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Despite its many conflicting characteristics we seem to have come to one silent agreement: Haiti is a woman.
Ayiti cheri, Ayiti manman’m, Ayiti Manman libète, Haïti perle des antilles. Haiti lover, Haiti our mother, Haiti mother of freedom, Haiti pearl. Despite its many conflicting characteristics we seem to have come to one silent agreement: Haiti is a woman. She caresses, she nurtures, she radiates the beauty of a precious stone, we even refer to her with the female pronoun. I like to think of this as a testament to Haitian women, who exemplify every day all of these characteristic we now attribute to our country.
Though they may be unsung, the daughters that this motherland produced reflect her strength. The stories are endless. In the early pre-slavery history of Haiti was Anacaona, queen of Xaragua which is modern day Leogane, who chose death over abandoning her people and joining the enemy. Cecile Fatiman, was a Vodou priestess who led the ceremony of Bwa Kayiman alongside Boukman that marked the beginning of the Haitian revolution that led to Haiti being the first Black republic. Marie Claire Heureuse, empress of Haiti and wife of Jean Jacques Dessalines, led many women to aid by cooking for soldiers, and caring for the injured during the Haitian revolution. Various grassroots feminist movements fought for women’s rights throughout the 1900’s, leading efforts to overturn unjust laws that established women as minors, gaining women the right to vote and hold political office. Ertha Pascal Trouillot was Haiti’s first female president, she held the post of provisional president for 11 months in 1990. And today, there are many feminist organizations in Haiti that continue to work for a better Haiti: Kay Fanm, KONAFAP, KOFAVIV, Femmes en Démocratie, and many more.
On a more personal level, there are the women who raised us. My maternal great grandmother was a Madan Sara, women who travel to connect goods in the countryside to the people of the city. She worked enough to start a successful business, but never legally owned anything she acquired because Haitian law of the time considered her as a minor. Everything she worked for legally belonged to her husband. My own mother is a fierce, creative leader. I recall a particular story she always told us about when she was around my age. During the efforts to oust the Duvalier regime, my mother used to distribute pamphlets with anti-Duvalier messages on them to raise awareness. She told me about walking by groups of tonton makout on her way to work with these slips of paper hidden in her undergarments. All of us have grandmothers and mothers who worked tirelessly to feed and raise our families. Many of them traveled to countries like the USA and Canada where they didn’t know the language, to societies that neither cared about them or valued them; all so we could have better lives. When you say “Haitian woman”, you are invoking the scent of lwil maskriti, calloused hands and feet from toiling, and profound wisdom delivered through an endless repertoire of proverbs. This is the blood that runs through our veins.
I say all this to not only honor these women, but to also admit the intense pressure all of this makes me feel as a young Haitian woman of the diaspora in the 21st century. Of course, womanhood is not limited to these things, but I do tend to question myself. What does it mean for me to be a daughter of Anacaona, or a daughter of the first Black republic? How do I show that in my life? I have not aided in wars, I have not raised a family, I have not picked up and left everything I know in search of a better future for the people I love. My attempts at activism typically come in the form of retweeting hashtags, and writing lengthy emotional Facebook statuses in reaction to injustice. Life is actually relatively calm here in my neighborhood in Suburban Philadelphia. There is no need for me to smuggle dangerous pamphlets across town in my underwear in an attempt to overthrow the government; I actually quite like Obama. I ask myself, am I a failure as a Haitian woman? Do I deserve to identify with the group of people that have been nicknamed the Poto Mitan, the cornerstone of Haitian society?
Perhaps, the true definition of a Haitian woman is the continuous hard work, the selfless sacrifice with little acknowledgement or gratitude in return, as seen in the limited recorded history of Haitian women’s contributions throughout time. Or maybe, the reason all these women throughout history and the women of my family did all of this was so that today I could enjoy the luxury of not having these burdens. The reality is, both of these statements are true. The pressure I feel is warranted. My mother always says that people should shake my hand wherever I go because I am a daughter of the land that birthed freedom. Because of this, I should feel pressured to take a stronger stance against injustice, and to be a stronger advocate for the plight of Haitian women and women around the world today. But at the same time, I can be grateful for the women that came before me to give me the life I have today.
Thank you to the revolutionary Haitian women whose names are missing from history books, to my perseverant grandmothers who I never met, my courageous mother and Taties. I honor you on this day. And I pray that after this quarter life crisis, I ultimately live a life worthy of being called a daughter of Haiti; a daughter of the Mother of Freedom.
Photo credit: Samuel Dameus