Culture & Language

Culture

Just over 9 million people live in Haiti, with nearly a third of them concentrated near the capital, Port-au-Prince. Not only is Haiti the poorest country in the Americas, but many factors suggest that over the past three decades the country has also been falling behind other developing countries. Most Haitians survive on less than $2 (US) a day. This often results in malnutrition with little or no accessibility to healthcare. The median age in Haiti is only 20 years old, and over 70% of the population is under 30. Extreme poverty has turned over 225,000 children into restavecs (unpaid servants), a modern form of slavery. Poverty, political unrest, and natural disasters have all had a significant impact on the country, but the people of Haiti maintain their resiliency and courage as they face the future in spite of the hardships they’ve endured. Most Haitians draw strength from religion. There is a joke that Haiti is 90% Catholic and 100% Vodou, but it is actually not far from the truth. Around 80% are Catholic, 16% are Protestant, and about half the population practices vodou. In spite of what you may see in the media, Haitians are a calm and friendly people.

Music is a significant part of the Haitian culture—from church hymns to vodou ceremonies to RARA bands in the street there is always a song in the air. The musical style Kompa is a uniquely Haitian blend of African rhythms and European ballroom music. The biggest celebration in Haiti is the annual Carnival—a three day musical event in February.

Language

Haitian Creole (Kreyol) and French are the two official languages of Haiti. French was brought to Haiti as settlers from France colonized the island, and it remained the language of the upper-class. It is widely believed that Kreyol began as a pidgin language between the French and the African slaves who were brought over in the slave trade. While much of the Kreyol vocabulary has its roots in French, the grammar is quite different. Kreyol has also been influenced by various West African languages, Arabic, Spanish, Taino, and English. Creole is spoken by over 80% of the population while French is only spoken by about 10%.

Language has been a complicated issue in Haiti. French was the language of the colonizers and it remains the language of the educated elite, used primarily in education, government, and business. Since the 1980’s there has been a push to teach school in Creole rather than the traditional French, but many people are against this because they want their children to speak French. Learning French is considered an important part of a child’s education, as it is still considered a necessity to move up socially. It wasn’t until 1987 that Haiti declared Creole an official language in addition to the original French.