In 1960’s and 1970’s Haitian model, Jany Tomba, graced the covers of Mademoiselle, Ebony, and Essence magazines, among others. Hear this amazing woman tell her story in this video from Fernando Teixeira.
My earliest memories are of being in Haiti and of freedom. I was four years old and I was allowed to walk alone to visit other family members and friends who lived nearby. I could travel farther if I was with one of the other kids. We spent all day outside, playing, hiding, running, chasing, tagging. We were the original recyclers: dried mango seeds were dolls. Plastic bottles with bottle caps became trucks with wheels. We even used cleaned goat bones as jacks.
There was a covered front porch where we played when it rained. One stormy day I was out there alone, waiting for my aunt to come home. Through the curtain of rain I saw the terrible Tonton Macoute- not the gangsters, but the fabled old man monster who carried children away in a sack. He ambled down the street with a huge, screaming, writhing bag over one shoulder. I was frozen in fear and hypnotized by his eyes. Before he could grab me, I saw my aunt coming down the street; her bright white uniform glowed. She broke the spell and I zoomed to her. When we were back on the porch, the monster was not there. That experience is in a place where reality and myth mesh. Was it a story told to me or was it real? I don’t know. But it was vivid enough to stay in my memory.
I remember laughter. I remember music. I remember love. The adults gathered around the outdoor cooking fire to talk politics, gossip, and maybe play dominoes. My aunts and grandmother cooked delicious meals, both outdoors and in the kitchen. I remember Haiti as a place where your neighbor is your family. This is the richness I remember—the eternal legacy of an island with treasures untold.
See Mirlande’s work at www.aziarts.com
Every day we have the opportunity to learn, the chance to be plucked from our familiar pool and taken into the unknown. But what do we do when we find ourselves in new and uncharted water? Do we quickly swim back? Do we observe? Or do we allow yourself to become moved?
Until about five years ago I didn’t know any Haitians. I knew nothing of the mango groves and the breadfruit trees. I didn’t know that umbilical stumps represented more than stem cell research. Is Haitian Creole even a real language? In my mind’s file cabinet of random facts, Haiti had been in a dingy manila folder labeled: “Poorest Country. . .”
This changed when I met my Haitian friend while making the rounds with a neighborhood jogging group. I didn’t know much about her, other than that she ran with the spirit of a cheetah and the speed of a deer. Over time, my friend has plucked me out of my familiar current and introduced me to new waters. Since then, there have been many notes and edits to that dingy manila folder with the words Poorest Country scribbled on it.
The small jogging group of three became a group of four with the addition of our new friend, and eventually our neighborhood trots turned into marathon training runs. On a chilly morning in October my Haitian friend joined us at the marathon starting line. She was wearing a black lightweight jacket bearing the flag of Haiti on her back. The running group and I chatted about which mile we would allow ourselves to walk rather than run, which hill would be the hardest, what our estimated finishing times would be, and in which neighborhood the gummy bear would be offered to runners. It became clear that my Haitian friend wasn’t considering any of this.
When she talked about what was on her mind, she simply stated: “Walk or run, I will finish the race, and the flag on my back will never touch the ground.”
It became clear that she was running for something greater than a personal record. Her race was symbolic of endurance, courage, commitment, and pride.
This was my first real introduction to Haiti.
You wake up, no electricity again!
It’s still dark out but if you wake up any later, you will be late. You twist the shower faucets, no water, buckets then, at least you have water.
Do not complain.
You’re finally ready, the rocks roll under your feet as you make your way down the mountain. You almost trip once…oops, twice! Are you ever going to make it to the main road?
A giant SUV with tinted windows speeds by, causing a rock to jet toward your ankle. Your heart skips, it’s OK. The car is far now.
You get to the Tap-Tap station; you are now part of the crowd. You are pushed, shoved; you hold your bag tighter. A tap-tap, finally. You run toward it but not fast enough, someone trips you.
Another tap-tap stops. This time you reach it in time, but the driver looks back, laughs, and keeps going. You wonder why, aren’t you paying him?
Finally you are squeezed into the back of a tap-tap. The seats are dusty and someone smells as if they had been working the whole night. Someone says something about elections, “I don’t need someone who will be dropping his trousers as my president”; “I prefer that than some old woman” responds another.
The discussion does not go beyond that, everyone agrees that Haiti will never change and start listing individual reasons why Haiti will not change.
You shut up, disappointed.
You get to work, you sit, nothing to do but you need to justify your paycheck so you find things to do. You think, these people are supposed to be here to change things but everyone is too busy justifying their positions.
The big picture is ignored. Maybe a co-worker comes to you repeating what you’ve just heard in the tap-tap or maybe just to have you do their work. You sit in front of your computer, you get angry, you were supposed to have moved to Haiti to make a difference, but you have taken part of the daily routine, you are just living, you are one in the crowd, the tide is too strong, you are now part of the problem.
Frustrated, you leave work later than you have to because you have to wait for a ride, unless you want to go fight to stand in a truck. He comes to pick you up. He loves you. He sees frustration in your face. You complain. You don’t stop complaining. He looks at you, confused, “What are you complaining about, you have everything you need?”
You try to explain. You spill your brain; are you sounding like a crazed patriotic idealist yet? It doesn’t get through. “You’re complaining but you knew moving to Haiti was going to be hard, why did you come then?”
You shut up.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe you made the wrong move by coming back Home. But he is not right. Your heart tells you that he is wrong. You just know that things can change. They will, really!
You are alone in this thought; no one believes. You are losing your faith too.
Defeated. You go back up the mountain and into bed. You feel the weight of Haiti on your shoulders. You cry. You force sleep to come. Will tomorrow bring the same day as today?