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A Time to Celebrate: Festivities in the U.S. & Haiti Mark a New Era
May 2011
By Cleve Mesidor

Eat, Dance, Celebrate. That was the unofficial theme at the Passport DC event on May 14 hosted by the new Ambassador of the Embassy of Haiti in Washington D.C. and also during Haiti’s inauguration festivities to swear in its new President, Michel Martelly, on the same day.

Unlike the formal jubilee to usher in a new era of leadership, the open house at the country’s official residence on Massachusetts Avenue was bustling with thousands of visitors who, despite the rain, made their way up and down the five story building to get a glimpse of the country that just 16 months ago was rocked by a devastating 7.1 magnitude earthquake.

The embassy’s cascading center was draped with bold silk fabrics to celebrate nature in the abstract: mountains, sun, and the ocean with its sandy beaches. The walls were adorned with vivid photos of Haitian life for the annual tour of embassies organized by Cultural Tourism DC. The Embassy’s Stephane C. Rosenberg said Ambassador Louis Harold Joseph, who assumed his position last September, wanted his first Passport DC event to be a celebration of Haiti Cherie and its vibrant culture to signal a shift in focus to the Haitian people’s beauty, creativity, spirit, love for life, as well as the nation’s optimistic future.

Mission accomplished. The sound of drums echoed on the street outside and the delicious smell of Haitian patties drew in hordes of passer-byes who were greeted by smiling volunteers as they made their way through their brief Haiti journey. The day kicked off with a lively performance by KaNu, a dance troop that wowed the crowd with a variety of dances: Ibo, yanvalou and rara.

“Dance represents the spirit of the Haitian people, their strength, and their openness to sharing their culture and welcome others,” said KaNu artistic Director Jessica St. Vil. The dancers ended their first performance with a kanaval rendition and invited the crowd of about 100 people who packed into the room to join in.

Illustrating the power of popular culture, amateur saxophonist Mark Golding entertained the crowd with Haitian electro jazz. Although he resides in the U.S., he happily recounted that he grew up listening to music in Haiti and added that “it is my connection with my culture.”

Three friends from Maryland who listened to Mark’s jazz grooves and watched the dancing described their experience as “excellent” and added that “we enjoyed the food too.”

Haitian coffee and a rum punch made with Barbancourt, a treasured Haitian brand, quenched pallets after a taste of a chicken pastry. A non-alcoholic punch was also available. The table dedicated to Haitian cuisine stayed busy and recipe cards by Mousson Roux explaining how to make your own beignets were a hit.

To ensure visitors learned about programs to support rebuilding and humanitarian efforts, information tables were positioned throughout. Representatives from the Haiti Micah Project, HOPE, and Cecile House (nonprofit organizations that help children) passed out flyers and discussed their progress. TechnoServe, the Haiti Reconstruction Trade and Capacity Building Expo and Build Haiti Foundation answered questions and enlisted volunteers.

The Easter family spent a considerable amount of time at the booth of the Build Haiti Foundation. Eric Easter said that he and his wife Tina want to raise their two young sons as “global citizens” and felt it was important to bring them to the Haitian Embassy to expose them to other cultures. The adorable boys, both under 10 years old, wore Dodgers uniforms because of a little league game later that day. The parents said they felt it was important for the boys to visit the embassies of Brazil and Haiti before the game.

Over 3,000 people entered the Embassy over the course of the day, but perhaps the most animated guests were the six students who attend college in Haiti. They are in Washington to attend a program at Virginia Tech, which was formed to support academic institutions in Haiti that are still recovering from the catastrophic quake. Manasse who attends the Haitian State University and Prampin from Quisqueya University said they were not sad that they are missing inauguration day back home because they were looking forward to the other activities that will take place as part of the weeklong celebration to usher in their new president.

While the epoch in Haiti was marked with a leader who promised change, Ambassador Joseph plans to jumpstart the Embassy’s efforts to promote its people, culture, investments and accomplishments. He expressed frustration that some say nothing has been done since the crippling quake.

“In June 2010 there were 1.5 million people living in tent cities in Port-au-Prince, but today they have reduced that number to about 700,000.” While he acknowledges there is a long road to recovery ahead, the Ambassador stressed that these milestones are part of the re-building process that should not be overlooked. He emphasized that Haiti’s government will not be satisfied until every victim of the earthquake has housing but also recognized the challenges to meeting this goal. He said that he is confident President Martelly is committed to making this happen. “He’s energetic and has lots of new ideas. It is important that we support him.”

According to Ambassador Joseph, a report by the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti has identified and approved 87 projects that will have a tremendous impact on the people of Haiti. One is an agriculture initiative that will benefit about 300,000 farmers. Another is an effort with USAID and the U.S. State Department to build an industrial park that will create thousands of jobs. He is optimistic that Haiti’s textile and apparel manufacturing industry will also prosper from the industrial park.

To support the movement to revitalize the country and train and educate its people, Ambassador Joseph plans to organize trade and investment missions to Haiti and hold business development forums in the U.S. to attract investors. He also places great importance on cultural activities as a vehicle for public diplomacy and engagement.

“When you look at everything that has happened to Haiti, what is left is our culture. We are a resilient people and certainly we are going to bounce back. The promotion of our diverse culture is one way to promote our country and Passport DC is a great opportunity to showcase our music, dance, cuisine, poetry and people.”