During Haitian Heritage Month, The Haitian Times is running mini-profiles that look at how different people experience pride in their Haitian heritage. Have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
While on a trip to Senegal in summer 2018, Rachel Décoste was riding along in a taxi when the cab driver saw another car heading its way, about to T-bone the cab.
“Woy,” the driver exclaimed, just as he swerved to avoid getting smashed.
That’s when it hit Décoste, who was one week into her genealogy trip. That exclamation, “Woy,” was an interjection often used in Décoste’s Haitian household in Ottawa, Canada. To her, the driver’s innate use of it, is another example of the clear link Haitians have to their ancestors’ land.
“I thought we lost everything,” said Décoste, a computer scientist. “Going back to Africa, I realized that we’ve kept a lot of that African spirit. There’s strength in going back to the source.”
“I’m more proud to be Haitian than I’ve ever been, I’m more proud to be African than I’ve ever been,” she added.
The trip that affirmed Décoste’s pride in her African lineage took place over a six-month period, after she took a genealogy test. Décoste’s experience is recorded in an audiobook released in February, called “Year of Return: a Black Woman’s African Homecoming.”
A fanatic of Haitian history, Décoste felt compelled to find out her genealogy. At the time, she had no intention of traveling to Africa, but when she saw the ancestry map, Haiti wasn’t on the list, to her surprise. The DNA test pinned Descote as 91% African and 9% European.
“I think I know where I want to go now,” Décoste said to herself at the time, as she examined her ancestry map from her laptop.
Décoste had been to about 45 countries at that point, including France, England, Belize and Guadeloupe. Based on the results, Décoste decided to visit the five countries from which her African ancestors likely originated: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Ghana.
“I wanted to go there to find myself and my origin,” she said, recounting her mindframe at the time. “I’ve been to a bunch of European places, been to South America enough times, now I need to go see my own people.”
By July 2018, Décoste was on a flight to Dakar, carrying her own Tylenol, Advil, gauze and other health supplies. To her surprise, again, Dakar had more pharmacies than she imagined.
“I carried my prejudices about Africa, both literally and figuratively,” Décoste said. “We were colonized to believe that all that’s African is bad — including all that’s African about us. It took going there for me to realize just like there’s good in Haiti, there’s a lot of good in Africa too that they don’t talk about.”
It wasn’t hard to tell that she was a foreigner in Dakar, Décoste said. Even after she dressed in African attire, her walk gave it away.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet that you can’t just cut and paste yourself in Africa,” Décoste said. “That’s probably because nine percent of my bloodline is European.”
While there the differences were plenty between Haiti and the African countries Décoste visited, she also saw Haiti in those countries. Food, like fish and gonbo (okra), is cooked in similar styles and the music heavily focuses on drums, just like Haiti’s rara bands do—to name a couple examples.
During her stay in Benin, Décoste bonded with her transportation escort. They’re now married and are raising a son together in Ottawa. From her husband, Décoste is still learning many similarities between Haitians and people from Benin.
One characteristic that struck her in Africa is how diligent and optimistic many people were, just like Haitians.
“The eternal hope that they seem to have, our slave ancestors had,” Décoste said. “It made me feel warm inside to know that there are still some Africans left in us today, they couldn’t beat that out of us.”