Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My bodyguard

It all started last year in March. I was walking up to the volleyball courts with the boys when the soccer coach, Manno, called me to come walk with him. I had been suspecting that Manno was getting a crush on me from the way that he kept trying to get an arm around me and from the way he would try to hold my hand on the way to and from the seminary. Generally, when a Haitian man shows even the slightest interest in me, I send him packing immediately, but if I sabotaged my friendship with Manno I wouldn't be able to get out of the orphanage every weekend for volleyball games. So I put up with it. I just limited my time with him and always kept a few of the kids with me whenever we were together. He didn't seem to be getting the message though. So on that March day when he called me, I moved grudgingly towards him, but a hand suddenly grabbed mine and held me back. I turned and there was Bernadin, looking very seriously at me. "He wants you all to himself, Keziah. I'll walk with you and protect you."

Ever since that day in March, Bernadin served as my loyal bodyguard in every situation. He walked with me anytime I left the orphanage, he came with me to buy bread or soda from the ladies in front of the pension, he escorted me across the street after dark, and he accompanied me on errands downtown. Some of the children teased him about it but he took his duty very seriously. He would even scold me for going out alone or for talking to people in the street. Whenever I took a group of the boys up to the seminary for soccer, they would all hurry up the hill, wanting to get there as fast as possible. And each time, I would look up and there would be my bodyguard, waiting for me at the curve in the road.

In early April last year, we were at Maranatha playing soccer and I was standing near the goal with a few of our boys. Some young men from behind the wall also came to stand near the goal. Within a few minutes, two of them got into a fight. Bernadin came off the field and led me away from them. "Those are bad guys. I don't want you to hear what they're yelling about." Then he went back and removed the rest of our boys too.
One day in mid-April, the boys and I were talking about the security situation in Bolosse. "I don't like it when you walk around Fort Mercredi by yourself, Keziah," Duck said. "You should take one of us with you." I explained about needing to feel independent and needing to trust God for my safety. "If I can't walk around freely, I can't live here, Duckhein. But I love the fact that you worry about me. That's really sweet."

Then the boys started discussing what would happen if I got attacked when I was walking with Bernadin. "Oh, he would just run away," a few of them said dismissively. "No, I wouldn't," Bernadin insisted firmly. "I would get in between you and your attacker and I would disarm him." "Or, you would get in between me and my attacker and get shot. At which point I would begin screaming and sobbing and wishing that I was dead, so in fact, I'd rather walk alone and save your life." He just glared at me and shook his head.
At Christmas time, we had several incidents with young men on the soccer field. They were threatening our boys and hitting on me. Both times, Bernadin stayed with me (against my wishes) and was fully prepared to get into a fight to protect me. On my most recent trip, a young man approached me in the street and started the usual "I want to marry a white girl" talk. Bernadin was furious. As soon as we were away from the man, he marched away and paced back and forth, angrily. Another day, I stopped on the road just inside the Maranatha gate to talk with one of my neighborhood friends and his mother. Bernadin usually sits up on the wall beside the field to put on his cleats, but when he realized that I was still down on the road, he came down too. He sat on the edge of the road, about 15 feet from me and very slowly put on his cleats. He didn't move from that spot until I was done talking.

When I noticed him sitting there, it occurred to me how often he does that. Many times, he will come and stand beside me, even put an arm around me if he senses that I'm really uneasy. But other times when I think he is just playing or going about his business, he is actually nearby and keeping an eye on me. Several of the boys - Argusto, Vandomme, Duck, Peterson, and even Job - have protected me in situations, but none of them with the diligence that Bernadin has displayed.
The day that I most appreciated having my little bodyguard was May Day last year. Lamarre, Levy, and several of the nannies drove 20 of us downtown so that we could go to the fair on Champs de Mars, the city common. The place was packed with thousands of young Haitians. The entertainment was music, food stands, small vendors, cages of chickens, and a big tub with 2 crocodiles. Oh, I forget to mention the last bit of entertainment: a white girl who was walking around with a bunch of kids and jabbering away in Creole with them.

People were intrigued, like they had never seen a blan before. They all wanted to talk to me and to touch me. And even when I could ignore the hands and the eyes, I was terrified that I was going to get separated from our group. The crowd was tightly packed and everyone was pushing and shoving. I grabbed Bernadin's hand and I wouldn't let go. So long as we kept moving, it wasn't too bad. But every time we stopped, the attention got nearly unbearable and I would try to hide behind Bernadin or one of the girls.

Once we had done the full tour of the fair, we headed back to the pick-up spot, only to realize that the 2 nannies were missing! Somehow, they had got separated from us in the crowd and now we had to wait for them to catch up. We stood in a relatively quiet corner of the common and waited. It was like vultures circling a dead raccoon - the men just started coming from all sides. Logically, I know that they didn't mean me any harm; they were just amazed that I was there and deeply interested. But it felt threatening and I couldn't get away from it. Bernadin put his arm around my shoulder and gathered the other boys into a circle around me. Emmanuel was laughing at me but he consistently told the men off as they came: "She's Haitian! Leave her alone." I just hid my face on Bernadin's shoulder and prayed that we could go home.

15 minutes later, the nannies arrived and Lamarre drove up with a second taptap load of children. As they clambered out of the vehicle, they asked me eagerly, "Are you going to stay and go through the fair with us too?" "NEVER!"

I don't know what it is that made Bernadin decide to become my bodyguard. I've asked him and he can't really give me a straight answer. But whatever decision he made initially, he has obviously made a decision to stick with the trend that he started. When my friend Maggie stayed in Haiti with me for 2 weeks, Bernadin made sure that no one bothered her. And when I left Haiti in May, he transferred his services to Nikki and then to Bryn. He's a good kid. A really good kid. And I owe a lot of my peace of mind when I'm in Haiti to his presence. As he wrote in his good-bye letter, "I am proud to have been your protector after God."

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