With its tumbling waterfalls, tranquil beaches, and greenery-capped mountains, Haiti offers several striking sights for tourists and locals alike. The country’s natural beauty makes it one of the most popular places to visit in the Caribbean. However, if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll discover that Haiti offers much more than a beach to relax on. Everything from the history and culture of Haiti to the spirit of its people makes this country a memorable and beautiful encounter.
Let’s take a closer look at the culture and history of Haiti, and all that it has to offer in terms of music, art, food, and other things that make this country so unique.
Like many other countries in the Caribbean region, Haiti was also initially inhabited by the Taino people before it came in contact with the Spanish in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1492 as he made his voyage across the Atlantic. The Spanish ruled Haiti up until the 17th century after which the French took over and renamed Haiti as Saint-Domingue.
The history of Haiti has been plagued with stories of epidemics as well. These resulted due to the endemic Eurasian infectious diseases Columbus’ sailors had brought on the island. Since the natives carried no immunity against these diseases, they ended up dying in high numbers. Nevertheless, Haiti persevered.
While the country was under the French dominion, African slaves were brought over and made to work in the sugarcane plantations. Eventually, these slaves revolted, which led to the Haitian Revolution and years of rebellion followed (1791 to 1804). Slavery was abolished in the country, and Haiti became the first black republic in the world on January 1, 1804.
Haiti is also the only sovereign nation whose creation was led by a slave revolt. At the time, most of its government leaders were people who had been former slaves.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a period of political instability in the country as it was heavily indebted to the United States, France, and Germany. The United States also established a foreign policy during this period, which slowed down development in the country.
Things worsened when Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected as President. The country found some stability again during this period; however, this was undermined by the creation of the Tontons Macoutes (Tonton Makeout). A specialized unit of enforcers, Duvalier used them to terrorize his political opponents as well as the rest of the population.
The reign of Duvalier and his son saw the deaths of thousands of Haitians. His son, Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc” was finally ousted in 1986 and escaped to France. Post his exile, further coup attempts were made, and it was only in 1994 when the U.S. administration helped restore democracy to the country. The army was disbanded in 1995.
Although political stability was restored, the year 1994 had its share of calamities. Hurricane Gordon hit Haiti and resulted in the deaths of at least 1,000 Haitians. This was not the only brush that Haiti has had with natural disasters. The history of Haiti is marked with several incidents of a similar nature.
In 2004, Haiti fell victim to Tropical Storm, Jeanne which killed more than 3,000 people. The country was struck by several tropical storms in 2008 as well. These left hundreds of people dead and nearly 800,000 people in need of medical aid. The storms also resulted in a price hike, with food and fuel becoming very expensive.
However, the most significant blow of all came in 2010 when an earthquake that had a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti. It left nearly 200,000 – 300, 000 people dead. An additional 1.6 million people were made homeless as well. A cholera outbreak followed that only made things worse.
It reportedly caused the deaths of nearly 10,000 Haitians and left a million more in serious conditions. The outbreak was created when a United Nations peacekeeping station ended up contaminating the Artibonite (the country’s main river) with cholera-infected waste. The United Nations apologized for the outbreak in 2016 but reverted in 2017 to avoid financial responsibility.
Haiti has been marked by stories of rebellion, illness, political instability, and natural disasters. Nevertheless, the people of Haiti have persevered in the face of adversity and emerged triumphant every time.
Suffering has been an essential part of the history of Haiti. Likewise, the culture of Haiti has also been shaped to reflect the resilience of its people. This can be seen from their use of the phrase, “pa gen pwoblèm.” It translates into ‘no problem,’ and the people of Haiti use it in response to gratitude or to assure someone of their well-being.
It is even used to fill up awkward silences in a conversation. Their sincere and frequent use of this phrase reflects their ability to appreciate the present moment and treasure what they have. Of course, there’s a lot more to the culture of Haiti than perseverance. The Haitian culture is an amalgamation of Latin American, West African, and European cultures.
More than 50 percent of the Haitian population is Roman Catholic while probably a third are Protestants. The rest of the population is a mixture of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and followers of the Baha’ i Faith. The religion of Vodou was practiced in Haiti doing colonial times. At present, Vodou rituals are amalgamated with those of Christianity in Haiti. As a result, it is difficult to guess how many people still follow Vodou in Haiti.
What language do they speak in Haiti? As far as languages are concerned, French and Creole (Haitian-Creole) are recognized as the two official languages of Haiti. Creole also known as Kreyòl is mostly spoken in social gatherings while French is used in schools and formal business proceedings. Creole can be said to be a byproduct of the French language.
It is inspired mostly from French but also contains influences of several other languages (Taino, Portuguese, Spanish, and West African). At present, Haiti is one of the largest nations in the Americas that speaks French. Besides Haiti, Canada is the only country in North America where French is spoken on such a vast scale. If you would like to learn Haitian Creole online free, Check out this YouTube Channel “Haitian-Creole MsCreole for videos in English and Haitian-Creole. Also, check out www.learnhaitiancreole.com for texts and games in Haitian-Creole. You can also try duolingo for free. For Haitian Creole courses, there are also companies like HaitiHub and Pimsleur that offer paid classes. You can also try a free lesson with Pimsleur. Other paid programs and books/videos by Pimsleur, Learn Haitian Creole with Gloria, Teach Yourself Haitian Creole. There are also dictionaries such as English – Haitian Creole dictionary, Haitian Creole Dictionary and Phrasebook, and Haitian Creole Phrasebook. If you would like to download a Haitian Creole translator app, the Sak Pase and Beginner Haitian Creole apps are good options.
