Dafney Tales-Lafortune woke up earlier than usual on Wednesday July 7 to several notifications on her cell phone screen.
“My whole body has just started to vibrate,” the 36-year-old said in an interview at her home in Durham.
The notifications were headlines and messages from family and friends, saying Haitian President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated. His wife was also injured.
Moses’ death came after a tumultuous year and a half, filled with political strikes and calls from opponents for his resignation. His five-year term was due to end earlier this year in February. Moses, however, said he would stay in power until 2022. For many, he was seen as an illegitimate president.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tales-Lafortune said of the assassination. “It took me forever to process.”
The news also came as Tales-Lafortune, a Haitian-American woman, was preparing a roundtable on July 24 on Haitian issues and culture. She thought about canceling it when Moses was killed but changed her mind.
“We need it more than ever,” she said. “We’re going to have this roundtable and have, like, cathartic conversations, you know, and see how we can deal and how we can rebuild.”
Serving Haitian cuisine and culture
Tales-Lafortune is originally from Brockton, Massachusetts, south of Boston, known for its racial and ethnic diversity. His parents emigrated from Haiti during the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier in the late 1970s. The former president, known as “Baby Doc”, was the son of dictator François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc” .
In the Triangle, Contes-Lafortune and her husband, André, 41, own the Haitian Food Truck Bon Fritay.
“Bon fritay” means “good frying” in Haitian Creole. Their menu showcases street favorites like twice-fried green plantains (bannan peze) to a crisp, stacked between a layer of ‘griot’ or fried pork, and eaten like a sandwich. At Bon Fritay, they call this type of food “manje kenbe”, or “handhelds”.
Tales-Lafortune says the food truck allows them to teach their non-Haitian customers where Haiti is on a map and share stories about their culture.
“We talk to them, for example, about the essence of Haitian street food,” she said. “We take more pleasure in teaching people about Haitian culture and cuisine than just serving them food. “
Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. It has around 11 million inhabitants and is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Census data shows just over 2,000 people born in Haiti to North Carolina. Many arrived in late 2010 after a magnitude 7 earthquake west of the capital Port-au-Prince that killed at least 200,000 people.
André Lafortune was born near Port-au-Prince in the Bel Air district. In 2000, he moved to the United States to work and study.
“To see what’s going on there, especially where I grew up, it’s just heartbreaking,” he said. “The assassination of Jovenel Moïse is simply incredible. This is something I never imagined would have happened at that time.
Haiti was struggling before Moses was killed. According to the Associated Press, Haiti has faced political instability, poverty and gang violence since the end of the two Duvalier regimes from 1957 to 1986.
Natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Jeanne and Matthew, the deadly 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed, have kept the country in perpetual recovery mode. The coronavirus pandemic was just the latest challenge.
For all these reasons, the assassination was not so surprising for Pastor David Eugene, 66, who is a board member of a Raleigh-based nonprofit called Hearts and Hands for Haiti.
“It has never been calm in Haiti,” Eugene said. “There has always been violence. And over the past two months, the violence has taken a different turn. “
Eugene has lived in the United States for the past 40 years and, for most of that time, has visited Haiti at least four times a year. But in recent years, he has only traveled once, in September 2020.
“This is the first time I have experienced this,” he said. “It was one of the saddest times of my life.”
While Moses’ leadership was far from perfect, he supported the farmers of Haiti, Eugene said. And the agricultural industry is the largest sector of the country’s economy.
Pray for political stability
Ricardo Richardson, professor of biology at NC Central University, returns at least twice a year to his hometown of Jean-Rabel, in northwestern Haiti. For 10 years, he says, he has been preparing to retire in a house he is building there.
With that home away from the capital, Richardson worries about the spread of unrest after Moses’ funeral on Friday.
As part of the country’s mourning, the acting Prime Minister of Haiti, supported by the police, Claude Joseph took the lead. Within days, he resigned after a power struggle with Ariel Henry, whom Moses had asked to become the next prime minister.
Richardson hopes that the “fragile government” will strengthen and that a national election will be held soon so that a new government is in place around the same time next year.
“Maybe we’ll start functioning again,” said the 62-year-old professor. “All we pray for is an end to insecurity and political stability.”
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