The Country of Haiti

The country of Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic in the waters just south of Florida. 

Although Haiti is often referred to as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, it was also the world’s first black-led republic and the first Caribbean state to achieve independence.

The French occupied Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries until the African slaves, brought to Haiti by the French, rebelled in a 1791 revolt. The former slaves who organized the revolt succeeded in defeating an army sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, and gained independence from France on January 1, 1804.

The Government is now considered a republic and their capital is Port-au-prince.  Haitians celebrate their independence from France on January 1st every year.  The president is Rene Preval, and under him is a Prime Minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, and a cabinet.  The president of Haiti is voted for by the people every 5 years.  The president can not run for two consecutive terms so there is a new president every term.

There isn’t really any military in Haiti, but a small coast guard and Haitian Armed Forces still kind of exist.  There are about 8,000 peacekeepers to maintain civil order.  They try to control illegal immigration, yet Haitians continually cross the border into the Dominican Republic.

In 1987 the government decided on having two national languages; French and Creole.  Even though Creole is spoken more, especially in rural areas, French implies a higher social status.  The country is 95% black and 5% mullato or white.  

The flag of Haiti consists of two equal horizontal bands of blue at the top and red within a white rectangle in the center that has two coat of arms.  It contains a palm tree with flags on either side and two cannons above a scroll and the motto L’UNION FAIT LA FORCE – “Union Makes Strength”.

 

The People – activities and health

The Haitian people live a very simple life with almost no electricity and not very many of the technologies that we have here in the United States.  They do have some radio stations in areas that are a little bit wealthier along with cable television, if you live in Port-au-Prince. 

For entertainment, since kids don’t have television and computers like we do here, they play soccer.  Soccer is the international sport of Haiti.  The kids there play it all the time and have a great time doing it.  They also have other games that they play with each other.  While not having the technologies that we have in the United States affects the kids, it also affects their parents.  The mothers have to do most of their cooking in fire pits and cleaning from water in either rivers or wells.  You will see a lot of women and children carrying huge pots of water on their heads back and forth from wells to their own house. 

There is a population of about 8,706,500 and 42% of them are from ages 0-14.  The range of people from ages 15-64 are 54% of the population while only 3.5% are over 65 years old.  In 2007 the population growth rate was estimated at 2.5%. The life expectancy at birth is only 55 years old for a male, and 59 for a female.  The population distribution is changing greatly in Haiti due to people dying from AIDS.  In 2003 the percentage of adults in Haiti diagnosed with AIDS was 5.6% and there were 24,000 deaths from AIDS that year. This amount is down from 2001 statistics, partly due to organizations working in Haiti to educate individuals about AIDS and provide medication to them. In 2001 there was an estimated 200,000 children under the age of 15 who had lost either a mother, father or both parents to AIDS.

 

Industry

In Haiti 80% of the population is living under the poverty line and 54% are in extreme poverty. The average Haitian makes only $1,800 per year. Agriculture makes up 32% of Haiti's total gross domestic product. Two-thirds of the population depends on farming for their income, so their trade is vulnerable to the changeable extremes in weather and natural disasters made worse by deforestation.  Not only does Haiti's geographic location make it susceptible to natural disaster, but also the deforestation and erosion caused by agricultural production has made it even more susceptible.  The country has a semiarid climate and is vulnerable to vast weather changes including hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and droughts. This combined with a terrain that is mountainous and rough make agriculture a profession not easily accomplished.   

The agricultural items grown in Haiti include; sugarcane, coffee, rice, corn, sorghum, and mangoes with its main exports being; coffee, mangoes, and oils. Other industries that help to support the economic development of the country are flour milling, textiles, sugar refining, cement, light assembly and tourism.  Haiti's biggest trading partners are the U.S. and Europe with 86% percent of their exports going to the U.S. and 11% going to Europe. 

There is a shortage of skilled laborers and an abundance of unskilled workers. More than two-thirds of all Haitians do not have formal jobs. The life of the Haitian economy is in large part dependent on nation donors.

 

Currency

The currency used in Haiti is the gourde and the Haitian dollar. It takes five gourdes to equal one Haitian dollar.  In March of 2008 the exchange rate of a US dollar to a Haitian dollar was 100 US = 725 Haitian, or one dollar US to seven dollars and twenty five cents Haitian.  

 

Food

Spain, France, the continent of Africa, and later the United States, have all influenced Haitian food.  Throughout its history, several foreign countries have taken control of Haiti, introducing food and ideas from their native lands.

