by Rose-Anne Clermont
- Germany -
As a child, my parents told me almost every day to be grateful for the food on my plate. When I occasionally grimaced at the offerings, my father would say, “No problem, we can put you on a plane tomorrow. There are plenty of kids in my hometown who would love to trade places with you.” I took my father only half seriously, but was still too young to be completely sure. It wasn’t until I saw true poverty for myself, that I understood just how quickly another little girl would have taken my place at our table; delighted to sit behind a mound of food that I was too spoiled and finicky to finish.
I was seven years old when I first went to Haiti, and I will never forget the other children my age who smiled at me in wonder, their bare feet scurrying across the hard pavement. To see their bones poking through their skin made my own bones ache. Every time they smiled at me, despite me having everything they didn’t, a piece of my naïveté drifted away.
Today, as a mother, I don’t threaten my eldest son with trading him for a poorer child. But I do remind him that there are too many children who don’t have anything to eat. My son is only four, so the idea is still abstract. And, as a logical reaction, he asks why? My son, who lives in upper middle class Berlin was distraught for days after we once rode the subway and he saw a homeless man holding out a cup. Again, he asked, “Why is he there? Why doesn’t he have a house? Why doesn’t he come home and have dinner with us?”
Perhaps, one day when he is older, my son will sit down with his grandmothers and ask them not only why people are poor, but what does it feel like? What does it mean from day to day? How does poverty make you who you are? It is a question that each generation must continue to ask, a question that demands to be answered. Because, after all, as we grow older, we all eventually realize it is not because there is not enough for everyone.
In Part II of A Current between Shores: From Scarcity to Excess, Barbara and Renée reflect on having lived in poverty and in wealth.
Part II: Lost Silver Spoons
How old were you when you understood that your family was poor?
Renée: “I was ten when my father died. He had owned a grocery store, and then became sick with tuberculosis. When people knew he died of TB, the customers didn’t want to come into the store any more.
“My father had been in a private hospital, we used to visit him every Sunday. There was no such thing as health insurance so we spent most of our money to pay for his healthcare. There was a sanitarium for poor people but we were well off. The night he went into the hospital—he had been coughing and vomiting in the middle of the night--was Christmas Eve. My mother had spent the whole night in the hospital so she couldn’t put our gifts under our pillows, which is how they did it in Haiti. My mother gave me a doll the next morning, which is how I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. For years afterward, Christmas was a sad time for me. My father’s death was the worst thing that could have happened to us.
“Even at ten I could see that the grocery store wasn’t full any more. My mother got depressed and couldn’t keep up the store. Once we lost the store, we had to move into my grandmother’s house with my aunt.”
Barbara: “Before the war, we were relatively wealthy. Papa had done the landscaping for the new highways Hitler had been building. Hitler really brought down unemployment and had created seemingly social programs. When the war started, we had money but couldn’t buy anything with it. So we got used to not having sugar in our tea. We planted our own vegetables. We even kept rabbits in the attic.
“But after the war, we were really hungry. Everything was rationed. The government distributed vouchers depending on whether you were a hard laborer, had small children, were a housewife or old. Because we had so many children in our family, people looked into our shopping baskets and thought we had a lot. But we had so many people to feed. Our grandparents, because they didn’t work, only got three pounds of carbohydrates, 110 grams of butter (about 3.8 ounces) for the week, sometimes none at all. After a while, the vouchers were spread out over 10 days, which made it even harder to live on. Then there was, of course, the black market. If you had the money, you could buy a loaf of bread for 50 Marks. My parents never bought anything on the black market.
“My mother said that when you have money but can’t buy anything with it, it’s as bad as when everyone is poor.”
Were you afraid of poverty, what it meant for your family, since you weren't born into poverty?
Renée: “I was sad when we had to leave a school that we liked. After our father died, the French nuns called us to the office and asked who was going to pay for our school now that our father was dead? We said we didn’t know. My mother had a hard time paying tuition so they eventually kicked us out and we had to go to public school. A year or two later my grandmother died. Our lives just changed. We had to move in with my Aunt Emmé. It was a crowded house because of Aunt Emmé’s nieces who lived with her, too. See, back then there was no life insurance, no welfare, nothing.”
Barbara: “I was much more afraid of war, of bombs and airplanes. . . the worst was running home from school during an air raid. When the howling stopped, there was a moment of horrible quiet, and in that moment I wondered if I would live or die. After the war, we were always very hungry and had growling stomachs. But after the war, we stopped in the fields after school and dug cabbage out of the ground. I wasn’t afraid of being poor, I was just relieved that the bombings had stopped.”
How did poverty play a role in your identity as a child? Had you often dreamt about what you would/could have done if you weren't poor?
Renée: “If I wasn’t poor, I could have maybe become a doctor. After my father died and my relatives couldn’t afford to keep taking care of me [any more], I left [secondary] school and went to nursing school because of the stipend: it was $15 per month. To be a doctor, I would have had to stay on [in school] until the end. But I didn’t have a choice: I needed the money. But what bothered me most was that we couldn’t live together with my mother, like a normal family. I always had to live with other people. I feel like I have a poor identity because of it. I remember when Tante Emmé sometimes gave us [25 cents]. It was such a big deal. We had big plans with those [25 cents], imagine!”
Barbara: “We were so hungry we had dreams about food. We imagined what it would be like to go to the bakery in the city and buy arms full of warm rolls. Eventually we had nothing to wear, no shoes, and then we heard about what they had (the luxuries) in West Germany.”
How did your parents cope with poverty on a daily level?
