I knew a girl named Charlotte when I was a child growing up in Haiti. I’m not sure how old Charlotte was, but I think, she was older than I was. She had a lot more responsibility that I did and she did not go to school, that much I know and I’m sure of it. I remember the first time, I saw Charlotte. The curious child in me, prompted me to go and play with her. Of course, I prefer her companionship than that of her “Aunt Therese” as she referred to Madame Celestin.
Madame Celestin was a friend of my mother’s and at times, my mother would take me there with her. Somehow, my mother stopped visiting Madame Celestin and I don’t know why. I don’t remember exactly what Madame Celestin looked like. Aside from her dark complexioned skin, I don’t remember what she looked like. I do remember her hands moving about as she dismisses Charlotte to hurry Charlotte out and away. Whenever, I was at Madame Celestin’s house, I was hoped that I’d get to play with Charlotte. She could show me her dolls and toys and we could engage in conversations about them as I did with my other friends. I had no interest whatsoever listening to my mother talk to people her own age and listening to her as she talks to Madame Celestin was even worst. I did not even like Madame Celestin.
Naturally, I drifted towards Charlotte rather than listening to my mother and Madame Celestin.
The first time I saw Charlotte was not the first time that I had gone to her house. Somehow “Aunt Therese” as Charlotte refers to Madame Celestin as, kept her out of sight because I had never seen Charlotte before It was a hot day, with perspiration dripping from our faces, Madame Celestin, cried out Charlotte’s name and ordered her to fetch water cold water for my mother and me. “Hurry up” Madame Celestin said gesticulating her right hand as if fanning Charlotte away. “Salope” “vagabonne” she said, “I can’t tolerate how slow the girl is” Madame Celestin said of Charlotte to my mother. “It’s hot and she’s young” my mother replied. “No, she’s just lazy, and if I don’t push her, she’ll become useless” Madame Celestin commented.
When Charlotte returned with the water, I wanted to go and play with her rather than staying around Madame Celestin. It was a “no”. Madame Celestin promptly pulled me and put me back in the chair when I got up to go speak with Charlotte. “Children of the house don’t play with the Restaveks”. I sat down and refused to drink the water that Charlotte had brought in the water pitcher filled with water and ice that the heat was rapidly melting and turning into water. Charlotte had placed the pitcher in the center of the large tray into Madame Celestin’s cluttered living room’s cocktail table.
Madame Celestin had a busy home. Her mosaic topped wooden cocktail table had for what I know a million little porcelain figurines and some of them; Charlotte had to push towards the center to make room for the tray. As ugly and tacky as I found, Madame Celestin took pride in those little annoying place taking figurines. There were so many of them that I lost count trying to count them.
As Charlotte pushed some of the figurines towards the center to make room for the water pitcher, one felled; that, triggered an instant anger outburst from Madame Celestin prompting her to call Charlotte “imbecile”. Ms. Celestin grabbed Charlotte by one of her ears and threw her out of the living room. Fearing for Charlotte, and Madame Celestin’s anger, my heart pounded as I began to urinate in my starchy pressed white dress. I became fidgety. I don’t know exactly how many times I tried to redo the ribbon that was tied in the back of my dress as I tried to stop more urine but unable to get up. My fingers trembled behind my back, with each unsuccessful tie I made to the ribbon until I realized that it was pointless. I returned my hands and put them in my lap trying to keep them folded so I control the fidgeting as my teeth shuddered. I realized that I was uncomfortable with Ms. Celestin and I immediately developed an aversion to her. I did not like Madame Celestin and I wanted to go home immediately. To me, and at that particular moment, Madame Celestin became the folkloric symbol of evil or “lougaroup” as many Haitians call vicious people. I’d like to tell you more about that, but I don’t have the time and would rather continue telling you about Charlotte and what she went through as a Restavek and modern day slave.
It was a good thing that my parents did not have Restaveks. They had so many of us anyway plus my mother did not believe in not sending children to school. If she had taken a child to live with us, the child would have been an extra mouth to feed- an expense, I’m sure. My mother avoided taking other people’s children in to live with us at all cost. I’d hear my mother tell women that she had enough children of her own and that she’s not interested in a having an extra child. On the Restavek (English translation “to stay with” or child servitude and child slave) issue, my mother did not entertain or accept it.
After we left, on that hot and humid afternoon, the next time we saw Madame Celestin was at my father’s tailor, which was not far from where she lived. Madame Celestin insisted that my mother goes to her house for coffee, and so we walked the few short blocks to her house. Of course, Charlotte was ordered to bring in the coffee and a glass of milk for me. Because Madame Celestin ordered Charlotte away, I noticed that Charlotte’s eyes were swollen and she was visibly upset. My mother was so busy talking with Madame Celestin; I don’t think she noticed Charlotte’s swollen eyes and physical discomfort.
The moment my mother walked away with Madame Celestin who always wanted to show off her latest clothes and shoes that she had purchased, I walked outside and found Charlotte. Charlotte was crying. “I don’t want to go there anymore,” she kept repeating. I was obviously a nosy child and I noticed a lot. I knew Charlotte was upset about something and whatever I understood, I told my mother.
After I got home, my mother lectured me and informed me that I’m to keep away from men and strangers. I don’t why she told me about keeping away from men and strangers, because I was always supervised anyway and could not go anywhere on my own anyway. My mother was upset that Madame Celestin did not believe Charlotte and that Madame Celestin even beat Charlotte with a cowhide thread marking Charlotte’s already whipped scarred body for “telling lies”. Madame Celestin’s next-door neighbor, an old bachelor who lived alone and whom Madame Celestin esteemed and beat Charlotte over for telling lies. Everyday, Charlotte had to bring dinner to the old bachelor who lived next door. Charlotte had told Madame Celestin that the old bachelor insists on touching her breast and had begun to touch her from under her dress. “He takes off his pants and wants me to touch him” Charlotte complained keeping her eyes down the entire time she told my mother why she’s afraid of the old bachelor while Madame Celestin accused Charlotte of being a “little liar” and “Satan” for making accusation against the gentle “foreign” bachelor who lived next door.Charlotte could not be believed because she was but a Child slave. My mother, not knowing what to do went over to the gentle “foreign” bachelor’s home. I don’t know exactly what she said to the “foreign bachelor”, but I heard her say, I’ll send my husband to speak with you more on the subject later. That day was the last time I saw Charlotte. I’ve not heard of her or about her since. What I didn’t t know then, I know now and I believe Charlotte wholeheartedly. Strange things happened when I was a child. And, from what I know, not much has changed. All I know is that there is an estimate of 173,000 to 225,000 to 300,000 Haitian children Restaveks in domestic servitude in Haiti. And, I thought slavery was abolished. Have you been told the same?