Before I started my PhD, and started to learn more about the Caribbean and its many, colorful nations, I didn’t know much about Haiti. For the most part, American media focused on negative aspects of the country that shares the island of Hispanola with the Dominican Republic. I knew about the earthquake there, which shattered Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and brought the world, or so I thought, to their aid. Besides poverty and natural disasters, my time as an ecology student also taught me that Haiti had major problems with deforestation since they were said to only have 2% of their forests left (in reality this is likely to be closer to 20%).
When I began my research, I learned other things about Haiti. In 1803, the country’s slaves freed themselves from France. It was the first in the Western Hemisphere to do so, and it has a proud heritage of freedom and resilience. The massive fortress of Le Citadelle is a testament to the perseverance of the Haitian people. And while most still associate the French language with Haiti, it is really Haitian Creole, a language unique to the country, which most people speak (although many Haitian’s speak two or more languages).
Another special aspect of this island nation is the religion of Vodou (or Voodoo). Although many American movies have painted Vodou as a form of witchcraft with curses, Voodoo dolls, and even zombies, but doing some reading on the topic reveals that this is a gross misrepresentation of the religion. In fact, Vodou is a mix of European, African, and native beliefs. Practitioners believe in a single, creator god or the Good God, who is sometimes seen as sharing an identity with the Roman Catholic deity. Like many religions in Africa, particularly on the Guinea Coast where many of the people brought to Haiti as slaves came from, Vodou holds that there are many spirits, good and bad. These spirits are more involved in the lives of regular people than the Good God, and the primary ones among them are often associated with Catholic saints. Like any religion, it has good and bad, as a reflection of humans themselves, but it is certainly not what it has been painted to be by entertainment.
In traveling to Haiti, I learned other things about this often maligned country. For one, its people are often straight-faced, and serious until you smile at them. They are also just as perseverant as their ancestors, finding ways to survive and thrive even while the rest of the world seems to work against them. Many of them are artists, capturing beauty in unique ways that can’t be found anywhere else. Their food reflects their creativity, rich in flavor and hearty in nature, even if it is much the same everywhere you go.
Finally, I discovered that the misinformation about Haiti can haunt you if you decide to travel to this Caribbean nation. Before I left, I made my mother very nervous by discussing my trip there, and when I arrived, there were people that scoffed at me for my decision. Even now that I have returned home, people are incensed by the idea that I went here for fun. But the key to seeing Haiti is going with a tour company or someone who knows how to drive, respect local customs, and stay safe in the country. Other than that, Haiti is a place rich in history and culture, and well-deserving of the attentions of adventurous travelers.
I will be working on writing about my time in Haiti for the next few posts. The next one will be about modes of travel to the western half of Hispanola, and I am planning on getting that up on October 10th. Please feel free to comment below!