We walked on. I noticed, as I had around Cange, that many people we passed wore clothes from America, brand-name running shoes that had seen much better days and baseball caps and T-shirts bearing the logos of professional sports teams and country clubs. “Kennedys” was the generic name for stuff like that. Back in the 1960s, Farmer had explained, President Kennedy sponsored a program that sent machine oil, among other things, to Haiti. The Haitians tried to use the oil for other purposes, such as cooking, and concluded that the gift was of inferior quality. Ever since, the president’s name has by synonymous here with secondhand and shoddy goods.
-“Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder
You can’t go anywhere at Espwa without spotting these second hand clothes: “kennedys.” Taking a short walk back to the guest house I passed a boy my age in a worn red Cardinals t-shirt, shortly after another that read “I Put Ketchup on my Ketchup” (something a quick google search revealed is a Heinz slogan), and finally a young boy swimming in a tee much too big for him, Greek fraternity letters plastered across the front.
As I walked through the gate one of the students followed behind, “Eske mwen capab utilize “dictionary”?” he asked.
“Wi,” I agreed, “but you’ll have to use it here and return it before you leave, ” I explained.
I grabbed the Oxford English dictionary from our small library and handed the tome to him as he settled into a seat to read. I picked up my own book from my seat, removing the bookmark, and began reading again myself. For about 10 minutes we sat in silence, studying our respective books until I heard him inhale sharply. I looked up.
“My shirt is bad!” he exclaimed turning around to show me the back.
My eyes scaled down to his shirt, “Party, party party,” it read on the front. “Let’s get wasted,” it continued on the back.
“Wasted,” he repeated, closing the dictionary and placing it back in my hands.
“I think a lot of people don’t know exactly what their shirts mean here,” I offered. “Don’t worry, I’ve seen worse.” I thought about the one-night stand shirt we’d seen the day before and the beach hunk shirt one of the babies wore to church the week before. I know that these “kennedy’s” are rarely understood and they’re certainly not worn for their meaning anyway.
This boy’s shirt, I imagined, had once laid on the wooden floor of a fraternity house at some big school back in the United States. It was probably made in preparation for a big mixer with some sorority and maybe worn only a time or two by its maker. I imagine it spent a lot of time lying on that fraternity floor before it came here. And maybe one day the brothers went from room to room collecting old and unwanted clothes to send down to Haiti. Maybe the owner stopped a moment before throwing his shirt into the collection bag considering if it was appropriate to donate and then shrugging off the concern. Clothes are clothes. He would’ve been right.
I often find myself thinking about the lives of these clothes. Clothes are clothes. I wonder what the original owners would think if they knew where their discarded shirts were now. What that fraternity man, probably long since graduated and working in some office building in some big city, would think if he saw that boy look up the words on his shirt in a dictionary that day.
The world is so much smaller than it seems to me sometimes. It certainly makes me wonder about the story behind my own clothing, much of it probably made in factories in Asia, the conditions of which are questionable at best. And even though hundreds and thousands of miles lay between me and those people, and although I may never visit the places they live and work, this clothing has made it from them to me. And then from people like me to these kids at this orphanage in Haiti.