Between birth and death lies the journey of becoming . . .
Once at a conference, I was asked by a group facilitator to describe myself in a haiku. After thinking about it, I came up with the following: “Poet, leader, warrior, healer, and breaker of chains.” If I had been allowed two more words, I would have added dreamer and idealist.
How do I talk about my journey of becoming while I am still becoming? How do I talk about the Girl Child—actually the girl children—I used to be while she still inhabits my soul and shapes the woman I am as well as the one I will be?
I was born and raised in Haiti.
I come from a country where mountains stand green and tall
Like Amazon goddesses guarding the island since the dawn of times.
I come from a country where people talk in proverbs
In a language where succulent images abound like juice and sunshine in a mango peyi.
I was a gifted child—something that I am still not comfortable saying. I learned to read before I was three years old and read and understood complex science, philosophy, and literature texts by the time I was ten. I did not necessarily feel “special.” What made me feel different was the fact that I couldn’t stop questioning.
Haiti is a male-dominated country. It was even more so when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. My questioning of my status and the status of other girls and women in my society, my consistent dissection of rules, taboos, and traditions that my peers accepted as part of their reality, made my life difficult. I went to a stringent French Catholic school. Academically, school was easy for me. I started first grade when I was four years old, after my parents insisted that I was ready. I remember having to take a test then. I can still see clearly in my mind the office where I took it alone.
I noticed Jesus on the crucifix and asked the nun who it was.
“It’s Jesus Christ,” she said.
“Why is he on the cross? Did they kill him?”
“He died to save us,” the nun answered patiently.
I’ll never forget the feelings of horror and guilt I felt hearing this statement. Narrowing my eyes, I looked at her from my diminutive height and asked:
“When did he die?”
“Hundreds of years ago,” she said.
Feelings of intense relief tinged with triumph flooded me.
“Well, then he couldn’t have died for me, since I wasn’t born yet!”
I was clearly starting to annoy the nun with my questions.
“He knew that you were going to be born,” she responded forcefully, an expression of disbelief at my perceived insolence on her face. “He died to save you too.”
After pondering this very disturbing revelation, I looked at her defiantly and responded with a statement that scandalized her:
“I didn’t ask him.”
Thus started my challenging journey as a girl in a culture and religion that didn’t want me to ask questions, that defined me and told me how to be in the world. Often teachers (nuns and sometimes others) would balk at my questioning and send “concerned” or openly negative notes to my parents in response to my behavior.
“Why can’t you just do what you’re told?” my mother would ask, sighing. I couldn’t answer her. Questioning, analyzing, and understanding the world was at the very core of who I was. How could I stop being me?
When I was eleven, I started writing poetry. My parents didn’t find out about it until I put together a book of poems to give to my mother for Mother’s Day. I had no sense of the quality of my writing. Writing came to me as naturally as breathing. Poetry had given me a voice and a deeply satisfying outlet for my bursting creativity and irrepressible need for self-expression. My parents were stunned and had me meet with literary critics, who were equally stunned. The coauthor of the massive, three-volume Histoire de la Littérature Haïtienne (History of Hatian Literature), who was also a French friar, became my mentor. Years later I wrote a story about going to meet him with my grandmother after Sunday mass.
We walked to the chapel and attended mass. As usual, I found myself silently talking back to God through the ceremony. Why was I born a girl in a man’s world? Why should I believe in you? Why should I trust the scriptures when they were written by men for men?
Haiti was such a man’s world. I hated to see the taboos and rules that bound and gagged girls and women like me. Why did women choose to perpetuate the rules that undermined them and stopped them from reaching fulfillment? As usual, the unfairness of the world filled me with feelings of rage and powerlessness.
I spent my childhood questioning everything and rebelling against a world that rejected my questioning and too often punished me for it. For years, I completely rejected religion and the church, viewing them as tools and institutions of patriarchy and female oppression. It took me a long time to come to terms with my spirituality and fully accept it. A pity.
At seventeen, I went to study in the United States as a foreign student. I met my husband there and stayed. I became an immigrant. Another leg of my journey, which took me through adulthood, marriage, motherhood, activism, and more . . .
When I met Emily Nielsen Jones, she told me about the #GirlChildLongWalk project. When I read the description, it brought tears to my eyes as it resonated so profoundly with the girl child who still lives in me. I remember texting her at one point and saying: “I feel less alone.”
This project’s vision and mission mean so much to me as we seek to help the world see the girl children who live all around us and within us for who they are: the promise of a glorious future where girls can be all they are meant to be—whole, strong, and beautiful, with minds created to seek and find their own way in the world.
Please join us in building this world by signing up to join the Reading Journey. It is time!