave (guava), melon, papaya, ananas…

You can make juices out of almost any Haitian fruit by patiently mashing the pulp against a sieve. Mix with icecubes.

Additionally, one can always mix a fruit punch with coconut water and pour it into a coconut.

MANGO

Haiti is said to have the best mangoes in the world. There are over 100 varieties of mangoes across the country. There are mangoes with more fiber, others you can punch a whole in and suck the contents out; thereare sweeter mangoes and some that are more sour. Forms and colour vary endlessly. To name 3 popular ones: Francique, Corne, Muscat.

Mangoes can be eaten plain, best chill them before.

A very tasty alternative: add some Pastis (or another anise-based drink) and ornate with mint leaves.

Citadelle Laferrière

The Citadelle Laferrière  (…) is a large mountaintop fortress in northern Haiti, approximately 17 miles (27 km) south of the city of Cap-Haïtien and five miles (8 km) uphill from the town of Milot.

10’000m2. Click here to directly access the GoogleMaps link© It is the largest fortress in the Americas and was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site in 1982—along with the nearby Sans-Souci Palace. The mountaintop fortress has itself become an icon of Haiti. The Citadel was built by Henri Christophe, a key leader during the Haitian slave rebellion, after Haiti gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century.

The long winded roadThe massive stone structure was built by up to 20,000 workers between 1805 and 1820 as part of a system of fortifications designed to keep the newly-independent nation of Haiti safe from French incursions. The Citadel was built several miles inland, and atop the 3,000 ft (910 m) Bonnet à L’Eveque mountain, to deter attacks and to provide a lookout into the nearby valleys.

 Cap-Haïtien and the adjoining Atlantic Ocean are visible from the roof of the fortress. Anecdotally, it is possible to sight the eastern coast of Cuba, some 90 miles (140 km) to the west, on clear days.

© P.Antoine

The Haitians outfitted the fortress with 365 cannon of varying size. Enormous stockpiles of cannonballs still sit in pyramidal stacks at the base of the fortress walls. 

The Citadel was part of a system of fortifications that included Fort Jacques and Fort Alexandre, built on the mountains overlooking Port-au-Prince. Dessalines ordered those forts built in 1805 to protect the new nation against French attacks.

 Since its construction, the fortress has withstood numerous earthquakes, though a French attack never came. ©wikipedia

Clear water system. Fish still swim here

Initially, one of the two chalk peaks was meant to become the site of the fort. As this construction was supposed to accomodate 2’000 soldiers in times of peace – and 5’000 in a defense case, there was need of a larger surface, so the location was chosen on a lower level: Pic la Ferrière on 970m altitude.

Being so far inland, this location was inaccessible for the enemy – the Citadel was an ultimate retreat place and not a defensive facility.

 

Inside Batterie Coidavid

In his book about the Antilles, Louis Doucet coments that Roi Christophe constructed his Citadel in a similarly absurd way, as if Fort Gibraltar would have been erected on the Mont Blanc peak to defend the Atlantic coast.

 

The wooden floors and bridges collapsed in time

Never has a shot been fired against an enemy from these of 1’500m -range cannons. They were lit only twice: once at inauguration – and another time, during a hurricane, when Roi Christophe chose to answer the divine challenge with gunpowder.

 

Two architects were engaged with the design: Henry Beese, an Englishman – and Frenchman Henri Barre. Their plans combine two successful types of fortification: Vauban’s- centering the construction around a bastion well adapted to the shape of the slope – and Marquis de Montalbert’s – distributing the fire power between several well-protected batteries.

 

The construction was started under Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ reign. In spite of the immense leveling efforts and the difficult work, the construction was almost finished after 13 years (1804-1817).

Slavery had shortly before been abolished, yet between 10’000 and 20’000 people were forced to work for this construction. Round 10% of them did not survive, therefore there’s a popular Haitian belief that there is human blood in the Citadel’s mortar.

 

It is said that a group of 50 forced laborers refused to continue pulling up one of the heavy 3ton- cannons when they were half the way up the steep road. Christophe shot down every second of them. The remaining were so terrified, that they managed to carry the weight all the way up.

 

In the 1950es the Haitian government decided to bring one of the cannons to the museum in Cap Haitien. This time the way went down the slope, but because of its weight the cannon could not be moved and was abandoned at the side of the road somewhere in the first one-third, meanwhile being overgrown with vegetation.

 

 The fort was planned for 142 heavy bronze cannons, 124 heavy ordnance in casemates, 18 cannons mounted on „barbettes“.

 

Most cannons were obtained as French, English and Spanish booty. Hundreds of cannonballs are still stacked to pyramids all over the site today.

“Honi soit qui mal y pense”

The citadel was constructed in 2 phases: The eastern bastions, the „Poudrière“ (powder-store) and governor’s quarters were first. Later on followed the fortifications on the southern and western part.

The distinctive 43m high- cusp was placed at the head of the fortress- and named Batterie Coidavid -after Roi Christophe’s wife’s maiden name.

 

The Poudrière exploded in 1818, killing Prince Noël, the kings son-in-law and Citadel’s commander…. …who was smoking a cigarette nearby. Smell of gunpowder is stil in the air to this dayAfter an earthquake brought great damage to the fortress in 1842, it was abandoned and covered graudually with vegetation – until restoration works took place 1979-1990.

 

“Bishop’s hat” they call the peak in the back

Each side of the fortress’ was adapted to the geographical premises. The bastions are linked by 90m long corridors, 10m wide.

 

Confronted with the French army once, the king is said to have made his subjects jump down from the butresses in order to prove their loyalty. 16 had to jump, before French General Edouard put an end to this absurd waste.

 

Around the inner court there are the crew’s quarters, the kitchens and the storerooms, each of these 50 feet deep.

As there is no inner spring or water source, huge amounts of rain water were gathered in 8 huge cisterns, to supply the garrison and inhabitants for a whole years’ time.

In the western corner of the yard there is the Poudrière, which exploded in 1818, killing Prince Noël, the king’s son in law and commander of the Citadel.

 

The governor’s quarter was guarded by 3 sentinels. The King, his family and staff would occupy 40 rooms. In one of the rooms there was a pool table in front of an open fireplace.

 

Back in the times when he was a slave, Christophe had worked in Hôtel de la Couronne in Cap Français (today Cap Haitien). This hotel had a gambling room with pool tables.

 

Christophe married the owners’ daughter, Marie-Louis Coidavid and had 2 sons and 2 daughters with her.

Roi Christophe had been a builder and a very active king. After a stroke he suffered during mass in church St. Anne(?), his physical and mental capacities were impaired. When the palace guards mutinied against him, he shot himself with a silver bullet in the throne room of the Palace Sans-Souci.

 

A secret underground passage is said to lead to this peakMarie-Louise took his body to the Citadel and covered it in quicklime, to prevent the population from tampering with the grave. The jawbone was found though; it is conserved in the Musée du panthéon national (MUPANAH) in Port-au-Prince.

Shape resulting from water collector roofs and the cannons’maneuver surface © P.Antoine

After Christophe’s death, the Queen fled to Port-au-Prince with her daughters and stayed there for one year, then headed for Italy on a British ship. Rumor has it she led a wealthy life thanks to the money deposited in Europe by her husband several years before. She died in Pisa in 1851, after having asked the authorities to grant her return to her natal Haiti.

A song to go with it: Safe from Harm by Massive Attack, Blue Lines, 1991

© US Army, SPC Gibran Torres

Roi Henry Christophe I

Special thanks to Jacqui Labrom at voyageslumiere.com for organizing this great trip and making it possible to enjoy all these great (in)sights.

Books:

Werner Golder- Verrückte Liebe. Haiti. Irritation und Faszination, 2009, ISBN 978-3-8260-4251-5

Patrick Woog – Haïti Métamorphoses, 2004

Isabel Allende – Island beneath the Sea, 2010, ISBN 978-0061988257

 

The Bag Story

 One evening in Zürich, last fall, I found this bag on the pavement, next to my bike. I put it aside, unlocked the bike and rode off. The next day I parked on the same spot. The bag was still there, as if waiting for me. In the evening I found it in my bike-basket. I took it out, hung it on a nearby fence and rode off. This game kept going on for the next 2 days. On the third day I decided that fate wanted me to have this bag.

I had been looking for a new bag for a long time. I always wear my favourite things till they fall apart – and tend to distrust the new ones I am finally forced to buy.

So I looked inside, half fearing it was contaminated- or I’ll find an abandoned new-born inside! -but no. Creamwhite lining, some blue and red stains from a pen – and a few bugs. And the smell of new leather!