Fruits and vegetables such as guavas, pineapples, cassava, papayas, sweet potatoes, and corn were grown by early Haitian tribes. Later Europeans arrived on the island and began introducing oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, and sugarcane.

Today Haitian food is based on Creole and French cooking styles. Strong pepper flavoring in many dishes also sets Haitian food apart from the other islands.  In general, the average Haitian diet is largely based on starch staples such as rice, corn, millet, yams, and beans. Richer residents can afford meats, usually pork and goat, but also lobster, shrimp and duck.   Sweet desserts such as French-influenced mousse and pastries are also available. French cheeses, desserts, and breads can be found at markets and stores

Riz et Pois, the country's national dish of rice and beans, is the most common dish. It is cheap to make, and the rice and beans provide carbohydrates for energy. Mayi moulen (cornmeal mush) cooked with kidney beans, coconut, and peppers, and pikliz (spicy pickled carrots and cabbage) can be filling, and its ingredients are usually affordable. Haitians also like to fry their meals in pig fat to give them more flavor. Bannann peze (fried plantains, similar to bananas), poule (fried chicken), tasso (deep-fried beef), and grio (fried pork) are examples of this.

Haiti's tropical Caribbean climate allows for  fruits such as avocados, mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, and guava to grow in large quantities. These fruits are often used to make fruit juices. Other popular drinks include shaved ice topped with a fruity syrup, Juna (a locally produced orange squash drink), and even sugarcane. Both adults and children enjoy chewing on the stalks to taste its sweet juice.

 

Art

In 1944, DeWitt Peters, an American, established the Centre d'Art d'Haiti in Port au Prince. No one then thought it would become as successful as it has.  Artists who joined the Centre when it opened are known as First Generation Artists. These artists and other major figures continue to have success and influence over the development of Haitian Art. Their work is prized and of interest and value to collectors around the world.

Paintings - The subject of Haitian Paintings often centers on daily life, such as the market place and maternity scenes. Many artists also interpret Haitian folklore through animal paintings. Other themes covered in the paintings are political turmoil  and history . Other artists choose religions themes of  Biblical scenes or Voodoo imagery.

Vodou Flags - Drapo Vodou is an art-form unique to Haiti. Constructed of sequins and beads hand-sewn onto fabric, these "flags" bring to life the spirits of Haitian Vodou.

Paper Mache - Paper Mache is one of the most popular handicrafts of Haiti. Artists dig molds into sand and fill them with paper and glue. When the piece is dry, the artist paints it with bright tropical colors. From amusing sea and land creatures to people engaged in their daily activities, these vivid portrayals are gallery favorites.

Metal Art - Simply called "metal," this form typically makes use of industrial waste metals to create sculptural reliefs.

 

Music

The music of Haiti is influenced by Europeancolonial ties and African migration. Haitian music has also been influenced by the Dominican Republic and Cuba, with Spanish-infused music. Styles of music unique to the nation of Haiti include music derived from vodou ceremonial traditions and the popular Kompa. Haitian rapis rising in popularity in Haiti and other communities where there is a strong Haitian presence. It is becoming more and more popular with Haitian youth, often communicating social and political topics.

 

Education

The literacy rate in Haiti, as defined as those over the age of 15 who can read and write, is only 52.9%.  Even though public education is “free” in Haiti, it is still not accessible to many Haitians.  The cost is still too high for Haitian families who must pay for uniforms, textbooks, and supplies. Due to weak support from the state of education services, private and parochial schools make up about 90% of primary schools, and only 65% of primary school-aged children are actually enrolled.  At the secondary level, this number drops to around 20%.  Less than 35% of those who enter will complete primary school.  Although a high value is placed on education, very few Haitians can afford to send their kids to secondary schools.  Today, primary school enrollment is also dropping due to economic factors.  60 percent of rural households suffer from chronic food insecurity, and food must come before education.

The typical school year runs from October through June.  The education system is based on the French system, begins with six years of primary education followed by seven years of secondary education. 

Higher education is provided by universities and other public and private institutions under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education.

With an adult illiteracy rate of 52% (48% of males are illiterate and 52.2% of females are illiterate), education remains a major obstacle to the economic and social growth of the country.

 

Housing

Although housing projects have been constructed in Port-au-Prince and in Cap-Haïtien, there is an increasing shortage of low-cost housing. Increasing numbers of people moving to the major cities has made the housing shortage even worse. Natural disasters including cyclones, floods, droughts, and earthquake have had serious effects on the housing situation as well. In the city the nicer homes are made of cement, built to withstand high winds.   Wooden huts are the prevalent standard for the countryside.

