Haiti: the Culture and History of the Country
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Table of Contents
- History of the Country
- Uniqueness of the Culture
- Common Foods Used by the Culture
- Meal Patterns and Etiquette
- Major Religions of the Culture
- Health Beliefs
- History and Cultural Challenges in the US
- Works Cited:
Merriam-Webster’s dictonary defines “culture,” as: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes and institution or organization. Culture is not something that is developed in a day - rather, it is the result of hundreds or even thousands of years of cultivation. In many cases, culture develops from the combination and influence of many different factors such as geography, history and even other cultures. One such example is that of Haiti, an island civilization that has unique and rich culture.
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History of the Country
Haiti is small, Carribean country that is on the western half of the island known as Hispanola. It shares a land border with the Domincan Republic, with Cuba to the north, and Jamaica to the West. Haiti has a warm climate for most of the year, with several rainstorms and occassionally hurricanes. his climate allows for the growth of a variety of crops - one of the most important being plantains, which are very prominent in Haitian food. Additionally, Haiti being an island nation means that several dishes involve fish and seafood. The landscape is very mountainous, although there are several forests inland, and groves of palm trees along the coastlines. Deforestation has become a big problem in Haiti, as the society finds a way to balance developing new infrastucture with preserving the country’s unique environment. Haiti lies on the Enriquillo-Plantain fault line and was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, which caused irrepairable economic damage to the country. This was the first major earthquake in Haiti for over 200 years, although increasing activity along this fault line indicates that more earthquakes are very possible in the near future.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Haiti was inhabited by a migrant group known as the Arawak, who originated in modern-day Coloumbia and Venezuela. Several hundreds of years after the arrival of the Arawak, another tribe known as the Tiano arrived on the island, and took over from the Arawak. The Tiano would inhabit the island for nearly 800 years, creating a unique culture that is still very evident in many customs even today. By the late 1400s, European society had advanced to the point where monarchies sponsored voyages to explore the ocean for trade routes to the East. Arguably the most famous of the explorers, Christopher Colombus, arrived in Hispanola in December 1492 on a Spanish-sponsored voyage. Colombus was the first European explorer to arrive on the island, and claimed the island for Spain. He also created the first European settlement in the New World, La Navidad, on the northern shores of the island. As decades passed, Europeans began to create several settlements across the Carribean, bringing with them diseases that the native Tiano had no immunity to.
Hispanola suffered the worst case depopulation in the entire New World, with most of the remaining Tiano being a mix between indigenous and European. By the mid 1500s, the Spanish invested most of their time in the more lucrative gold and silver mines in Mexico and South America, leaving the population of Hispanola to grow at very slow pace. For nearly 200 years, Hispanola was attacked by English and French pirates, until the late 1600s, after which the Spanish surrendered the western half of the island to the French. Eventually, the Spanish Empire fell into decline and the French took over Hispanola, renaming it Saint-Dominque. Over the course of nearly 100 years, the French transformed the island into an incredibly lucrative colonial possesion which produced sugar and coffee. The developed of these crops called for a massive amount of labor, which resulted in Saint-Dominque being a hub for the slave trade. Hundreds of thousands of slaves from West Africa were imported to the island, many of whom retained their culture and customs. Most of the imported slaves never lived passed one generation, so the French imported more to replace the ones who died, giving Saint-Dominque its own unique African culture, Vodou. After the French Revolution, Saint-Dominque declared its independence from France. A bloody war followed, but the slaves who outnumbered the French 10 to 1 ultimately won and Haiti was established as its own country. The country faced incredible struggles politically and economically for most of its history, including a massive amount of debt owed to France in exchange for the lifting of a trade embargo.
