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This chapter is written from the viewpoint of Ophelia Dahl, the young lady with whom Paul fell in love and wanted to marry. It begins with a letter from her to him, explaining why she couldn’t marry him. She loved him very deeply and was as committed as possible to him, but she felt she couldn’t be the kind of wife he deserved, because the very qualities that drew her to him also caused her to resent him. He was just too committed to the poor, his schedule is limitless and his massive compassion for others would leave little room for her. She tells him, however, “In the end, I hope you know that as part of my histology you can never be replaced.”
Ophelia was the daughter of the actress Patricia Neal and her writer husband, Roald Dahl. She came from England to Haiti in 1983 to please her father and with the rather vague intention of doing good works. She was only eighteen and was working as a volunteer at the Eye Care house in Mirebalais when Paul Farmer arrived.
Mirebalais was the country home of Madame Max Adolphe, the warden of Fort Dimanche, the prison where the Duvaliers sent their enemies, likened by one historian to Buchenwald. She was now the national chief of the tontons macoutes. Mirebalais, because it was a place of some significance, had a teleco, and Ophelia had gone there to call home after a letter from her father indicated troubles at home. Unfortunately, the teleco was unable to connect her call, and she headed back to the Eye Care house feeling glum and homesick. On her way back, she saw Paul standing on the balcony of the Eye Care house, calling him a “pale and rangy fellow.” They sat down together after introductions in the common room, and she found herself telling this perfect stranger some of her deepest feelings. He seemed close to ideal as a listener, not only listening intently, but offering ways to help her cope. She asked herself how he could know at only age 23 what would comfort her. He also described his own family, making her laugh, and she described the team at the Eye Care house. He was so sincerely grateful for her telling him all she did that she was amazed at his compassion.
Later, they went out together with the team in the Land Rover. He brought his tape recorder, camera, and a notebook to practice his anthropology which prompted her to ask him many questions. He did nerdy things, but was also extremely enthusiastic. He asked the peasants he met just as many questions as Ophelia asked him. After that trip, he began mastering Creole with enviable speed, soon passing Ophelia’s skills in the language. On the way back from the trip to the countryside of a few days time, the Rover came around a corner beside a cliff and came across a truck accident on the side of the road. The truck was carrying people and mangoes to market and because it was overloaded, it couldn’t master the turn. The people stand beside the road in shock while one of the women lies dead on a bed of the fruit, a piece of corrugated cardboard laying over her. This memory would become fixed in Ophelia’s brain, including the sight of Paul staring out the window, very, very silent.
Over the next month or so Ophelia and Paul saw each other almost every day. He lived in a huge old ruin of a mansion in Port-au-Prince and they often went there to be together. It was there he composed a poem called “The Mango Lady” and dedicated it to her:
We start, eyes drawn reluctantly back Over baskets, to the dead mango lady Stretched stiff on her bier of tropical fruit. She is almost covered by a cardboard strip, Like the flag of her corrugated country, A flimsy strip too thin to hide the wounds.
In the process of their relationship, Ophelia realized that he was subtly educating her. She knew if he made a cryptic or broad statement that it was best not to challenge him, but instead ask him to tell her more. One of the questions she asked was, “What is anthropology exactly?” He defined it as being less concerned with measurement than meaning. To grasp it, one had to know the politics, economic systems, and the histories of a place. Only then could you understand an event like the mango lady’s death. What he meant was: “Accidents happen. Sure. But not every bad thing that happens is an accident. There was nothing accident about the wretchedness of the road . . . or the over-loaded truck . . . of the desperation of a peasant woman who had to get to market to make a sale, because otherwise her family would go hungry.” He blamed this anthropology on the Duvaliers and the American government that supported them. Now she had someone to translate Haiti for her. He could lay out a comprehensive theory of poverty where the world is designed by the elite of all nations to serve their own ends and which erased the histories of how things came to be as they were. His aims were clear: he had come here to do ethnology - learning about a culture, not though books and artifacts, but from the people who had inherited and were making culture. He was going to specialize in medical ethnology to learn everything he could about morbidity and mortality in the most disease-ridden country in the hemisphere. She said after hearing him talk about what he wanted to accomplish that she reached a point where she realized that world had just been revealed to her and that things would never quite be the same again. She told him that when she went home in the spring that she was entering premed herself. They promised to write.
Paul was ardent in his requests for letters, but Ophelia, for a time, didn’t write back. She wasn’t sure why, because she hated the thought that she might never see him again. One day, she went to lunch with her father and Graham Greene, Paul’s favorite writer. He inscribed his book to her, “To Ophelia, who knows the real Haiti.” She wondered, if he really thought that of her, what would he have made of Paul Farmer?
Seeing Paul Farmer through the eyes of someone other than the author, Tracy Kidder, brings more emphasis to the great compassion and empathy Paul had for the poor and down-trodden. It also brings into greater clarity why a woman like Ophelia would be unable to make a life with a man like him. As wonderful as he is, he is first committed to his patients and has little of any commitment left for someone who loves him.
The story of the Mango Lady is a metaphor for Haiti itself as seen in Paul’s poem. She is the country dying in the midst of circumstances created by the wealthy and the elite.
Cite this page:
Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Mountains Beyond Mountains".
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