About Haiti

We encourage you to research and learn all you can about Haiti.  On this page you'll find some information about history, religion, and culture  to get you started.


Haiti shares the small island of Hispanolia with the Dominican Republic and is located about 600 miles southeast of Miami, FL. With approximately 10 million people crowding a country the size of Maryland, Haiti is the most densely populated country in the western hemisphere. It is also the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with the majority of the population living on less than $2 per day.

Ninety five percent (95%) of the inhabitants of Haiti are descendants of slaves brought from Africa in the 1600’s, not long after Columbus had discovered the island. In the late 1700’s, the slaves grew intolerant of the incredible cruelty they were enduring at the hands of the French land owners, so they revolted and defeated France’s army to obtain their freedom in 1804, becoming the first black republic in the world.

Since the French were a Catholic state at the time Haiti was colonized, they set up many catholic churches and there is still about 50% of the population that identifies their religion as Catholic. The slaves brought voodoo with them from West Africa, a polytheistic religion with one supreme, unreachable deity and dozens of lesser spirit gods which they pray and make sacrifices to. It is estimated that approximately half of all Haitians still practice voodoo to some extent. About 15 percent of people identify themselves as Protestant Christians.

Haiti has two National Languages.  The first is French, but most of the population does not use French.  The language of the masses is Kreyol, or Creole - a mix of French and several African dialects.  The relationship between Creole and French is analogous to Spanish and Portuguese.  They aren’t the same, but there are a lot of similarities.  

Fast Facts

  • Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
  • 80% of the population lives in abject poverty, surviving on less than $2 per day.
  • 8% of children in Haiti die at birth or as infants. 15% will die before they reach 5 years old.
  • The #1 killer of children in Haiti is diarrhea. The #2 killer is dehydration and malnutrition. (Dehydration & Malnutrition are polite terms for starving to death.) 
  • 55% of the population has no access to clean drinking water. The people that do have access to clean water typically cannot afford it, so they often drink contaminated water anyway.
  • Haiti has approximately 75% unemployment. There is little to no industry, manufacturing, or tourism in Haiti to provide a job base.
  • Haiti is the 3rd worst country in the world for calorie intake with an average caloric consumption of only 450 calories per day.
  •  It is estimated that between 4%-7% of the population of Haiti is HIV positive.
  • There are nearly half a million 'restaveks' or child slaves in Haiti. Many Haitians see this form of slavery as an acceptable practice and the government does little to stop or discourage it.
  • There are nearly half a million orphaned children in Haiti.
  • Life expectancy for a male in Haiti is 57 years (U.S. is 78 years).
  • Approximately 50% of the population practices voodoo, which became an official state recognized religion in 2003.  Approximately 15% of the population identifies themselves as Protestant Christians.
  • There are no significant sewer systems or trash collection systems in Haiti. Electricity and running water is available in only a few of the major cities but is not dependable and very few people can afford it.
  • With no reliable energy source, Haitians have cut down trees for decades to make charcoal for cooking. This has caused the island nation to have 97% deforestation which has led to massive erosion problems and washing away of valuable topsoil.
  • Amnesty International has determined Haiti is tied for first place with Bangladesh as the world's most corrupt nation.



Pre-European History

The island known today as Hispaniola was first settled around 2600 BC by people traveling from South America in dug-out canoes.  The island was populated by three successive waves of indigenous people, most recently the Taino Indians who arrived around 700 AD.

Colonial History

There were between 400,000 and 1 million Taino Amerindians inhabiting the island of Hispaniola, “Ayiti” in Taino, when Christopher Colombus happened it upon in 1492.  The Taino were largely gone from Hispaniola within 25 years due to a combination of disease and physical violence. By 1519, both the gold mines and the indigenous labor pool had dried up, so the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa to work the plantations, mostly sugar and tobacco.  As the 1600s began, the Spanish citizens on the western end of Hispaniola traded illegally with French privateers (pirates). Spanish troops were sent in and those treasonous areas were depopulated. The French traders moved into the empty towns, further frustrating Spain's ambitions.  Between 1669 and 1679, a hurricane, a smallpox epidemic and an outright war between France and Spain convinced Spanish colonists that there would have to be a compromise. They agreed to let the French settlements grow, but only on the western third of the island. Spain established a border in 1731, amended in a treaty with France in 1777, creating the territory of Saint-Domingue. The French colony, based on forestry and sugar-related industries, became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean, but only through the heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation. In the late 18th century, Haiti's nearly half million slaves revolted under Toussaint L’ouverture. After a prolonged struggle, Napoleon and the French army were defeated.  Haiti became the first black republic to declare its independence in 1804. Independence has never been easy for Haiti.  The new country’s economy was primarily based on agriculture. However, it was isolated from trade by an embittered Europe and isolationist US. In fact, the republic often found itself at the wrong end of “gunboat diplomacy”.  Haiti spent the first 150 years of its existence paying 15 million francs in war reparations to France to compensate them for the loss of their colony and slaves.  Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and to make matters worse, has been plagued by political violence for most of its history. Between 1843 and 1915, only one of Haiti’s heads-of-state served a complete term without being assassinated or exiled.