This, combined with the fact that most Haitians refused to return to the labor that they escaped from placed Haiti in a state of perpetual debt for over 100 years. Early into its independence, Haiti divided into three seperate territories - The Republic of Haiti to the South, the Kingdom of Haiti to the North, and Santo Domingo, the eastern part of Haiti which declared itself a territory of Spain (later a part of the Domincan Republic). The seperation of the country into these three territories has lasting cultural effects even today, such as the food and language that is used in everyday interactions among the locals. Eventually, the country was united - but everytime that there seemed to be progess, external factors set the country back. Several earthquakes and hurricanes prevented long-lasting infrastructure from being developed, and the island was at one point under the control of the United States in the early 1900s up to the Great Depression. During the Cold War, the United States funded efforts to place brutal, dictator-style rulers in power to prevent communists from taking over. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Haiti saw its economic condition fall into complete disarray, as corruption in government continued to grow rapidly and inequality also continued to increase.
Haiti’s political system is characterized as a multiparty semi-presidential republic, in which executive power is shared by both the president and a prime minister, who is directly appointed by the president from one of the major political parties. The president serves a five year term. The National Assembly holds legislative power and creates new laws, and there is a judicial system in place with a supreme court as the highest court in the country. The current government structure has been in place since 1987, following the end of a brutal dictatorship. The current government is not stable - there have been two coup d’etat - one in 1991 and a major coup in 2004. Since 2004, the government has been relatively stable, although there are often protests against government injustice.
Haiti’s economy is defined as an agricultural economy with over 40% of the country’s GDP coming from agricultural products and nearly half of the country’s population working the agricultural sector. The main agricultural exports of Haiti include coffee, cocoa, mangoes, and sugarcane crops, as well as timber and wood-related products. Other exports include clothing and textiles, as well as rare minerals, which the government of Haiti allows to be mined by foreign companies from Canada and France. Ultimately, working conditions and wages have slightly improved that much from 20 yeras ago - the average wage today is about $350 per year - 80% of the rural population lives in poverty - and working conditions and workers rights have not improved signficantly. Haiti has a population of around 9 million people with 324 people per square. The population growth rate has stabilized has slowly been falling each year since 1990. The population has grown by about 1.2% each year since 1990, and around 30,000 people migrate out of Haiti each year. The infant mortality rate in Haiti is about 60 deaths for 1000 births - 10 times the U.S infant mortality rate. Over 95% of Haiti’s population traces its ancestry back to Africa.
Uniqueness of the Culture
There are several aspects to Haitian culture that set it apart from other Carribean cultures, specifically in language and clothing. Haiti is one of the few Carribean countries that has its own unique language - Haitian Creole, which is spoken almost exculsively by Haitians. However, there are language barriers within the country - the upper class of Haiti speaks French, rather than Creole - a reminder that Haiti was once ruled over by European elites. Schools also conduct lessons in French. Additionally, the border region between the Dominican Republic and Haiti speaks a unique language which is a mix between Spanish and Haitian Creole.
Traditional Carribean clothing is known as Quadrille, and is most often seen in Jamaica, Haiti and Dominca. The Haitian variant is known as a karabela, and most Haitian women will wear their finest clothing on Sundays. Among Haiti’s youth, there is a growing industry for streetwear - however, since most of the more well known street wear brands such as Nike, Off-White and Supreme are not widely avialable, many young Haitians have used the second-hand clothing that is more widely avialable (known as “pepe”) and made new combinations out of the fabrics and materials to create their own streetwear culture.
Haitian culture is structured in such a way that women are seen as inferior and often discriminated against in employment and often violated in relationships. However, there many aspects to Haitian society where women are central figures, particularly in the religon Vodou religon, which places women at the center of society. Haiti has also had a large number of women throughout its history who have fought for equal working rights. One of the most unique things I discovered about Haiti was how the culture is often misrepresented by the media. Coming from an Indian background, I understand how misrepresentation can have really negative effects for people who belong to that group - most of the media portrays South Asian countries as socities that hate women without ever taking the time to look at family structures and making blanket statements without really studying the society. I thought that it was unique how other cultures can relate to one another in this way.
