POPULATION: 6.6 million
LANGUAGE: Haitian Creole; French
RELIGION: Voudou (Voodoo); Roman Catholicism; Protestantism
Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti occupies a rich, lush land in a strategic location. Much of its history has been shaped by three foreign powers: Spain, France, and the United States.
When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola on December 6, 1492, he was greeted by the native people (Taino/Arawak Indians). By 1550, however, this native population had been almost entirely wiped out due to mistreatment, violent uprisings, and disease. The Spanish used the island as a shipping point to send riches to Europe.
The French began to settle on Tortuga, an island off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, in 1659. The first French residents, joined by runaway slaves from Hispaniola, survived by pirating Spanish ships, tanning hides, and curing meats. They were known as buccaneers from the Arawak word for smoking or curing meats. In 1697, the French took over the western part of the island, San Domingue, and turned it into one of its richest colonies. Coffee, sugar, cotton, and indigo (a blue dye) from Haiti accounted for nearly one-half of France's foreign trade.
In the mid-1700s, the number of runaway slaves, known as maroons , grew. From the mountains and forests, guerilla bands of maroons attacked the French colonists. When the mulattoes (persons of mixed African-European heritage) were denied the right to vote even though they owned land and paid taxes, they also began to revolt.
The Haitians won their independence early in the nineteenth century. The fight for independence began in 1791 when Toussaint L'Ouverture, an ex-slave, led a rebellion. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave, as the leader of the new nation. The only method of organization he knew was the military, so he used it to govern and began a tradition of military rule. Haiti was the second independent nation in the Americas (the first was the United States) and was the first free black republic in the world.
From its beginning as an independent nation, Haiti developed two distinct societies. The minority elite lived in towns and controlled the government, military, and trade. They imitated a European lifestyle and used the French language for government, commerce, and education. The peasants, the majority of the population, were excluded from the formal political, educational, and economic structure.
From the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, a series of dictators ruled Haiti. The American military occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934. When the United States withdrew, they left behind a legacy of anti-American feeling and a well-trained national military.
After a very disorganized period, François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc," was elected president in 1957. Using brutal tactics Duvalier created a rural militia to intimidate the population. In 1964 he declared himself president for life, and passed that office down to his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude, known as "Baby Doc," when he died in 1971.
Haitians angered by the poverty and suffering in their country began antigovernment protests. Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to exile in France in 1986. In 1990, a Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president of Haiti. It was the country's first free democratic election, and Aristide was elected with almost 70 percent of the popular vote. In September 1991 the army under General Raoul Cédras, seized power and forced Aristide into exile. After Aristide's departure, some 50,000 Haitians fled by sea.
After refusing to honor his agreement to step down and allow Aristide to return to the presidency, Cédras was forced from power by the United States and the United Nations. On October 15, 1994, Aristide returned to power and began the difficult task of rebuilding Haiti. UN troops led by the United States were sent to Haiti as a peacekeeping force. In December 1995, former Prime Minister of Haiti, René G. Préval, was elected president. Haiti's first peaceful transfer of power between two civilian presidents took place on February 7, 1996.
The name "Haiti" comes from the native Taino/Arawak word ayiti or hayti, meaning "mountainous" or "high land." The Republic of Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. The Republic of Haiti includes several small islands and covers 10,714 square miles (17,239 square kilometers), making it slightly larger than the U.S. state of Maryland. Two mountain ranges cover fully two-thirds of the interior. The fertile plains that lie between the two ranges are used for agriculture. The coastline is irregular and the country is composed of two peninsulas. The climate is tropical, hot and humid. Due to deforestation and soil erosion, only 11 percent of Haiti's land is now arable (able to be farmed).
The population of Haiti was estimated to be more than 6.5 million in 1995. Over two-thirds of Haiti's inhabitants live in rural areas. Port-au-Prince, the capital, has a population of well over 1 million. Almost all Haitians are descendants of the 500,000 enslaved West Africans who won their freedom from France in 1804.
There are more than 800,000 Haitians living in the United States, with about 75 percent of them residing either in New York or Florida. Miami's "Little Haiti" is now an established community.
The two main languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French. All Haitians speak Haitian Creole, while only about 20 percent of the population speaks French. It was only in 1987 that the Constitution granted official status to Haitian Creole. Fluency in French carries high social status in Haiti, and those who cannot read, write, and speak French may have limited opportunity in business and government.
The Haitian Creole language evolved from a mixture of African dialect, the native Amerindian language, the Norman French spoken by pirates, and colonial French. Haitian Creole words show a variety of linguistic influences, including African ( houngan, or Voudou priest and zombi , or ghost); Spanish ( ablado, or talker); English ( bokit, or bucket); and Caribbean ( kannari , or earthen jar). Words borrowed from French (and their Creole meanings) include kriye, to weep; boutik, a family-operated store; and kabare, cafeteria tray.
Examples of Haitian Creole proverbs are:
Yon sel dwèt pa manje kalalou.
(You cannot eat okra with one finger)—we must all cooperate.
Gras a diri, ti wòch goute gres.
(Thanks to the rice, the pebble tastes of grease)—good things rub off.
