(Adapted from a paper by Dr. Timothy T. Schwartz)
Haitian culture has predominantly strong West African roots, but because of the French colonialists that brought these Africans to the island, they have also infused this French culture. Other influences seen in Haitian culture draw from Spanish colonialism and of the islands extinct native population once known as the Taino.
A example of African and French amalgamation can be seen in their official language of Kreyol (Creole) - although it was not made the official language until the ratification of the Haitian constitution in 1987. Kreyol is a mix of West African and French that was born out of the slave era, just as all people of African decent in the West Indies have their own versions of Creole. Kreyol is spoken by the majority of the population with only an estimated 5 - 10 percent that can speak fluent French.
Those that do exclusively speak French are among the small pocket of Haiti's elite and those in government. The first President to regularly address the population in Kreyol was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected for the first time in 1991.
Gender Roles, Status
Women: Haitian's still retain some of those social traditions that were brought with them from Africa. Although women suffer a great deal of discrimination, it is still considered to be somewhat of a matriarchal society. Traditionally it is a woman's duty to cook and clean, but it is women that dominate the marketing sector, buying and selling goods like tobacco, produce and meat. It is also the women who control the family economics and typically holds the pursestrings to her husbands earnings. If the husband plants a garden, it is the wife who is considered to have ownership of it as she is the marketer.
Other than selling product at the market and on the street there is a scarcity of jobs in urban centers. Women are most likely to be grossly underpaid as a domestic servants or in the light industrial industry (sweatshop). It has also made these women more prone to promiscuity and abuse.
Men: Men make up the labour force in the country and work jobs in construction, delivery services, fabrication and as mechanics. In rural areas, it is the men that tend to the field and take care of the livestock. It is men who generally hold positions such as doctors, lawyers, politicians and teachers, but in recent years, more and more women have made their way into these careers.
Children and Education
The infant mortality rate in Haiti is 80 deaths to 1000 births. Because healthcare is for the most part privatized and out of reach for so many people, community midwives generally assist in births.
In rural areas, children by the age of seven or eight are expected to work, doing household chores and tending to the farm duties. Children are disciplined harshly and must have the upmost respect for their parents and older siblings. If food is ever given to them as a treat, they are expected to share with other children.
In both rural and urban centers, there is great importance and prestige connected to a child receiving an education. In Haiti however, government funded public programs are rare, so most schools charge tuition. This puts education out of reach for the majority of people who live in the poorer sects of society. Only 54 percent of children will receive some primary education (grades 1 to 6). Parents will try and send at least one of their children to primary school, and those children who excel in academics, generally have the load of household responsibilities lightened considerably.
Some parents in rural areas are so desperate to see their child receive and education or a better life in general, the child is given to a family to be used as a domestic servant or "restavek", with the promise that the family will send the child to school. Sadly though, many of these children never step foot inside of a school and often suffer sexual and physical abuses. Sometimes these restavek children are thrown out into the street to fend for themselves after adolescence because masters deem them as stubborn and harder to control.
Other than children of the elite or middle class, a very small percent of Haiti's population are able to receive a higher education. Although there are universities in Haiti, a high percentage young people who's families can afford it, do their studies overseas in the US or France.
Greetings are important, particularly in rural areas. As one passes another, it is common courtesy to say hello several times before engaging in conversation or continuing on their way. When walking onto someone's property, it is customary to yell onè (honor) with the owner yelling back respè (respect). Upon entering a persons space, one says eskize-m (excuse me) and hosts make sure a guest doesn't leave without something small to take home, having a coffee, or at least an apology for not having anything to offer.
Although public displays of affection between the opposite sex is not considered proper, it is common to see two women or two men holding hands in public. This is simply a sign of friendship. While men shake hands when they greet, women kiss on the cheek and on the lips if they are friends.
Young women do not drink alcohol or smoke, but if they become a marketer (selling at a market) one will tend to drink kleren (a spiced rum) and use tobacco products, such as snuff, a pipe or cigars. Men generally drink in moderation, usually at festivals, funerals and special events.
It stands to reason that Haitian's will haggle about anything to do with money, even if prices are set. Bartering is loud and animated and often involves throwing insults at one another. People of a higher social ranking treat those of lower economic status with impatience and contempt. Violence is rare, but once a physical altercation has started, it quickly leads to bloodshed.
Haitian's refer to any foreigner as blan (white), regardless if they are light skinned or not.
