Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Homeland, New land

When I was in elementary school, my teachers taught us to sing "Ayiti Cheri" ("Haiti Cherie" in Fench or "Dear Haiti" in English), a wistful ode to Haiti sung from the perspective of someone who has had to leave the country. The first verse is my favorite:

A
yiti Cheri, pi bon payi pase ou nan pwen
Fòk mwen te kite ou pou mwen ka konpran valè ou
Fòk mwen te lese ou pou m te kab apresye ou
Pou m te santi vrèman ki sa ou te ye pou mwen

Dear Haiti, there is no other country like you
I had to leave you to understand your value
I had to miss you before I could appreciate you
So I could really feel what you mean to me

The song inspired an English version by Harry Belafonte. I love Jacques Sauveur Jean's rendition - same title, same feeling, different words, different rhythm.

Today, nearly any version of Ayiti Cheri fills me with pride, hope, sadness.

But, as a child, I was not particularly moved by this song. Why not? Three theories:

(1) Authentic patriotism was lacking. I learned this song at my (wonderful and well-meaning) school in Cambridge, MA, partially from American teachers and alongside many American children who unknowingly butchered the syllables at every turn.

(2) My childhood interests lay in local “buried treasures” (such as the note- and toy-filled pencil cases I liked to put in the sand at the playground near school) and not the life of a distant island. Haiti was more a concern of the grown-up/parent world, along with things like news and politics.

(3) I had never been to Haiti and I knew very little about it.

The older I became, the more the words of this song resonated with me – and the more I wanted to know about this placed called Ayiti, “land of mountains” (the name given by the indigenous Taino and Arawak peoples).

I needed to learn more about the country of my parents, the nation of survivors in the Caribbean Sea that had shaped so much of who I was and how I thought. The country where everyone speaks Creole, the beautiful language I grew up hearing at home and among family friends; the country whose focus on good manners drives me to greet everyone in the room with a kiss on the cheek upon arrival and departure; the country that gave rise to the traditions I celebrate each year, such as eating a deliciously revolutionary New Year’s soup to commemorate independence day, January 1, 1804, when newly freed Haitians began to eat soup joumou, a dish formerly forbidden to enslaved black people.


I have wanted to go to Haiti for a long time. In the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake, I realized I could no longer wait. And I hoped that given my newly acquired public health skills, I could arrive in Haiti not only as a tearful and mournful observer, but as a person who could make some contribution.

This summer, I will finally make my first trip to Haiti. I will be there for about three months to do some maternal health work.

I look forward to this experience – a milestone both in my personal life and in my career – my first encounter with Ayiti Cheri.

Many thanks to the generous support of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Cultural Bridge Fellowship and Women and Public Policy Program. Thanks, always, to family and friends for being there for me – and thanks especially to Tommy and Tej for helping me turn my dream to go to Haiti into a reality!

I will post again as my July departure date approaches.

Till then, much love.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post. I am looking forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

beautiful! your adoring readers can't wait for you to get going on this trip!

albertschweitzer said...

What a beautiful post, Sybill! We are so proud of you, and we look forward to reading more. Thanks for being such a great Schweitzer Fellow for Life!