Haitian culture reflects a profound reverence for one's ancestors. Ancestors' Day is a national holiday, celebrated on January second, the day after the celebration of Independence Day on January first. Folktales are popular in Haiti. Stories are introduced by an invitation to hear a story. For instance, the person wanting to tell the story shouts out: "Krik!" If people want to hear the tale, and they almost always do, they answer in chorus: "Krak!" The most popular folktales are about the smart but mischievous Ti Malis and his slow-witted friend Bouki . Here is one example:
Ti Malis paid Bouki a visit one day. To his amazement, when he got to Bouki's lakou (yard), there was Bouki playing dominoes with his dog. "What a brilliant dog you have!" exclaimed Ti Malis. "He can play dominoes." "Ha!" said Bouki, "he's not as smart as you think. I've just won three out of five games!"
Another popular form of humor and amusement are riddles. ( See 17-Recreation.)
Religion is an integral part of Haitian life and culture. The two main religions are Roman Catholicism and Voudou, or Voodoo, a mixture of African animism (belief in spirits and nature) and Christianity. Many Haitians practice both these religions at the same time. There are also Protestants of various denominations. The Haitian government does not impose any restrictions on religion or missionary activities.
Unlike the "black magic" reputation it has in books or movies, Voudou is in fact a religion based on ancestral spirits, tribal deities, and mythic figures such as the goddess of the sea. It keeps alive old African beliefs while borrowing freely from Christianity. At funerals, it is not uncommon for Voudou ceremonies and rituals to be performed for family members first, followed by a traditional Roman Catholic ceremony presided over by a priest.
Haitian holidays include Independence Day (January 1); the Anniversary of revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines' death (October 17); the Anniversary of the Battle of Vertières (November 18); and the landing of Columbus on Hispaniola in 1492, commemorated on December 5. Other holidays include Ancestors' Day (January 2), Carnival (the three days before Ash Wednesday, in February), Pan American Day (April 14), Labor Day (May 1), Flag Day (May 18), and New Year's Eve (December 31).
Haitians also observe traditional Roman Catholic holidays, including Good Friday, Easter Sunday (in March or April), the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), All Saints' Day (November 1), All Souls' Day (November 2), Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas Eve (December 24), and Christmas Day (December 25).
Major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies, often including both Voudou and Christian rites.
Many Haitian values are traditional and conservative. Manners are very important in Haitian society. Greetings are exchanged when entering a public place, such as an office or a store, or when boarding public transportation. When greeting friends, men generally shake hands. Women will exchange two kisses, the same as men do with female friends. Children are taught early to respect their elders and to formally greet visitors to their home.
It is not unusual for men to refer to each other by their last names. Individuals are often called nicknames, for example, the firstborn male in a family is often given the nickname Fanfan . A woman named Dominique may be called Dodo by her friends and family.
The poverty of Haiti, one of the thirty poorest countries in the world, is reflected in the health statistics of its population. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the Americas, and life expectancy, at approximately fifty-six years, is the lowest in the Caribbean. Malnutrition is widespread, especially among the young and the poor. About 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, although this has been changing in recent years.
In 1984 less than 20 percent of the population had toilets. Poor sanitation and lack of medical services contribute to a number of infectious diseases that afflict Haitian people. These include tuberculosis, parasitic infections, and malaria.
In rural areas, the extended family has traditionally been the social unit. As peasants came to the cities in search of work, the nuclear family replaced the extended family. Men and women generally share household and financial responsibilities. Officially, there is no discrimination against women in Haiti, and a Ministry for Women's Affairs was established in 1995. In the coffee industry, those who transport coffee beans to markets are almost all female and are known as "Madam Saras." Women do not have to share income from nonfarm activities with their husbands. These women can be economically independent.
The most common form of marriage among poorer Haitians is known as plasaj, a kind of common-law marriage. Although not recognized by the government as legitimate, plasaj is considered normal and proper among the poor. A man or woman may have a number of plasaj relationships in a lifetime. Children born to the same parent from different plasaj relationships regard each other as brothers and sisters, and often live in the same household. If parents separate, a child may take either the father or the mother's last name. Children are considered a gift from God. Haitians also make sure that each child receives an equal inheritance.
Comfortable, lightweight Western-style clothes, often made of cotton and linen fabrics, are typically worn in Haiti. School children all wear uniforms. Men often wear a loose-fitting shirt called a guayabera, similar to other countries in the region and in Latin America. While it is acceptable for women to wear pants, most women, especially in rural areas, continue to wear skirts or dresses.
The traditional folk costume for men is a hand-embroidered shirt made of cotton, linen, or denim fabric. Women traditionally wear an embroidered short-sleeved blouse, a colorful skirt, and a scarf wrapped around their hair.
Haitians grow corn, rice, bananas, mangoes, avocados, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. A typical meal usually includes one or two varieties of rice prepared with either red or black beans. Almost all meals feature plantains (very similar to bananas), which are usually parboiled, sliced, and deep fried. Those who can afford it eat deep-fried chicken. Other meats include goat, beef, and pork. Pork is often fried and barbecued (grio) and is very popular. Haitians especially favor seafoods, including barbecued lobster, shrimp, and many varieties of fish.
