Connecting the Dots

This past week, I started an online course called Storytelling for Change. It is offered for free by Acumen and The Ariel Group. The first assignment was to create a life map, capturing key milestones that have led you to be passionate about a social cause.

I often look back over my life and think about certain events that have occurred that have led me to where I am today. There are many things I didn’t understand as they were happening. There were some moments that, when looked at individually, seemed to have nothing to do with my dreams and desires. And there were many disappointments and challenges along the way. But when I look at the whole picture, I can clearly see that nothing that has happened in my life has been random. 

my life map.001

Edited to omit recent employers.

Reading the school lunch menu over the intercom in 7th grade prepared me for a local radio interview I did last year on International Women’s Day. It’s no coincidence that my high school French teacher is Haitian and 17 years later I found myself in Haiti. Paying off all of my debt financially prepared me for unemployment several months later. Having an employment opportunity rescinded led to my current job in a town I never thought I’d live in, which is putting me into position to fulfill some lifelong dreams. 

Completing my life map reinforces my belief that God is directing my steps and He has a divine purpose for my life. I can take great comfort in knowing that, even though I may not always understand and the path is not always direct or logical, He will never lead me astray. I can’t wait to see how this life map continues to develop.

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Four Years Later

Seeing the devastating impact of the January 12, 2010 earthquake up close and personal is something I will never forget. As I woke up this morning and began reflecting on the events that happened four years ago today, one of the many things I thought about was this blog. Much like my original journey to Haiti, Se Lavi began out of a tragic event. But it evolved into so much more. It became a place for me to share with others the joy, beauty and magic of Haiti, alongside the challenges and devastating realities of living in a developing country.

As I often say, I’ve received more from Haiti than I’ve given. It’s the reason I feel obligated in a sense to be an “ambassador” for the country. I jump at the chance to talk about my experiences with people who’ve seen first-hand what Haiti is like, as well as those whose only knowledge is what they’ve seen on television or via social media. I want people to remember Haiti not just once a year on the anniversary of the earthquake, but year round.

And so, I’m re-launching this blog. Though I’ve been back in the United States for about 18 months, Haiti remains a significant part of my day-to-day life. I still have a lot to say and a lot to share about navigating the ups and downs of life. Stay tuned.

A Legacy of Sisterhood

Fifteen years ago today, on March 6, 1997, I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. It was one of the best days of my life.

Founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1908, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s mantra is to be of service to all mankind. The sorority’s membership includes prominent businesswomen, entertainers, politicians, educators, athletes and medical professionals. In other words, extraordinary women striving to make a difference in their communities and throughout the world.

March 6, 1997: After initiation with our Dean of Pledges

The chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha that I pledged, Delta Tau, was founded in 1964 on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. During a summer journalism program on campus and a subsequent visit as a senior in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a member of the organization. Finally in my junior year, I received an invitation to join and began the membership process.Through that process, I learned a lot about the Sorority’s history, the chapter’s history, what it means to be an AKA, and most importantly, sisterhood. It was a humbling and challenging experience; one that contributed greatly to my development as a young woman.

Alpha Kappa Alpha has allowed me to create friendships and bonds with women from all walks of life, especially the six women with whom I was initiated. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve been by each others side during deaths, births and weddings. We’ve watched each other grow and evolve. No matter where I am in the world, I know that I can call upon my sorority sisters to be there whenever I need them.

August 2010: After dinner at the Tap Tap Room in Miami

To my ship, SS Nisus: Thank you for your sisterhood and friendship. Thank you for sharing in the ups and downs of life with me. My life is richer because you are in it. I will never forget our journey together into this sisterhood. I miss you all dearly and think of you often. I look forward to our next reunion…in Haiti (hint, hint).

Skee wee!

The Fortune Cookie

A couple of weeks ago, I finally went home to St. Louis to visit my family. It was the first vacation I’ve had in six months. I was only there for six days, but it was the best six days I’ve had in a long time. It was the perfect break from Haiti.

The night before I left the US, I, along with my nephews and my mom, went to Stir Crazy, a casual dining restaurant with Asian-inspired cuisine. After we finished stuffing our faces with Thai sticky wings, potstickers, kung pao chicken and fried rice, it was time for each of us to read what was inside of our fortune cookie. We started with my youngest nephew, then the older one.  Next, it was my turn. I opened my fortune cookie and looked down at the tiny slip of paper in disbelief.

For the last few months, I’ve been considering taking a leap of faith. What’s been holding me back is a fear that my decision will lead to economic instability. I’ve been praying for guidance and direction, so I can’t help but think that this “fortune” is God’s way of telling me to go ahead and leap.

Le Sang de Jésus (The Blood of Jesus)

On my flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, the captain announced that there was a bit of inclement weather along the flight path, so the seat belt sign would remain illuminated after reaching our climbing altitude. About 10 minutes after his announcement, the plane entered some turbulence, causing it to dip and shake quite a bit. A Haitian woman two rows in front of me shouted “Jesus” over and over again, alternating between French and English. The Haitian man seated next to me asked, with a frightened look on his face, “What was that?” I replied that it was “just a little turbulence”.

