Mama La

The large storage container, converted into a housing unit, sits on cement blocks 10 feet from the main road winding through Grand Case. This is the French side of the island. Heavy rain the night before has left deep puddles in the dirt surrounding the unit’s stairs. The path from the roadside to the front door is obstructed by a large 6 foot wide pile of dirt and debris, and beer bottles from the bar next door are scattered everywhere.

Inside the unit, the air is thick and hot. Electricity and water have not been installed, although a trench has been dug for the conduit and pipes. The container’s three rooms are sweltering in the midday heat. The only breeze comes from the door being left ajar. The windows are shut tight to keep out the never-ending traffic noise and the bugs.

We yell for Mama La (Eulalia). She has been sick with an infection for the past week, and volunteers have been coming to check on her and insure she has been taking her antibiotic. We find her unable to sit up, sprawled on her bed, overheated and disoriented. The infection is in her face, possibly a bug bite, and it’s swollen and painful enough that she is taking Tramadol.

Mary Beth has been checking on her regularly and directs Kathryn and me into the room being used as a kitchen. With no running water, Mama La has had to use a bucket for a toilet and and another discarded paint bucket to wash her dishes. Old food stands in an uncovered pan on the camp stove.

A donated refrigerator will eventually be installed, but for now, without electrical, Mama keeps her food in a cooler. We have brought ice blocks- frozen, liter-sized water bottles- to resupply. I am ashamed to say the stench from the cooler was so strong I had to step outside for air. I nearly vomited from the smell. Somehow, Kathryn was able to begin unloading the food that was now floating in water, and I found a garbage bin down the road to get rid of everything that was spoiled or rancid.

We spent nearly two hours cleaning her kitchen. When she lived in a tent, Mama used buckets to store things- those were her cabinets and drawers. When she was moved into the unit, she did not want to part with her organizational system. We picked through the mess. No doubt she knew what was in each bucket, but if there was a method to the madness, we missed it. Rotting food full of bugs would be in the same container with a screwdriver and bits of old paper and string. Kathryn organized her meds and canned goods, I swept the floor and took out garbage, and Mary Beth did the dishes.

In the end, the place looked much better, and we were able to take an inventory of what food she had so the word could get passed as to what Mama still needed. Mary Beth heated some soup, and we convinced Mama to eat something so she could take her antibiotic. Her lack of teeth did not seem to slow her down- she seemed ravenous and devoured the soup.

We showed her what had been cleaned and organized and she was pleased. Before we left, Mary Beth asked Mama how old she was and she proudly told us she had turned 86 on the 13th of February. I started a round of singing Happy Birthday and Kathryn and Mary Beth joined in. Mama covered her mouth and giggled like a small child, embarrassed at being the center of attention and, yet, overjoyed to be celebrated.

We each got a hug goodbye.

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