Similar to what my fellow interns experienced in Jamaica, Haiti has its own language that consists of a mix of other languages. Dominated by French it is also influenced by many African dialects, Portuguese, Spanish and Taino. Just like in Jamaica, the slaveholders mixed people from different African tribes to make sure slaves were not able to communicate with each other. This is how Haitian Creole developed. Surprisingly, until the 21st century, French was the language in which school was taught through out Haiti and the only language in which the president addressed the nation. Still today, although spoken by only 42% of the population, French is the principally written and administratively authorized language. It is a very targeted attempt by the elite living in the capital to keep the general population out of the political decision making process. However, as soon as you step outside Port Au Prince you can easily see that ‘Kreyol’ is this nation’s language.
Picking up creole was easier for me with French being my native tongue. By the time I was able to speak it properly, I noticed a drastic change of attitude in all the Haitians I was talking to. You often hear that speaking the local language makes you understand a culture better, is seen as a sign of respect and very much appreciated by locals. All this is true in Haiti, but there is something more to it. Whenever I answer back to people using Kreyol - whether in a bus, at a restaurant, in the streets, in Haiti, Montreal or the Dominican Republic - I feel like virtually every barrier between the two of us disappears, I feel like I am ‘in’, whatever that means. With Haiti being a very collectivist society where communities are close knit and you are either in the group or out, it did make quite a difference in the long term in the community where I was working.
Sadly, the vast majority of foreigners working in Haiti live in a way that minimizes interaction with Haitians; they have private cars, live in private homes with fences and barbwire, in neighborhoods occupied mostly by other foreigners, and hence never get to exchange with the very people they came to help. And talking with most travellers that did immerse themselves in the Haitian culture, one consensus I found is that they are often the ones benefiting the most from these interactions. For many, this experience allowed them to put many things in perspective, and pushed them to reconsider what they are really looking for, sometimes even completely changing their career paths. I understand that it might be more difficult and require more effort to make meaningful connections with cultures that have more important differences with ours, but we should see this gap as an opportunity to learn and expand our understanding of the world we live in.
Jean-Christophe Taillandier is working as a Value-Chain and Agri-Business Coordinator with ISCA in Haiti.