My love affair with Haiti began when I enrolled in my first French class as a sophomore at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton High School in 1979. During that year, I became fascinated with French speaking countries in the African Diaspora. Haiti’s historical legacy as the first Black republic quickly made it one of my personal favorites.
My passion for Haiti and Haitian-influenced art was deepened during my college years as a French major at Morgan State University from 1982 to 1986. Through my studies I discovered the work of Dr. Lois Mailou Jones, an artist and professor of art at Howard University. Jones’ Haitian-inspired work that included Vodun veves captivated my psyche and stayed there until I began my own studies of Vodun spirituality in the 1990s.
Meeting my Haitian American college roommate and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority sister Marie Denise (Mirabeau) Simon and her Haitian mother “Mama Freda” in 1985 helped me develop an interest in the lives of Haitian women. During one of our many conversations, Mama Freda told me about her early life in Haiti, how she studied nursing in Canada, and later moved to New York City to work as a nurse. Her stories were filled with moments when she reached into her spirit for courage and faith to live beyond any limitations people or society placed on her.
My interest in Haitian women blossomed into a full blown passion during the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995. While in Beijing, I learned about the history of Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale or Women’s League for Social Action, the first Haitian feminist organization.
During the 1990s, I spent a lot of time learning about the Haitian love and healing goddess Erzulie, the Haitian god of the crossroads Papa Elegba, and Haitian Vodun symbols called veves. Since then, their energy has inspired my writing and art. In 2007, my debut novel Love’s Troubadours – Karma: Book One was published and included artwork on the cover and inside of the book that was inspired by Erzulie’s veve. Erzulie is also a dynamic force in the life of Love’s Troubadours’ main character. Papa Elegba makes his grand appearance in poetry and reflections included in my most recent book That Which Awakens Me: A Creative Woman’s Poetic Memoir of Self-Discovery.
As an artist and writer living in America, I have struggled with how I express my support for the people of Haiti as they re-imagine and reshape their country after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. My struggle played itself out in internal dialogue that found its way onto the pages of my journal. I used my journal to release what I could no longer hold inside as I stood at my own crossroads. Through this process, I reconnected with the power of Papa Elegba and discovered how I could contribute my light, energy, creativity, and love to support the sisters and brothers of Haiti. The poem below captures my journey of discovery.
Three Prayers to Papa Legba from A Daughter of the Diaspora Seeking to Re-Imagine Haiti by Ananda Leeke
I stand at the crossroads, feeling overwhelmed and lost.
I want to run, but I know change is coming.
I know I need to stay put and grounded.
I know I need to take action.
Papa Legba ouvre baye pou mwen, Agoeh!
Papa Legba, open the gate for me.
Point me in the right direction.
Papa Legba se pou jodi-a ou gran chimen
Papa Legba, forever, you have been the highway, the spiritual gateway so I might see the contradictions and opportunities along my path.
I seek your guidance.
Papa Legba, you are the voice of God.
Speak your wisdom.
I will listen.
I repeat this prayer over and over again.
It becomes my mantra as I seek to go within.
It allows me to sit with the discomfort of not having an immediate answer for a question I have been asking myself since the January 2010 earthquake.
How can I use my passion for Haiti, creativity, healing energy, and life to support Haitian sisters and brothers as they restore their souls, release the past, re-imagine, and rebuild their lives and country?
The task is mighty.
Sometimes it’s easier to just press click and make a donation.
But I am not here to seek the easy.
I am here to shine my light.
So I continue to sit with open ears and a willing heart, waiting with positive expectation for direction.
In this holding pattern, I resist the need to move on.
That’s so easy to do in America.
We have short memories.
And sometimes we forget our ancestral ties so quickly because it’s too much for our souls to bear.
But not this time.
I baptize myself in the water of Diaspora memories so I will not forget the way my heart broke as I listened to news reports, saw photos, watched videos, read Facebook posts, and followed Twitter feeds about the devastation caused by the earthquake.
I will not forget the tears I cried.
I will not forget my prayers to Erzulie for an outpouring of love from everyone in the world so that the people of Haiti would know they were not alone.
So where does all this waiting and remembering take me?
Maybe it I am attempting to stay in my head and off my feet.
I wonder as I record my thoughts in my journal and paint them on the canvas if I am holding back for fear of doing more.
I get serious with myself and force an answer to the question.
Am I hiding out in the wings creating my self-imposed crossroads because it’s easier to say I am waiting for Spirit to guide me almost a year after I uttered my first prayer to Elegba?
Perhaps I am a lazy artist dwelling in safety, exploring my psyche when my sisters and brothers of Haiti cannot afford my personal luxury.
Perhaps if I stepped out on faith and meditated on what victory would look like for the Haitian people, I’d wake up to my full self and take action.
Perhaps if I banned the word perhaps from my vocabulary, something larger outside of me would happen.
I muster the courage to stand and step out on faith
My third eye opens widely.
The visions of victory appear.
They meet me at my crossroads.
I utter the words of my prayer.
Papa Legba ouvre baye pou mwen, Agoeh.
Papa Legba se pou jodi-a ou gran chimen.
Papa Legba, you are the voice of God.
Speak your wisdom.
I will listen.
This time I move with my prayer.
Action comes one person and one step at a time.
I don’t hesitate.
I join others.
Our collective love, energy, and power fuel the change.
And little by little, I begin to see that I can press click and make a donation,
I can give my art and poetry as gifts and fundraiser donations to remind people of their oneness with Haiti and her daughters and sons.
I can volunteer my time to serve as a Heart of Haiti Ambassador and help raise awareness and financial support for Haitian artisans and their families.
I can use my voice to tell others about the Haitian people online and offline.
I can send healing love, light, and energy to the Haitian people.
And I can remain open to additional solutions that will reshape and rebuild Haiti into a nation of greatness.
Today I read this poem out loud several times after reading journalist Lisa Armstrong’s article about Haitian women who have mobilized themselves to fight for protection and justice for their Haitian sisters after the earthquake in the January issue of Essence Magazine. The poem and article helped me acknowledge to myself that I want to travel to Haiti to see and learn firsthand how I can help Haitian women and children on a long-term basis. Traveling to Haiti as a Heart of Haiti Ambassador with Fair Winds Trading founder Willa Shalit is one way I can begin the process of making a long-term commitment to serving women and children in Haiti. That’s why I have decided to submit my name as a candidate for the Heart of Haiti Ambassador trip to Haiti.