Over the years, whenever I happened to be in Haiti on a Sunday, I’d enlist the assistance of some friends by going on a sort of scavenger hunt for soup joumou. That adventure would take me inside the living rooms or front porches of many a cook who had mastered one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures.
And so, having recently left frenetic New York City for the plains of central Indiana, I found myself wanting some soup as the new year dawned. My choices were: a three-hour round-trip drive to Indianapolis or a six-hour jaunt to Chicago to celebrate Haiti’s independence on January 1.
Having no interest in getting behind the wheel except to run errands locally, I went to the supermarket and stocked up on the ingredients to make the soup myself. I hadn’t cooked it in more than a decade because I can be an impatient chef in the kitchen and making soup joumou frankly would frustrate even Job. But with limited options, patience, I had to have.
While my concoction was no match for the fare found in Haiti, New York or Miami, my in-laws savored it as if it were. We had a great time celebrating one of the most important revolutions in the modern times: The first Black republic in the world and second in the Americas after only the United States.
In many ways, soup joumou is a metaphor for who we are as Haitian people. It is complex and artistic, with a mixture of chemistry to bring it to the perfect flavor, color and consistency. It is meant to be fluid, but not flimsy. Hearty, yet not gummy. Put in the root veggies and other ground provisions at the wrong moment and you have a bad soup. You must synthesize everything as if you’re a scientist to pull it off.
Cooking up real leadership
As we continue our acculturation journey in America’s great mosaic, we need to stop flaring and begin focusing to set priorities. Lately, the community has relied more and more on The Haitian Times as a connector, not only as a source of credible information.
Here’s what Dr. Ed Hazel, a longtime friend and a supporter of The Haitian Times, wrote to me on new year’s eve:
“Best wishes to The Haitian Times for the new year. Hoping that the paper will continue to fill the void in both knowledge and leadership that our community seems to suffer. Implementing the Expert/Contributor Program that we discussed will definitely inform readers of the gaps that exist in most sectors of Haitian society. Hopefully the new generation of Haitian Americans would know how to contribute to the rebirth of this proud but deeply wounded nation.”
Well, we are committed to play that role and have some exciting plans for the new year. But what we can do and what is needed is not enough to adequately address the challenges. It has to be a konbit, Kreyol for working together. As a collective.
I doubt that there are too many immigrant groups in the United States tasked simultaneously to integrate in this society with all of what that means as well as turning around the fortunes of a country that, if it weren’t for bad luck, it wouldn’t have any luck at all.
But as we Haitians are fond of saying, “God doesn’t give you pain without help.” We will figure it out as we did in 1804 when Haiti became the most improbable free state. How we get there is by embodying the intricacies of cooking soup joumou as an integral part of identity. We have to come together in ways big and small to help change Haiti’s dive into the abyss.
A recipe for community success
How do we even begin?
The first step is to have some clarity about our identity. Who are we? We need to think of ourselves as Americans of Haitian ancestry. Not simply Haitian American. If this sounds existential, it is. The former is empowering while the latter shackles our opportunities. I know there is a slight contradiction here, but that’s how it is in America. They want us to blend with the other Black people and join that fight. But part of our fight is the struggle for a free and a just society in Haiti.
The second step is that we need to build institutions and organizations that are able to address and solve the problems facing Haitians, particularly those who’ve recently come here and remain on the margins of the Haitian community, let alone the wider community.
The third step is to consolidate the hundreds of organizations created ostensibly to help Haiti. Too many of them are one-person operations that, for the most part, are side gigs: collecting money to send toys to Haiti during Christmas, organizing summer medical missions, sponsoring a school or an orphanage. While these efforts to be lauded, they’re akin to filling an empty pool with a bucket of water.
Consolidating efforts will help strengthen our local, regional and national organizations in the U.S. Existing groups should be professionalized to have maximum impact if we’re serious about self-empowerment in the U.S. and helping turn around things for the better in Haiti.
After setting in place these societal blocks for a sturdy foundation, then we petition our local, state and national governments to defend our American interests, which includes helping shape U.S. policy toward Haiti.
I’m puzzled when I hear Americans of Haitian ancestry talk about how Haiti is being punished by Washington’s one bad policy after another. What’s lost in that conversation, paradoxically, is that we do have the power to affect Haiti policy, but we’re too busy wallowing in self-pity rather than finding the solutions.
If we adopt the journey from a position of strength and explore what is possible, there are lots we can accomplish. But like the soup joumou, we have to be in harmony. We must know what and when to add or subtract ingredients.
Let’s take the stew’s recipe as a roadmap for the community we want to build first, then become a change agent in Haiti.
I’d love nothing more than to resume my hunts for soup joumou across Haiti.