In the midst of a crisis, Haitians find solace in an unlikely place: soup

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For Wilfred Cadet, buying soup on Sunday is like going to church.

Sitting on plastic chairs next to a street food stand tucked away in an alley, the 47-year-old Haitian sips orange soup from a metal bowl next to his 9-year-old son.

Haitians walk past them cradling larger plastic containers, each eager to get a giant spoonful of the stew boiling in two human-sized pots behind them.

Composed of pumpkin, beef, carrots, cabbage – ingredients produced on the island – joumou soup is a staple of Haitian culture.

And in a moment of deepening crisis in the Caribbean nation, it is one of the few enduring points of national pride.

To this day, when you mention soup, Haitians are quick to smile.

“It’s our tradition, our culture. It makes people proud. No matter what happens (in Haiti), the soup is going to stay,” Cadet said.

During the colonial period, slaves were not allowed to eat the spicy dish and had to prepare it for French slave owners.

But Haitians claimed joumou soup as their own in 1804 when they staged one of the largest and most successful slave rebellions in the Western Hemisphere.

The uprising ended slavery in Haiti long before much of the region, and the dish earned the nickname “independence soup”.

In 2021 – the same year the country descended into chaos following the assassination of its president – soup was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, the first cuisine Haiti has on the list.

“It is a festive dish, deeply rooted in Haitian identity, and its preparation promotes social cohesion and belonging between communities,” reads the UNESCO entry.

It is traditionally eaten on Sunday mornings and Haitian Independence Day in early January.

That’s when customers start to walk through a pair of black metal doors into the makeshift restaurant of Marie France Damas, 50, at 7.30am.

Tucked behind rows of parked cars, a brick wall with a painted sign reading “Every Sunday: Joumou Soup” and a pile of local pumpkins, Damas is working on her two big pots as she has for 18 years.

Her husband weaves between plastic tables to take orders while her daughter chops vegetables behind her. It’s a family affair, but Damascus is clear.

“I’m the boss of the soup,” she said with a smile.

The business has allowed her to educate her children and provide a good life for her family in a place where poverty and unemployment rates are among the highest in the region.

For every Haitian, cooking means something different.

For Cadet and his son, it represents a moment of escape from the daily pandemonium of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

It also allowed Cadet to pass on a cherished part of Haitian culture at a time when it is slowly fading. Celebrations like Carnival that once took center stage on the island have faded due to the deep-seated gang violence that is tearing the nation apart.

“The violence in the country is driving everyone away, and over time we will lose a lot of cultural traditions,” Cadet said. “My son, of course, (will go). Right now, he doesn’t like Haiti.

He hopes that when his son leaves, he will remember their Sunday mornings together.

For others, like Maxon Sucan, 35, it’s a way to reconnect with his family and his country home.

He grew up in a rural town in western Haiti in a farming family growing the very vegetables used to make the soup.

He came to Port-au-Prince 13 years ago to support his family and works as a manager in a nightclub.

He used to visit his family six to eight times a year, but because of kidnappings and gang control in the countryside, he can no longer return home.

So on Sunday mornings, he drinks soup as he used to do, and he thinks of his daughter, to whom he sometimes spends weeks without speaking.

“She’s three years old and it hurts me not to be able to see her,” Sucan said. “(When I eat joumou soup) I remember my family.”

As he is about to leave the restaurant alone, cradling a large Tupperware filled with steaming soup, he stops.

“When I get home today, I’ll call him. And when I do, I will ask her if she ate the soup,” he adds.


Associated Press reporter Evens Sanon contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince.


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