I met Dave Simpson on a Thursday morning. Dave was walking next to one of the ubiquitous sugar cane fields on one of the ubiquitous serpentine island roads from Mandeville to Knockpatrick. After struggling through a patois-laden and broken phone conversation for at least ten minutes, Sister Helen and I stumbled across tall and unassuming Dave and he guided us to his home in the hills.
Before I go on, a little about Sister Helen. Born and raised in Kenya, a stout little Assumption Sister, she has been in Jamaica running an HIV support program and clinic for three years and approaches every aspect of her existence with a ferocious tenacity, but maintains the gentlest of demeanors. I don’t know if that is simply how she operates or the Kenyan way of life, but I have never seen the woman take a break. Whether it be dragging 55 kilogram bags of rice around her office or tirelessly listening to and encouraging those afflicted by and dying of HIV or AIDS, she is indomitable.
Back to Dave and his story. A home it was in every sense of the word, but a house it was in the loosest sense of the word. I find this juxtaposition an interesting contrast to the American culture, where the qualities of house and home are commonly reversed. We were directed from the already shoddy main road to the red dirt and gravel skeleton of what used to be a mining road; I am sad to say I have seen trails in the Rockies better kept than this particular path. We arrived in Daley’s Grove, a land forgotten save as a thoroughfare for power lines and the people that dwell there, a place amiss from Wikipedia and casual Google searches. Upon arriving at Dave’s house, I could feel my gut dancing a visceral dance of innate discomfort and vulnerability. Now, in Jamaica I have frequently been in the throes of discomfort, but this was an entirely different beast.
I was afforded a relatively lavish upbringing and spent the last four years shrouded in the grandeur and opulence of the campus of the University of Notre Dame. In the safety of the car, through the windshield, I laid eyes upon the one room abode, the ribs of the dogs surrounding it, the goat in the adjacent room, it was an unnerving experience. My eyes fell upon Sister Helen’s Dale Earnhardt candle that she keeps in her car. Somehow she enjoys the smell. The very thought of the amalgamation of a Catholic sister from Kenya, living in Jamaica, possessing a candle embossed with the faux signature of man heralded for such an American pastime still makes me laugh. The candle, as well as sister’s “Don’t be afraid of anyone but God, who can take your life” pep talk she was giving to Dave in the background, helped to calm me for some unbeknownst reason as we stepped out of the car.
The living situation was deplorable. One room made from a combination of concrete and plywood and a corrugated zinc roof with little more than a bed and a pile of clothes, another roofless room laden with hay for the goat, and two other disjointed walls, the purpose of which I could not muster, upon the concrete platform. That’s it. We began to discuss with Dave possibilities for an income and developing the land in the future. Sister was going on about all of the crops that could be planted on the hillside and in the yard and how she and her indomitable Kenyan work ethic would be up at three every morning tilling the land and planting and how many chickens could be kept in the coop where only five currently resided and how a cow could be bought in a year and on and on.
Dave, in addition to the aforementioned lamentable conditions, is afflicted with HIV. The very substance that allowed him life was slowly sapping it from him, no longer able to ward off disease as it was meant to. As I’ve been told by the Rasta men, “your blood isn’t white, mine isn’t black, it’s all red”. We’re all human. An obvious lesson in rhetoric, but one sometimes difficult in practice. Dave echoes that inherent human drive the same as me and most any person I have come across. The drive to make the most of himself, the most of his conditions, the most of his family given his hand at the present time, a hand which is drastically different from mine and most Americans.
Dave speaks slowly, deliberately – qualities of conversation I have come to find refreshing after weeks of clambering over language barriers between my English and English blended with Swahili, Polish, Jamaican Patois, and Hindi accents. As his nerves and fear of what people might begin to suspect if he is seen with a nun and gangly white man (an admittedly ragtag duo, but we have made quite the team so far) eased, the conversation began to flow. He told us of the difficulties of his life, namely of the stigma of HIV that haunted him. This stigma has been omnipresent throughout the world since the advent of the dread virus, but discretion is especially rampant in Jamaica. The stigma not only invites the external pressures of harassment and discrimination, but the perhaps more damaging internal accompanying struggle. Dave spends his days begging for food and money for his family rather than looking for employment – a luxury not abound Jamaica- or other forms of support. He does this not because of apathy – a mindset that is abound Jamaica – but because, as he told us, feels a certain loss of dignity and humanity packaged with the virus. Dave is poor because he is sick and sick because he is poor.
My brief time here has shown me that as the lines marking the gradients of human conditions become more punctuated, real, and disheartening, the lines marking the gradients of human dignity become increasingly nonexistent, melting into oblivion. The pride in knowing and respect I have for all of the downtrodden on this island has been shed light upon the fact that they are deserving and thirst for every opportunity that can be afforded to them, not just the ones that happen to drip to them through the cracks of an already broken global society. Why should these persons not have access to a life free of morbidity, education, and fruitful through the ingrained human desire to contribute? A lone reason still evades my knowledge.
The second half of our conversation painted a brighter picture. Dave spoke of how he was in the process of obtaining a small plot of land through a grant program, then Sister and I will be able to appeal to several different organizations, including Food for the Poor, to have a suitable house built for him and his family. He spoke of his young daughter Mary, who was too shy to come out and talk but instead play a perpetual game of peek-a-boo with us from behind the door, flashing a brilliant and innocent smile every time. Dave lit up when talking about her excitement of going back to school on Monday. How he managed to pay for her books, tuition, or uniform I do not know and did not have the gall to ask.
Dave will never win a Nobel Prize, make ten million dollars, or break any word records. He’ll survive. Even thrive to some meager extent. Somehow, some way, he and his family go day to day, surviving on what seems like nothing, still managing to help a child gain an education, one of the most alluring fruits of society. It truly is extraordinary, unbelievable, the more I think about it.
As we began to wrap up, Mr. Simpson asked for a picture of him and his goat. A numbingly and refreshingly simple request – usually we are asked for money, more medicine, things of that nature – but one I was more than happy to fulfill. Dave stood, scratching the animal and a smile rippled across his face, the first since I had met him. I snapped the picture and, through the eyepiece, the grin was the most poignant of reminders of our humanity, our desire for connection and acceptance and fulfillment. I couldn’t help but beam in return as we turned to leave.