About 600 miles southeast of the tip of Florida, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, lies the intriguing island of Haiti. Approximately 11 thousand square miles in size, it makes up the western third of the island it shares with the Dominican Republic.
Haitian history is exciting and colorful. Discovered by Columbus, the island was first settled by Spain. The French took possession of the island in 1654. By importing Africans to work the country's lucrative sugar plantations, the country quickly became France's most prosperous colony. In 1791, the slaves revolted against France, and by 1804 succeeded in gaining independence; making Haiti the first black Republic in the world. Self-proclaimed king, Henry Christophe, forced the people to work for his own gain. The ruins of his magnificent Sans-Souci Palace stand today as a ghost of the past. Fearing attack by the French, Christophe employed 200,000 men to build this citadel high above the mountains of Cape Haitien.
It is estimated that 20,000 men lost their lives as they transported huge stones from the valley below. Once completed, the fortress was fortified with food and cannons. The French never came and the cannons were never fired.
Haiti today has an estimated population of 7.5 million people, and is growing rapidly. 50% of the population is under the age of 20. 80% of the population is unemployed.
While French has long been the official language of Haiti, 90% of the people speak Haitian Creole. Although Creole is based on the French language, major alterations have been made in pronunciation, grammar and syntax; leaving it hardly recognizable as French.
The economy is based primarily on agriculture and light industry. Farmers and craftsmen bring their products to market where they bargain for the best price. The most famous of these is the iron market in the capital City of Port-au-Prince. As few of the people can afford vehicles, they make their way to market via foot, animals, trucks or the colorful taxis known as Tap Taps.
Arts and Crafts
A very creative and artistic people, Haitians are known for their crafts such as mahogany carvings, iron works and beautiful paintings. While much of the day is spent on the ongoing struggle for survival, Haitians still find time for a few diversions, such as cards, cock fights and dominos; which are favorite pastimes.
It has been said that Haiti was once 90% Catholic and 100% Voodoo. The Voodoo religion represents a blend of Roman Catholicism and African Animism. It is filled with social ceremony, dancing and spirit possession. Without the knowledge of salvation and freedom that can be found only in Jesus Christ, many are bound in darkness and superstition.
For many years, the people of Haiti have been held hostage by the direction of a ruling elite. Political leadership has exploited the country's people and natural resources for personal profit. Recent endeavors towards democracy are continually frustrated by military coups and short-lived provisional governments.
As a result of religious and political exploitation, little attention has been given to social or economic development. The establishment of a physical ultra-structure has bee very limited. The task of something simple as collecting water is for many tedious and. time consuming.
Haiti today is rated as one of the most economically depressed nations in the world. 75% of the population lives in rural areas where the average income is estimated to be $100 (U.S.) per year.
With extensive deforestation and the resulting soil erosion, more and more of the land is becoming unusable for growing crops. This condition is leading to an ever-increasing migration of people to Port-au-Prince. In hopes of finding employment, hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the city in recent years, bring the population of the capital to 1.5 million. As a result of their social and economic poverty, squatters build their shelters in gullies, ditches and landfill areas.
Health conditions on the island are extremely poor. There is a severe shortage of doctors, nurses and medical facilities, especially in the rural areas. People everywhere suffer nutritional deficiencies, malaria and tuberculosis. The infant mortality rate is among the highest in Latin America.