Bonjou seím ak freím yo

Posted on 07/02/10

Bonjou se’m ak fre’m yo
Good morning my sisters and brothers

Partners In Health co-founder Ophelia Dahl honored Mme. Yolande Lafontant during a memorial service held on June 6 with these words. Mme. Lafontant, better known as Mamito to those around her, will be missed by all of the thousands of people whose lives she forever changed.

Ophelia Dahl honored Mme. Yolande Lafontant during a memorial service.

Please excuse me for not speaking to you in Creole today. At a time like this I want to be able to use the words and meanings at the tip of my tongue. As Marie Flore said to me the other day: English is the language of sentiment for me. However, Polo [Paul Farmer] will kindly translate in his own special way.

As always, I come here on behalf of many others: colleagues, family, and friends the world over, many of whom cannot be here, but are aching with you. I promised them that I would convey to Pere Lafontant, his entire family, and to you all how keenly they feel our loss and how closely they are holding you in their thoughts and prayers. The condolences have come from far and wide, unsurprisingly, for Mamito touched so many people. It gives me great strength to be here in this church with all of you to reflect upon Mamito’s life and the impact that she had on the lives of so many others.

From the first moment I set foot in Cange in the early 1980s my life was indelibly altered for the better, enriched in ways I never could have imagined. Before I left England for Haiti I tended to think of family as my immediate relatives—my brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts. When I came to Haiti and spent the first of many months here in the Central Plateau, I realized that my definition of family had been too narrow. Like many of you, I was welcomed, taken in, most lovingly, by the Lafontants and the extended Zanmi Lasante family. At the heart of this family was Mamito—the matriarch, the standard setter, and a woman to emulate for many reasons not least for her ability to welcome a population of visitors and guests that covered almost every corner of the world. Her capacity to host (and its religious meaning seems only reinforcing) is something she has passed on to others, hopefully all of us).

However, Mamito’s great contribution is far more than simply opening the door to invite people in, itself an important act, or even to nourish the hungry and to clothe the naked. It was instead her incessant drive to find out why those people didn’t have a door of their own, or food, or a school to go to in the first place and to make it right. Her restless drive would leave no stone unturned, no child out of school, and there were times when I confess, even years ago, her energy was greater than mine. With her gentle (and not so gentle) urging she pushed us to achieve more, to do a better job, to tend to the details. Thinking of those details now, it would be hard to even begin to count those people who have learned to read, or who have a house, or a job because of her determined vision of accompaniment. Like many of you I feel that I was not just educated, but raised by Mamito and Pa Frico.

My earliest memories of Cange back then are very different from now. Some people in the States who wish to support Zanmi Lasante speak to us very passionately about wanting to support a program or project that will have transformative effects, transformative changes. They talk about wanting to give in such a way that they will literally see the difference their contribution has made, a difference that perhaps would not have happened had they not become involved. And they want it to happen quickly. Overnight if possible. And I want to say to them, I will show you transformative change. Come to Haiti, visit Cange, look at what used to be a settlement camp and see what has grown from it. But it did not happen overnight. It is particularly important today to keep in mind just how much change can take place over a short period of time. It happened because of all of you and of course at its center, its inspiration, were Mamito and Pere Lafontant. It is hard for me to separate them as so united are they in their efforts.

Of course in the 1980s, just as today, there were many projects being worked on at the same time, but the one that stands out to me for its pure achievement and its ability to not be foiled, was the mission to bring water to the many residents of Cange. As is often the case in Haiti, there is both irony and poetry to this story. The irony is obvious: for as simple as it may seem now, the residents had become refugees after their valley and their land were flooded. Yet what was the one thing they lacked? Water—a clean source of water. So with the help of our partners from South Carolina, an underground spring for the water was found—a constant stream of water. The trick was to harness this energetic underground stream and bring it up a steep hill 800 vertical feet, against gravity. With the help of engineers the water was channeled up the cliff using its own force and distributed to several standpipes throughout Cange.

Talk about transformative change! Our ability to provide clean water to the residents and to watch the effects it had on the community who were no longer drinking dirty water meant that babies were no longer dying of dehydration. I associate Mamito with this valuable source of life not just for her tenacious qualities of getting things done against the odds, for helping to pioneer the water project, insisting on clean water as a right, but because to me she embodied the qualities of the sous [the source in Haitian Creole]. She is after all a giver of life, the source of our work together, a sustaining force, never resting, always there but not always seen, pushing uphill to get results and doing important work which in turn has brought life to other programs. From that water project other medical programs were born. Transformative change indeed.

For everyone in the country the notion of welcoming, of hosting was sorely tested after January 12 when this entire campus—and many others—became a medical center for the seriously afflicted. However, Cange was more than a place for the sick. It became a refuge for many whose homes and hearts were broken. There were many more mouths to feed and almost imperceptibly (though with tremendous work behind the scenes) the fishes and loaves multiplied and the doors stayed open even as the hospital became a church and the church, this church, was transformed into a hospital and that alter a pharmacy. As always, Pere Lafontant and Mamito knew the best way to serve and accompany a devastated community. And many people who had nothing left but their wrecked bodies made their way up the mountain to Cange, an apt place not just because of its medical center, but because its genesis fifty years ago was as a home for refugees from the flooded valley. It was an astounding and moving place to watch people heal, to observe what happens when the huge community of Zanmi Lasante pulls together with Mamito at its heart. And countless people here ensured that it was not only their health that returned, but their dignity too. No one can deny that what took place here after the earthquake produced transformative change.

If the essence of what we do together is to accompany then surely Mamito is the person who has taught us what it is to accompany, to walk beside, to carry the burdens of others, as a friend, a teacher, to be a visitor to the sick as a mother and a grandmother. I have been lucky enough to have been accompanied by Mamito all my adult life. She has shown us how to do this with unparalleled grace with the perfect balance of gravitas and lightness. Not many people can get that just right. Mamito did.

Like everyone here I will miss Mamito’s presence more deeply than I can express. In recent years, the sight of Mamito standing at the top of the stairs outside her room giving the sense she was waiting just for me (though I believe she made everyone feel that way), her expression one of a mixture of pleasure and worry (worry because there was always more to do), a question always on her lips, a smile and a raucous laugh not far behind. And in recent years the gentle yet firm feel of her hand on my forearm as we walked—which always gave the sense that she was steadying me as much as I steadied her. I will miss the tangible parts of her but I believe she has left us with no less concrete charge than to continue what she did so well.

If we are to honor her properly then we must continue her work with the same exacting standards that she used with as much attention to detail. May Mamito rest in peace, but somehow I don’t think she wants us to rest too much. And we won’t, for there is much work to be done. And our large extended family, our ever growing community spanning many different countries will honor Mamito in the best possible way, by banding together to harness the energy, her life force, which urges us on up the hill, against gravity—a constant and inspiring source of transformative change.

Thank you, Mamito.


Ophelia Dahl
Cange, Haiti

To read a PIH co-founder Paul Farmer’s letter remembering Mamito, click here