I took it home, washed everything that wasn’t made of leather – and started using it soon. An acquaintance: “Oh, since when are YOU wearing brand-stuff? This one must’ve cost you a fortune. I know a real DKNY when I see it, it’s my favourite brand” – No, I found it on the street. – …

***

When I was packing for Haiti, I was determined not to show off with my things in any way. I even took down my old favourite ring and left it behind. What bag should I take? I only had this one – and a beach bag. You can’t go to a meeting with a beach-bag, can you? And this one looks rather modest, people will just assume it’s a fake.

For the last months it did its job well and does match most things I wear.

Then a few days ago I parked the car in front of the bookstore at Place St. Pierre, Pétion-Ville, the poshest part of Port au Prince. Got out just to see it was closed for Fête Dieu. A bunch of streetkids were pestering me about watching the car. I said there was no need for that, I’m leaving right now, as the store is closed anyway. I get into the car, put my cellphone between my legs – where I alway put it when I drive – while I close the door, put the bag down on the floor and – just as I was about to push the “lock-all-doors”-button, someone opens the back door, darts over the passenger seat, grabs the bag – and runs away with it!

I jump out of the car shouting like stabbed – and clenching my cellphone. Decide I can’t follow the guy and leave the car, cause he’s probably faster than me on highheels, he knows the environment better – and I risk to have the car stolen as well. So I scream “SOMEONE STOLE MY BAG! GET IT! RUN THAT WAY! I’LL PAY NICE MONEY TO THE ONE WHO’LL BRING IT BACK! If I don’t get it back I swear I’m gonna kill someone…

All people start running down the street in the indicated direction. All of them- even the guy with the basket full of drinks on his head. The money-exchangers and the cigarette-vendors. The old lady selling fruit on the corner. The phone-company advertiser. The streetkids. The schoolkids. Their parents. The toothless beggar. The passers by on their way to church.

One streetkid turns around: “Where there lots of money in the bag, Ma’m?” – No, keys and papers, but it’s MINE! MY BAG!!! run, what are you staring at?! – so he, too, gets in motion.

Only the old newspaper-vendor couldn’t free himself of the newspaper-burden fast enough, so he sadly looked after the others…

After a few minutes, my knees all trembling, the guy with the drinks-basket comes back. “Bag! go there! bag! there!!” and points a few blocks down the street.

I won’t go anywhere – you guys think you can steal my cell now? or my car? But I go. On that corner, in the dust, with 40 people gesticulating and quarelling around it, was MY BAG. Open, like I had left it – and with the wallet on top! Nothing missing.

“This your bag, Ma’m?” Some old people from Mairie de Pétion-Ville, in some sort of sand- or dust-coloured uniform, all escorting me back to the car. Everyone else, who had been running, escorting me as well. I take out money to pay them, thinking that there’s too many of them… They refuse it. I give them the money, still: You guys just all go to the next bar and have a beer and think of me and the wonders of the church on this holy day!

They accept in the end – but only when I’m already in the car, with all doors locked.

I leave with trembling knees, this is incredible.

***

The next day I return to the store on foot, aware and nervous – what if I meet the perpetrator again? A guy comes strolling up to me, huge smile on his face: “So, happy you got your bag back, Ma’m?”

Yeah, who are you? “I’m the one who told the thief to drop the bag on the corner, Ma’m. I’m the Godfather of the streetkids of Pétion-Ville. Enchanté!”

I’m eyeing him with distrust. He goes on, smiling: “The only reason why you got it back, Ma’m, is because we liked your reaction. You didn’t yell “police!”, like all the other “blancs” do, when they get robbed
– you never even mentioned it. You promised ransom for the bag!

Yeah, because I grew up in a fucked-up country, where police was really the last thing you could expect help from when you were in distress. It never crossed my mind to expect help from them. The one time I have, after being assaulted in the street – they wanted to charge me with street-prostitution, cause it’s not ok to be out at night as a woman. So, no, I don’t trust police in most countries either.

“You know, we are in the street all day long, we watch everyone and we know their habits. We spend all our life in the streets. I’m 29 now (he looked more like 40+), I’m out in the streets since I was twelve. I got locked-up for four years and a half. I wouldn’t wish a detention in a Haitian prison, not even to my worst enemy I would. I would do anything possible to keep other people from being locked-up. I don’t steal – I manage. Anything that gets stolen in this area, I get a pecentage. I try to help the blancs get their papers back, cause I know it’s hard to get them done again, all ID’s and passports and everything. But if they call police, I’m out.”

