By Shashondalyn PleasantSpecial to CSMS MagazineHaiti is considered to be a dramatic country in its history, and culture. To compare Haiti with other countries in the Caribbean, Haiti is described to be the most rural in its settlement pattern, the poorest, and the most densely populated. Haitian culture is quite distinct and less familiar to most Americans than many other cultural groups. Most people in the United States have very little information about Haitian culture and history. Haitian culture and language is also very distinct from that of other Caribbean people, and most times these distinctions are not recognized. Haiti occupies the west of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which is shared with the Dominican Republic. Haiti is a little bit smaller than the state of Maryland and lies southeast of Cuba. Haiti has lots of mountains, as a matter of fact the word “Ayiti” was a Taino word, which is the original inhabitants of Haiti, and it means land of mountains. The capital of Haiti is Port-au-Prince, which lies in the center of the country, on the coast. Some other important cities include Cap Haitien, which is in the northeast coast of the country, and Les Cayes, which is on the southwest coast. The population in Haiti was about 8 million in the year 2000. According to Erik Jacobson, “Racial demographics are 95% black and 5% mulatto. Port-au-Prince has a population over 1,000,000. Across Haiti, 33% of the population live in cities, while 67% lives in rural areas. With 700 people per square miles, Haiti is second only to Barbados for population density in the Caribbean. In the city, women give birth to 3 to 4 children, and in the countryside, they average is 7. Infant mortality is 97 per 1000. There is one doctor per 4000 inhabitants. Haitians have a life expectancy of 49 years” (Jacobson, 2003. pg.4). Haiti is often described as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Over half of the population lives in poverty, and most people do not have a steady job or income. Although manufacturing plays an important part in the Haitian economy, factories provide a small percentage of jobs. Most Haitians depend on agricultural work done mostly on small farms, and Haiti’s economy depends on foreign aid and resources of volunteer aid organizations; but foreign investments and support is spotty. There are large amounts of money being spent but hardly anything to show for it, and aid efforts have not focused on developing capacity in the long term. Projected development stops soon after the aid agency and administrators leave the country. The language spoken in Haiti is Haitian Creole (also known as Kreyol) and French. “Kreyol is spoken by 100% of the population, while 8-10% of Haitians can speak French. Like all French-based creoles, Kreyol is a mixture of French and the African languages that Haitian slaves spoke. It is incorrectly described as french dialect or worse, as broken French” (Jacobson 2003. pg.5). Though Kreyol has increased in status, French is more likely to be spoken by urban elites than by farmers in the countryside, and because French appears to have more prestige than Kreyol, many Haitians look at themselves as French speakers when they are not truly fluent in the language. Access to education varies greatly. Although primary education is free and compulsory, primary school enrollment is about 65%. Only about half of the children are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, but there only a few that are graduating from secondary school. Even though primary schools are free, costs of uniforms and textbooks make it difficult for poorer families to send their children to school. Most families only have money to send only male children to school. The schools often lack basic resources, and the school buildings may not be in good condition. Private schools in Haiti can be very expensive. Most private schools are run by the Catholic Church. While private schools are thought to provide a decent education, many are unregulated with few resources and unprepared teachers. In the United States, Haitian immigrants with enough resources continue to send their children to Catholic school or other private schools. Low-income families rely on the public school system, and their main concern is placing students in classes based upon age rather than on educational experience and abilities. Regardless of social class, Haitian parents share a perspective on education that differs from what is expected in the United States. They trust schools and teachers completely. They do not believe that they have a role in their children’s education. They do not ask questions. They mostly rely on school officials because they are not accustomed to being active regarding their child’s schooling and may not understand request to attend meetings with teachers or administrators unless their child is in trouble. From the Haitian parents’ point of view, education is the responsibility of the school while discipline and moral development is the responsibility of the parents. To sum things up, Haitian parents place a high value on education and have very high expectations of school. Many immigrate to the United States in order to give their children a chance to a decent education.
Grains are a major necessity in the Haitian Diet, and rice is eaten almost in every meal. It is usually cooked with beans and sauce. Most meals include fried plantains or fried meats, such as pork or turkey. Stews and soup are also a common meal. Haitian food can be very spicy. Most Haitians believe that a healthy baby is a fat baby, and this perspective on nutrition and health continues into adulthood. Since weight is associated with health, good nutrition means eating a lot.
Religion: A sensitive topic
In Haiti religion is a very difficult and sensitive topic. Most Haitian people would describe themselves as very religious, and religion affects almost every aspect of Haitian society. “While 90% of the country is Catholic and 10% is Protestant, Haiti is most famous or infamous for voodoo. Voodoo exists side by side with Christian faith. Many Haitians see no contradiction in calling themselves Christian while practicing voodoo” (Jacobson 2003. pg.9). Voodoo is a mixture of African and Haitian beliefs, and is made up of large number of supernatural spirits and these spirits are believed to have great influence on human beings, and they must be respected. Voodoo has played a key role in Haitian history. Voodoo helped provide some unity for the rebellious slaves. Many Haitians, especially the Haitians that are in The United States are sensitive to being seen as voodoo worshipers. Yet the practice continues in the United States. In Haiti, households often consist of multiple generations. Adult siblings and their families may live together in a common space. The Haitian home or lakay is geared towards the needs and strengths of the extended family, and they usually do not own a home that is too far from their family. Most rural communities consist of a dozen or so lakay grouped together to form a lakou. As a family, they work together to complete their daily work, like farming or building new houses. Men are considered to be the breadwinners in the Haitian Family. Their responsibility is to find paying work to support the family. Men usually do not get involved with taking care of the children, nor do they interact with the school regarding their children’s education. Both parents may consider education to be the job of schools and not the parents. Haitian parents have been described as overprotective with regard to their children. Even though they love their children, parents view children to be unprepared to face the stress of the daily life; they feel that these children cannot do anything, and that they must do everything for them. As a teacher, we must establish trust, and one way of doing that is to sympathize with the pressures that Haitian immigrants are facing. Take note of the issues that may become stressful such as, language issues, or being separated from the extended family… Knowing this will help to ease the situation and calm any fears that a Haitian parent would have on that first visit in the classroom. Just Listening without saying anything brings positive benefits as well as earning trust. We must also be sensitive to the specifics of Haitian identity. Be sensitive when discussing religions. Try not to assume or generalize, because some topics are very sensitive. Try not to ask too many questions about their religion, especially if you do not know them that well. As I come to an end, there is a quote that I found that I thought was interesting. “It takes me so much resiliency and patience dealing with such a complex world, foreign to my language and my culture. And this journey never ends, because you face it every day at every corner of the world unless you find an appropriate place where you can pause and share your daily emotional and psychological struggles with those experiencing the same issues and sharing the same culture.” Haitian Parent (11/2002)
Haiti Links http://www.re-cycle.org/Haiti/Haiti_Links/haiti_links.htmlWindows on Haiti http://www.windowsonhaiti.com Jacobson, E. (2003).An Introduction to Haitian Culture for Rehabilitation Service Providers. New York: University of Buffalo. Dash, J. M. (1997).Haiti and the United States. London: Macmillan Press.Also see Culture :