Although "officially", Catholicism is the country’s most practiced religion at 80%, Haiti's real official religion is the much misunderstood Vodou (Voodoo). At its heart, Vodou is an African religion similar to the Nigerian Yoruba faith, which was imported by African slaves and later incorporated elements of Catholicism. After missionaries persuaded the slaves to convert to Christianity, by using methods such as torturing Vodou leaders to death, certain Catholic saints with attributes similar to those of African deities came to symbolize the spiritual figures, or "Iwa" that had been used for generations. The music of Rara, which is also an annual festival, has direct roots in the Vodou faith.
Some believe that a National Geographic article about Haitian Voodoo published in the 1930's, is what spawned the huge misconceptions about Vodou that North Americans have in modern times. While there are rumors running amuck of Vodou Priests or Priestesses drinking the blood of children and practicing black magic, they are simply respected members of the community that lead worshipers in ceremony and are usually the village healer, specializing in herbal medicines and doling out good advise. Although for a price, they will cast a spell on someone's enemy.
Haitian cuisine shares similarities with other Caribbean nations, but is unique in its own right and has developed from French and Creole style. Strong pepper flavor is another marker of its uniqueness.
Malnutrition in Haiti is a direct link to poverty and not to a lack of food knowledge. Haitian's, especially those in rural areas, have a very good understanding of their nutritional needs and how to preserve essential vitamins and minerals in their food preparation. Main dishes are generally complex and can take the whole day to prepare.
Rice and beans are the national dish of Haiti and in urban areas is a staple meal. For people living in rural areas, traditional meals include sweet potatoes, yams, manioc, corn, pigeon peas, cowpeas, bread, coffee and rice. In Haiti's rural and even urban settings, you can find such fruit trees as mango, avocado, banana, coconut, papaya and breadfruit.
Haitian's traditionally will only eat two meals a day, starting with a light breakfast, which might include coffee, juice, bread or an egg. Dinner will include rice and beans and if it can be afforded, a piece of meat like chicken, fish, or goat. A traditional accompaniment can include a tomato based Creole sauce and Pikliz, a spicy side made by steeping shredded cabbage, carrots, onion and hot peppers in vinegar and spices.
It is not customary to eat as a family, but rather where each individual feels comfortable. It is customary however, to have a small bedtime snack. In Haiti, over 24 percent of people are chronically malnourished and over 25 percent have no food security.
Graphic Art: A characterization of Haitian art is that of bright bold color. Even communal transportation, such as boats, buses and enclosed pickup trucks called taptap's are painted with vibrant murals and collages. Traditional, or "primitive" style Haitian painting became popular in the 1940's. Subject matter from this primitive style usually include depictions of daily life, such as going to the market . Food and lush landscapes are favorite subjects for Haitian's because of poverty and hunger. Drawing upon their African heritage, jungle animals, rituals, dances, and gods are regular themes too. This style is most commonly associated with Haiti and is even reproduced by street artists to be sold as souvenirs to foreigners. However, there is a full gamut of periods, styles and mediums being used by Haitian artists today.
Haiti is a country of ongoing political oppression and Haitian's tend to speak and create art in the form of fables. Because of past dangers of showing support for socially progressive leaders and speaking out about repressive government officials and corrupt law enforcers, these political and social figures are disguised as animals and animals are transformed into people.
Performance Art: Music and dance are rich traditions in Haiti, but performance artists rarely do public performances as the government can't produce significant funds for the arts.
Music: European and African folk art have become a part of Haitian culture. Because of this, many musical styles have arisen due to its influences. Haiti's most wildly popular style of music born out of this is Compas or "Kompa", a musical genre that uses traditional French and Spanish music combined with African style drumming and singing in Haitian Kreyol.
In North America, compas festivals take place frequently in Montreal, New York, Miami, and Boston.
In more urban centers, because of the constant barrage of foreign visitors, access to the internet and those that travel abroad for their studies, musical styles are becoming more and diverse with the amalgamation of many other Afro influenced styles of music from around the world. Popular styles include reggae and hip hop.
Literature: Largely unknown is the breadth of literature Haiti has produced. This literature, written primarily in French has been most commonly produced by those in the upper cast of Haitian society. Several of these writers are of international acclaim.
In February, Carnival (Kanaval in Haitian Kryole) takes place in Haiti and is the most celebrated festival of the year. The cities are filled with music, parade floats and people come to dance and sing in the streets. Carnival week is traditionally a time of all-night parties and escape from daily life.
Rara, a season, a festival, a genre of music, a religious ritual, a form of dance, and sometimes a technique of political protest, occurs along with Carnival, and keeps going through Lent, culminating on Easter Week. Rara is practiced by a significant portion of the population and has strong ties to the Voudu faith.