Haiti has experienced a series of crises this year, from the middle-of-the-night assassination of its president to a devastating earthquake to kidnappings by warring gangs and now a deadly fuel tanker blast in its second-largest city.
But just as the country’s beloved soup joumou — pumpkin soup — warms the soul on New Year’s Day in celebration of Haiti becoming the world’s first free Black republic after enslaved Africans defeated their French colonizers, there’s a story that helps to balance out the horrible news in a nation still reeling from all its tragedies.
On Thursday, the pumpkin-heavy soup, widely regarded among Haitians as a symbol of freedom and dignity and inextricably linked with their Jan. 1, 1804, founding as a nation, became the latest tradition to be added by the United Nations to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Soup joumou will now join dishes such as last year’s couscous and 2017’s art of Neapolitan “pizzaiuoli,” or pizza makers after the general assembly of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, meets in six months.
The decision to add the soup to the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was approved after a meeting of UNESCO experts and then received the unanimous blessing of its ambassadors Thursday after a lengthy virtual debate over procedures. With competition always tight among submitting countries, they met to weigh if the tradition should be considered. Soup joumou made the cut after it was agreed that the dish is part of Haiti’s cultural and gastronomic tradition.
Haiti’s entry, its first to the global cultural organization, was the brainchild of its UNESCO ambassador, Dominique Dupuy. She made the submission in March just as the Caribbean nation found itself once more steeped in political and social turmoil.
“This is the perfect signal of hope, reminding Haitians of their dignity and that they contributed to the history of the world,” Dupuy said from Paris, describing the recognition as “a new torch that can revive our common fervor to stand together and restore our faith in a better tomorrow.”
UNESCO’s recognition after a year of tragedies in her homeland belongs to the people of Haiti, said Dupuy, who is originally from Cap-Haïtien and this week watched with sadness as her beloved city was covered in smoke after a gas tanker explosion claimed at least 77 lives. The Haitian people, she said, have safeguarded and transmitted soup joumou, which “is the ultimate symbol of the fight against slavery, the fight against racism.”
“I hope that all Haitians, of all ages and wherever they may be remember today,” Dupuy added, “that their contribution to the history of the world, that their voice and their dignity will never again be made invisible.”
Forbidden during slavery and reserved only for slave owners, the soup was the first meal shared by the freed Blacks after they proclaimed Saint Domingue independent on Jan. 1, 1804. They called the new republic Haiti, its Taino Indian name.