This will tell the story of the first year of the new Rehabilitation Dept. of the Episcopal University in Haiti, from the viewpoint of Donnel and Janet O'Flynn.
At least three times during the academic year, the students of FSIL and FSRL organize and execute a formal party on the scale of a prom or a wedding reception, in the U.S.
Each cohort (sophomores, juniors, seniors) takes a turn. Classes are shut down the day before. The class forms itself into work crews: cleaning, setting up tables and chairs with white tablecloths and chair covers, stringing fairy lights and ribbons and balloons, hammering together the stage for performers, beginning to cook for 200 people. I’m sure that each person does also some preparation of ironing their formals and tuxes, as well as polishing the black shoes, trimming hair or setting it, and finishing manicures.
On the evening of the fête, at about 9 pm, the place looks like a fine restaurant or club: the school has been transformed. The elegant students begin to emerge from the dorms, not looking at all like their everyday selves. Everyone comes, everyone stays, there are bubbly drinks, there is great entertainment. A lot of the FSIL and FSRL students are at a professional level as singers, dancers, and actors. There are funny skits, choreographed dances, social ballroom dance exhibitions, solos and duets, hosted by a tuxedo clad MC (also a student). And at midnight there is a feast! A buffet table with special dishes, ballooning in volume, ample for all the students plus any guests. I am told that after that the general dancing begins and goes until 4 am. I wouldn’t know, myself, as I go to bed after the midnight feast, and sleep like a log.
THEN, amazingly, at 4 am most students go to the dorm to sleep, but the class designated to present the fête goes to work again to dismantle it. I got up at 6 am one time and went over to the courtyard, where I found students in elegant clothes, now mostly unbuttoned, and in bare feet instead of heels, pushing brooms and mops, moving slowly but still moving. By 10 the next morning, you would not know there had been a fête.
There is a similar aspect to life in the Episcopal parish just across town, Église Ste Croix. The Episcopal church throughout the world observes a cycle of Feasts and Fasts. In most Episcopal parishes in the US, a “Feast” might mean that rarely used vestments are brought out for the clergy, and the choir prepares special music. But at Église Ste Croix, some of the Feast days are Over the TOP. For instance, the patronal feast of Église Ste Croix is Holy Cross Day, Sept. 15. The church is decorated in thick generous garlands of flowers, there are visiting choirs (at least three, sometimes more), clergy come from other parishes, and there is a procession of children, followed by adolescents, followed by middle aged adult women, followed by elderly women, each carrying a basket of fruits on her head to present at the altar. There is incense, lots of it! And afterwards there is a feast of food, prepared by the ladies of the parish, that is ample enough for all members AND all guests to eat their fill. People dress UP. Men of all ages (including toddlers) in two- or three-piece suits, women in elegant dresses, little girls in white frilly dresses with red sashes.
One explanation can be found in the cultural parameter of Low Context versus High Context cultures. This discussion of cultural parameters comes from Chris Pullenayagam, a trainer with the Episcopal Church Mission Board. Low Context cultures, such as those in most of the USA, emphasize individual agendas, most or all the time: what each of us is doing at any time might overlap with what other people are doing. Our parties tend to allow dropping in and dropping out again, “come as you are” outfits including sneakers and sweat pants, “help-yourself” feeding (an endless snack table and a bucket of drinks).
High context cultures emphasize “Occasions”: times dedicated by the whole community to preparation, formality of dress and ceremonial, long feasts. It is very important that you are there, dressed appropriately to honor the event, and that even if you don’t say a word at the event you stay the whole time. People need to see you sitting there and will ask you afterwards how you enjoyed it.
I now appreciate the value of these occasions. Life here is stressful for Haitians, much moreso than for their American visitors. The list of everyday stressors is long and repetitive, and wears people down with discouragement. Things just don’t work, and it’s hard to get them fixed, and people who are sick can’t always go to the doctor, and jobs end without warning, and the money is losing value quickly, and food is expensive not to mention gas for the motorcycle.
Celebrations give a respite: for the duration of that splendid ceremony, all who attend are human beings with dignity, presenting themselves as people of worth, and giving respect to others around them. It is a time to “ENJoy” , to admire each other’s very being, to stop time. It is a vacation from being stressed by the difficulties of getting through each day. It is an experience of joy in each other. It is community. It is grace.