There’s no greater feeling than going home. I don’t get to go home often, but when I do, there’s nothing I love more than to sit in a room with my aunts and uncles speaking Creole as they laugh and share stories about their childhood in Haiti. If I’m lucky I can get a hot plate of my favorite meal; white rice with black sauce pwa and legume. Haiti is home to me and I had the opportunity to go home for my cousin’s wedding. I hadn’t been to Haiti in about 20 years. While my family and I were in Haiti we basked in the beauty of this tropical island and while I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was reminded that going home is never without conflict.
For a week I was in paradise. At the resort where we stayed the clear blue sky was reflected in the ocean and the beach was lined with palm trees. Every day was spent on the beach laying in cabanas listening to the waves crash; in the distance were jaw dropping views of mountains that surrounded the island. I noticed the resort where we stayed had many local Haitian guests unlike other resorts in Caribbean islands that cater to Americans and Europeans. I appreciated seeing Haitians vacationing and Haitian Americans traveling to their home country and essentially giving back in the process. But in the backdrop of this paradise was political unrest. For months protesters were blocking roads and attacking police officers, demanding that President Jovenel Moise step down over charges of corruption. Our peace on the beach was often interrupted by men who approached us in canoes to sell souvenirs and food; a few dollars made in one day could feed their families for weeks. On our last day we took a boat out to a sandbar where we were met by a slew of merchants, many of them young boys selling bracelets. My cousin spoke to one of them whom she noticed had a deep gash on his hand. He said that he couldn’t afford to go to the doctor to get it treated. I was witnessing the two sides of Haiti; one side was immensely poor and dysfunctional and the other is of a proud and powerful people inhabiting an island paradise.
I’m a first-generation Haitian American; both of my parents were born in Haiti. I’m not fluent in Creole and for that some might claim I’m not Haitian enough, but I’ve had all the experiences of growing up Haitian. The importance of LaKay, Legliz, Lekol (house, church, and school) were all impressed upon me from an early age. There were instances where I couldn’t do things or go places because my mother had a bad dream. Coughs were cured with lwil maskriti (haitian black castor oil). I was placed on my knees or given the belt every time I got into trouble and I was teased for being Haitian all through middle school; not in high school though, we had strength in numbers at Brien McMahon High School.
I’m very proud of my Haitian background and I was excited to go to Haiti, especially after I had visited South Africa. When Black Panther came out, there was a lot of discussion about the African American experience and how Killmonger represented the severed tie that most African Americans have to the motherland. For me I could sympathize but never empathize with that feeling. When I touched down in South Africa, as thrilling as it was to be in the motherland, I didn’t feel as though I was home. To me Haiti and the traditions that come with being Haitian is home. Yes Haiti has its own history of slavery and Haitians are also lost children of Africa, but from that loss we’ve held on tightly to our African roots that is evident in the food that we eat (I legit had a plate of legume in Cape Town) and the drums heard in traditional Haitian music, kompa. I feel very much rooted in my Haitian ancestry and having not been back in such a long time, my trip home was long overdue.
I remember my first trip to Haiti, I think it was in 97 or 98; after the heyday of the 70s and way before Haiti’s descent after the devastating earthquake in 2010. I remember driving over rocky dirt roads that suddenly turned smooth and paven when we passed by the National Palace. There weren’t any skyscrapers that resembled more westernized countries but the streets were bustling with business. At the home my brothers and I stayed, there wasn’t running water, we took bucket baths outside in a courtyard. One day there was a torrential downpour; children ran into the streets stripped naked and danced in the rain. I was jealous of those kids, of how free they all seemed.This is the Haiti that resembled the stories that my father and my Aunt France would share. My dad always described Haiti as a paradise; he described climbing mango trees as a young boy, only paying a nickel to go to the movies, and being at the beach regularly. It was a place where everyone was your neighbor and everyone was family. My aunt always talks about going to this place in the country called Figuier. There the food is fresh, the air clean, and even if you have nothing to your name you can have no care in the world; no stress and no worry.
When I told my dad I was going to Haiti, I told him we should plan a family trip in the future; his response, “I’ll never go back there.” When I asked him why, my father said that he can’t go to Haiti only to look over his shoulder the entire time he’s there. Traveling to Haiti has become increasingly unsafe especially after the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the country claiming 316,000 lives and displacing 1.5million people. In the earthquakes wake Haiti also experienced the worst cholera epidemic in modern history killing thousands. With agriculture and infrastructure severely damaged, the annual hurricane seasons have left Haiti in a constant state of rebuilding and over half of Haiti’s residents live in poverty.
But Haiti is not where it is now solely due to the earthquake; hundreds of years of colonization, occupation, racist policies, and dictatorships have left the country poor and unstable. Comments about Haiti being poor or a “shit hole country,” never holds those countries that are responsible for Haiti’s current plight accountable. Haiti won its independence in 1804, making it the first independent black country; but for its freedom Haiti had to pay France a debt that crippled Haiti’s financial independence and was not absolved until 2014. After Haiti won its independence, the US refused to recognize Haiti’s independence for fear that it would influence an American slave uprising, thus negatively impacting Haiti’s trade. The US has plenty of blame to share for Haiti’s current situation. To protect American commercial interests in Haiti, the US occupied Haiti from 1916-1934, during that time US Marines killed 15,000 Haitians. Even after US pulled out of Haiti, the US continued to control Haiti’s finances having relocated Haitian reserves to the US during occupation. Haiti’s poverty and instability has been painted with a broad stroke by those who hold power.
I write this to share the truth about Haiti, a truth that is seldom shared. Haiti is depicted in a two-dimensional way but if only people could see what I saw and what I experience everyday as a Haitian American. Seeing those boys at the sandbar dampened my spirits and I’d wished that I could do more for them; then I watched from the boat as a popular song blasted from the speakers and one of the boys began to dance; for a moment the hustle ceased and joy took over. That sense of joy is what it means to be Haitian. The question of what can be done about Haiti plagued me throughout my trip, but at the end of the day I found joy. Joy in speaking my mother tongue, joy in filling my belly with rice, joy in dancing to kompa beats, joy in being with my family, and joy in being home.