The following submission is written by Lauren Neal, a friend of Vi Bella and a friend of Haiti. Lauren is a Photographer who visits often to document the beauty of Haiti and the Haitian people. Speaking the Creole language, she is able to capture their stories with nuance and respect.
“Depi w viv ou konnen w'ap pase mize men pa dekouraje.”
We walk along the gravel path as the September midday sun beats down upon us. Beads of sweat begin to form on her temples but her bright smile remains. She looks over at me and I quickly study her face. Her beautiful ebony complexion glows in spite of the difficult circumstances I imagine she has been dealt.
Ballard is just twenty six years old, yet she’s seen and experienced more in her short time here on earth than I likely will in a lifetime.
We continue to walk side by side, barren terrain on either side of us. In many ways, the hillsides of Haiti resemble a desert.
We approach the porch of Ballard’s home where her mother, Jan, sits. The expression on her face is neither happy nor disapproving. Rather, she appears rather solemn, her gaze fixated on both her daughter and on me, a stranger no doubt. She greets us and tells us she has been awaiting our arrival.
I now see from whom Ballard inherited her physical features. Her mother, forty six years old, has the same rich skin as her daughter. Lines are etched into the creases of her face, signs of her stories and memories that she holds in her heart.
We sit on the porch that overlooks the bay of Port-au-Prince. In the distance, mountains line the horizon. Ayiti means, “land of mountains,” and is, in fact, the most mountainous country in the Caribbean.
I take it all in. Today, the sky is unmistakably clear. What a glorious view, I think, one that has become their normal.
Ballard sits with her mom as I snap a few photos. Her younger sister and brother trickle in shortly after and hop in. They appear to possess the same gentle temperament of their older sister as they hold one another tightly.
We visit a little while longer and I watch the interactions between the four of them. As I do, I’m reminded that the gift of family is never to be taken for granted, especially here when the odds have been stacked high against them.
Jan gives me a kiss on the cheek as we leave and a grin sweeps across her face. Maybe I wasn’t so strange after all.
As we walk back on the same gravel road, I inquire a bit more. Ballard shares with me she is the oldest of five children, two girls and three boys. They grew up in Port-au-Prince but after the earthquake, they lost everything and were forced relocate to Simonette in September 2010.
Jan, a single mother, used to sell sandals in the market. But unfortunately, it was not sustainable. The machann, or the merchant, is a standard job for many Haitian men and women but, when everyone is essentially selling a collection of the same things, business becomes competitive and many don’t last.
In May 2017, thanks to her neighbor and friend, Yolande, Ballard secured a job with Vi Bella where she makes jewelry and other hand-crafted items. Together, Yolande and Ballard travel every day Monday through Friday to Carries, a forty-five minute commute. She now is the primary provider of her family, a weight I imagine feels heavier than she is willing to share with me.
“Depi w viv ou konnen w’ap pase mise men pa dekouraje,” she turns her face toward mine. If you are living, you know you will face seasons of misery but don’t be discouraged.
The words fall from her mouth with assuredness and a knot begins to form in my throat. This woman is just a year younger than me, yet our worlds are completely contrasting. The pressure placed upon her to provide is not a choice. Yet, her gratitude is tangible. Her outlook on life, refreshing and humbling.
She continues to share that she has been studying accounting every Saturday and Sunday for two years and will graduate in December, si Dye vle (if God wills). I must have given her a startled expression because she laughs and nods her head as if to say, yes, you heard that right.
Words escape me. To say Ballard’s character is commendable would be an understatement. Even in the drought, she presses forward because she must, with both poise and might.
“Ou son fanm janm,” I tell her. You are a strong woman.
Though her journey will lead her into the valley, it will also carry her to the top of the mountain, because she has chosen strength in the midst of adversity and grace in the midst of pain. Do not be discouraged for there is goodness still.