By Susan Jacobs
With Haiti awaiting the results of the presidential election held on October 25, I’m flooded with memories of the extensive time I spent there from 2005 – 2008, prior to the 2010 earthquake that nearly destroyed the country. That particular disaster did, however, put Haiti on the map as a country in dire need of help. It became cool to get involved in some way. Haiti, the new Africa that made people feel like they were making a difference in the world, doing good, and the right thing.
That’s not how it was pre-earthquake. During my time in Haiti, virtually the only thing about the country that made mainstream media headlines was the severe poverty, kidnappings, and political turmoil, with the lead generally stating ‘Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere’– a tag line so prevalent and predictable it could have been Hollywood-manufactured.
Having walked away from a successful career in entertainment public relations and marketing, and needing a time-out to reassess my life, following a two month trip to Ghana, West Africa, I found myself in Haiti.
Family and friends thought I was crazy spending so much time there. They feared I would be kidnapped, as was happening across the capital of Port-au-Prince on a daily basis, or worse, killed.
I fell in love with Haiti, and what I saw and experienced had nothing to do with the media’s portrayal of the country. Haiti then, and still, is as complicated and complex as its history, but the lessons I learned about myself and my white American-ness and experiences I had will be with me for life and, in part, inform who I am today. During my approximately 30 visits, I saw a country that was not in destitution but bore desperation for respect, dignity, and basic human rights. I was immediately taken by the unwavering pride and constitution of the Haitian people and the country’s incredible heritage.
The generosity of spirit that I experienced in Ghana was the same in Haiti – people with nothing material to share, gave me more riches than anyone I’ve known with money. Despite all the suffering, inhuman living conditions, lack of clean water, food, and resources, I never heard anyone complain in either country. They always offered me something, and shared their most magical smiles.
A few facts you may not know about Haiti… Christopher Columbus landed there on December 6, 1492. Once known as the ‘the Pearl of the Antilles,’ in the 1950s and 1960s, Haiti was the premiere tourist and celebrity destination in the Caribbean, attracting movie stars like Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemmingway, Ava Gardner and Harry Belafonte. Haiti is the oldest black republic in the world; it gained independence in 1804 following the only successful countrywide slave rebellion in history. Yet even after gaining independence from France, Haiti was ruled by a succession of dictators and it went from being one of the richest agricultural lands in the Americas in colonial times, to its current state of poverty.
Despite the state of Haiti in 2005, my then Haitian business partner and I fell in with the right people. We were wined and dined by ambassadors and ministers of various sectors of the government and met the top people in the business community. We became the go-to resource for anything from developing a property for cruise ships and brokering rice and cement deals, to finding emergency energy generating barges (Port-au-Prince was on energy rations, providing only a few hours of electricity per day), commuter planes, and anything else that was needed. This is where and when I learned to always say, ‘Sure we can do that.’ Either we actually did know, or managed to learn it quickly and put the right teams of people together to deliver successfully.
Sweet Micky (aka Michel Martelly), a renowned and beloved Haitian musician known internationally, and his wife Sophia became good friends. We were surrounded by the best of the best in business and politics, the movers and shakers, the Haitian ‘bougies.’ We travelled across the country – north, south, east, and west, by car — most of the time with a cop friend carrying at least one gun, just to play it safe.
Life circumstances changed and after 2008 I got swept back up with life and work here. And then on January 12, 2010, the earthquake hit. Thankfully all my friends were okay although the losses they experienced are incomprehensible. Within days I began working with David Perez and his 2 Life 18 Foundation, an internationally recognized organization for leading emergency response efforts. We procured and delivered over 2,700 tons of emergency aid, and thanks to the help and coordination by Sophia Martelly, everything was delivered and distributed where it was meant to go, unlike most of the international aid sent to the country.
And then Sweet Micky got elected president by a landslide and was sworn in as President Martelly on May 14, 2011. Amazing, and seriously how cool is that! Needless to say, all contact info and numbers I had for him no longer worked. I wasn’t able to reach him even through a very close mutual friend. ‘Susan, he’s the president of a country, I can’t just give you his number.’ Of course, that made sense but was strange to hear. Sadly, my contact with Micky and Sophia stopped once he became president but I knew we would reconnect sometime, somewhere, just didn’t know when or how.
This past June, I found out unofficially that the President was making a special surprise appearance at NYC’s nightclub SOBs, to perform briefly with his son, T-Micky who has followed in his musical footsteps.
Arriving at SOBs as usual on a Friday night for the first part of the evening’s salsa dancing party, I spotted the Haitian secret service checking the place out. SOBs was abuzz with activity that to the unsuspecting eye probably had no idea that a president would soon be in the house. The Haitian party on a good night doesn’t start before 12:30 a.m. so after salsa dancing for a few hours, I made myself comfortable and waited, and waited, and waited.
I learned that the President had slipped in through a back entrance… Duh, yeah, it makes sense they wouldn’t walk him through the front door and across a nightclub. But I still see him as a friend and not a political figure. With SOBs my home-away-from-home on Friday’s for the past number of years, I know all the staff and my way around so I just strutted into where they were holding him.
Through a crowd of men in suits talking loudly in Kreyol, he turned, saw me, and said, ‘Suzan!’ with a huge smile. Everyone watched as I walked through to get my first presidential hug. It was a fantastic, yet surreal reunion. He and I had hugged many a time over the years, but it felt different this time – more powerful and commanding – but of course, he is the Commander-in-Chief. As he was ready to head upstairs to the stage, we walked arm-in-arm until the secret service pushed me away. Yeah, they do surround a president when he’s on the move. I thought I was dreaming…
I made my way through the crowd of Haitians to the foot of the stage, my perch over the years when he performed as Sweet Micky. The audience went crazy as this was unadvertised, a total surprise. I just basked in our reunion and the sweet sounds of Kompa music.
Until the presidential results are announced and his successor is sworn in, Micky is still the president of Haiti so I’ll patiently wait until his term is up when I can reconnect with him and Sophia as civilians. In the meantime, I shall continue to smile at the memory of my first presidential hug.
I’m a world traveler, salsa dancing, yoga practicing, wanna-be Buddhist, and perpetual work-in-progress. I believe we are co-creators of our lives and that anything is possible when we get out of our own way. Giving voice to things that matter, sharing stories, and spreading ideas is my heart and soul.
For-hire, I’m a copywriter, content developer, and on- and off-line marketing strategist working with coaches that are looking to make the world a better place through human evolution. The strongest selling point and differentiator for your as a coach is your personal journey and transformation. As a wordsmith, I make sure that your essence is conveyed to speak directly to your idea client, that your content and marketing are in alignment with the high quality of the product of services you offer, and are consistent across the board – website, blogs, newsletters, LinkedIn, and PR and branding materials.
I specialize in cutting through the noise and clutter with authentic, engaging, easily accessible content. From a 25-year career in PR, marketing, and branding I’m able to work to look at all aspects of your business and brand and provide a ‘fresh’ perspective, as an outsider, who creates content that anyone can understand.
I’m a contributing author to the recently published book “Pain, Purpose, Passion: That Was Then, This Is Now,” and my personal essays have appeared in FourTwoNine Magazine, Aquarian Times, Spirituality & Health, PR Week, and IndieWire. I’m working on her first memoir about my holistic healing journey through a hyperthyroid and Graves’ disease for The Round House Press. I’m also a guest blogger for Yogic Living and Identity Magazine. I live in Brooklyn and can be found at:
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