Before I signed up for this trip, I could find Haiti on a map, but knew nothing else about it. If I looked closely, I could find some old, dusty negative feelings I had about Haitians, likely based on racist ways they’d been described by people around me and/or American media. I knew the country was poor, but I didn’t know why. So, it was time to learn more. Here’s a very brief overview, admittedly reported with some bitterness at learning that the U.S. played a big part in this country’s suffering.
Haiti is a republic on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic sharing the other half of the island. It is located only about 50 miles from Cuba in the Caribbean Sea.
The two official languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French, though French is spoken mainly by the educated, upper classes, so Creole is the true populist language. Haitian Creole reflects the country’s history of French colonization and Western African people. Most Haitians are Christians, though many also practice Voodoo.
History and Strife
Founded in 1804, Haiti is the world’s oldest independent Black republic. The land served as a holding point for slaves brought from Africa (mostly modern-day Angola, Nigeria and Congo) to the Western Hemisphere, mainly to work grueling jobs on sugarcane plantations or to be sold to America. The slaves revolted against the French in 1791 in what is now known as the Haitian Revolution. The uprisers successfully defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, the only time in history in which a slave revolt led to a new nation.
Upset over their loss of income from slaves, the French required Haiti to pay reparations, a crippling debt the country continued to pay until 1947 (totally about 40% of the country’s GDP!). This debt payment, combined with some corrupt governments, horrific deforestation (which happened mainly when colonists cut down trees to plant cane, and again when Haitians had to sell mahogany trees to help pay off that debt) that left the land vulnerable and difficult to farm, and damaging natural disasters, kept the country poor and struggling. Additionally, other Western countries did what they could to keep Haiti down; after all, the rebellion was 60 years before the U.S. Civil War, and Americans didn’t want their slaves getting any ideas. Western and European powers continued to stay involved in Haiti’s affairs, occupying and intervening in governments, building infrastructure to support international businesses more than locals, and even upholding the false idea that AIDS began in Haiti and that Haitians were at higher risk (which effectively “killed tourism” in the country and even affected exports).
The book Mountains Beyond Mountains describes the country as being in dire poverty, giving countless stories of people with no access to clean water, constant exposure to avoidable diseases, meager shelter, little or no medical care, unstable food, and few means to improve their lives. According to the U.N., Haiti has the lowest human development level in North America, meaning low life expectancy and low levels of education and income.
It is a country in need.
So how did Upstate South Carolina get involved in helping Haiti? Read that here.