BY R.L. SCHREADLEY
Once upon a time, in a land far removed in time and place from our beautiful Carolina Lowcountry, there lived a little girl whose name was Sam. No, that was not short for Samantha, as you might have thought. It was a name given because her father, who passed away just a few weeks before Sam was born, had desperately wanted a son.
The father’s name was Sam. The little girl’s mother gave her his name in sweet remembrance.
The little girl hated the name, and neighboring children teased her unmercifully. “Sam, Sam, the garbage man,” they called her. (I’ve translated this for you. The language they teased her in was Creole.)
The family was very, very poor, both before and after the father’s passing, but especially after. The little girl and her mother (there were no other surviving children) eked out an existence scavenging a land fill on the outskirts of a city where people only a little less poor than they lived.
The city was Port au Prince, though jocularly some called it the “City of a Thousand Fountains.”
It had a few real fountains, mostly clogged in trash, but the thousand cited above referred to innumerable broken water mains, many of them buried alongside broken sewage lines, spewing water into the streets.
It was not at all uncommon to see people bathing or washing clothes in gutters along the way. Some tourists, disembarked from occasional cruise ships, found this droll.
Sam’s country, the land far removed from our beautiful Lowcountry, was Haiti. In a long-vanished Indian tongue, Haiti means “the High Country.” It was once beautiful, too, with green, lushly wooded hills, streams of sparkling water and clean, white sandy beaches.
This was long before Spanish, French and English adventurers made the land their own. The Caribe and Arawack Indian tribes who once lived there were enslaved and soon fell victim to diseases these original inhabitants had never known and had no immunity to.
Their place was taken by more hardy African slaves who toiled on plantations carved out of the land to satisfy a growing European (and colonial American) market for coffee, sugar, and rum.
The hills were deforested, the streams polluted. Caribbean hurricanes and drenching rains washed much of Haiti’s fertile soil into the sea. Today the country is largely barren. The descendants of its slave population are among the poorest peoples of the earth.
This is the country the little girl named Sam was born into. Her home was a small shack fashioned from rusty sheet metal and cardboard salvaged from the city dump. She slept beside her mother on a stained mattress they also pulled from the dump.
They mostly survived on half rotted food trucked in from Petionville, a neighborhood of government employees and semi-luxurious tourist hotels perched on a hill overlooking fetid Port au Prince.
A picture seared into memory’s eye is one of Sam seated on a rough-hewn step outside the shack she lived in. She was then perhaps 7 or 8 years old and small for her age. She was dressed in a once-white garment of the sort older Haitian women wear, and she held a small, red clay pot in which a yellow flower bloomed. I don’t know what sort of flower it was, but it was beautiful. It was probably the only beautiful thing Sam had ever owned. The sad, downcast look on her face, after maybe 50 years, I have never forgotten.
After a moment, when she seemed to pretend I was not there, she extended the pot and the little flower to me. “For you, Mister,” she said, in near-perfect English. “Happy Christmas.”
Years later, at a New England art show, I saw a finger painting of another little girl, obviously a very poor one, and she, too, was seated on a porch step, and she too held a red clay flower pot in which a beautiful yellow flower bloomed. Her eyes also were downcast and her look was one of unutterable sadness.
I bought that painting and it hangs today in a guest bedroom in the house I have lived in, with my memories, for nearly 40 years.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. He has traveled extensively in and written often about Haiti.