May 30, 2011

A Haitian Mother’s Day tale

Gimov (Kreòl) Turk's Cap Hibiscus
Haitians celebrate Mother’s Day on the last Sunday of the month of May. They do not buy cards in which they write something touching to their mothers. They do not serve breakfast in bed to them. Haitians celebrate Mother’s Day with songs, tears and prayers in church.

In general, people from foreign countries often find our Haitian ways strange and new; but the way we celebrate Mother’s Day appears to take the culture shock to a whole other level. My best friend would attest to this phenomenon. Born and raised in the US, he recalls that during a visit to Haiti he was invited to attend a Mother’s Day service at a rural Protestant church.

“Just down the hill from my lodgings, I attended a small Protestant church along the main road winding down out of the mountain village. The members of the congregation were impeccably dressed, with garments spotless and pressed and shoes polished as though they had never before been worn. 

The service began with a seemingly inexhaustible procession of songs and announcements rolling on so slowly that the bowed and braided heads of the youngest among the brightly attired children began to bob and slump into the shoulders of elder siblings. Then abruptly, the gathering torpor was dispelled as members of the faithful sprouted up among the rows of unfinished pine pews – seeming without instruction – and moved in unison to form a choir at the front of the sanctuary. A music conductor waved his hands and the choir began singing ‘Manman Jodi-a se fèt ou!’ (‘Today is Mother’s Day!’)

At the first note, a woman clad head to toe in black – who happened to be sitting right next to me – started to shutter with mournful moaning. As if the choir took a cue from her waxing grief, their singing grew louder and more passionate; in turn driving the woman from muffled moans into full blown sobbing and cries of ‘manman o, mwen sonje’w!’ (‘Mother I miss you!’) 

 As if in crescendo, she then launched her entire body into the air – reminiscent of a trout violently breaching the surface of a mountain stream – and then fell back onto the church floor and rolled under the pews. Her body quivered with sobs, her eyes rolled into the back of her head as if she was having a seizure. Several gentlemen reached down and gently hoisted her to a sitting position on the nearest bench. In no time the woman recovered, then knelt down, bowed her head and began praying. The pastor lead the church into a long prayer then blessed the congregation.”

After church my friend intimated to me that he found our manner of “celebrating” Mother’s Day more than a little strange. I explained that the spectacle he had observed that morning was standard procedure for a Haitian Mother’s Day service. People pass out like that all of the time during Haitian funerals, and during Mother’s Day services when their mothers have passed away. They are expressing how they are overwhelmed with grief - a Haitian trait called “tonbe crize” in Creole.

I asked my friend if he had noticed that everyone wore flowers pinned to their outfits in one of three distinct colors: red, white or purple. I explained that people would wear red Gimov if their mothers are alive. They would wear white roses if their mothers recently passed; or lavender if their mother had joined the Ancestors some time ago. “Never sit next to a person who wears white roses on mother’s day. It is physically hazardous…” I added with a smile.

My friend shook his head, “If someone had previously described to me what I just witnessed, I would never have believed them. I am flabbergasted!”