Ayisyen ou ye? (Are you Haitian?)

During the nearly one year that I spent in Haiti, there was one question that I was asked every single day, multiple times a day: “Ayisyen ou ye?” Are you Haitian? When I’d say no, I’m American, most would look surprised. After pausing for a moment, they’d then ask if my mother or father are Haitian, and when I replied no to both, they’d ask if my grandparents are Haitian. Again, I’d respond no. Some people thought I was lying – something I never quite understood. (Why would I lie in Haiti about being Haitian?) Others would look at me quizzically and asked why I looked Haitian if I wasn’t. (Much to my surprise, there are many Haitians who are unaware that African slaves existed in other countries.)

Although I’m not Haitian, there is a strong sense of kinship I feel with the Haitian people. Perhaps because of our shared origins, being in Haiti felt like home to me. There were many elements of the culture that had a ring of familiarity, and looking into the faces of Haitian people was often like looking at a family portrait. But the more people asked if I was Haitian, some insisting that their query had less to do with my skin color and more to do with the way I spoke Creole and carried myself, the more I began to wonder if I in fact had ancestral ties to the country.

I’ve always wondered about my ancestors and wanted to learn more about the people that survived the transatlantic journey from Africa to the New World, then endured the harsh conditions of life as a slave and second-class citizen. So in the late 1990s, I began conducting genealogy research to learn more about my family’s history. Over the last 15 years I’ve spent countless hours combing through census reports, obituaries, death and birth certificates, as well as talking with family, distant relatives and the family who owned the land on which my family sharecropped. Based on that research, I learned a lot that I and other family members didn’t know. Additionally, I was able to confirm long-standing rumors/speculation of Native American (Choctaw) ancestry. But perhaps the most interesting piece of information was from a DNA test my mom took. According to the test results, we share ancestry with the Yoruba people in current day Nigeria. (The DNA test my mom took was from African Ancestry and only traced maternal genetic ancestry. A male family member can take the test to trace paternal genetic ancestry.)

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Despite having this information, however, I still don’t feel as though I know much about my ancestors; especially the stories behind the people. I often dream about being able to trace their exact journey from Africa to the United States and learn all the details about the challenges they faced along the way. But I know how impossible that is. Instead, I’m left to speculation.

History suggests that my ancestors likely spent time in the Caribbean before being shipped off to the southern United States. And the Yoruba people didn’t only exist in Nigeria. There’s a large group of them next door in the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey), where many Haitians can trace their African ancestry. Hmmm…makes me wonder.

Questions from Haitians about my ancestral background have re-ignited my desire to learn about past generations of my family. As such, I plan to resume my genealogy research. I know it will be a challenge, but I’m sure what I’m able to find out about myself and my family will make it all worth it. Stay tuned…

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Map Sonje Ti Moun Yo (Remembering the Children)

I’ve been back in the United States for a little over two weeks now, yet it feels like two years. The transition back to my “normal” life has been difficult. I miss Haiti immensely…the mountains, the sunshine, the stars, a cold Presitge, a cup of hot, sweet coffee. But most of all, I miss the children.

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Chevlo, Maman, Darline, Vanessa, Millurie, RoRo, Veronique, Saskiya, Tama, Jovenson, Claudel, Sophonie and all the kids at the baby orphanage. “Mwen pa janm bliye nou,” I told them before I left. I’ll never forget you. And I haven’t. Not a single day goes by that I don’t think of them. Their little faces are permanently ingrained in my memory.

An Update on Ethan Dabi

Lately, more and mores searches on the Internet for Ethan Dabi are driving traffic to this blog. So I decided to google “Ethan Dabi” myself to find out if the con artist that scammed me and so many others is still out there lying and deceiving people. I can’t say that I was surprised by what I found.

According to this post http://www.dr1.com/forums/living/111961-scams-dr-do-tell-lol.html (scroll down to #6), Ethan Dabi has been in the Dominican Republic claiming to be the owner of an airline. He still touts that he’s from the Bahamas and has ties to the UK. It appears that private investors, car rental companies and “underbelly characters” have met his acquaintance, and are on to him.

I sincerely hope that his latest scam has captured the attention of law enforcement agencies in the Dominican Republic. It angers me to know that he is still out there conning innocent people.

Prezidan Martelly

For days, many people in Haiti impatiently awaited the results of the country’s presidential run-off election. As is normally the case around elections, tensions and anticipation were high. The UN was out in full force Monday, along with the Haitian National Police. And reportedly, shop owners in Port-au-Prince boarded store windows and closed early. On base, we were told in the morning that our movements that evening would be restricted to a half mile radius as a precautionary measure. We were later informed that we couldn’t leave the compound in which our base is located. Peyi a cho. The country’s “hot”, as Haitians would say.

During our nightly meeting, preliminary election results were released by the CEP. While the Executive Director of the organization was providing a briefing on assessments taking place in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, cheering and chanting erupted on the streets. Initially, we thought it was because presidential results were announced, but learned that the heavily favored candidate in the race for Deputy won, so the community was reacting to that news.

The cheering and chanting lasted for several minutes. I tried to re-focus my attention on the meeting, but given everything going on outside, it was very difficult. And, quite frankly, I was more interested in what was happening in the country I was in rather than one thousands of miles away. That’s not to say I don’t care about what’s happening in Japan. It’s just that what was happening in Haiti at that moment was more relevant and significantly more important.

About 15 minutes after things quieted down outside, there was another eruption of cheers and shouting. This time, it was because the preliminary results were announced, indicating that Michel Martelly won the presidential election against Mirlande Manigat by a large margin. Many of the locals at the meeting applauded the announcement. Several got up and danced around the front yard in excitement.

As I looked around at the locals, hope and enthusiasm on many of their faces, I wanted to take in the moment – truly soak it in. So I stood up, left the meeting and walked to the fence to see if I could get a glimpse of the activity happening on the streets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much of anything. I walked over to where most of the locals were sitting, and whispered to the Manigat supporters, “What happened?”. They shrugged their shoulders in disappointment. The Martelly supporters smiled broadly, and continued their silent dance party.

Final results will be announced April 16, but I have a feeling the results will not be overturned. But stranger things have happened. I’m a little sad that I won’t be around to see the election process come to a conclusion with the inauguration of Haiti’s next president, as the election accounted for a large part of my “Haitian experience”.

Although I’m still a bit suspicious of Martelly, I sincerely hope he delivers on his promises to the Haitian people. There’s so much belief in his ability to bring about change in the country. As I’ve said before, I really hope he doesn’t disappoint.

Volontè Lokal Yo (Local Volunteers)

The best thing about the non-governmental organization with which I volunteer is the local volunteers. These young men and women devote their time and energy to help rebuild their communities alongside international volunteers. They pour their blood, sweat and tears into the work they do. Like international volunteers, they do not get paid.

I’ve gotten to know many of the local volunteers well during my time here. They’ve made me laugh. They’ve made me cry. They’ve enriched my life. I’m going to miss them all dearly when I leave. But, there’s one local volunteer that I’m going to miss a little more than the others. Her name is Fana.

Fana is a beautiful person, inside and out. She has such a positive attitude and spirit. Her smile is infectious, and she’s simply a joy to be around. I often think of Fana as the little sister I always wanted, but never had. It has been a pleasure watching her grow and develop leadership skills over the last four months.

Last night, Fana and 9 other local volunteers graduated from the program. As I looked at them all, dressed to the nines in their custom-made, matching shirts, I felt optimistic about Haiti’s future. With strong, capable young men and women like the local volunteers at the helm, Haiti is going to be just fine. 

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