Leadbelly in Haiti – A Loaves and Fishes Account
April 9th, 2006
Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter was one of America’s greatest and most influential folksingers. A former sharecropper and prison laborer, he wrote and popularized many songs including “Pick A Bale of Cotton”, “Midnight Special,” and a once Top of the Charts hit, “Goodnight, Irene.” His nickname, “Leadbelly,” was given to him while serving a term at the Angola State Prison because of his legendary ability to eat anything the prisoners were fed without having any stomach problems. In Haiti, where many children are malnourished and the majority of people are hungry on a daily basis, the weight of an empty stomach dragging down one’s spirit and health gives new meaning to what having a “leadbelly” is all about. With banjo, ukulele, concertina, taxi horns, and two bottles of bubbles, Liz, Tim, and I accompany Lackson, a community organizer, as part of the local Episcopal church’s Loaves and Fishes program.
Each Sunday, they distribute a 5 pound bag of rice to Torbeck’s most needy families. We load the back of the truck with three huge bags of white, bleached rice imported from the United States. Due to farm subsidies, American grown rice is substantially cheaper than homegrown grain here in Torbeck, a town in the south of Haiti.
After tentatively negotiating a broken concrete slab that bridges three foot deep drainage alongside Torbeck’s main road, our vehicle lumbers past fields of corn, banana groves, and rice paddies. At each stop, children join us on the bed of the truck, laughing and playing our instruments. We let the wind blow bubbles behind us as if on a magical journey while others chase the truck running barefoot through the fields.
Suddenly, Lackson stops the truck and tells us that we must continue on foot to reach a more remote home. Trudging down the path, I am struck by the beauty of Haiti. In the distance, the Caribbean lulls in bright blues and greens. Coconut trees and banana fronds sway in the warm breeze. Rice paddies surround us – lush and vibrant. Here we are, in an exquisite land walking by paddies brimming with grain, delivering a five pound bag of rice from the US to a family that starves surrounded by food.
The irony and injustice is staggering. Yet, the smiles on the faces of the children remind me that this is not a time for anger but rather for compassion and play. I strike a chord and begin to sing: Bon soir, timon, timon Bon soir, timon. Timon, bon soir, timon, bon soir, Bon soir timon. In my virtual inability to speak a lick of Creole, a song is reborn – an adaptation of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Perhaps it is the hunger that inspires the song or maybe we have quickly tired with “A la ouette” and “Fais do do.” It doesn’t matter, the song sticks.
We stop outside a bamboo hut with banana thatch for a leaky roof. A family of 7 or so children and adults representing three generations sit outside in the dust and shade. There is a well in the yard without a wall – just a stick in the middle to remind one that it is not a place to step. I look down and see leaves and filth covering the top of the water. Tim juggles his pins to my accompanying doodle on the banjo for them as well as a growing number of on-looking neighbors. Liz dances with a child of eight or nine years old wearing a hand-me-down Pink Floyd T-shirt from the United States. How many people wore it before it reached the shores of Haiti? As Lackson delivers a bag of rice to the toothless grandfather, we pause to take a breath from the heat.
We have sweated almost continuously for the past 4 days – so much that a old routine has also been re-invented from our perspiration. I wipe Tim’s brow with a silk handkerchief, or “mooshwey” in Creole, and put it in my hand. Whoosh! It disappears! Liz goes into a trance and “feels” her way through the crowd until she calls Tim over to pull the silk out of an ear, a hat, a pocket. We continue to play with our impromptu audience until Lackson tells us we must move on. Another family to deliver another bag.
We leave everyone with smiles, red noses, and most importantly, food to get through the week. As we depart, Leadbelly’s “Auvoir, Timon” follows down the path with improvised verses of thanks. During our last delivery, we repeat the “mooshwey” routine to the delight of a couple of widows. They tell us that soon they will be moving into a recently constructed building next to the Pere Fan Fan’s church. One of them is so taken with Liz that she insists on walking her to the street where we see two youth gesticulate to another showing him how we made the “mooshwey” disappear. Not quite magic but the emotional effect is a miracle nonetheless.
Later, during our nightly show at the rectory, we repeat the renewed “mooshwey” routine with Liz’s trance-divining added in. Although the crowd has seen it now four or five times, they still enjoy it more and more as our play organically develops. Our show ends with Liz leading a young girl in a dance and then walking up mine and Tim’s shoulders as the star of the show with a chance to shine before her peers. In a society where women are treated as second-class (boys are given priority in schooling and food), this becomes a symbolic gesture of women’s empowerment.
We finally close another long day with our new song. Tim improvises a verse in French wishing sweet dreams and giving thanks to the crowd for creating celebration each night. As Leadbelly’s melody echoes in the night I am grateful for to feel the bond between us created through love and laughter that crosses language, race, class, and culture.