From chapter 5 of Paradoxy – coming to grips with the contradictions of Jesus, by Tom Taylor. Published by Baker Books 2006
Haiti has been identified as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. When parents died, their children were sent or sometimes voluntarily went to a relative or neighbour who agreed to take them in. However, most adults could not afford to take on more mouths to feed, minds to educate, or bodies to clothe. The result was that these children entered homes where they received only the bare essentials to survive. They were expected to work for the family, who kept them at emotional and physical arm’s length.
The Haitian Creole term for such children was ‘house children.’ Their status was little more than indentured household slaves. Haitian adults housing such children explained to me the unwritten rule that these children were not to be touched or spoken to affectionately. They typically lived behind the house, either in a shed or sometimes under a simple lean-to. They took their meals by themselves and otherwise lived a life of doing chores on demand. I had heard about many instances of abuse of these house children.
As I sat at a table talking to the father of the family where the little girl with the blank eyes lived, I said ‘hi’ to her and asked in Creole what her name was. She stared at the floor, a wary expression of fearfulness on her face. To my distress, the father sternly demanded that she respond. She shuffled over to me and extended a limp hand for me to shake, never looking up from the floor.
When I questioned the family about it later, they argued the rationale for such treatment of house children. Families with such kids cannot afford to raise them as their own and certainly cannot afford to send them to elementary school, which at that time would have cost about twelve dollars per month and would have provided them with a new, clean school uniform and a daily meal. The parents of house children cannot promise them much of a future, so why get their hopes up? They should be grateful, so the argument went, to have a place to stay and meals to sustain them.
I countered their arguments, decrying as persuasively as I could their innocent and young status, as well as the lack of compassion in the house child practice. But it was an uphill battle, always met with the same rejoinder: as a wealthy American, I could not possibly understand.
As I flew back to the United States after living in Haiti for several months, I stared out the window. Seven hundred miles. Just seven hundred miles off the coast of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. That’s how far Haiti is from Miami. If the Haitians living in their poverty only knew. Yet after living and working among Haitian people, watching their hardships, rubbing shoulders with them in their burdensome poverty, and seeing their desperation now juxtaposed to the lavish wealth of even the average American on the plane, I was threatened by fatalistic hopelessness for the Haitians’ circumstances. I could do little more than weep for them. And that I did.