Haiti: “Eldest Daughter of France and Africa”
Lying approximately 560 miles to the southeast of Florida, Haiti is a nation of over eight million people in a mountainous country that is approximately the size of Maryland.
Upon first landing on the north coast of Haiti in December 1492, Columbus noted, “The land is very high…with very good air.” On Christmas Eve, 1492, the Santa Maria ran aground on a coral reef and was abandoned in Limonade Pass near Cap-Haïtien, where its remains presumably still lie. Although Columbus gave Spanish names to many towns and harbors, the name Haiti (based on the Arawak Indian word meaning “mountainous land”) is still used today.
Once rich in sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo, and cocoa, Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The indigenous population was completely wiped out shortly after the arrival of Europeans. African slaves were forced to work the French plantations. While French is the official language of the island, Creole (a blend of seventeenth-century provincial French and West African languages) is Haiti’s national language and the sole language of 85 percent of the country. It is a matter of great Haitian pride that Haiti was founded over 200 years ago by slaves that threw off the “yoke of their masters”; the first independent black republic.
The history of Haiti during the last 500 years has been tumultuous and the subject of many books and dissertations. Authors Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl, describe Haiti in their book, Written in Blood, The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995:
We at Konbit Sante recognize the important role that history and context plays in understanding the current reality in Haiti. Check our list of recommended books and websites to learn more about Haiti’s history and current events.
During the mid-1700s, Cap-Haïtien (also known as Le Cap and Okap) was reported to have been France’s wealthiest colonial city. It was famous for its beautiful architecture and was, accordingly, dubbed the Paris of the Antilles. Cap-Haïtien, originally called Cap Francais and then Cap Christophe, is the second largest city in Haiti, with an estimated population of 130,000 people. It is the major city for the 775,000 people in the Northern Department of Haiti.
It was in the hills bordering the Plaine du Nord in 1791, that the thirteen-year battle began that would eventually lead to independence from France and freedom for the black slaves who worked the plantations. The leaders of this historic struggle included Boukman (a maroon and Vodou priest), Georges Biassou, and Toussaint Louverture.
Although time, climate, and lack of resources have taken their toll on the streets and buildings in Cap-Haïtien, one can still see the beauty of the architecture: the large arched wooden shuttered doors and windows, decorative second-floor balconies, fading paint in blues and pinks and yellows. Looking into the once beautiful buildings, some now without roofs, one might find a small machine shop or a craftsman carving ornate wooden chairs or beds.
Activity starts early in the morning in Cap-Haïtien. As the sun comes up, people sweep the sidewalks and curbs in front of their shops and houses, and they sprinkle water to keep the dust down. Women carry baskets on their heads to market. Children in crisp school uniforms make their way to school in groups or with their mothers or fathers, girls with hair ribbons perfectly matching their school jumpers. The feeling in Cap-Haïtien is relaxed and the reported crime rate is low.
Today, the people of Haiti endure some of the worst health conditions in the world. Life expectancy at birth is 60 years for men and 64 years for women. Seventy-two children under the age of five die for every 1000 live births. More women die in pregnancy and childbirth in Haiti than any other country in the Western Hemisphere. Malaria, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS are endemic and cause death or disability to thousands of people each year.
At Konbit Sante, we recognize the complex and complicated web of factors that impact health. Despite what these dismal statistics might imply, the doctors and nurses in Haiti are very well educated. However, their ability to work effectively is deeply impaired by the obstacles their impoverished nation faces. Clinicians lack the technical and pharmaceutical resources to practice high quality of medicine. Also, due to low pay and lack of resources, 80 percent of doctors who graduate from the nation’s three medical schools leave Haiti to practice in Canada, the US, Europe, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. This is why we at Konbit Sante believe it is so important to invest in local talent that exists and provide those individuals with the material and moral support they need to effectively do their jobs and act as change agents within the system.