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  • Writer's pictureaymexume

Where the heart is: On the places I call home

This is my fourth attempt at writing the introduction to this blogpost. Though I'm not certain it'll be perfect, this is the version I'll stick to. If I don't, I won't publish it. As a member of the Haitian Diaspora (a proud dyaspora), I realize that my take on this topic may be controversial. People may question my Haitian-ness and require that my Haitian card be removed. But I was born and raised in Haiti, and my lonbrik (ombilical cord) is literally buried on my family's land. So, my ties to and feelings for the (third of the) island run deep.

As an immigrant who has spent most of her adult life in her adopted country (Canada) and has now been living in a third country (Algeria) for over a year, the concept of home has become complex and nuanced. I often quip that I'm doubly a dyaspora, who almost equally crave griyo and Tim Hortons breakfast sandwich (don't judge!). When I came to that realization, I was first in a bit of a shock and then I felt guilty. When I was moving to Algeria, I made sure to pack things that would remind me of my homeland, never thinking that I would miss my adopted country from time to time. Of course, I associated that guilt to my Catholic upbringing. But there was also the idea that, as a dyaspora, the only country/culture I was supposed to miss was Haiti/Haitian. It felt like I was cheating on my ancestors. Cheating is an interesting choice of word, as I've often likened my departure from Haiti to breaking up with a toxic lover with whom I was still very much in love.

Fleeing the nest

The decision to leave was easy: I left out of necessity. For as long as I have been alive, the situation in Haiti has always been alarming, from the last years of a brutal dictatorship to a series of violent coup-d'état to an embargo to social unrest and political turmoil. The country never seemed to catch a break. In 2004, things took a turn for the worst: kidnappings became a part of the social zeitgeist. I began to taste the bitterness of fear on a daily basis. And I knew I couldn't and didn't want to live like that. I had the privilege to have an exit plan: so, I left.

I left to chase my dreams. Growing up, I dreamt of studying and living abroad. Huge university campuses. A job in a skyscraper. A long-term boyfriend. Jet-setting. I knew I'd eventually leave my homeland. I didn't really think about whether or not I'd return. In hindsight, I never planned to go back and settle down in Haiti. I've never really planted my own roots there: buy land or property, invest in a business.

I left Haiti in 2005, a few months before my 26th birthday. Everything I wanted to take with me fitted in 3 large boxes and 3 suitcases.

To be a dyaspora is to be othered, so is being a Black person in Canada.

Sense of belonging and identity

Up until that time, I had mainly lived with my mother and my sister, surrounded by our tight knit "village". While I looked forward to becoming a full adult, spreading my wings and flying on my own, I knew that in addition to learning a different way of life, I would have to learn a new way to be myself: a Black woman in North America.

My identity is tied to this (third of the) Caribbean Island where I grew up. Port-au-Prince will forever be my city. Until today I will maintain that growing up in Haiti is probably one of the best things that happened to me. Spending my formative years in a country where people of all walks of life look like me, has shaped the way I experience the world.

Although not in the same way, the 16 years I've spent in Canada have also shaped me.

Living in Canada has showed me the importance of things that I had taken for granted when I lived in Haiti. Simple things like sunny days and sandy beaches, to more meaningful ones like community and the value of representation. If anything, being away from Haiti made me stand taller in my Haitian-ness. In doing so, I was able to successfully (I think) integrate my new environment without losing the most important parts of myself (I think).

To be a dyaspora is to be othered, so is being a Black person in Canada.

Lakay se lakay*, but lakay changes

I may have already told you the story about how, during my last trip to Haiti (2018), a chauffeur-guide** was surprised that I spoke Haitian Creole. I laughed it off, but I was in my feelings for a while after that encounter. I mean, I had just started to embrace my status as a dyaspora, and here came this man thinking I was a foreigner. I'll be the first one to tell you that it's easy to tell a dyaspora from a Haitian who isn't: it's mostly in the way we carry ourselves. At the airport, it may also be the smile we have on our face because we're happy to be back.

Regardless of how many times I travelled back to Haiti, I know I smiled when I set foot on Haitian soil. And trip after trip, I've witnessed the changes to my beloved Port-au-Prince. The cathedral where I used to attend mass had collapsed in 2010, so did the presidential palace. The city's vibe was just different. The family home in Port-Salut was severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew. My favourite beach (Pointe-Sable) was no longer that pristine slice of paradise that I cherished. Add all of these visible changes to the fact that most of my friends had moved abroad. Most of the members of my "village" were scattered across the US of A and Canada.

By 2018, Port-au-Prince barely felt familiar. And I've somewhat made peace with that.

But, from time to time, the nagging question comes up and remains unanswered:

  • What do we do when home no longer feels familiar?

*Litteral translation: home is home; correct translation: home sweet home.

**Driver/guide one can hire at the airport in Port-au-Prince.

Home is where the heart is

As I am writing this, whiffs of boiling pwa wouj (kidney beans) are caressing my nostrils. From time to time, I walk away from the dining table where I'm typing away to check on the beans. I want them to kreve (partly cooked, but not too soft), so that I can set some aside to make diri kole this weekend. The rest, I will let cook until they become mushy. Perfect for sos pwa (bean puree). The irony of this sudden urge to cook such a quintessential Haitian dish while I'm thinking about the concept of "home" isn't lost on me. But this urge doesn't really come as a surprise. For me, Haitian food is home.

Thinking about the concept of home brings me back to my Grann's kitchen, where she reigned as queen. Laughter and discussions that made us forget about the country's turmoil. Home is my mother making me scrambled eggs at 3 a.m., when I'd wake up to keep her company as she prepared the day's meals. She had help but feeding us was how she showed (and still show us) love. Home is Tatie Chouchou's former house in New Jersey, where she would cook up a storm while the rest of the family talked, all at the same time. Chaotic and loving. Home is Papa Doudou bringing back ponmkèt (Haitian pastry similar to cupcakes) from his trips to Port-Salut. For 10 years, home was the New Year's Eve party Hubs and I hosted in our condo in Gatineau for the "village" we built in Canada. And, more recently, home has been the white house with a blue porch I share with my husband in Algiers. The house where you can see snippets of Haiti in every single room.

I'm an immigrant who doesn't have the desire (nor do I have a plan) to move back to my homeland. Maybe I'm in a situation where I have to redefine the concept. Or maybe, just maybe, home never had anything to do with a physical place and has always been about being with people we love and enjoying (Haitian) food.

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