June is Caribbean Heritage Month and Sheen magazine had a chance to speak with author Winnie Sabbat about her rich Haitian culture. Born in Haiti, Winnie spent the first 12 years of her life living in a country characterized by constant political upheaval, economic turmoil, and civil unrest. Today she is a thriving career woman, memoirist and a recent graduate of Fordham University’s executive MBA program who describes her Haiti as warm and resilient.
Your family left Haiti and settled in Westchester, NY where you began your secondary education and career, but you have never forgotten your roots. Tell us, what makes you proud of your Haitian culture?
I am truly proud of our tenacity and ability to keep pushing forward. We were the first country in the western world to revolt and successfully become independent from colonization. That only happened because we decided to band together. We have a saying, “L’union fait la force” which translates to, unity equals strength. Even in my own career, I have been resilient in pushing pass barriers and prejudice to rise and exist in spaces that aren’t always welcoming to millennial women of color. It’s the Haitian in me.
On the front cover or your memoir, Petit-a-Petit: One Woman’s Journey Across the Globe in Search of Happiness you pay homage to your mother by placing her image there. How did your parents shape your life and prepare you for success?
My work ethic comes from my mom, my father died over 29 years ago when I was 4 and my younger sister was 13 months old. In Haiti back then many women relied on their spouses to be the breadwinner. We moved to New York, 8 years after my father’s death and I witnessed my mother’s tenacious pursuit to provide for her children in a foreign land. She took on menial jobs, went to school part-time and raised us, girls. I decided to go into finance so that I could not only help businesses be better at keeping and managing their money but to one day help women understand and build financial independence whether they have a husband or not. Money is power and women have a claim to as much of it as their male counterparts.
I spent the first part of my life vowing to be the kind of woman my mother always wished me to be: strong, independent, and always striving for more but I am also my father’s daughter. He was an intelligent, adventurous man, who rode motorcycles and went deep sea diving with nothing but goggles and fins. He loved traveling. Switzerland was his favorite. I have explored 23 countries, wrote a memoir, rose from entry to executive level in the workplace and earned my graduate degree all by the age of 33. I know my father is extremely proud.
Food and music are highly sought when experiencing a new culture. What Haitian dish to you highly recommend people taste? What song or artist should we take a listen to?
Anyone visiting Haiti must try our black rice (mushroom rice with peas) tasso, a spicy cured pork and a classic Haitian dish called griot. This dish is served at every wedding, first communion and baptism. It is a celebratory dish. Another favorite of mine is soup joumou, which is basically pumpkin soup. This dish most of the time is cooked and served on January 1st, as part of the celebration of our independence. Before Haiti won the revolution, French slaves were not allowed to consume the soup because it was reserved for the white slave owners. Now, every year on our independence the tradition of eating the pumpkin flavored soup reminds us of what our ancestors fought for. Kompa is the music of Haiti, growing up my favorites were Emille Michelle & King Posse.
Haiti is not traditionally known for a vacation spot amongst the majority of American tourists. Why do you think it’s important for those who love to travel to take the time to see Haiti?
Whether is it learning about the rich history of our independence or the ideology behind Voodoo or chilling on the beaches–Haiti is a legit destination in the Caribbean. As someone who has been to many countries, I know firsthand that Haiti is a special place on earth that doesn’t get enough credit.
Nowadays when travelers visit destinations part of the experience is the Instagram worthy photo opts. Where on the island do you recommend travel influencers and vacationers snap a pic for the ‘gram?
Two spots that are picturesque and historical are Palais de Sans Souci in Cap Haitien, it was the royal residence of King Henri I of Haiti, Queen Marie-Louise, and their two daughters. Known for some of the best scenery in the Caribbean, I encourage travelers to check out the 8-mile long satellite island Ile a vache off the coast of Haiti.
All image courtesy of Winnie Sabbat