On January 1st, our friends in Haiti will celebrate their Independence Day. It is a pleasantly happy time, and I have had the unique pleasure of celebrating with them on one occasion. They start the day with mass, well-wishes to their friends and loved ones, and a spicy bowl of soup joumou, a delicious pumpkin soup.
Soup joumou wasn’t always a Haitian dietary staple. For much of their early history as slaves in a French colony, Haitians were only allowed to eat a bland bread soup and were forbidden from ever sipping on soup joumou. The French colonists believed that its complexity and richness should only be shared among the slave masters, and that slaves could never actually muster the intellectual capacity to work together to gather the ingredients and produce something as wonderful as the soup. Modern observers laugh at this perception knowing that Haitian natives were able to muster enough unity to accomplish something much more wonderful than preparing soup--winning their independence and establishing their collective identity as a nation. They were able to do it twice.
The United States of America isn’t the only nation whose experiment in freedom has been tested. Would July 4th, 1776 be remembered with as much fondness if the British had ended the American experiment in 1812 when they burned the White House to the ground and re-invaded their old North American holdings? Haitian observers ponder this question in their own case. Unlike the United States, Haiti does not celebrate its independence day on the day it declared independence, but rather on the day it was sure that its autonomy would be secured for good. January 1st, 1804 ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to reconquer Haiti. Before that time, Haiti had declared independence from France in 1791, abolished slavery, and set up its own government. Once Napoleon took over, he wanted revenge for France’s humiliation in the Caribbean, so he struck back, hoping to reconquer what he believed was a lost possession of the French global empire.
Napoleon’s forces struck back with the same unrelenting cruelty that characterized France’s first rule of Haiti. His generals starved hundreds of pit bulls and released them on the island, hoping they would compensate for their starvation on the flesh of Haitian farmers. The French intended for their cruelty to intimidate the people of Haiti back into submission, but they dug their heels in. All over the young nation, Haitians took up arms to repel the French. The French surrendered in November, left in December, and by January it was clear that France would never return to the island again. Relishing in their victory, Haitians sipped on the bowls of soup joumou that their vanquished rulers once forbid, and they have done the same on every January 1st since.
As it turns out, once you’ve tasted the hope of liberty, in both the Haitian and the American experience, it doesn’t go away easily. Even despite unimaginable odds and daunting cruelty, both nations have twice repelled a global superpower in the name of self-government. However, the taste of liberty still eludes many in the community we serve. Economic uncertainty, health concerns, and a lack of schooling still keep many in Haiti from the freedom to choose how they will make their living and provide for their children. Through the empowerment of our peers, we hope help them reach a taste of economic liberty. If you’re ever fortunate enough to share a bowl of soup joumou with someone native to Haiti, then they are sharing a piece of their collective story with you.