Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, and at the age of 55 became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal. She then went, for five years, to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. She retired in Florida in 2002 and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert. Today, she is working on a memoir of Haiti. Here is a essay she wrote about working in Haiti entitled, “Madame Victoire.
by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
At the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles where I worked from 1997 to 2002, every day I saw death bump up against life, perhaps most dramatically with Madame Victoire. Pastor Jasmin told me about our Security Chief, Ivon Isme’s wife, Victoire, who had been ill for a long time. Diabetic, her gangrenous leg had been amputated below the knee four or five years before, but she suffered constantly from pain in her phantom leg. He guessed she had contracted cancer, too, and finally she died and was to be buried after a service in Pastor Jasmin’s church.
On my way to the church service I stopped at Sabael Paul’s little gingerbread house. Dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, tie and suit trousers, Sabael held court to neighbors and family on his porch. He had retired some months before so I was very happy to see him again. He kissed me on both cheeks and put his arm around my waist, introducing me as the “gwo chef opital.” (Big hospital chief)
“Zanmi ou,” I amended. Your friend.
We heard a brass band approaching and leaned out toward the road where a procession of musicians approached dressed in white shirts and black trousers playing “Auld Lang Syne” in New Orleans style on trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums.
“Ahh,” Sabael chuckled, sounding like Louis Armstrong. “People do like a good funeral!”
A fact that appalled Dr. Mellon, by the way. Dr. Mellon, heir to family fortunes, had founded the hospital in 1956 with his wife, Gwen Grant Mellon. He thought it a terrible waste of money to hold vigils for days on end, during which food and drink had to be provided for myriad mourners. Morgue fees would mount daily as families awaited kin to arrive for the funeral, often from the United States. Families begged, borrowed or stole money to propriate the loved one’s spirit and show up their neighbors, believing that the fancier the coffin the happier the soul and the more respected the family would be. Dr. Mellon thought simple, inexpensive burials should be the norm among poor people, and he tried to set an example by being buried in a cardboard coffin the day after he died, with no vigil or fanfare. People were mystified that such a rich man would not have a magnificent funeral, and they never understood the point of his humble burial.
As the band passed Sabael’s house, he donned his suit jacket, dusted off his bowler hat, settled it onto his mat of white hair and we stepped out onto the road. He held my hand in his big mitt as we walked to the church. I was more than a little touched by his friendship and by his well-dressed form next to me as we sat side by side in a front pew. The church’s cement walls were festooned with paper decorations hanging on strings across the bare rafters, and pasted on all the walls were admonitions: “This is the temple of the Lord, Be Silent!,” “Jerusalem lives,” “Bethel – May the Children Obey!,” “Everyone welcome.”
Madame Ivon’s ornate silver coffin with a domed lid lay open at the front of the church. People crowded up to peer in, women screamed and ululated, jumping up and down, twisting their with hands in the air. Finally, everyone settled down. Only the deceased’s sister in the front pew continued to moan in a perfect blues cadence, “What shall I do now that she’s gone/ M pa konne, M pa konne.” I don’t know, I don’t know.
An electronic keyboard squealed an opening hymn which the congregation sang heartily. Three other pastors preached for half an hour or more. Suddenly, I heard a loud snort. Ladies in front of us turned around to level indignant stares at Sabael, whose chin had sunk to his chest. I stifled a giggle, remembering how, when he was still working, I would find him at his desk, slumped in his big chair snoring, while his young staff tip-toed respectfully around their chef.
Pastor Jasmin finally approached the pulpit and got to the heart of the matter, which was Madame Victoire’s life. Born June 16, 1933, he began, she was perhaps the most beautiful woman in Deschapelles, with light skin, always well-dressed, she walked through town proudly. When Ivon met her in 1975 she belonged to a certain man, but she te revokay li – “fired him” – and took up with a Monsieur Desira. After a time she fired him, too, and went to Ivon, then fired Ivon and went back to Desira, eventually returning once again to spend her last years with Ivon. Jasmin, who knew she practiced Voodoo, had been trying for years to persuade her to come to Jesus. She joined the Seventh Day Adventists for a time and vacillated between that church and Voodoo. In her last years, however, Jasmin said she was “hit in the brain,” a stroke, perhaps, and her mind went. Ivon carried her back and forth to the hospital, but the doctors said there was nothing wrong with her that they could see. An ryen!” Nothing!
Jasmin relentlessly tried to reach the dim corners of her mind, and finally ….Victory over Victoire! She accepted Jesus. “And Jesus, who forgives all, will take you to his bosom at the last minute, even if you have denied him all your life,” Jasmin boomed. “What is man before death? An ryen!” He waved towards the coffin. “Even this flower, too long in the sun, goes back to the earth. An ryen!”
As the service ended and we left our pew, I did not see Ivon. I asked Sabael where he was. “He could not leave his house,” he whispered. “He is too desolay.”
I had seen Ivon in the hospital corridor the morning after his wife died and he burst into violent sobs as he told me. I put my arms around him and patted his shoulder. My heart went out to Ivon when I heard he was too prostrate to attend Victoire’s funeral, but I later learned that the final vigil the night before was fraught with rum-drinking, dancing and singing until dawn and that Ivon, when he went to claim his wife’s body from the hospital morgue to load it into a pick-up truck that morning, had passed out on the steps.
A cortege of fifty people followed the pick-up truck with the coffin and pall-bearers past Ivon’s house. Was he lying in his bed listening? lamenting? longing? or merely sleeping it off? We slowly marched behind the brass band down the rocky path around the hospital grounds and skirted the canals through fields where little houses nestled in shady groves and children stood gaping at the procession. At last we arrived at the cemetery of Deyebwa – Back-of-the-woods. The noon sun burned through the clear sky; the only clouds were of dust that rose in our footsteps. Sweat puddled in the creases of Sabael’s face, and wilted his shirt collar as he walked more and more slowly, his small feet shod in elegant black shoes. Not one man took off his jacket in the pounding heat. The band led us to a colony of crypts, each decorated with ornate masonry on peaked roofs and sculpted facades. We approached a mausoleum with two shoulder-high doors, one plastered over, the other gaping open. I peered in and saw another coffin pushed to the back of the vault, presumably a member of Victoire’s family. The perspiring pall-bearers laid Victoire’s coffin on the ground in front of the crypt and the band blared a hymn while Pastor Jasmin mumbled prayers quickly, anxious to get out of the sun.
As the band ended the hymn, he signaled to the pall bearers. “Okay, mette li dedan.” Put her inside.
They heaved the coffin to the open door. But the domed lid would not fit inside the opening! Consternation reigned as people crowded around, giving advice and scolding the pallbearers. A young carpenter produced a hammer and sprang to the coffin, opened it and commenced to rip away the lid from its hinges, while everyone watched approvingly. The carpenter handed the lid to someone, and clapped the dust off his hands. Victoire lay in her open coffin, hands folded on her chest, a lily wilting between her fingers. They shoved her through the door into the dark interior.
Sabael took my arm. “Let’s go. It’s hot.”
The exhausted crowd disbursed quickly, leaving two men mixing cement to seal Victoire into her final dwelling.