It may seem late to be talking about the new year, but it’s pretty normal when it comes to January at Have Faith Haiti. The change in the calendar settles like a long, soft rain on our little piece of this island, and much happens and there is much to tell.
Each December/January turnover brings with it not only New Year’s Eve (a favorite at our place) and New Year’s Day (with all its resolutions) but also the anniversary of the earthquake that brought me here (January 12) and the annual marking of Chika’s birthday (January 9). She would have been 14, and I wouldn’t have a prayer of lifting her into my arms the way I always did. The thought of that makes me wistful.
But let me catch you up. Let’s begin with New Year’s Eve, which has become an anticipated event at the orphanage exceeded only by Christmas.
Our celebration begins with tables set outside, and chairs and paper plates and, of course, pizza. We need so much, we have to order it the day before from one of several places we have tried over the years. I remember the days when 12 pizzas covered it. Now, with 60-plus kids, and another 12 back from college, and the dozens of nannies, staff, maintenance and security personnel, we are closer to 40 pies. It’s the one night of the year that we not only offer seconds, but thirds. Maybe that’s why the kids get so excited.
There is juice and cake and ice cream as well. But the big moment comes when we trek to a large pile of dirt and give each child a sparkler. Our tradition is to light the sparkler and place it in the earth while making a wish for the next year. Of course, some of our youngest kids are too small (or too afraid) to handle sparklers and so we do it for them. But everyone is fascinated by the tiny star-like flames that sizzle off the stick. They stare as if watching their wishes join the wind and fly up to heaven.
When the last of the sparklers goes out, we all scream “Happy New Year!”, jump up and down, hug one another, and sing “Auld Lang Syne”, which mostly comes out in “la-da-da-da’s” since who really knows the words to the whole thing?
Not long after, we put the kids to bed, having rung in the New Year in our small but cherished style.
It is not yet 9 p.m.
Two reasons to celebrate
New Year’s Day has its own identity. In Haiti, it is a special holiday, the anniversary of the nation’s independence from France. If the world were a fairer place, people in other countries would know about this holiday, because it commemorates the only time slaves successfully overthrew their masters and took their nation back. When it happened, the outside world was shocked, and most of it subsequently avoided trade with Haiti, not wanting their own slaves to get any ideas.
Meanwhile the French demanded reparations for the blow to their economy, and stunningly — fearing the French would return — Haiti complied, a move that crippled their own finances for decades to come. All this happened in 1804. Haiti has never stopped paying the price for freedom.
To commemorate the day, Haitians enjoy Soup Joumou, a pumpkin-based delicacy that the French colonizers savored but never permitted Haitians to eat. We make a massive pot and everyone partakes. Then our kids draw up New Year’s resolutions, at least two per child, which they draw with fancy designs and crayon art, then put into an envelope to save for the following year.
Later in the day, I get out the previous year’s envelope and, gathered in the shade of the gazebo, we read last year’s resolutions child by child. The other kids get to decide whether the resolution was kept or broken by yelling “Yes!” or “No!” There are huge laughs, especially when the resolution was “Help clean up the room” or “Never complain to the nannies.” But it gets the kids to think about their previous year, and how they can be better. We have been doing this a long time, and I smile when the same kid who once scribbled “I promise to eat my rice” is now writing “My resolution is to learn Portuguese before I leave for college.”
Honoring what was lost, and found
I mentioned the earthquake. Not a January passes without remembering the chain of events that led to my arrival in Haiti, and how I knew nothing about the country and only came down to help a pastor who said his orphanage had been destroyed. I think on how my life has been so changed by a single event, and how our children’s lives were changed even more dramatically. Many of our kids who are now teenagers and making college applications came to us as a direct result of that earthquake, which destroyed so many homes, killed so many fathers and mothers, crippled the economy, and left nearly a tenth of the population without a place to live.
There were countless refugee tent villages where thousands of people lived, and every time we went to visit one we could have returned with two or three children whose guardians said they had no food for them to eat, and no chance at getting them educated. Although those tent villages are gone now, the impact of that time continues to reverberate, through the country and through the fabric of our little orphanage.
The little girls I carry
Finally, I mentioned Chika. She loved her January birthday. She anticipated it months in advance.
She only had seven of birthdays on this earth. Her fifth was at the mission, where she wore the birthday crown and had the kids sing to her around a sheet cake.
Her sixth was in America with us, at the Rain Forest Café, with more than 50 people whom she had charmed in her brief time in America.
Her seventh was in our house, and she was in a wheelchair, and we had two “princesses” come and sing songs from Frozen, which she watched with a dazed expression, wearing the yellow Belle dress that she so adored.
She never got an eighth birthday. Not here anyhow. But every year on that day we remember everything and we tell stories and play videos and celebrate her incredible spirit.
And in some way, I’m not sure I can explain it, I believe that spirit has infused the latest ball of fire to bless our home in Michigan, little Nadie, who has Chika’s independence, her fighting spirit, and her love of singing Christmas songs.
Not long before I sat down to write this, Nadie, who just turned two, was belting out her version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which, for her goes “You better watch out, you better watch out, you better watch out…” And I thought of Chika, and I watched Nadie, and I was so flushed with grief and joy it’s as if they were swirled in a bowl until you couldn’t tell one from the other.
Ah, well. The new year is truly here, off and running, with the kids back in our school and scurrying through their daily routines. And despite the violence, the gangs, the demonstrations and the endless poverty that sits over this country like a blanket, our blessed children, thanks in large part to your generosity, are thriving, learning, growing and surprising us every day with their wisdom, perseverance and talents.
You better watch out. That could be our slogan. Because every day is some kind of surprise that moves you and inspires you and touches your heart. Happy new year, indeed.