I believe in Marie Phi La Faustine. When I first met her she way shyly touching the ends of an oversized shirt that hung onto only one of her bony shoulders. As she fumbled with the makeshift dress I struggled to introduce myself, and my lack of words were partly because of her eyes and feet. Her feet, composed of inches of calluses, were due to daily treks barefoot while carrying five gallons of dirty water atop her head. Then I met her eyes and again became overwhelmed, because they were strikingly beautiful. I couldn’t say it in Creole then, but I pointed to her and said “Bell,” meaning beautiful. Although it seems like this orphan and I would mix like oil and water, she became the best friend I ever had.
At the time I thought I had struggled a lot during my three months in Haiti –with mosquitoes, endless hikes, non-stop sweating, Near Death Experiences, and deathlike illnesses. Marie Phi La seemed to not take notice if a mosquito was hovering around her; she just waited for it to bite and slapped it dead upon her skin. Each day that I saw her eyes, I pushed myself to be more like her.
We would be hiking hours into the treeless hills without shade, and I would be panting in between inner monologue complaints. Then Marie Phi La would coolly pass me by, smiling at me as she sang “Alouette, gentile Alouette!”—all while balancing a bucket of water atop her head. Even though I cried openly with her as I struggled to adapt to life so different than my own, she never made fun of me or told me to toughen up as she deserved to. I never once saw her cry, though sometimes dirty water would splash out her bucket and drip down her dusty face like tears. She didn’t fight back or complain when she was yelled at and beaten by her owner. Marie Phi La is also considered one of 300,000 restaveks in Haiti: indentured child-servants.
Since Marie Phi La is a slave she has never had any formal education, and since she continually gave me Creole lessons and inner strength, I decided to give her lessons at night. From years of abuse Marie Phi La has internalized a heart-breaking sense of self-doubt. She would look up at me while tracing the letter “b” backwards with the same uneasiness as when she did something correctly. I looked into her eyes at that insecure moment like she was Tinkerbelle, and if I didn’t believe in her with every bone in my body she would instantly fade away. I came to Haiti insecure myself; like many other women I seem to have a problem when I look at myself in the mirror. It was with Marie Phi La that I learned how to walk out the door without matching clothes or makeup and feel inexpressibly beautiful. At Nelson Mandela’s suggestion I took up the question for both Marie Phi La and I, “Who are we not to be gorgeous and talented?”
That year I returned from Haiti and made the Deans List, then changed my major to education in honor of Marie Phi La. Believing that one day I will hear her read aloud with confidence and write from her own heart, I bless every page of the mountain of assigned reading I do. Believing in Marie Phi La reminds me to believe in what’s possible and to never settle for what others expect. Believing in Marie Phi La affirms that I have something significant to give to the world and that someone considered insignificant can give back too. Some would glance at Haiti and see what appears to be a landfill of hopelessness, but I urge you to look past the feet and into the eyes of possibility, into the eyes of Marie Phi La Faustine.
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