The first thing you need to know is that this story is real. And although it was first published eight years ago – and six years before the tragic January 12, 2010 Haitian earthquake – Sélavi is an even more urgent call for help for Haiti’s children.
A young boy arrives in “the capital city of his country” with nothing, not even a name: “Not long ago and not far away, people with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world.” He’s somehow managed to survive, but the small child is “too tired to keep going.” He’s befriended by a young boy his own age, TiFrè, who encourages the child to name himself; he becomes “Sélavi,” Kreyòl (Haiti’s primary language) for ‘that’s life.’
Sélavi follows his new friend to a large banyan tree that is home to many children who gather every evening to share what they have managed to earn, scavenge, or beg. “‘We each bring back what we get during the day, and we all end up with more,’” TiFrè explains. Sélavi soon feels like he’s found a family: Jenti, whose whole family drowned on an old ferry boat, Touissant whose house was just too full of hungry people, Espri and Yvette whose family disappeared, and TiFrè who lost his mother and brother to illness.
The children live together, surviving day-to-day, until soldiers brutally drive them away from their banyan home. Sélavi finds shelter inside a church, where the congregation commits to build a home for the street children. “‘Alone … we may be a single drop of water, but together we can be a mighty river. We must help each other to become strong,’” the church leader encourages. The home becomes a reality – named the Lafanmi Sélavi – but the children’s sanctuary does not last long, as the military burns down Sélavi’s new home. In spite of the shocking tragedy, Lafanmi Sélavi is quickly rebuilt, and the children’s voices grow ever stronger, thanks to a new radio station built just for the children!
In a resonating essay at book’s end by mega-award-winning author Edwidge Danticat whose name is virtually synonymous with Haiti, Danticat explains her birthcountry’s troubled history, its long connections with the U.S., as well as the story of Lafanmi Sélavi, an orphanage opened in 1986 by Jean-Bertrand Aristide (!) who was then a Catholic priest, who would later become Haiti’s first democratically-elected president. Regardless of what readers may think of his controversial political career, Aristide is deservedly credited with not only building (and rebuilding) Lafanmi Sélavi, but founding the radio station Radyo Timoun for Lafanmi Sélavi’s many children.
Those children’s youthful resilience, the hopeful inspiration captured here by artist/writer Youme is based on her own travels to Haiti, interviewing and recording the lives of the real-life Sélavi, TiFrè, and their many Lanfanmi-siblings. ”‘Tell them we are here, that we are no less than wealthy children, and that there should be a place for everyone at the table,’” the children ask Youme to share with her readers.
Post-earthquake, these children’s words are louder than ever … stop, listen, and join the river of change.