The poorest country in the western hemisphere needs an abundance of help from international volunteers. Some may turn their cheek to this need, while others may offer a hand to help. There is no doubt that a volunteer experience in Haiti can open one’s eyes to the values of life and give life meaning. In 2010, a severe earthquake shattered the country of Haiti, killing over 250,000 people, and leaving hundreds of thousands more without homes. In addition to this sad event, a corrupt government lacks proper distribution of aid to the entire country. Since then the endless need throughout Haiti has only grown.
Haiti is located next to the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. It has a population of close to 10 million and is part of an island called Hispaniola. There is a very young population in Haiti; half of the 10 million people living in Haiti are under 20 years old. Many of these young people provide income for their families through farming and work in markets. Around 75 percent of Haitians survive on less than $2 US per day, a statistic that is often enough to convince individuals to volunteer in Haiti and many other poverty ridden nations.
Haiti has a tropical climate, with drier areas in the mountains. Much of Haiti is covered in mountains, and other types of rugged terrain. The terrain has changed over the years as the majority of Haiti has been affected by deforestation, which causes a lot of soil erosion and flooding.
A popular time to visit Haiti is between December and April, when the weather is dry and less humid, as the rainy season begins around May. The weather is still warm throughout these months as well, with an average temperature of 80 degrees.
The local food is distinct to Haiti, cooked with flavorful spices and moderately spicy. Peppers are often served with rice and beans, which are staples of the Haitian diet. Plantains are a very popular snack and usually fried in soybean oil. The women, who work the majority of the day gathering supplies for meals and cooking the meals, often cook meals together. Many people eat together in a group setting and prayer is said before the meal.
It is also important to stay hydrated throughout any stay in Haiti and plan for some stomach issues as it takes digestive systems time to adjust to the new cuisine. Foreigners should avoid drinking the water in Haiti, including ice cubes, as it is often ridden with bacteria. International volunteers should stick to bottled water instead, and avoid purchasing meat or produce from street vendors. Always know where food is coming from before ordering or purchasing it.
On this island nation, people speak French and Creole, a native language of Haiti. The Spanish language is also known amongst the younger population but isn’t as popular. Many local students study Spanish and know some varied dialects because of Haiti’s close proximity to the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Haiti’s currency is the Haitian gourde (HTG), about 50 Haitian gourdes are equal to just over one U.S. dollars. However, many Haitians prefer American dollars over the local gourde. At popular shops in Haiti located close to tourist attractions, vendors may try to overcharge foreigners for the same piece of artwork that could be bought on the street from a local sales person. For example, a beautiful canvas of art may be fifteen at the tourist site, while the same piece in better condition on the street can be bargained for at $5 US. Visitors should be firm when bargaining because they should always be able to get things cheaper than the asking price.
Haiti has a very religious-based culture, which is the base for much of what the Haitians do in their daily lives. Approximately 80 percent of Haitians are Catholic, and many attend church daily. Some Haitians combine Catholicism with Voodoo, which is related to serving spirits.
The music of Haiti is derived from African history mixed with some Spanish influence from their neighboring countries. Some music unique to Haiti is that related to Voodoo ceremonies, as well as Compas, which is a mix of African rhythm and European ballroom influence. Very brightly colored art is evident amongst the streets of Haiti in the capital of Port-au-Prince where men and women sell their art, or replicas of famous artwork. The art is moderately priced and can often be bargained for to make it cheaper.
Education is important to the children in Haiti. Those who are fortunate enough to go to school love school and are happy with the few supplies they have. Communities and charity organizations fund the majority of the schools; however, being in school past sixth grade is rare. Many of the children play soccer in Haiti between school hours and on their time off when they are not working or helping their families.
While traveling, prepare to move slowly and plan for many stops along the way. The roads are very rugged, especially in more rural areas. While the small village of Dumay is only located a little more than 17 miles from Port au Prince, approximately 30 minutes, the drive takes over 1.5 hours regularly. Travel takes place in “tap-taps”, which are large brightly colored taxis, which pick up and drop off passengers along any route. These tap-taps get very crowded but are one of the only ways to get transportation unless private transportation for a volunteer program is arranged.
Volunteers have the opportunity to work in medical placements, with children, and on community development projects. Medical volunteers can expect to encounter individuals with Tuberculosis, Typhoid fever, malnutrition, infections, and cardiovascular related issues. Small children often come into the clinics to be treated for worms and infections. Men often experience blood pressure problems and women frequently appear with severe dehydration in rural clinics. The majority of people treated in medical placements are under ten years old and many infants who are brought in by parents are underweight and in need nutritional supplements.
Before traveling or volunteering in Haiti, it is important to get the required immunizations and vaccines. It is also important to not travel alone especially at night. Crime rates are high in Haiti as many people are very desperate. Volunteers should travel in a group and not keep a lot of money on them or wear flashy jewelry and clothes. In general, Haitians are friendly to foreigners, want to get to know new people, and are genuinely thankful for their volunteer work throughout the nation.
Groups of volunteers are sometimes placed in group accommodations in homes with kitchens and bathrooms, and bedrooms for multiple volunteers to share. Homes of this type are almost unheard of when it comes to local houses. Many of the homes in small villages are very run down, often with no furniture and filled with haystacks to serve as beds. Animals roam freely and there is a lot of garbage throughout most villages. However, amidst sometimes desperate living conditions, volunteers have the opportunity to realize the true necessities of life. The locals are happy and content with what little they haven despite so much destruction throughout Haiti.
Overall, a visit to Haiti will put perspective into life. Volunteering in Haiti is a very humbling experience. Finally, take time to plan your visit to Haiti, as the resources there are limited; planning can be the first key to a successful, effective volunteer experience. Mwen Renmen Haiti (which means I love Haiti in Creole).