Ti Gason an Misterye
Haiti is a tropical land of rich history, painful patterns of poverty, disaster and global neglect, and wild mysticism. In my senior year of college, I learned of the brutality that existed in Haiti during the days of colonialism and revolution as well as the way the once-beautiful landscape lent itself to the magical realism that authors often employed to describe it. I learned of Toussaint L’Ouverture, of the legend of Macandal and of the prevalence of vodun. In any academic setting, when I think of Haiti I think of a beautiful, tropical paradise spoiled by the evils of imperialism and enslavement.
Before studying about Haiti’s history through the lens of circum-Caribbean literature, I visited the country myself when I was 16 or 17, along with other men from my church. I became drenched in sweat in the tropical heat as I moved buckets of rubble. I walked the dirt streets of Grand Goave at night and met the people who lived in the town. I rode through dusty valleys in the back of a pick-up truck as luscious, green mountains were visible in the distance, and I swam in the surprisingly blue waters off the Haitian coast. In this reminiscent setting, when I think of Haiti, I think of McKenzie.
I don’t remember when I first met McKenzie, mostly because we never saw him coming. That was kind of his thing, in a way. He was always just there.
Our group flew into Port au Prince and then were chauffeured down the coast to Grand Goave in one of the most frightful car rides of my lifetime. Traffic laws? There were none. Markings in the street? Please. The streets were dust. A cautious and diligent driver, at least? I think our chauffeur had a death wish, and he wanted to take 20 white men with him on the way down.
White-knuckled and queasy, we eventually got to our compound on that first day and put our bags in our room — a large room with two electric fans and about 12 bunk beds. We ate our dinner of chicken and rice and talked a little bit, then we went to sleep, knowing that the hard work in impossible heat awaited us the next day.
After a warm night’s sleep, we all ate breakfast and loaded up onto the back of a pickup truck. Our guides, Pascal and Diddy, drove us through the streets of Grand Goave until we arrived at the worksite, where we unloaded and started moving buckets of rubble from the street to the lot where we were going to be building the house. We quickly realized it would be faster to form a line, with one person putting rubble in buckets on one end and another dumping the rubble into a new pile by the worksite, with everyone else passing the buckets back and forth in between. At some point during the formation of this assembly line of sorts, a few Haitian boys peeked over the fence to see what we were doing. After deciding we were okay, they walked onto the worksite and started helping us.
There were several boys that helped, but I only remember details about two of them. The first was Pousson, a small boy who always wore a red Ole Miss tee shirt and rarely wore any pants. Pousson was very outspoken (although we never knew what he was saying) and he was always bouncing around everywhere. He was very active.
The second boy was McKenzie.
McKenzie was an enigma from the very beginning, and he never became less so. If anything, he became more confusing as the week pressed on. Unlike Pousson, McKenzie was quiet and reserved, but he had a smile that seemed all-knowing and appreciative and eyes that seemed unflappable. He was interested in us, but he did not want to let his guard down. He laughed with us and interacted with us, but he always seemed like he was smarter than all of us, too.
While I don’t remember when McKenzie first arrived, I do remember the first time I interacted with him. We were all taking a water break, and most of our group was sitting on the small porch of a house. There were a lot of us there, though, so I grabbed my water and sat down on the dusty ground along the wall. A couple of the Haitian boys were playing a game nearby, and McKenzie was one them. For most of the trip, our interactions with Haitians who couldn’t speak English consisted of miming and pointing, and lots of laughing from the people trying to decipher our attempts at communication. I was about to be a junior in high school at the time, though, and I had just taken my second French class.
I know that Creole and French aren’t the same, but I figured they were close enough to give communication a try. I also figured that they wouldn’t care if my attempts were extremely basic, as Madame Trahan was not a spectacular French teacher and I hadn’t learned much about the language quite yet. When McKenzie was out of whatever game they were playing, he sat down near me. I decided to give it a try.
“Je m’appelle Tommy. Comment t’appelles tu?”
“McKenzie,” he answered, still laughing.
“Je ne parle pas bien français,” I said.
“Non,” he said, shaking his head.
I laughed, and then took a sip of water. I had pretty much run out of things to say to him that he could understand (unless I wanted to ask him if I could use the bathroom), so I didn’t really know what else to do. Then, I remembered a song that we learned in class.
“La tête, les épaules, les genoux et les orteils,” I sang as I touched my head, shoulders, knees and toes.
McKenzie laughed again. I didn’t know how old he was, but he was obviously too old to be singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with a strange white man. He was too old to be singing it regardless of the race of the person singing it with him, actually.
I think he appreciated the effort, though, because he sang it back.
While this was my introduction to the mystery of McKenzie — the mystery being the inability to confidently equate his laughter at my expense with a feeling of superiority or inquisitiveness or genuine amusement — it was also my introduction to communicating with people across a language barrier. I didn’t know that it was just the beginning for me in each experience. Before the week was over, I would become the subject of a joke that spanned across the languages of our two groups and I would learn that, with each interaction with McKenzie, we would be left with more questions than answers.
I’ll explain the joke, first. It was a joke that was apparently funny to English speakers and Creole speakers, alike, with the exception of myself. One morning as we were leaving the compound to go to work on building the rubble house, a few of us were talking to our guide, Diddy. Diddy spoke English, of course, and he was our liaison whenever we needed something translated. My friends Matt and Clayton knew this, and they asked Diddy for the Creole pronunciation of the word “mayonnaise.” Confused, Diddy translated it to “mayonèz.”
Immediately, Matt and Clayton explained that “mayonèz” was my nickname because of how comically pale I am. As you do in situations such as this, I frantically looked at Diddy and quickly said that it was, in fact, not my nickname, but it was too late. I don’t know if someone let Diddy in on the fact that people should not be consulted on their own nicknames, or if he just thought it was too funny to pass up. Either way, he looked at me, laughed, and then looked back at my two ‘friends.’
“Mayonèz!,” he said, still laughing. “I like that!”
Before I knew it, every Haitian kid at our worksite was pointing at me, laughing, and calling me mayonnaise. It was a very humbling experience. I don’t know what you’ve been through in life — and I know we each have our own, unique struggles — but I don’t think you’ve ever had a group of Haitian children openly mock you to your face as you build their family a house. I don’t know if there’s any precedent for that, and I quickly realized there was nothing I could do but laugh it off. I mean, what can I say back to them? I can’t make fun of their skin complexion. I can’t make fun of anything about them, really. These kids were tragically poor even by the standards of their third-world country, so anything I would say back to them after they mocked me would be viewed as kicking them while they were down. These kids were untouchable, and they knew it. They relished in it.
From then on, I was mayonèz. That’s just the way it was.
While my nickname — both its origin and its employment — was black and white in terms of its simplicity, our group’s understanding of McKenzie was decidedly less so. We knew that he was friendly and that he was interested in this strange group of white men and that he seemed to enjoy hanging out with us, but we never knew where he came from. He would just appear places inexplicably. When we were working at the construction site, his presence was understood. This was where he had first met us, and he knew exactly where it was. It was when we were outside that boundary that his presence confused us.
One night, we left our little compound and walked the streets of Grand Goave with the direction of Pascal, our other guide. He took us past street vendors who were trying to sell various fruits and mysterious meats, and we wove through the dimly-lit streets until we came to a small shop. It was a smoothie shop, and we were there to get a late-night snack. We had a large group, so it took a while for all of us to get our potato smoothies (which, while they were a fun and unique experience, they were also as disgusting as they sound). While we waited — and eventually while we ate — we were just hanging out in the Haitian street while music played from speakers inside. While we talked and joked, one of us noticed that McKenzie was there, laughing along with us even though I doubt he understood what we were talking about (although he could have understood, he’s such an enigma to me that it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing).
Things like that would happen every so often, but with no certain regularity. We’d just be hanging out, laughing and having a good time, and then all of a sudden McKenzie would just … be there. We always enjoyed his company, but it was a little weird.
One day during that week, after our day of work was over but before we had eaten dinner, we loaded up in the back of the pickup truck and rode at least a couple of miles to the house of someone who worked for the company we were also working with. It was a nice house, right on the water. To get there, we rode through valleys and in and out of dense forests and past multiple farmlands. When the truck stopped, we all hopped off, took off our shirts and went for a swim in the blue waters.
We were wading in the soft, unbreaking waves and conversing, and Zach had his GoPro camera and was taking videos. At some point, he, Chris and Clayton swam underwater with the camera recording them, and it was going to be a nice shot for Zach to use in the video he was making about our trip. Their three heads ducked under the water, swam for a few seconds, and then four heads popped back up.
Somehow — and to this day I’m not exactly sure — McKenzie had followed us all this way and decided he would also go for a swim. How none of us noticed him until his head broke the surface of the water, I’ll never know.
It was as if he swam to us from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, swimming effortlessly past schools of fish as he breathed inexplicably and smiled knowingly in their direction before suddenly rising through the sea to break the surface of the water right beside us. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me that’s exactly what happened. In the silence of the tropical breeze, we all wondered what kind of Haitian magic McKenzie possessed that allowed him to defy the laws of physics and appear in our midst without a sound or trace.
He didn’t speak English, so we were never able to ask him.