Now, I must admit that I don’t particularly like flying. The night before a scheduled flight, I’m wrought with anxiety. The two things I hate most about flying are being confined in a small space several thousand feet above land and turbulence. My reply that it was “just a little turbulence” was an effort to calm myself more so than the man next to me. In fact, the only difference between me and the woman two rows in front of me was that she shouted out Jesus while I said it silently.

Several minutes after the turbulence passed, I could still hear the woman murmuring Jesus repeatedly. Eventually she was completely quiet. But not for long.

Towards the end of the flight, as we began to descend into Port-au-Prince, we hit more turbulence. This time, the woman shouted louder and more forcefully, “Le sang du Jésus. Le sang du Jésus. Nap viv.” The blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus. We’ll live. A few other passengers, although silent, began to do what I can only describe as the church wave and sway (raising one hand in the air and waving it while swaying the body from side to side). The more the woman shouted “Le sang du Jésus” the more afraid I became. I mean, maybe she was shouting with such conviction because she had some inside scoop with the man himself on what was about to go down.

Just as I was about to join in and do the church wave and sway too, the turbulence stopped. The guy next to me looked at me and said, “Wow, that was really scary.” My reply: “Oh, it wasn’t so bad.”

Nou Gen Kolera (We Have Cholera)

The night before my flight to Haiti, my family and I went to Fritz’s, one of our favorite frozen custard places. While enjoying my turtle sundae, I received a text message from one of my girls in Leogane requesting that I call. I figured that I’d save myself the international calling rates, and call her when I switched my SIM card to Digicel upon landing in Haiti the next day. I also wanted to enjoy my family and give them my undivided attention since it will be several months before I see them again.

The following day, while at the gate in Miami waiting for my flight to Port-au-Prince to depart, I received another text message from the same girl requesting that I send her 250 gouds credit for her phone. She has never asked me to send her money for her phone, so I figured something must be wrong. I called her.

“Nou gen kolera,” she said as soon as she answered the phone. We have cholera. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I immediately thought of the little girl who died of cholera at the orphanage in February. I felt bad for not calling sooner.

Despite being worried and scared,  I tried to remain calm so I could understand exactly who had cholera and how they were being treated. I learned that the girl’s mother, one of my other girls and the younger brother of yet another of my girls all had cholera, and were being treated at a clinic set-up by Save the Children. There were given medication and an oral serum solution. Thankfully, they were all getting better, and one of the girls had already returned home. I asked if they cleaned their house and the surrounding area with bleach to prevent other family members from getting sick. She said yes, and that hygiene promoters from the clinic came to their homes to educate them on how to prevent cholera in the future.

Haiti’s cholera outbreak started nearly a year ago. It was imported by UN peacekeepers from Nepal – something that was initially denied, later confirmed and now rarely mentioned. Reportedly, over 5,000 people have died of the disease, and hundreds of thousands more have been sickened by it. While I don’t like that my girls and their families have now added to those statistics, I’m grateful they will be included in the latter and not the former.

Mango Yo Pi Bon (The Best Mangos)

Prior to going to Haiti for the first time in March 2010, I learned that I was allergic to mangos. (Mangos, along with cashews, pistachios and poisons ivy, oak and sumac, contain urushiol – an allergen that causes contact dermatitis.) So imagine the envy and disappointment I felt when I’d watch other volunteers and locals devour mangos on work sites, on base, at the beach…everywhere. Living in the land of mangos and not being able to partake was sheer torture.

Since I missed out while in Haiti, last month when Whole Foods announced that fair trade, francique mangos were available in its stores throughout the US, I decided that, allergy or not, I would support the cause and finally taste what’s described by many as one of the world’s best mango varieties.

After going to two different Whole Foods locations, I finally found the Haitian mangos nearly 25 miles from my home. They were priced at 2 for $5 – significantly more expensive than the champagne mangos from Mexico that were displayed nearby, and infinitely more expensive than you’d pay for a mango at the market or on a roadside stand in Haiti. Despite the high price, I picked out three ripe mangos and headed for the check out.

As soon as I got home, I peeled the skin back on one of the mangos and took my first bite. Oh my sweet, juicy deliciousness. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

The next morning, my lips were slightly swollen and filled with small, itchy bumps. I took anti-histamines for three days to keep the itching at bay and reduce the swelling. A small price to pay, in my opinion.

When I make my way back to Haiti, hopefully mangos will still be in season so I can enjoy them straight from the tree. But until then, I’ll just buy more Haitian mangos from Whole Foods. And stock up on anti-histamines.

To learn more about fair trade, francique mangos and how purchasing them from Whole Foods helps improve the livelihoods of Haitian farmers (and therefore their families and their communities), check out this video.