Mamito – PIH honors and mourns Mme. Yolande Lafontant

Posted on 05/31/10

 

By now the sad news has gone out far and wide that our Mamito, Mme. Yolande Lafontant, succumbed Saturday to a hemorrhagic stroke. She collapsed after a brief bit of exercise and said not another word. Some of us already take heart in the fact that she did not suffer, and, as hard as it is to imagine a world, much less Cange, without Mamito, she has left us clear direction for what she’d like us all to do in the coming years.

For if there was ever a mother more willing to give instructions, I have yet to meet her. Mamito’s versions of “wipe your feet” or “clean up your room” were simple, if broader in scope, and equally to the point: “Make this house waterproof for this family; put tin on the roof and cement on the floor.” “Pick up trash outside” (we often failed her on this one); “Don’t cross the lake in the afternoon when the wind is high” (we took mischievous delight in flaunting that order); “Think of something for these old ladies to do in their retirement; and teach them to read.” And of course the more typical maternal fiats: “Wash your shirt,” “Shine your shoes,” et cetera. And she did not hesitate to leave scraps of paper with lists and instructions in her schoolmarm hand. She had a regal air about her, a personage (like Fritz) from the very beginning, but also a sense of humor. Making fun of her trademark chandelier earrings was sure to get a rise, as was expressing wonder that one might be blessed with such naturally jet-black hair well into one’s eighties. Frekan, you’re too fresh, was her response to this teasing, along with a wry smile.

Mme. Yolande Lafontant (right) with PIH co-founder Paul Farmer (middle) and Father Fritz Lafontant, circa 1984.

 

I was lucky enough to be adopted by Fritz and Mamito when I was 23, which meant that whenever I was in Haiti in those early years, I shared a home and broke bread with her. When she was in a good mood—which was often, if you hadn’t crossed her—she would bring me a cup of coffee in bed. (She was always up with the dawn and approved of my study habits). My wife, Didi, is another of her adopted children; the list goes on and on. She fussed over guests and set the highest standards for hospitality in central Haiti, receiving, in recent decades, thousands of visitors from around the world. It’s not a surprise to me that we have already received letters of sympathy from Russia, Mexico, Peru, France, Rwanda, South Africa, and of course across Haiti (and its diaspora) and the United States. Everyone who was lucky enough to come to Cange got a little dose of Mamito’s mothering, and this maternal web will live on and even grow as long as we carry out her instructions.

Before turning to one of them, let me note that during the past four months Mamito and her close-knit team did an enormous amount of work receiving scores of medical teams from all over, and also thousands of patients injured in the quake. Many times she went to visit in the hospital or in the church, which had become an ersatz trauma ward. Whether she was feeling well or not, she rose every day to give instructions to the rapidly growing hospitality team, knowing, I believe, that she had so inculcated her values in them that things would be done a la Mamito whether or not she had issued specific orders. Now is our chance to see if we can live up to her standards. Or perhaps she is hovering out of sight and not, as usually, just over our shoulders, but still able to push us to behave as we invoke her memories and then smile dutifully and get to work.

This past four months, many of you saw a lot of Mamito, who since the earthquake almost never left Cange, not to search for belongings damaged or lost in the quake, not to gather provisions, not to go to the airport. These items came instead to her, and even the airport came to her, planefuls of doctors and nurses and physical therapists here to help. Mamito’s job was to mother them a bit, too, to make sure they ate enough and had clean scrubs and, well, behaved themselves.

Some of you know that Mamito could be downright obsessive about some things. The Haitian expression was tilandeng—she would hang onto you, or the proffered errand, like a tick. These errands tended to have to do with big projects, mostly in education and housing. This past few months, overwhelmed by the destruction of the city in which she was born and raised, she did not hesitate to signal a couple of key projects. The houses down by the water in the place we call Bas Cange were, she said, shamefully dilapidated. This shoreline represented our roots, some of the land almost inundated by the hydroelectric dam that first brought her and Father Fritz to Cange when it flooded the valley in 1956. Fritz could have stayed in the borders of his own parish, leaving the little chapel under fathoms of water, but he chose to minister to the “water refugees”: founding with them, and Mamito, the dusty hill-top station of Cange. This made sense to Mamito, a school teacher by training but a social worker at heart. She befriended, simply enough, the ones who needed her most—hence her connection to the water refugees from the region. She lived out her preferential option for the poor with all her heart and for many decades. She knew no small amount of suffering in her long life, but bore it all with dignity, always seeing others’ suffering as more important.

In lieu of flowers let me suggest, with Marie-Flore’s blessings, that we rebuild to higher standards the settlement of Bas Cange. She knew we would do this simply because she told us to. We recently joked with her that we should call it Mamitoville, and she responded with feigned irritation.

But it sounds right to me.

Mamito will be interred in a private ceremony tomorrow. Next week we will celebrate Mamito’s life and achievements, many of which are known to you. “Many of which” really means “many of whom,” for her great oeuvre was to mother us all, and to guide us, including some who didn’t know how much they needed it. Along with Flore and Sindy and their children (Victoria, Cassandre, and Ludji), we are her achievements, tout pitit li yo, and we will do her proud by carrying on her work to promote health, education, and a better life for the poor. These things, and her many children, were the only things that mattered to her.

Mamito nou p’ap janm bliye-w! Rest in peace, but hover not too far from us, please.

 

Paul Farmer
Port-au-Prince
31 May 2010