Common Foods Used by the Culture
Haitian cuisine is a variant of the Creole cuisine, which derives from African, French, Spanish and Tiano cooking styles. Since Haitian food is very encompassing of several different cultures, it is actually quite rare to not see something that is avoided in Haiti. Haitians are generally open to trying new and unfamiliar things, but since so much of Haitian cuisine in varied, not that many kinds of food are unfamiliar. Although much of Haiti is an agricultural nation, most of the civillians buy their vegetables from markets and stores. The working class citizens, especially in poverty-striken parts of the country, rely on humanitarian assistance groups from the US and Canada to purchase subsidized foods such as rice. In the past 50 years, globalization has increased the amount of food that is available in Haiti. Special seeds, known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have allowed Haitian farmers to grow high yield crops with a much higher sucess rate. As a result, the average Haitian eats more food on average than 50 years ago.
One of the native religions of Haiti, the Vodou religon, has a very large number of holidays spread out over the course of the year. One of the most popular celebrations in the country is Carnival, a celebration of the arrival of Lent. Haitian Carinval is unique because it blends together themes of the Vodou religion with the Catholic celebration.
One of the most popular foods to eat during this time is the Haitian Pate, which is influence by the French Pate. Unlike the French variant, the Haitian Pate is generally a simple piece of bread that is meant to be eaten as an appitizer, and made using honey and sugar to add flavor. A common drink that is consumed during this time is pinapple nog, which is made with crushed pinapple, coconut milk, milk, and nutmeg.
Meal Patterns and Etiquette
Haiti, like most of the world, has a three-meal per day eating pattern which stems from the arrival of Europeans. One of the most common dishes eaten for breakfast is plantains and eggs. Lunch and dinner generally involve some kind of meat dish, with side dishes including rice and some form of bean soup. Snacking is common in Haiti and generally involves some kind of fruit such as plantains. Dining ettiquite in Haiti is unique, but it is not very hard for foreginers to understand. Generally, meals only begin after the host says “Bon Appiteit,” and utensiles are used the European way. At the dining table, all dishes are passed to the left.
Major Religions of the Culture
The major religion of Haiti is Roman Catholicism, but the majority of Haitians believe in some form of Vodou, one of the religions unique to Haiti. Many cultural customs of Haiti have Vodou customs blended together with European customs. Vodou in Haiti changes and varies depending on the region of Haiti. Other minority religions in Haiti include Judaism, Islam and Bahai Faith. During Carnival, some parts of Haiti eat frog legs, which are deep fried and served with vegetables such as tomatoes and lemon.
The Haitian concept of health and food is based on having everything in equilibrium. Foods are generally seperated into hot food and cold food, which depends not only on the physical temperature of food, but also the nutritional value of foods. Fried and fatty foods are considered hot while vegetables and fruits are considered cold. Generally, Haitians believe that certain foods can be used to relieve pain. Two foods expected to relieve pain include tea and plantains.
History and Cultural Challenges in the US
Haitians have been living and integrating into American society since after the Revolution the in the late 1700s. Most Haitians, especially younger Haitians who were born in the US tend to identify strongly with Black American culture. Most Haitians today live in Florida, but there are also very large Haitian communities in Brooklyn, Harlem, Long Island and Queens in New York City, as well as Boston, Chicago, Philadeplhia, and Washington DC. Haitians in the US, like most other African immigrant groups, as well as Black Americans, face discrimination in media and several different industires. Many Haitians support and identify with social and civil rights movements occuring today.
The rich and varied history and customs of the nation of Haiti have developed over the course of hundreds of years to develop a culture that is truly one-of-a-kind in this world. From the influence of the French during the colonial period, to the influence of African culture from slaves, to even the influence of modern, global culture today, Haitian culture is one that was shaped by history. This is all reflected in the food and customs of the nation, which are just as vaired and complex as the people. The first, most crucial step in understanding other people is understanding their culture.