The noon sun pierces my straw hat as I walk through a close-packed Port-au-Prince neighborhood. It's my third day in Haiti, and I've been invited to Madam Samson's for lunch. The hill's uneven pathway is bordered by a rivulet of raw sewage, its pungency blunted by the haze from charcoal fires. Despite the oppression of heat and odor, everyone I pass returns my smile.
Although I'm a stranger to Madam Samson, she welcomes me and my four companions with a beaming "Bon jou," Creole for "Good day."
Mindful that we're in an island nation where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, we haven't come to eat. Our sustenance is watching this short, 60-ish woman whose 20-year-old food program has kept starvation at bay for many local children.
Long before our arrival, Madam and her daughter, Monique, had built a charcoal fire on the family's open-air rooftop. With no running water, filling the four-gallon soup pot requires several trips up stairs, sans handrails, with a five-gallon bucket balanced on the head. By 9:30 a.m., the beans – congo, black, or pinto – are set to boil for an hour. Softened, they're hand-blended into a sauce, then simmered with white rice, onion, garlic, and cloves. Today, the precious, once-weekly bit of chicken is also in the mix, so there's a full, steaming pot when we appear.
Five dozen youngsters crowd the roof's rough wooden tables and benches. Their hair is neatly plaited, faces are scrubbed, and their clothes are faded but amazingly clean. They wait solemnly, battered metal bowls in hand, for the only meal most will have that day.
Madam greets them with a warm smile, the dark-eyed children advancing as she calls them by name. She speaks softly to each boy and girl as she spoons out their rice and beans. She's very careful with the size of the portions today, aware that recent food shortages have brought several preteen boys back to her door.
When the pot is empty, no one begins to eat before the blessing, "Bon Dye, mesi anpil pou manje sa – O God, thank you very much for this food."
Mentally, I add, "Thank you for Madam Samson."
Two decades ago, rather than being daunted by the hungry children all around her, Madam went to my host, the nearby Norwich Mission House, with a proposal: If the Connecticut-based charity would help her buy the food, she would provide a midday meal five days a week.
As the last bits of food are scraped from the bowls, three small girls dressed in white giggle when they catch my eye. Dangling feet start to swing, and one older boy carefully feeds his sister. Hunger momentarily banished, they laugh, chat, and play hand-clapping games, like American kids might at a picnic.
The similarity strikes me with unexpected clarity. I have always divided the world into "here" and "there," believing that proximity determined responsibility. Now I ask myself, "Where exactly is 'there'? Don't we all inhabit the same planet? It doesn't matter if I'm in my backyard or on Madam's roof, we're all 'here'!"
These hungry children are my neighbors, too. Although I'm not able to cook them a daily meal, I can follow Madam Samson's example. One person can make a difference. "Helping Haitians help Haitians" is the mission house's motto. No matter where I live, I can support Madam as she helps these little ones.
As if sensing my internal dialogue, the girls in white dresses squeeze me onto their bench. In minutes, my hands have joined theirs in a clapping routine. Without a word, they've made me feel right at home in my new neighborhood.