There once was a girl. A very silly girl.
I was that girl. I still am, in some ways. But silly girls need to grow up, at least partly, and I began that awful process when I was 18 years old. 2012. That was the year I realized how harsh the world is, and how foolish I really am. In 2012, I woke up, and haven’t been able to fall asleep since.
January – I left the US for the first time and went to Haiti, one of the most impoverished countries in the world. It is also one of the world’s favorite countries for charity. Some would argue these are not mutually exclusive happenstances, but I digress. I was installed as an intern with a mission organization, with no training or qualifications other than that my father had volunteered previously with the organization. My main roommate was several years older than me, a tall blonde ex-cheerleader who had been forced to leave college after her drinking got out of hand. Her father also volunteered with the mission, and sent her to Port au Prince to sober up and put her life in perspective. It was amazing to watch what God did in the life of my earnest roommate. My two other, occasional roommates were young nurses beginning lives of purpose.
I was lost. Shy, introverted, naive, the list of synonyms goes on. My brash, outgoing roommate was the antithesis to me. Short black hair versus long blonde (she even used extensions on occasion, which I had never seen before). Short, dumpy versus tall, curvy. Stricken rabbit versus confident rooster. The missionaries I lived with spent a great deal of time on my roommate, helping her overcome her issues. I didn’t have issues, except that I cried every day and called home as often as I could. Being the good Christian girl without the ability to confide made me the less interesting intern.
My view of my self had to change. At home I only ever wore jeans and t-shirts, but in Haiti more feminine attire was required and that safety net was taken away. I remember one dusty ride to the tent city we worked at where one of the missionaries told me I reminded him of the stereotypical missionary girl. Quiet, idealistic, earnest and always dressed so modestly. I remember I had never thought of myself as possessing those qualities before. I remember the many trips back and forth to the orphanage we worked at, when my roommate and I sat in the back of the truck and endured unending catcalls and lingering eyes. As white girls we were “hot commodities,” as my roommate expressed it, and I, who had never knowingly been hit on before, could only react with distress at the objectification of both my sex and my race. I remember one of the translators, a known flirt, became very fond of me. Very fond. He also believed himself very smooth, and everyone was sure I was his. I remember my roommate one day dressing me up, applying thick makeup and her own clothes to transform my frumpy self, and how one translator looked me up and down admiringly, licked his lips, and said the one who liked me would be pleased. I was pleased not to see the swain that day, and to soon afterwards hear his name paired with some other girl. I do not believe I will ever like flirts, at least not over an hour.
There were other, more irregular duties besides working in the orphanages and tent cities every week. One was leading the mission teams that came to Haiti to serve for a week or two at a time. I remember I did not know how to feel when I found out a group of college students believed me to be the older of the interns. My eighteen year old vanity was stricken to think I looked so old. Another time when a group came in we helped the community after heavy rains flooded the area. Most of the work required shoveling mud, a difficult task made no easier by a limited number of shovels. I remember I shocked the men by taking their shovels whenever they complained of the work and dug in myself. “You can’t use a shovel,” they said as I used my leg to kick the blade in deeper, “you’re weak and wearing a skirt.” Both were true, and the shovels would always be taken away after a mere few minutes of work. But when you have been in Haiti long enough to despair of charity having any effects, every shovelful of dirt you get to move becomes important.
I became used to acting according to my own thoughts while in Haiti. I wore unsuitable shoes for hiking, learned the art of balloon animals, and snuck away every night to watch the glorious Haitian sunsets. I even learned how to break up a fight and had the confidence to politely (I hope) correct much older people.
My roommates taught me a lot during those long months we spent together, as did the missionaries I lived with, and the children and adults I taught English around Port au Prince. At the end of my stay in Haiti we had a party to send off the many departing members of the transient missionary community. I wore a halter top, gifted by another member of the household who was downsizing, and large Haitian made earrings. I laughed loudly, smiled big, and cried as I said goodbye. One of the nurses told me she thought me Sabrina, I was so transformed from when I had first arrived four months prior. I never understood whether I should take that as a compliment or not. Either way, that silly girl had begun to learn of the silliness of this shallow world.
It did not make her happy.