Serafina’s Promise

In a poor village outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Serafina works hard to help her family, but dreams of going to school and becoming a doctor–then the earthquake hits and Serafina must summon all her courage to find her father and still get medicine for her sick baby brother as she promised.

One thought on “Serafina’s Promise

  1. Gail Pritchard & Deborah Dimmett says:

    Gail’s Take
    I found myself reading Serafina’s Promise with “two eyes.” One eye as an interested reader in a story taking place in another country; the other eye as someone who has been studying Haiti for the past year and half. As noted last week, Deborah and I spent last year planning a medical mission trip to Haiti, so much of our reading was about Haiti’s history, the current state of medical care, and the complicated world of non-government organizations (NGO’s). Haiti, is often referred to as the land of NGO’s and one wonders with so much help pouring in, why Haiti remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Deborah’s keen insights, developed from a decade of working in Haiti, have helped me question the myriad of myths created by outsiders and, perhaps, some insiders.
    As Deborah and the medical students were on the medical trip and I was in a global health course, I began constructing a geojournal of Haiti, developing a community education plan, and planning an itinerary for the next trip. As I continue to read books about Haiti, I can’t help but juxtapose what I am reading with what I have learned about Haiti’s history, its people, and its global positioning in the economic world. It is through this lens that I write my comments about Serafina’s Promise.
    From the very start, we find out Serafina’s mother is expecting and this is the cause of a great deal of anxiety. The family had previously lost an infant son, Jean-Pierre. As Jean-Pierre became weaker and weaker, 11-year-old Serafina and her mother walked many hours to a clinic in Port-au-Prince (PAP) for help and where Dr. Antoinette Solaine gently explains to Serafina that because her mother is not getting enough to eat, neither is Jean-Pierre. Dr. Solaine tries to save Jean-Pierre, however, she is unable to and the family mourns his loss and buries him in the yard next to their house. This experience becomes the driving force in Serafina’s life; she makes a promise to Jean-Pierre that she will go to school, become a doctor, and help prevent infant deaths.
    The issue of infant mortality rates in Haiti rings true in Serafina’s Promise. Because of a later event, this story is most likely set in 2009, a time when infant mortality rates were roughly 40/1000 live births, compared to the United States, 7/1000 (UNdata: Despite the efforts of the many NGO’s, Haiti remains the country with “the highest rates of infant, under-five, and maternal mortality in the Western Hemisphere” ( Most of these deaths are the result of diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, cholera; and for those living in rural areas, like Serafina and her family, the lack of basic health care, makes even the most innocuous infant maladies lethal.
    As Serafina and her best friend Julie Marie complete their daily chores—walking to the ravine at least twice a day to get “muddy, brown water,” doing the laundry, and cleaning their meager homes—they dream of going to school, becoming doctors, and opening a clinic together . But both know that school costs money; there is tuition, uniforms, books, and the time away from their chores; and neither family has the money for the girls’ education nor can spare them from the household chores. It was at this point that I was reminded of A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. While this story takes place in Sudan, one of the main characters, Nya, must walk 2 hours, twice a day to fetch water for her family. The act of building a village well changed the lives of the girls in her village—besides the obvious health benefits of clean water, they finally had the time to go to school. Relatedly, in my summer course, there was a great deal of discussion regarding clean water accessibility in Nogales, Mexico, and one student’s project to develop and deliver low-cost, purifying water containers. Given modern day technology, low-cost materials, and the volunteer work of so many NGO’s, it is incomprehensible that decent water is still unavailable for so many of our global neighbors.
    Haiti was once a biodiverse island–from cloud forests to arid desert, from Mangrove forests to palm-lined beaches. However, over time, Haitians have systematically cut down the forests for fuel, leading to deforestation, soil erosion, and subjecting the remaining lands to mudslides during the rainy season. It is during one of the rains that a mudslide sweeps away Serafina’s home, Julie Marie’s home, and the home of another friend whose mother is killed in the slide. Rather than giving up on her dreams, Serafina talks with her papa and he tells her she must convince her manman that she should attend school. As they make the trek to a higher region to build a new home, which takes months of gathering cardboard, lumber, nails, and tin, she and grandmother decide to plant a garden and sell the produce in PAP. Amongst the rocks, Serafina, plants peppermint to sell, and her mother tells her if the money jar is full before school begins, she may go.
    While elementary school is compulsory in Haiti, the public schools are scarce, qualified teachers are even fewer, and school supplies are limited at best. In rural areas, it is not uncommon for children like Serafina and Julie Marie to not attend schools. The odds are against them. But Serafina perseveres, their gardens grow, and her peppermint sells well. On the day before school begins, Serafina’s papa comes home with a new uniform for her, and the next day, she proudly walks to school. School is not quite what Serafina imagined, though; first, she must learn French. Inside the classroom, she muses, “The sun shines in French, the language of our conquerors…” but outside, “the sun shines in Creole, the language of our ancestors” (p. 183).
