A Glimpse at the Haitian Family
By Stephanie Beauvais
The family is considered the building block of society for many cultures around the world. Haiti is no exception. To gauge a deeper understanding of Haitian society and culture, exploring Haitian family life, customs, beliefs, and values hold great significance. The purpose of discussing this topic is to explore the intricate relationships and dynamics of Haitian families. Core familial components such as gender roles, division of labor, and religious belief systems will all be included in this analysis. Sex, family, and fertility will be analyzed through the thoughts of anthropologist Timothy Schwartz on men’s absence via male wage migration and the reason why the remaining women left behind give birth to more instead of fewer babies. Ira P. Lowenthal’s writings on marriage and sexuality specifically in rural Haiti and women’s sense of independence and self-image will be used to analyze marriage customs, male and female hierarchy and its influences in rural society. Additionally, Christine Barrow’s work on family life in the Caribbean will aid in drawing similarities and trends between Haitian families and other Afro-Caribbean families. Whether the family is located in rural parts of the island, resides in the cities, or dwells in a neighboring Caribbean island or country abroad, examining each unique scenario will help create a better understanding of Haitian family life.
Key words: lakay, lekol, diaspora, urban family, rural family, poto mitan, customs, beliefs, values, sex, marriage, men, women, children
“Rivyè pa dwe bliye sous li.”
Translation: A river should not forget its source
-A common Haitian proverb expressing the importance of where you come from/your roots
The sovereign state that occupies three-eighths of the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles archipelago of the Caribbean sea is known as the Republic of Haiti. Sharing the second largest island in the region with the Dominican Republic, Haiti once generated millions of dollars in revenue as the wealthiest French colony in the Americas. The laborious efforts of hundreds of thousands of slaves imported from Africa allowed for this large generation of wealth as well as the legendary revolution that liberated Haiti from the French in 1804. With such a large slave population and various European occupiers during colonial times, it is evident that there is a distinct mix of African and European influence that shapes the Haitian family.
Out of Africa
Harold Courlander (1960, 26-27), The Drum and the Hoe
“By the eighteenth century the slave population represented countless tribes and kingdoms of West Africa. There were Senegelese, Foulas, Poulards, Sosos, Bambarras, Kiambaras, Mandingos, and Yolofs from north-west Africa. There were Aradas, Mahis, Haoussas, Ibos, Anagos or Yorubas, Bini, Takwas, Fidas, Amines, Fantis, Agouas, Sobos, Limbas, and Adjas from the coast and interior of the great bulge of Africa. From Angola and the Congo Basin came the Solongos, the Maombes, the Moundongues, the Bumbas, the Kangas, and others. Although there is no official record, Haitians themselves say that there were also those tall people known as the Jangheys, or Dinkas, from the region of the Upper Nile, and Bagandas from Uganda. A few proper names that have survived, such as Ras Mede, suggest that there may have been men from Ethiopia among them. Old slave records show that numerous shipments were made from Madagascar and Mozambique on the East African coast.”
Gender Roles and Division of Labor
When discussing gender roles and division of labor in Haitian families, it is important to take into consideration what type of family is being analyzed. Families in rural areas, urban areas, and diaspora areas have developed varying roles for members of their families based on their environment and specific needs. Drawing from her studies in the southern valley of Marbial, Madeleine Bouchereau (1957, 90) found that nearly all the women from the smaller villages and rural areas are wholly responsible for household work; they are however, helped by their daughters who little by little take on more tasks. Cooking, cleaning, washing, and childcare all fall under this category. Transporting fire wood and water is another common task they perform. Although household work represents a large portion of the responsibilities held by Haitian females, they also participate in agricultural work and commerce, maintaining the fields and selling produce and other goods in the market as a source of income. Dr. Crystal A. Felima (2016, 182) notes “women have an intrinsic value to Haiti’s economy. Not only do economic opportunities for women foster development, it promotes economic empowerment, invokes women’s agency, and it supports livelihoods”, further supporting women’s economic contribution to the house and society.
Field work is generally carried out by the whole family. The males may clear and prepare the ground for planting while the females do the weeding and day-to-day maintenance. Neighboring families may also form a lakou (community living arrangement) and work together via konbit, a West African tradition that enables farmers to carry out major agricultural tasks that cannot be accomplished individually according to Courlander (1960, 87). If there is a lack of work and cash, it is common for fathers to leave their children and wives to venture to other countries for economic gains. Shwartz (2011, 218) mentions that on the part of males, the scarcity of cash and salaried jobs made it difficult for them to find the means to meet the demands of women and their families and most importantly, to finance the household. The primary way men got the money was by migrating. Some return and some do not, starting a new life and family elsewhere. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Bahamas, the United States, Canada, and France are popular destinations for better opportunities. This explains the large Haitian diaspora concentrations in those areas. However, the presence of fewer men did not put a pause on women’s fertility. Many women were more likely to not marry until later on in life, to keep options open to them, and to begin or intensify their childbearing careers during times of high male wage migration according to Shwartz (2011, 219).
In other cases, J.P. Slavin (1996, 118) found that rural families may send their children to be child servants or restavèks for better-off urban families. That way, the child may gain the opportunity for a better education and overall life in the city and eventually bring aid to his or her family. Some components remain the same for urban and diaspora families. The main difference is the lack of an agricultural element. Females are still responsible for tending to the house and children while the men work. Middle and upper-class urban dwellers in Haiti along with Haitian diaspora in the United States, Canada, and France live similarly to their foreign neighbors. In some cases, both the husband and wife work and some families tend to have between two to three children along with a furry companion. The wife may or may not engage in commerce or another form of income based on the family’s economic situation.
Customs and Values
The core of the family’s beliefs and values, however, remain the same regardless of location. There is still a great sense of family, lakay (home), and caring for each other. Based upon personal observations and interactions with my other Haitian diaspora counterparts, it is not uncommon for extended family to live with or near the nuclear family. This trend is present in many Caribbean islands as well. Solien (1960, 106) proposes that the family be defined as a group of people bound together by the complex set of relationships known as kinship ties, between at least two of whom who there exists a conjugal relationship. The conjugal pair, plus their offspring, forms the nuclear family. Other types of family may be defined as extensions of the nuclear type, each being identified by the nature of the relationship between the conjugal pair (or one member of that pair) and other members.
Photos by HelpAge International on flickr. The photos above feature Yolande, age 56, and granddaughter Rosi, age 5, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, December 2011.
The elderly are seen as sources of wisdom and are highly respected. Advice and herbal remedies are their specialties. They also aid in raising the children. Offspring tend to live with their parents longer. Children are not adults once they turn eighteen. This concept is strictly American. As long as one lives under the roof of one’s parents, their rules will always apply, regardless of one’s age. Children play an important role in the family as successors. They must not let the efforts and struggles of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors in general be in vain. Having children is especially important to ensure a comfortable old age for many Caribbean families according to Christine Barrow (1999, 71).
Marital Affairs, Sex, and Fertility
“Chak famn feta k yon kawo te – nan mitan janm ni.”
Translation: Every women is born with a parcel of land – between her legs.
-A common Haitian proverb describing female commoditization
There is a sense of hierarchy when it comes to males and females. Although females are vital to the family’s well-being as the poto-mitan (center pole), males are still commonly seen as head of the household. Greater emphasis on marriage and child-bearing are put on females. Greater emphasis on the need for sexual interaction with women are taught to males. A celibate man may face ridicule, being referred to as jay-jay (retarded) or masisi (homosexual). Timothy Shwartz (2011, 218) notes that mothers tightly controlled their daughters, instilling fear of contraception and abortion in them, kept them in the dark about the mechanics of pregnancy, and closely monitored their sexual activities. On the other hand, sons were encouraged to be sexually aggressive. A man was not a man if he did not have premarital and extramarital sex. Ira Lowenthal (1987) describes these trends as a “field of competition” where women hold a socially constructed advantage because they portray themselves and are taught to think of themselves as able to get along without sex. This allows them to extract material rewards for sexual contact with men. These sexual-material views are common in rural Haiti and apply to a range of relationships: whether the woman is dealing with a husband, lover, or something more casual. However, women are not encouraged to be sexually aggressive. “Fi pa konn koze a gason” (girls do not flirt with boys). It is the male’s job to entice. Instead women are taught to see sex more as means for financial gains over pleasure. A great emphasis on fertility is common in rural areas because children are highly valued for their labor. In recent times, the trend of having large families is steadily decreasing as women average about 2.97 children in the year 2015 according to Statista.com.
Conjugal unions between and man and woman are not cheap. Shwartz (2011, 58) explains that if a man wants to claim exclusive sexual access to a woman, he must purchase that right with gifts and promises (or lies). Maintaining these rights can range from giving a gold chain and earrings to his fiancé to building her a house, planting gardens, and tending livestock. Overall, a universal belief across all types of Haitian and Caribbean families is if the male has nothing to offer, then he is not ready for a wife. Parents allowed girls to go out with specific suitors, but as seen, they did so with an eye toward his ability to provide according to Shwartz (2011, 203).
“Haiti: 80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, 100 percent Vodou”
-A popular cliché about Haiti’s religious composition
Two major belief systems that exist in Haiti are Christianity and Vodou. Christianity, specifically Catholicism, is popular amongst families in urban centers and abroad while Vodou is more popular amongst rural families. Haitian followers of Christianity have Christenings and baptisms for their children and usually attend church services regularly in their Sunday’s best outfits with their frè ak sè (brothers and sisters) in Christ. Followers of Vodou teach their children to serve their family’s lwas (spirits) and attend ceremonies with everyone else, participating by singing, clapping, dancing or playing instruments. This trend traces back to post-revolution times. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash (1999, 255) mentioned that a mainly urban and mainly mulatto elite wrote in French and spoke, at least in public, French, saw itself as European with its cultural roots in Paris, and was faithful to the Catholic church. The vast majority, peasants in the countryside, and later urban slum dwellers, communicated in Creole, kept their attachment to certain African traits and modes of social behavior, and developed the ritual and ceremony to serve the spirits. In many cases, families may integrate both belief systems into their households, having no problem considering themselves to be Christians as well as servants of the lwas according to Arthur and Dash (1999, 258).
“Legliz, lakay, lekol.”
Translation: church, home, school
-A common phrase for the three pillars of many Haitian households
Although the Haitian Republic can trace its origins back to the shores of Africa and the ships of Europe, this West Indian island nation possesses a distinctive culture of its own. Haitian culture is a living breathing organism, evolving with time. The Haitian family serves as one of its vital organs, the heart. More or less, many Haitian people place great importance on the family unit, regardless of their background, economic status, or location. Each family member, whether it be mother, father, child, etc. are equally important and play different roles in the formation, maintenance, and well-being of the unit.
All and all, the subject of Haitian family life should be of interest to the discipline of Haitian Studies because it provides insight on the Haitian people. A country and its culture cannot be examined without first conducting an in-depth exploration of the people who comprise it. Exploring different components of the Haitian family can provide better understanding on relationships and interactions taking place inside the home, in Haitian society, and beyond. This can lead to debunking the negative exceptionalities and stereotypes surrounding Haiti and her people, often seen as savages, barbaric, and backwards to the outside world. Although kreyon pep la pa gen gomn (the people’s pencil has no eraser) and Haiti cannot change its past, she can still write and dictate her future. In time, perhaps properly reeducating the world on Haiti will lead to the emergence of a fresh true image for the country.
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Bouchereau, Madeleine. 1957. “Haïti et ses femmes.” In A Haiti anthology: libète, editied by J. Michael Dash and Charles Arthur, 90. Princeton, N. J.: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc
Arthur, Charles, and J. Michael Dash. 1999. A Haiti anthology: libète. Princeton, N. J.: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc.
Courlander, Harold. 1960. “The Drum and the Hoe.” In A Haiti anthology: libète, edited by J. Michael Dash and Charles Arthur, 26-27. Princeton, N. J.: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc.
Felima, Crystal A. 2016. “The Economics of Vodou Haitian Women, Entrepreneurship, and Agency.” In Vodou in Haitian Memory, edited by Celucien L. Joseph and Nixon S. Cleophat, 182. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Lowenthal, Ira.1987. Marriage is 20, children are 21: The cultural construction of conjugality and the family in rural Haiti. Dissertation, John Hopkins University.
Schwartz, Timothy T. 2011. Sex, family, & Fertility in Haiti. North Charleston, S. C.: Createspace.
Slavin, J. P. 1996. “Restavèk: Four-Year-Old Child Servants.” In A Haiti anthology: libète, edited by J. Michael Dash and Charles Arthur, 118. Princeton, N. J.: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc
Solien, N. L. 1960. ‘Household and Family in the Caribbean: Some definitions and concepts.’ Social and Economic Studies: 106