Many city homes and most all rural homes in Haiti are made very poorly because people don’t have enough money to pay for quality materials.  Most houses are made of mud brick or wood and have roofs made of planks of wood or metal laid in layers on the top of the house.  These materials are less expensive to replace during the hurricane season when it is not uncommon for roofs to blow off several times per year.  Homes have almost no electricity and usually don’t have a bathroom.  Cooking is done in a fire pit.  All houses are very small and usually just one or two rooms, with cots or mattresses and cooking utensils.  Many times cities will have horrible drainage and sewer systems, leaving all the waste to drain out into the streets. 

According to statistics from 2005, Haiti has a housing deficit of approximately one million homes. It is estimated that 700,000 people live in substandard conditions and that 300,000 are homeless.

 

Transportation

With nearly three quarters of the roads in Haiti unpaved, transportation can be a real challenge.  Driving a car in Haiti has been described as “an adventure” as the roads are notoriously potholed, many private cars are in disrepair, and winding mountain roads are full of other speeding vehicles.

Port-au-Prince has taxis called publiques , which charge 10 gourdes a trip. They could be almost

any vehicle, but all have a red ribbon hanging from the front mirror. It is up to the driver to decide if they would like to pick up a particular passenger or not. When you ride in a taxi, you are not the only passenger, and will need to share the car with others needing a ride as well.  

Motor scooters are a popular means of transportation because they are less expensive than cars and cheaper to fill with gas.  It is not uncommon to see as many as four or even five people riding together on one small scooter. 

Another popular form of public transportation is the “Tap Tap”. Tap Taps are brightly colored trucks and small busses that transports packed loads of people and even animals around cities for fares ranging from one to seven US dollars.   Animals, such as donkeys are used to help transport heavy loads for people who do not own cars. Walking and bicycling are the most common means of getting around.

There are 13 airports in Haiti, with only three having paved runways. Haiti has one international airport, called Toussaint Louverture International, better known as Port-au-Prince International Airport.  There are eight port harbors in the country for boats to transport people and other items in and out of the country.

 

Religion In Haiti

Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Haiti, but Voodoo may be considered the country's national religion. Voodoo, or Vodun as it is referred to in Creole, is often practiced as a blend with Catholicism in Haiti.  Catholics who are also voodooists admit that they "serve the spirits," but don’t think that is done outside of Roman Catholicism. This Roman Catholic Voodoo blend makes up the majority of the population of Haiti.  The “vodouisant” will worship God, and at the same time serve the spirits. Everyone is thought to have spirits, and everyone is said to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who "owns their head". 

In Haiti, the history of Voodoo begins with the arrival of the first groups of slaves at Saint Domingue.  The term Voodoo is of African origin and indicates “any deity”.  The belief system of Voodoo revolves around family spirits, loua, who are inherited through maternal and paternal lines. Loua protect their children from misfortune, only if they are “fed” by the family with rituals in which food, drinks and gifts are given to them. Loua can show their displeasure by making individuals sick, so Voodoo is also used to diagnose and treat illness. Many Haitians believe that loua can temporarily take over the bodies of their “children”, making that person go into a trance and take on characteristics of that loua. These possession trances happen during rituals and the loua may then bring a warning or an explanation of an illness.

Fancy funerals and mourning rituals show an important role of the dead in the Voodoo religion. Voodoo followers believe that the dead are capable of forcing them to build ornate tombs, even if it means selling their land. They believe the dead can act like a loua and force the family members by making them sick or bringing other bad luck. Money can also be used to pay a loua to bring good luck or attacks on enemies. Secret societies exist in Haiti whose members practice sorcery.

The leaders in the Voodoo religion are either male houngan or female manbos, who act as go-betweens for the humans and spirits through trance. They diagnose sickness and give reasons for a person’s bad luck. Unlike other formal religions, like Catholicism or Protestantism, there is no fixed theology or spiritual teaching for voodoo and each “specialist” develops his or her own way of “helping” people. Former president Francois Duvalier used voodoo specialists to serve him and help him control all areas of life in Haiti. He stated that he kept power in the country through sorcery.   

 

 

 

"Many city homes and most all rural homes in Haiti are made very poorly because people don’t have enough money to pay for quality materials.  Most houses are made of mud brick or wood and have roofs made of planks of wood or metal laid in layers on the top of the house."


Resources:

» US Department of State

» CIA The World Factbook

» Embassy the Republic of Haiti

» About.com: Religion in Haiti

» Countrystudies.us: Haiti Education

» Habitat for Humanity Haiti

 

Copyright © Haiti Lutheran Mission Society, USA