    Serafina does well in school, but Gregory, the new baby develops a persistent cough and rash. Their local remedies do not help and Serafina’s worries grow. She decides she must make the long walk to Dr. Solaine’s and ask for help. Coming from their new home, she gets lost, and as she finally recognizes the road into PAP, “under the earth a roaring stampede rumbles and rushes” (p. 217). When she is able to stand again, she sees the path is gone, the earth is split, and she can hear cries from down the mountainside. Dazed and confused, she heads to PAP to the emergency meeting site her family has predetermined—in front of the president’s mansion.
    Everything is different; every site she knew is gone. Miraculously, Dr. Solaine finds her and as they are heading to a safe place, they find Julie Marie. Prior to beginning school, Julie Marie’s papa sent her to live with an “aunt’ in PAP where she would be able to go to school and have nice dresses. It is not until this moment that Serafina discovers there was no aunt and Julie Marie had been forced into cooking and cleaning for this woman who refused to send her to school and beat her until she ran away. Serafina breaks the news to Julie Marie that her family has moved away. After seeing to Julie Marie’s care and resting, Serafina goes to look for her father. She finds the rubble of the store where he works and after calling for him, finally hears his weak cries. With help from others, he is freed. They seek help at Dr. Solaine’s clinic, gather up Julie Marie, and head back to their home in the mountains where “life is hard, but no matter what happens, we beat the drum and we dance again” (p. 293).
    Deborah’s Take
    Serafina’s Promise is a beautifully written story in verse about an impoverished little girl who intelligently and charmingly speaks about her daily experiences. Serafina lives in the Haitian countryside with her parents and her grandmother, Gogo. She describes the life of a young girl who from dusk to dawn helps her mother with the difficult chores that must be done so that her family is able to live a limited and very meager existence. In fact, the family is so poor that her baby brother, Pierre, dies from malnutrition. This event motivates the story and what becomes Serafina’s promise. In her prayers, she makes a promise to her baby brother that she will work hard to become a doctor so that she can heal the sick and so that no more baby brothers would die needlessly. And, then the journey begins.
    Ann E. Burg’s use of verse gives the reader a view of life in Haiti without having to belabor points about poverty and misfortunate. She uses verse to describe the life and feelings of real characters. This is far more difficult than may first appear. Haiti has always been associated with extreme poverty and political instability to the extent that writing about either is an exercise in writing clichés. Burg, however, has captured the essence of Haitian life through verse and the development of characters that are real and who live day to day—unable to imagine a future.
    Burg characterizes the desire of Haitian children who want nothing more than the opportunity to go school. Unfortunately, however, their parents too often cannot afford to send them to school. Sometimes out of hope and desperation they would send one or two of their children to live with a “relative” who supposedly had means to help the children to go to school. Instead, the children are forced into servitude with no opportunity to go school. Children who find themselves in this situation are referred to as restaveks. Serafina has an emotional encounter with one of her friends who, like Serafina, knew that an education was the only way to move out of poverty and to fulfill one’s dreams.
    Burg very effectively uses Haitian proverbs throughout the story, which are cleverly and naturally embedded in Serafina’s observations and perspectives. They, in fact, are incorporated throughout the dialogue in the story without drawing attention to themselves or being overdone. For example, the family is having a conversation about Haitian rice versus Miami rice:
    Papa says that nobody buys Haiti rice anymore.
    Why should they?
    Miami rice costs less money.
    Cheap is not better,
    Gogo always says,
    Shrugging her shoulders.
    But an empty sack cannot stand (p.65).
    The last line means “a hungry person has no strength.” It is a proverb that justifies a reason to act or an explanation of why many Haitians find it difficult to improve their quality of life.
    Burg also incorporates Haitian Creole throughout the text in way the reader will be able to pick up the meaning through context or reiteration in English; in addition, she includes the alphabet, pronunciation guide, and glossary in the back of the book. Burg describes Serafina’s walk to the school with her mother and Gogo:
    Together we walk
    down our hill of dirt and roots,
    across a field of rock and grass.
    Down one mountain, up another.
    Dèyè mòn gen mòn, Gogo says (p.163).
    This last line generally means that after meeting one challenge there are always more challenges ahead. This proverb serves as a central theme in Serafina’s Promise when Serafina has to deal with a couple incomprehensible tragedies causing Serafina to rethink her actions and her self-concept.
    The story ends very powerfully and provides a strong message that dreams, in spite of hardships, can be fulfilled but possibly not as we might have envisioned. Serafina gives us a reason to keep pushing on—down one mountain, up another.
    Gail’s Take
    What happened for me while reading Serafina’s Promise was a continual change in perspective. I think it is easy for outsiders to view Haitians as victims, and often, that is how the media portray them. Thinking back to the January 12, 2012 earthquake, most of the media coverage began and ended with views of Haitians as victims of poverty, victims of natural disasters, victims of violence, and victims of corruption…. I think Serafina’s Promise goes a long way in removing the “victim” label. Serafina is a strong character who has goals and the tenacity to reach her goals. While her grandmother’s proverbs give us insight into Haitian culture, Serafina’s actions show us that she chooses not to be a victim, but in control of who she is and what she may become. Deborah reminds us that Serafina’s Promise sends a powerful message about grit, resolve, and determination; and she reminds us of another proverb, mountains beyond mountains—as we solve one problem, we see the next more clearly.

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