I watched his brown hands while we were talking, the knuckles were so scarred – I’ve never seen anything like that. As if the guy had been walking on his knuckles through glass-shards… And he was talking all the time with a peaceful smile on his face, like a stoned-Bob-Marley-look-alike.

“It would take a miracle to get me out of the streets. A woman – or death will probably do it, like it happens for most of us.You don’t live long out here, you know? I’d so much like to learn something from you, a language, history, some information, anything. See these kids?”

The street kids were gathering around us, first 2-3, in the end there were almost 20, avidly watching his every gesture. He insisted on continuing the conversation in English.

“These kids have never been to schools, they can’t even read or spell their names. They left home, cause for them the street was the better alternative. Where to get the money for school? (NB: In Haiti school is paid, only 15% of the schools are state-owned, the rest are private and a lot less affordable).

But you speak good English, how did you learn that?

“Well, I worked around hotels and picked it up…That’s why I am their godfather, I find ways.. If only one could teach them something useful, I’d organise the canteen, they would gather and they would learn. They’re willing.

I’m leaving soon. Are there no NGO’s or other organisations you can apply to with your idea?

No one talks to us, we’re scum, streetpeople. There’s no money for projects like that from the blancs. We’re not flashy in the press, nobody likes being associated with. They just roll their window down and give us some change, they smile, wave and drive on. You think anyone stops and talks to us? You’re the first one.

Well, I can somehow understand people you robbed for not feeling like having friendly chats with you.

You sent away the kids who wanted to guard your car yesterday. That was a mistake, should have let them – and tell them you pay some other time.

I’m sick of being mistaken for an ATM all the time, it’s so annoying, you know? Think I’m a tourist here, just for fun? I work here – and I could work somewhere else, why do you think I’m here, man? I came for school projects!

Yeah, but you pissed them kids off, so…when the guy made me a sign that he’s gonna steal you’re bag, I shrugged. But then when I saw the way you reacted, I thought you were worth it – and told the guy to ditch the bag untouched and run. Don’t worry, you’re cool. From now on, nothing bad is ever going to happen to you in this area again, trust me, you can leave the car unlocked. If anything should happen, ask for me, I’ll get it back to you in one hour.”

He gathered the kids around and told them some things in Creole, holding on to my shoulder. They were watching the whole scene rather puzzled.He turned to me. “See?”

If you guys steal like that, why don’t you make something smart with of the money? I guess a rather large amount comes together at the end of the day. Put your kids to school, do something for them!

“You know, money that you don’t earn gets spent fast. Stolen, gambled, drugmoney- it’s gone in a short while, no matter what amount. The only money one respects is earned through work – or as a gift. You respect the person who gave them to you”

I was becoming impatient. Too hot outside, work to finish – and the afterwork beer was calling as well. So I passed him some hundred gourdes, like 4-5$. He refused. “Ma’m, I don’t take money. As I don’t steal myself. I’m the godfather, money’s not for me. If you want, you can do a friendly gesture, that would show some care for me and the kids. But not petty.”

So, at what amount does your friendly gesture start? (I always hate it when people who want something from you refrain from naming a figure. Like in job interviews – it’s them always asking you what you think you should earn! But it’s them offering you the job in the end, they have a clear idea about its details and the work to be done – so make your damned proposal, then we can start negotiating!)

He wriggled around with the conversation for the next minutes. In the end he was at 20$ – “with this amount I take all these kids to a place were they get soup and a coke”.

Ok, you convinced me. Here’s your 20 bucks, if I give it to you, means I take it from someone else in need, like the cleaning lady… It’s not only you street guys in need, you know?

Ten minutes later I meet him at the grocery store and give him a questioning glance. “I came to buy drinks here for the kids, trust me.”

Well, I trusted you and gave you the money for something good. If you used it for something else, it’s you who will be ashamed of yourself and before your own god. I don’t care. I did my part. Why are the kids following me now?

“Cause they like you. They’re just curious. Good luck!”

I leave the store, the streetkids waiting to the right and to the left of the entrance, then escorting me to the Embassy, shouting various things. “You’re beautiful, Madame!” was one of them.

I smile and clutch my bag.