Traditions & Customs in Haiti

North AmericaHaitiTraditions & Customs in Haiti

One thing a missionary or other visitor to Haiti learns very quickly is that Haitians are a very dignified people; they have their pride, despite everything they have been through. There are a few beggars and peddlers in the cities, but they are the exception, not the rule. Don’t expect them to bend over backwards. Impoverished Haitians will always accept gifts, but they will almost always stand up straight, look you in the eye and thank you with a sincere “mesi” (thank you).

Haiti is a nation with quite conservative standards. It is advisable to dress modestly when exploring the cities of Haiti, especially for women. The intelligent visitor should look people in the eye, greet them and treat them with friendship and respect, as equals, even if their living conditions seem poor or desperate.

Try to learn some basic Haitian-Creole words.

Ask permission before taking photos of people (money is often demanded). Never walk around holding your camera in people’s faces or take photos indiscriminately. Don’t just take photos of the mountains of rubbish you see in some of the big cities (like Cap-Haitien or Port-au-Prince), or of anything Haitians are not proud of, because that is offensive. On the other hand, people have no problem with foreigners taking pictures of beautiful landscapes, cultural events or historical sites.

Take a few water bottles in your bags for the children who will be carrying your luggage, shining your shoes or tap-dancing at the airport (but beware of pickpockets).

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Sometimes visitors go around Haiti handing out sweets or banknotes. While many people, especially children, will accept your offer, this practice is offensive to most people because it violates the dignity of Haitians. Take an extra bottle of water and some food to share with your driver, guide or interpreter.

Be patient, because nothing happens quickly in Haiti. Most people will find your whining amusing at best and seriously offensive at worst.

Take some photos of the area where you live, your workplace or your family to share with your friends. These are the things that will turn you from a mere tourist into a real person. In most cases, people will reciprocate and you may even make a friend.

Your feelings are real. It is normal to feel overwhelmed if you have never experienced this kind of cultural difference. If you are easily affected by signs of poverty, Haiti is not for you. Be polite but not pushy. It is normal to ask questions of the locals. Remember that you are a guest in their country. Do not expect to be treated like a king or queen (although you may get some extra privileges) just because you are a foreigner. Haitians are warm and helpful people.

The inhabitants of Gonâve Island probably have less contact with Americans than Haitians in Port-au-Prince. Children shout “blan, blan, blan” when white people walk by. The children of the salt flats will be happy to walk with you, show you how to skip stones on the water, and try very hard to communicate with you. They may try to charge you for picking up a shell on the salt flats and up to $6 for a photo with their donkey. You don’t have to pay, but out of respect you should not take the photo. They are happy if you ask them if you can take their picture.