Great Unexpectations

How I’ve come to make extraordinary friendships

stephen matlock
5 min readJan 29, 2024
Making do in Haiti (from Pixabay)

I tell people that my journey into learning Haitian Creole was an entirely unexpected thing — I had no intention of learning a new language in my 60s, let alone make it a goal to become fluent enough to talk to Haitian people naturally and easily as if I had been speaking the language my entire life — to talk Haitian Creole “tankou rat”; that is, to talk the language as if I’d been scurrying around my life taking information from everyone to build my own life with no guff from anyone, speaking and even arguing with all the gusto I have in my body about things that are important to me. (Creole packs a lot into its idioms and language imagery.)

So here I am after almost two years, and I’m slowly inching my way forward. I’m still not fluent, not by a long shot. I still freeze up when I speak as if every bit of knowledge about the language — its words, its grammar, its colloquialisms, its pronunciation — has never been a part of me, leading to a conversation slowing down to a complete stop as I struggle to find a simple pronoun. (Fun fact: Haitian Creole has very few pronouns, so forgetting one of the five invariable pronouns — mwen, ou, li, nou, yo — means I’ve forgotten something incredibly easy and basic. Yet here I am — Mwen: I, Me, Mine; Ou: You, You, Yours; Li: He/She/It, Him/Her/It, His/Hers/Its; Nou: We/You-All, Us/You-All; Ours/Your; Yo: They, Theirs, Them.)

Along the way I’ve had to pick up information about Haiti itself: its origins, its history, its culture, its long, long struggle for independence and freedom, its experience with powers foreign and domestic that have worked for centuries to disempower and dominate the Haitian people to keep them poor, disorganized, and helpless, and incredible pride and strength of its people who live in this adversity, bending but not breaking. Haiti has had to resist the French and the United States attempts to reintroduce colonialism and it has had to struggle with the attempts by powerful gangs and malevolent domestic organizations and individuals that see the nation as a cash cow to be exploited for personal profit, the results which break out now and again with the desperation and rage of the people at having so little control over the levers of power. It is a beautiful land with so many incredible, wonderful, kind, funny, real people who are near-uniformly friendly enough to let me talk even though my accent is atrocious. The experience helps me to think well of them and their country, and hold in tension the reality of their lack of control over their government and the many, many difficulties that come from the deliberate impoverishment of their country by both France and the United States as well as the way the United States treats Haiti as a dumping ground for discarded clothes, cheap rice, and guns, guns, guns.

There’s all that.

And there’s a third thing that is becoming more apparent: there are so, so many good people who are hungry to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be noticed, to be valued. Not that they don’t have families and friends, but given the paucity of options open to people to advance themselves, to find jobs, to have their own families, to use their education in their own land, they always look for a connection to someone to just see them.

I’ve made some good friends in the past year or so, many who are in Haiti itself, some who are in the Dominican Republic, and some who are in various countries and islands around Haiti. So many people do what they can to survive and thrive despite the great difficulties they encounter.

And so many of them just want to talk with me. To share. To tell stories. To brag. To ask questions. To be open about their despair and open about their dreams.

It’s Sunday today, so I did go to church, but before and after I was taking calls or chatting by text. I just finished a long conversation someone about their plans for the future and the reality of their status as a Haitian, someone who is despised by so many other people for simply being Haitian, driven out of their places of escape, seeing doors shut for them by nations become more and more irrationally fearful of “migrants” (when they mean “people with brown or black skin” because listen, no one is fooled by the rhetoric: we all know what’s going on).

It’s hard to listen to them, these wonderfully funny, bright, motivated, sincere, trusting people who have been raised to believe they are valuable and then to encounter the world that says, “No you are not; you are just Haitian.”

Why does the world exist the way it does that a people confined to a third of an island in the Caribbean are seen as less-thans? How do they grapple with the faith that comes from white people to their land, given to them to give them hope, and yet used as a tool by those same white people to call them despicable names and degrade them?

They talk to me, friend to friend, brother to brother, family to family.

The conversations are difficult for me because I know and they know why. And yet they cannot accept it. They are smart. Funny. Educated. Wise. Talented. Hard-working. Motivated. But the moment their face appears, the doors are shut. Slammed, really.

No Haitians Need Apply.

Now I suppose in the scheme of things and given the nature of humans who try to live under crushing burdens to find a way out, even to thrive, perhaps one day Haiti and Haitians will figure out a way to overthrow the systems that oppress them in their own lands, release the productivity and imagination of their own people to build their country into a powerhouse of productivity and culture and prosperity. I believe that what Haiti lacks isn’t motivation or interest or even direction. What it lacks is freedom.

And when Haiti is released from the twin oppressions of both domestic and foreign interests, there will be an explosion of creativity and building.

For now, I hear the pain in the voices of my friends, the frustration, the anguish, the feelings of unfairness.

I don’t know what else to do at this moment. It was not in my wheelhouse to consider that where I am at this moment in my life has prepared me to be in their lives at this moment to become someone who can influence them by listening, encouraging, supporting, by just being with them.

So that I what I’ll be doing. Being there for them. Listening. Talking. Advising. Encouraging. Supporting.

It’s way, way beyond my ideas of “learn to speak a language.” It’s developed into relationships and connections and a sense of sharing life together.

I would not have it any other way, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Originally published at on January 29, 2024.



stephen matlock

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at Mostly off Medium now & writing elsewhere