Social etiquette is a big part of the culture of Haiti. Haitians will acknowledge each other very warmly in social setups. For instance, if they happen to pass each other in the street, the men will shake hands with each other. The women will also greet each other by kissing each other on the cheek. Haitians are also very particular regarding matters of business and politics. They will exercise special restraint in the case of the latter and will only discuss politics with someone they have a close relationship.
The Art of Haiti has a distinct touch to it. This is especially evident in the sculptures and paintings produced by their local artists. Haitian art tends to make use of bright colors. The perspective is a mixture of quick and subtle humor with a touch of naivety. Subjects include beautiful and thriving landscapes, social activities (mostly based in a market setup), delectable food items, wild animals, gods, religious rituals, and dances. There is also a significant amount of Vodou symbolism in Haitian art.
Haitian literature features several novels, plays, and poems that have gained international recognition. Most of these are in the French language. However, due to the works produced by several local Haitian writers and poets, there are many novels, plays, and poems that are in Creole as well.
Like most things in Haitian culture, the local music scene carries a significant amount of African, French, and Spanish influences. There are also some elements from the ancient Taino culture present. Haitian music is particularly unique with regards to the rhythms and tunes produced as part of their ceremonial traditions (related to Vodou).
Popular musical styles include Rara (a kind of festival music), Twoubadou ballads, mini-jazz, Rasin, hip hop Kreyòl, Kompa, and Meringue. Most of these are unique to Haitian artists. Compas, for example, is a type of music that makes use of sounds and elements present in European ballroom dance music and African music. Rasin is another native musical style that originated in the 1970s. It combines elements from traditional Vodou music with rock and roll.
Festivals are a huge part of the Haitian culture. The Annual Carnival des Fleurs in Port-au-Prince is considered to be one of the biggest celebrations in the country. It is held in July and highlights the native flora of Haiti. The carnival is three days long and features several parades and musical and dance performances.
There is another major festival that is hosted in Jacmel. This is held a week before the carnival in Port-au-Prince. The carnival in Jacmel features colorful and elaborate floats. There is also much dancing in the streets.
Besides these carnivals, Haitians also celebrate Fèt Gede Vodou. This is the Haitian version of the Day of the Dead. Fèt Gede is roughly translated as Festival of the Sacred Dead or Festival of the Ancestors. It is a mixture of Halloween and Mardi Gras (the Mexican equivalent of the Day of the Dead).
Fèt Gede is a prominent part of the culture and history of Haiti. People will dress up and get out onto the streets where they dance and walk-in processions to graveyards where their ancestors are buried. Here, they present their ancestors with gifts.
The festival is meant to honor the spirits of the dead in exchange for their protection. Fèt Gede is a way of reconnecting with the past while preparing for the future. Several rituals and observances are a part of this day as well.
The flavors of various cultures inspire Haitian cuisine. Primarily, it features flavors from Spanish, African, Taino, and Latin Caribbean foods. The local base of flavors is referred to as epis, and it is a part of many local dishes. The national dish of Haiti is diri ak pwa (rice and beans). Sometimes, you can also add red snapper and a special sauce to this dish.
Other popular dishes include Diri ak Fèy Lalo ak Sirik (Crab with lalo leaf stew), Mayi Moulen ak Sòs Pwa (cornmeal with stewed chicken and bean), Lanbi an Sòs Lanbi Kreyòl (Conch with sauce), Lanbi Boukannen (Grilled conch),Woma Boukannen (grilled lobster), Poul ak nwa (chicken with cashew nuts), Mayi Moulen Kole ak Legim (Cornmeal with beans and vegetable stew), Pwason Boukannen (grilled fish), Kalalou Djondjon (Haitian-style okra with black mushroom stew).
Haitian cuisine also features spaghetti. However, this is served as a part of breakfast in Haiti. It is usually coupled with sausages and dried herring. Other popular breakfast items include Pwason Seche ak Bannann. This is dried fish and boiled plantains. Locals also love Fwa Di ak Bannann. This is liver with plantains. Pain patate (pen patat) is one of Haiti’s most popular desserts.
It is a Haiti version of sweet potato bread. Other sweet treats include shaved ice frescos. Haitians also enjoy local versions of peanut butter (known as Manba) and fudge (known as Dous Makòs). Tablèt Nwa is another popular snack as well. This is a brittle that contains cashews, sugar cane, and ginger. Tablèt is also made with coconut and peanuts.
The history of Haiti is equal parts fascinating, tragic, and inspiring. A mélange of various cultural influences, the Haitians have created a unique identity for themselves. Whether you visit the country for its sights or its cultural offerings, the trip will be worth your while. The history of Haiti is marked by its share of beauty and tragedy, but if you are looking for something distinctive in terms of art, music, food, and celebration, then the culture of Haiti has much to offer.
You may also want to read: Explore Haiti with Book Haiti
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