“Just…look under your seat. I’m sure it’s there.” Said Bobby, my driver. We were rushing my ailing patient from Thomaseau to the general hospital in Port Au Prince when Bobby suddenly stopped our car to find a CD.
He made me get completely out of the car so he could check all around my seat, under it, inside the faux fur cover. Nothing.
Thus began my first experience with the most famous man in Thomaseau. Bobby grew up here. His parents owned a general store that apparently did extremely well. But with the rise of an anti-aristocracy movement when he was young, Bobby’s family found themselves in the grim cross hairs of a violent revolution. So, his father pulled some strings (one very convenient perk of wealth in Haiti) and immigrated to the United States.
“I’ve never been to a public school,” Bobby said as we bounced over a stretch of land that might be described as smooth for a Siberian rock quarry. With Jedi-like reflexes, he swerved around some of the the bigger pot-holes and cranium-sized stones. “Always private. Even college.”
Bobby has a smile like a sun-flare and fashion sense straight from New York. He knows English well enough to drop innuendo and colloquialism into his jokes.
“S-s-s-s-oh you went to c-c-c-c-c-ollege-ege?” I chattered out as we pounded the Haitian “road” into submission.
“Yep. Boston University. Was getting a degree in…beer.” He laughed. “It was such a waste. I dropped out and started my own contracting business. Made a fortune. I had money everywhere.”
But now he runs an orphanage in one of the poorest villages in Haiti.
When his parents decided to return to Haiti, Bobby followed. Soon after returning, his Dad died and Bobby stayed to take care of his mom. Just like that. Shut down his business, sold off the valuable parts and stayed. It’s a family thing, I guess.
Bobby and his wife have been unsuccessful at having children, so they closed the family store and opened an orphanage in that building. Mom lives in what was their house. Lemons from lemonade.
“So, can you even make a living as an orphanage director?”
“A living? HA! Tell me another joke. I don’t even know where I’m gonna get the money to pay my friend back for his CD.”
“Then,” I pressed, baffled, “clear this up for me: you left a few hundred-thousand dollar a year job to come back to Haiti and live on donations?”
Something like that, he responded. “You do what you gotta do.”
I once heard a missionary talk about why they lived on pork and beans in a hut in Gambia. “Love constrains us,” he asserted. Sometimes the call to service overwhelms the call for comfort and the pursuit of happiness. Bobby seems to think the same way.
That said, I myself do not believe in true altruism, with perhaps the exception of one perfectly selfless act somewhere around A.D. none. Even the great works of Mother Teresa and Father Damien, most probably, have some selfish motive tied up in them. The great Christian missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Jim Eliot were as much promoting their own worldview as providing service. They probably would agree with me in this assessment on some level, too. Great Christians are constantly in touch with their need for salvation.
And I wasn’t about to let some Haitian guy restore my belief in completely sacrificial love, but he certainly got me thinking about it, especially as we entered the inner city of Port Au Prince…
I wasn’t prepared for the hopeless destitution I saw there. The place is a singular universe, filled with the dank and putrid entrails of human suffering. The streets teem with staring hungry, lifeless eyes. Hollow, gaunt faces watch expressionlessly as our car blisters by. Breathe too deeply and you will retch, but you won’t know if it’s because of the stench or the scene. Maybe both. These slums fester like an abscess, limitless human pestilence stewing within the wound. And instead of drinking with his buddies at Boston U, Bobby drives through this nearly every day.
As we bounced along, Bobby described some of the problems that led to such squalor. I noticed his voice drop a pitch in the effort, and I could feel the sorrow in his countenance. He described the floods, the fires, the rebellions and litany of misguided UN and WHO initiatives. He outlined some of the self-serving and catastrophic policy choices by the French, and lately by – you guessed it – the United States.
We stopped at a stoplight and a child came to the window, asking for money, food, anything.
“Say something in English.” Bobby told the child in Creole. “If you want something from me you have to earn it.”
“Gim me dullah.” Said the boy.
“Allright!” Bobby exclaimed, “You’re on your way!” He flashed his fantastic smile, the display of mirth some sort of anachronistic throwback to better times, handing the boy a US dollar bill.
Then my escort looked at me, reading my thoughts. “I know about the handout thing,” he said. “It just perpetuates poverty and dependency. I know. But you gotta remember…this is Haiti. That kid isn’t going to go buy drugs or something stupid with that money. He and a good portion of his family will eat with it.”
He paused as we asserted ourselves – alpha-wolf style – through a melee obliquely described as a roundabout. “And anyway,” He said swerving around a donkey and accelerating into oncoming traffic, “It’ll get that kid off the street for at least one night.”
Just as he said this, the expansive grill of an impressively huge white truck bore down upon us; clearly with no intention of stopping. Deftly, Bobby yanked the steering wheel to the right at (what felt like) the very last moment, the blare of the truck’s horn bending into lower tones as we passed by.
But in avoiding certain death with the truck, even the Bruce Lee reflexes of Bobby couldn’t avoid two giant potholes now in our path. I gasped slightly and dug my fingers into the IV bag I was holding for our patient.
Blam! Followed quickly by BAMBAM!!
“No problem,” he started to say, “we-…” Bobby stopped, looking at me as he drove. “Do you hear a crowd cheering?”
Extracting my fingers from the ceiling, I listened. “Actually, yes! I hear it too. Like, a real crowd.”
Just then the band kicked in, “Tell me WHYii!” And then the crowd REALLY roared (screams, actually…it was mostly girls). “III want it, thaat way!”
Bobby laughs. The sound reverberates through the car, energetic and infectious. “THERE’S my CD! I knew I didn’t lose it.” Apparently the shock of foot-deep potholes jarred the CD player loose from some track fixation and it just spontaneously started playing again.
I never, in the imagined space of 10,000 lifetimes, thought I would find such joy in a Backstreet Boys song. But I did. There we were, driving through a sorrow I will never forget, singing one of the cheesiest pop songs in American music history…together.
Later I would tour Bobby’s orphanage, a jewel of glimmering hope for forgotten children. I would see the 40 foot well he dug through the hard dirt and rocks in his back yard. I would listen to him describe his days that start at 5am so he and his wife can care for nearly a dozen kids with no home, no family and no safe keeping. I would meet one of his orphan boys with cerebral palsy that would be dead within a month.
Through it all – with so much emotion and despair pressing me into ineffective stillness – Bobby is belting out American pop tunes, driving like Andretti with a midichlorian infusion and trying to save lives.
Sure, some part of what this guy does is self-serving. He’d laugh if anyone called him a saint. He’d probably ask that you dispense with the titles and donate t0 his orphanage instead. But his life reflects a near-image of genuine altruism in ways that might inspire even the most jaded.
And he’s a perfect fit here. This place is destitute and tragic to me. But this is Bobby’s home. He can see the hope that I can’t. He waves to friends he knows as he barrels down the street; he looks with affection on the same things I see as symbols of misery and suffering. With just a little help from people like me – so ill-fitting here – guys like Bobby will change the world. They will change Haiti.
Even in a place like this, he still sings.