Vegetables include green beans, potatoes, squash, okra, cabbage, and eggplant. Salads are served with generous slices of avocado. Most Haitians love a spicy, very hot sauce called pikles to enhance their dishes. Desserts include cakes or tarts, often with a pineapple garnish.
The first schools in Haiti were established shortly after 1805, but an accessible school system never developed. Despite education reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, dropout rates remain high: 50 percent in urban areas and 80 percent in rural ones. Education is highly valued, but the majority of Haitians do not have access to it. Technically, education is free in Haiti, but most cannot afford the supplemental fees, school supplies, and required uniforms.
The Haitian curriculum calls for many subjects to be learned in great detail, usually by memorizing. Grading and testing are very strict. It is much more difficult to achieve a grade of B in Haiti than it is in the United States. The teacher calls all students by their last names and has total authority over the class. A student speaks only when asked a question, and does not look the teacher in the eye but keeps his or her head down as a sign of respect. There are no parent-teacher organizations and if a parent is called to school it usually means that the student is in serious trouble.
Today the majority of Haitians receive no formal education. Only a small minority are educated beyond primary school.
The uniqueness of Haiti is reflected in the originality of its paintings, music, and literature. Works by the better-known Haitian artists have been exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States and France.
Haitian music is an original blend of African drum rhythms and European dance music. Haitian kompa and the Voudou-influenced rasin are the most popular musical styles in Haiti today. Each year during Carnival, bands compete for the best song. Recent entries incorporate reggae and rap styles.
Haiti has produced writers, poets, and essayists of international reputation. Attempts to write in Haitian Creole date to the eighteenth century, but because of its low status, Haitian literature has been written almost exclusively in French. With the recognition of Creole as an official language, more and more novels, poems, and plays are being written in Creole. In 1975, the first novel to be written entirely in Haitian Creole was published. It is titled Dezafi and was written by Franketienne. It describes a poetic picture of Haitian life.
Adapted from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1980, p. 217.
About two-thirds of the labor force in Haiti still works in agriculture. The main cash crops are coffee and sugarcane. Deforestation, land erosion, and a declining economy have prompted many farm workers to migrate to the cities or abroad. A large number of Haitians work in the Dominican Republic as braceros (migrant workers) under grueling conditions. Migrant farm workers are hired temporarily, usually for a harvest. Harvesting sugarcane is still done by hand with a machete.
There are estimates that more than one hundred thousand children in Haiti are held in forced domestic labor, which is called restevek in Haitian Creole. Young children from rural families are "adopted" by wealthy city dwellers to work as unpaid domestics. These children often work long hours, and are underfed and mistreated.
Soccer is the national sport. During World Cup competition, held every four years, practically the entire country roots for the Brazilian national team. In rural areas cock-fighting is also popular, but only as an informal weekend sport. For men, a typical social game is dominoes or cards. For the more affluent, tennis as a sport is increasing in popularity.
Children play hide-and-seek, hopscotch (marelle), round dances, and marbles. Organized sports in school or local leagues include basketball for girls and soccer for boys.
Storytelling in Haiti is a performance art. The storyteller uses a different voice for each character in the story and may sing songs as part of the narrative. Telling stories, proverbs, riddles, and singing songs exemplify the rich spoken tradition of the Haitian people.
Perhaps the most popular form of humor and amusement is riddles. There is a definite form for the riddles. The person "throwing" the riddle or tire pwen says: "Tim-tim," and those who want to hear it reply: "Bwa sèch." Then the riddle is given. If they get it, they announce it. If they give up, they say "Bwa sèch," which means they eat dry wood, the penalty for not getting the riddle. The riddles themselves are very difficult. Here are several popular riddles:
Haitian craftspeople are particularly skilled in woodcarving, weaving, and embroidery. Wooden sculptures, plaques, and furniture (especially chairs with caned backs and seats) are popular crafts. So are embroidered women's dresses, skirts, and blouses, and men's shirts. Wrought iron items are also part of Haitian folk art, including candle holders, coffee tables, lamps, and animal figures.
Every year before Christmas, artisans use white cardboard and tissue paper to make elaborate works of art called fanal, in which lighted candles are carefully placed.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A very small percentage of the population earns more than 60 percent of the national income. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 70 percent. Peasants have traditionally depended on the extended family and cooperative labor to survive. Families living in urban slums do not have even these supports.
Wood as a fuel accounts for 75 percent of the country's energy consumption. Deforestation of Haiti's once green, tree-covered land is now critical. This destruction of trees has caused erosion of the soil, which in turn has made most of the land unsuitable for farming. Fluctuations in the price of coffee and sugar on the world market impact agricultural production and planning in Haiti.
Portions of this article were adapted from The Haitians: Their History and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1994.
Abbott, Elizabeth. Haïti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy . New York: Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Betty Crocker's International Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1980.
Haggerty, Richard A. (ed.) Dominican Republic and Haiti: Country Studies. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1991.
Laguerre, Michel. The Military and Society in Haïti . Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Leyburn, James G. The Haitian People . New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.