Renée: “My mother tried everything to make money. She tried to buy things and resell them. Nothing worked. She was also depressed. When we still lived with her, she always made sure there was something to eat. Sometimes it was just bread, or a thin bouillon, but she made sure we ate something.”
Barbara: “My father drove to local farms and traded plants from his nursery for a sack of grains meant for horse feed. We had to sift through the grains, shake out the husks and blow them out and then make a soup out of it. Every morning, that was our breakfast. It was bitter and tasted horrible. And what we didn’t eat was saved for the next day.”
How did you and your family escape poverty?
Renée: “By going to school. That’s why education is so important in the Haitian culture. We know that it’s the ticket to escaping poverty. After nursing school, which was free, I finally had a salary.”
Barbara: “When I was around 12 my father became very ill and couldn’t make enough to pay his staff in the nursery. There were always letters from the bank and my parents didn’t know what they were going to do. My father spent a lot of nights going through his papers and fixing his books. The GDR officials closed one independent business after the next and it was obvious they were after my father's nursery. My mother went to the market three times a week and sold their vegetables and their plants. As an adult, my first salary as a nurse wasn’t a lot, but I wasn’t poor any longer.”
You came to know excess as a young adult. What struck you first?
Renée: “When we first arrived in Canada and I was working as a nurse, I was shocked by everything in the hospital being thrown away after it was used just one time. In Haiti, the instruments, the materials, the gloves and needles were boiled and re-used. Now, I hear it’s even worse in Haiti. They tell me patients have to go buy materials for the doctors to use. During my time, the public hospital always had enough supplies.
“Here in America, there always seems to be something in the fridge that has to be thrown out. We never had food to throw away in Haiti.”
Barbara: “When I went to West Germany as a young girl, it was in the fifties during the “Economic Miracle” and people were really gluttonous. The excess really left an impression on me, but I was poor, so I couldn’t really participate.”
You now live in a country where poverty, although it exists, is not as extreme as what you knew. What aspects of poverty will you never forget despite the excess that you live with today?
Renée: “I can never forget that some people don’t have a house or something to eat. Beggars were so common when I lived there -- there were no missionaries, no soup kitchens, no social services at all. Back in Haiti, we saw kids with distended bellies. When I was in nursing school, they brought in children with diarrhea, dehydrated, with dysentery because of bad water and they died sometimes within 24 hours. There were women who breastfed but weren’t eating anything themselves. That’s the kind of poverty you can never forget.”
Barbara: “I’m glad that there is so much available to us, but sometimes, when I see how much there is of everything, it’s too much. It’s harrowing to think about everything that one can have and what exists. The insane supply, the bombardment of things sometimes makes me dizzy. When I saw what was thrown away in hospitals, how much is used, tons of things that are thrown out on a daily basis, it’s unbelievable.
“My daughter throws everything away, sometimes because there is a small strip of mold on it. I still have a bad conscience when I throw something away. I always think back to the hard times.”
Although there are enough resources for poverty to be eradicated, billions of people around the world live in destitute situations. As a person who has lived in poverty and in wealth, how do you regard this poverty?
Barbara: “I was always so naive and thought, let’s help those poor people and tried wherever I could to make a donation. But then you learn that the money doesn’t always get to the people. I have a little pot of money I donate to different charities every month -- it’s not a lot because I don’t have much to give. But once you start donating, you keep getting more letters.
“It’s difficult for me when I see poverty around the world. It’s also hard when I see all of these cheap products for sale here in Germany. Especially around Christmas, you get all these free gifts from the drug store, supermarket, cheap knick-knacks that you know were produced by poor people in Asia.”
Renée: “Situations like in Darfur are horrible. Not only are those people hungry but the genocide is unbelievable.
“Haiti is worse off now than when I was living there as a child. There is no pride anymore. Pride is what people can put in their pockets. We know the Haitian government is corrupt but we have other big countries behind them to keep the country where it is. For some reason, it serves them (big countries) well.
“We have government strangulation in Haiti. There is no future for young people. Even though education is free, you can have the highest level of education and you can’t do anything with it. I know it firsthand. That’s one of the reasons I do everything I can to keep the center* open. It has taken another dimension. I’m doing what I can, helping street children. My goal is to make sure those kids have something in their hands, have a skill so they don’t have to go back to the streets. That’s my contribution.”
*In 1995, after her husband’s sudden death, Renée and her family set up a foundation in her husband’s hometown of Jacmel, Haiti to help poor children. In 2003, the foundation opened The Clermont Center for Homeless Adolescents, which houses fourteen young boys who formerly lived on the streets.
- In Part III of this series, Renée and Barbara discuss the importance of education. Previously in Part I, they described growing up in dictatorships and their impressions of democracy. - Ed.
About the Author
Rose-Anne Clermont was born in New York City and first lived in Germany on a Fulbright grant from 1998-1999. She holds a Liberal Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She has contributed to Spiegel Online, The International Herald Tribune and, in German, to Die Zeit. She currently lives in Berlin with her husband and three sons.
A Current between Shores, appearing on The WIP as a nine-part series, was conceived as "parallel histories from different worlds." In it Rose-Anne explores the lives and remarkably similar experiences of two of the women closest to her, Renée Clermont, her Haitian mother and Barbara Kemter, her German mother-in-law. Both had their lives transformed under brutal dictatorships more than 50 years ago. Coincidentally, both became nurses and lived to build new lives, raising their children in different worlds from the ones in which they grew up. Now they are grandmothers to shared children. As Rose-Anne says, "They are teachers and keepers of similar histories that we dare not forget."