The 20th Century

In 1915, Haiti’s strategic importance to the US became apparent as the Panama Canal was opened and the sea-lanes shifted.  The US marines have twice occupied Haiti, first following a coup and remaining in control of the country for another 19 years.  During that time, they revamped Haiti’s constitution to allow non-Haitians land ownership rights and instituted “corvee” (conscripted, forced labor) to build roads, dams, and other public works.  Any resistance was repressed brutally.  A physician leading the peaceful resistance, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became a figure that Haitians rallied around.  In the tumultuous wake of the U.S.’s departure, Duvalier was elected in 1956.  The peaceful nature of Duvalier quickly ceased and he maintained an unofficial army, the Tonton Macoutes (“Uncle Bogeyman”) who killed and intimidated political opponents.  The Macoutes, funded and trained largely by the US, kept Papa Doc and his son “President for Life, Baby Doc” Duvalier in power for the next 30 years until he was finally forced into exile.  During this time, a grassroots political movement called the Familie Lavalas (flood) began to form around an unassuming but passionate Roman Catholic Priest who spent his time ministering to the poor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  Aristide was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1990, but was ousted in a military coup within the year.  Aristide was returned to power by US forces in 2004 after agreeing to a series of economic reforms that would benefit US companies.  He immediately disbanded the Haitian army.  However, he had only a year left in his term before he stepped down and turned over power to Rene Preval, marking the first non-violent transition of power in Haiti’s recent history.  Aristide was elected again in 2004, but the results were contested by special interest groups within Haiti and within the U.S.  In February 2004, an armed rebellion led by former army members rocked the country during its 200th anniversary.  Aristide was seized and extradited to the Central African Republic by U.S. forces.  An interim government took office to organize new elections under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Continued violence and technical delays prompted repeated postponements, but Haiti finally did inaugurate a democratically elected president and parliament in May of 2006.  Rene Preval was again elected.

Political instability has often been cited as a reason for Western Nations to withhold aid intended for Haiti.  The relative position of powerlessness of Haiti also makes it relatively impossible for any action or funding in Haiti to be held accountable to anyone.  The U.S.-led World Bank holds $150 Billion in aid designated for Haiti’s public health system and infrastructure development.  In 2003, the U.S. blocked $500 million in loans to Haiti from the International Development Bank.  In 2010, nearly $2 billion was raised and accepted by non-profits in the United States alone in response to the earthquake of January 12.  At the time of the one-year anniversary, it was estimated that less than a third of this funding had actually been spent. 



Kreyol, or Creole - a mix of French and several African dialects.  The relationship between Creole and French is analogous to Spanish and Portuguese.  They aren’t the same, but there are a lot of similarities.  Our teams will hire interpreters, although it is helpful to learn a few phrases.  Some great resources are: Phrasebook, by Charmant Theodore, or Creole Made Easy, by Wally Turnbull.  There is also a handy computer program and smartphone app called BYKI/Creole that provides good practice.  

And be sure to check out our guide of useful phrases in the back of our trip preparation guide.

Haitians are generally polite and expressive people.  Strangers will commonly greet each other. Upon beginning a conversation, it is common practice to first spend a brief time discussing how they and their family are doing, commenting on weather, or inquiring about any recent events/struggles in their life.  After pleasantries are exchanged, then you can move into the topic of discussion.   Even if you are speaking with someone who doesn’t speak much English, he/she will likely enjoy talking with you.  Many Haitians like learning English from you and will probably want to teach you a few Creole words.

Haitians are famous for some of their witty and insightful expressions.  Hopefully you’ll pick up on some of these as you go.  The most famous one around the US is “geye mon de mon”- beyond mountains, more mountains.  Another one that you’ll hear a lot from people in the group is “Degaje pa peche”- to improvise is not a sin.