Reference points in Haiti

When you are invited at someone‘s home for a dinner, you are supposed to know him.

At least you should know someone else (even if not so well) in his circle, able to introduce you to him, giving also some information about person’s life, people invited, purpose of the dinner…  You should be more or less prepared to it (except if you are going to what can be call “surprise dinner party”).

In this sense, Haiti has not been what I can call a normal dinner. After one month, I am in the kind of the situation where, once arrived at owner’s home and realizing that you don t know him and the others guests, you are looking  around  (to the interior decoration, people’s dress, food prepared,..) trying to get an idea and find some reference points.

This kind of compass and reference map (more or less defined) help you at the beginning, to be able to get into conversations during “the dinner” and it  can be modify and fulfilled with other points after this and others “dinners”.  This, as follows is (for the moment) my sort of Haitian’s compass:

History: As I have learned here, in 1804, Haiti got the independence from the French Empire, after a slave rebellion started by Touissant L’Oveurture and continued, after his dead by Dessalines. Touissant L’Ouverture, was known as the «black Spartacus», in honor of the Thrace slave who challenged for the first time the Empire (Roman Empire at the time) and also as “Black Napoleon”, for his great military strategy showed in various battles. From a historical point of view, at the end of XVIII/beginning of the XIX century, we had 3 revolutions: the American (1776), the French (1789) and the Haitian one. At that time, Italy was not still a kingdom (Italy Kingdom was officially declared in 1861!), Napoleon was at the power (after his losses in Haiti, Napoleon was forced to sell Louisiana, to the US) and soon in Europe we would had seen  his fall and the Restauration period starting in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna. How many historical and fascinating linkages here…

Geography: Majors agglomerations in Haiti, except the capital Port-au-Prince (1,200,000 habitants) are cities located in its surroundings such as Carrefour, Delmas, Petionville that have respectively 442,156, 382,920, 283,052 inhabitants. These cities are mostly a bedroom community for those who work in central Port-au-Prince. In this sense, Petion Ville, even if part of the city’s metropolitan area, is quite different because is one of the wealthiest parts of the country where many diplomats, foreign businessmen, and a large number of wealthy citizens do business and reside (I’ve never been there but this is what everyone I know told me about ). In any case, all these cities surrounded the Capital (PAP) and are located in the Ouest of the country.

In the north, we have Cap-Haitien, well known for his beautiful landscape and historical heritage (Citadelle Lafèrriere, an ancient forteresse built during the revolution time), in the South, Les Cayes, and in the South-east, Jacmel (both are starting to be known also as touristic destination). In the country, APS is working in the Department of Les Cayes (Bainet and surroundings) and in the department of Jacmel (Belle Anse, Thiotte, Anse-à-Pitre, the last one, is a village close to the Dominican Republic’s border (About the different activities of APS here, I will go to write in the next posts).

Timing-Orientation: 12 Janvier 2010, is like a timing reference. There is a time before and a time after. One day, talking with Vikings (APS’ administrative responsible here) while we were doing some shopping for our new home (Irina and I finally deplaced from Rendez-vous accomodation to a real house!), he started talking about his life and life in Jacmel always referring as it was before and after the earthquake. This makes you think about how the presence of the earthquake is still alive in people’s life even if here in Jacmel, except from multiple buildings severely damaged, life seems back to normality (There are not tend camps here and the municipality has just renewed, for example, the promenade close to the beach and is now engaged in building a new bridge).  These kinds of conversations (Claudie, the owner of Rendez vous, told me also about it) lead you to imagine and think about the total change in life that, beyond material damages, the earthquake caused.


Discovering and reading about the glorious history of Haitian revolution, I would have never imagined that the constitution of 1804 that established rights and freedom of the new citizens (that could not be anymore called slaves) could be written in French. I thought it was written in Creole and French admitted, at least, as a second official language. But I was wrong.

Creole was recognized as language, gaining an official status only in 1987. Nowadays, Creole and French are both recognized as official languages even if while Creole is prevalent on Haitian radio and parliamentary debates, most government and official documents, are published only in French. In a country where Creole is spoken by virtually the entire population of Haiti (nine of every 10 Haitians speak only Creole), the correct understanding and participation of the population is not, in this sense really supported…

Beyond political reasons, Creole language has also been for a long time, not perceived as a real language. Rather it has been perceived as a simplified and badly spoken version of French and a pidgin language. Indeed, it’s true that Creole in Haiti was a result of contact between European languages (French and Spanish) and various central and west African languages (Some linguistics say that there is a kind of similarity with  the Ewe, a West African spoken in Ghana, Togo and Benin).

But, what I have also realized, thanks to the brief understanding of the Haitian history and also that you can perceive being here, is that at one moment, Haitian Creole, has taken his own and independent path and even if many words have undoubtedly a French origin, Haitian Creole and French are not varieties of the same languages: they are simply two and distinct languages. Yo se pa menm bagay la!

So…that’s for the moment my Haitian compass..

And, I am already curious, thinking about how it will be the next dinner..


(written by Silvia Dall’Osto)