Longform

Saint Aaron

Page 8 of 9

They leave the store with a cardboard box full of juice boxes and cookies. They cross a street called Delmas 31, a main thoroughfare made for two lanes of traffic but packed with four. The sidewalks are a crowded mess of vendors set up on tables of driftwood and tree branches, selling everything from plungers to shampoo, from bottles of soda to coconuts.

Everywhere, the people selling something, walking with bowls of something on their heads, or begging for something turn to look at Jackson, perhaps one of the only white men for miles. There's an indescribable feeling of tension on the streets, as in those adrenaline-filled moments before a fistfight. It's entirely possible that a car full of AK-47-toting thugs will pull up and whisk Jackson away for days of torture and death. The lead story in the day's paper described the kidnapping of a principal from his school's front gate. The kidnappers shot him in both legs before demanding $200,000 in ransom from his wife.

Maybe the kidnappers leave Jackson alone because he's there to help, or perhaps it's because Ritchy is riding him piggyback. Or maybe it's simply because most of the people he passes look befuddled to see a foreigner walking the streets without a customary armed escort from U.N. peacekeepers.

"We will hand out things here," Dieubon says on a rare empty spot of sidewalk with no street vendors. There are no street children around at first. But as they begin to offer the handouts, kids appear from everywhere. Dieubon hands out the juice and food as Jackson passes out the pills from his backpack. The free food quickly creates a mob. Teenagers push aside toddlers who walk barefoot on the trash-strewn sidewalks. An old man with a beard full of dirt and wearing nothing but rags takes cookies from a boy who himself looks starved.

"Let's keep walking," Jackson says.

A small crowd follows them down the street. Some of the kids recognize Dieubon and Jackson. A 16-year-old named Sonson follows along, sipping on a juice box. Asked what chances he has of getting off the streets, he answers blankly in Creole: "There is no hope for me. I cannot get a house. I do not have anyone who will help." Then he smiles as he eats the cookies. It seems his future is so clearly bleak that it's no longer a concern.

Jackson spots a kid in the crowd. "Hey! You see this kid right here?" Jackson says, patting the back of a teenager in a baby-blue polo shirt. "He saved my life one time." Jackson tells of a trip a year ago, when he brought a video camera to record the life of street children. As he was filming, a mob of people began a protest. When they saw Jackson, the crowd tore at him. He turned to run, but they were nearly on him. "This kid pulled me into a house," Jackson says. "If he hadn't, they would have torn me apart."

They turn the corner onto a side street used mostly as the neighborhood's trash can. They step over an open manhole stuffed with trash and maneuver around a pile of cardboard somebody used recently as a mattress. Dieubon opens up the box again, and a new crowd forms in seconds from nowhere. Soon, they're pulling at the sides of the box to push their hands inside. The contents are gone in seconds, but Jackson manages to hand out some the medicine.

On the way back to the car, walking hand in hand with Ritchy, Jackson has a confession to make. "I had no money for this trip, not a dime. The day before I left, I got a $1,000 check in the mail. A donation. I don't even know who it was from, but it saved me."

Back at the orphanage, Ritchy is mobbed by the other kids. His brother can't stop smiling now that Ritchy is back. For a boy who has watched his parents float away, losing his brother now might have been too much to bear. He asks Ritchy what he did. "We went everywhere," Ritchy says shyly.

In a couple of days, a shipment of food Jackson sent from the States will arrive. He'll bring a portion of it to the Centre El-Bethel House, where, Jackson says, the superintendent will tell of the worms that crawled from the noses of every kid.

But for now, Jackson slumps in one of the school chairs and lets the kids climb all over him. They pat his hair and tug on his oversized shirt. Then he spins Rico over and tickles his stomach. It's still bloated from the worms that nearly killed him. But slowly, he's healing.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton