Unlike many industrialized, modernized and commodity based countries, Haiti is still challenged by prevalent illiteracy and poverty. Outside attention typically focuses only on the problems that accompany these conditions. A look at Haiti’s folklore will highlight the more realistic and inclusive understanding of the Haitian people and their culture.
Haiti, in contrast to most contemporary countries, still enjoys a thriving and vibrant collective folklore. It is most often through the oral tradition that people in Haiti learn about their creative culture and history.
Historically, countries and communities that have taken the bold step into the industrialized world have stopped midstream and realized that much of their folklore has dissipated or even disappeared. With this realization came the study and collecting of folklore.
Many Haitian folktales draw heavily on influences from Europe (France, Spain), Africa, (via slaves) as well as the Carib Indians who originally populated the island.
The year 1804 brought independence to Haiti but even now poverty is rampant. Education, food, even basic necessities are difficult to come by. The stories we find in Haiti often reflect the harshness of this reality. Themes such as shame, jealousy, betrayal, the supernatural, childlike innocence, and the ability of the clever underdog to triumph, offer ready comment on one’s ability to thrive in the face of hardship.
There are many kinds of stories in Haiti. Some of the best loved are tall tales, trickster tales and accounts of contests between good and evil. Characters such as “Papa God” and the well known team, “Uncle Bouki” and “Ti Malice” are among the most popular in Haitian folktales. Bouki, is boastful, greedy and foolish, whereas Ti Malice is quick, conniving prankster.
People in Haiti tell stories through music, dance and words. Frequent gatherings where both young and old compete to tell their stories is commonplace. It is a lively and engaging occasion, where the audience participates enthusiastically. A teller wishing to be heard will often shout “Cric”. Those interested in hearing will respond “Crac”. Of course the more reputable tellers get a greater response!
Folktales in Haiti are entertaining, educational and grounding. They promote unity among the people and their communities. Perhaps most importantly, folktales are thriving in such a way as to provide a model and inspiration for us, as we acknowledge the significance and the power of story.