Haiti and Jamaica sit less than 350 miles apart from one another in the Caribbean Sea. But growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Claudia Charlot learned little about her Creole-speaking neighbors until the man she later married came to her island to attend Bible school.
The two countries share tropical fruits, climate, and music—and the fact that their populations, like those of other Caribbean islands, are largely composed of people of African descent, says Charlot. Both have a similar Afrocentric culture, are former colonial islands, and have struggled for independence and with their people’s identity as descendants of former slaves.
Charlot made note of these similarities after she and her husband, Guenson, moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Arriving in 2011 with no job and little knowledge of French or Kreyòl (as Creole is known in the native language), Charlot opened a school to teach English to locals and ran it for five years. Today, she works as the dean of business at Emmaus University, and the Charlots live in a small community on the outskirts of Haiti’s second-largest city, Cap-Haïtien.
As Charlot has advised and worked with donors and investors over the years, she’s taken note of how often she’s had to correct negative stereotypes about Haiti. She completed her doctorate in 2021 on transformational leadership and turned her research into Haiti: The Black Sheep?, a book she wrote to help dispel the misconceptions about Haiti. “This country is rich in wisdom, values, and resilient people,” she says.
Global books editor Geeta Tupps spoke with Charlot concerning what the mainstream media got wrong about Haiti and the pandemic, her personal experience with Vodou, and how the global church can truly help this country.
Why did you decide to write your book?
Having been married to a Haitian for 14 years and lived in Haiti for 12 years, I wanted to highlight the value, the wisdom, and the beauty of Haitian culture. I've met so many donors who have donor fatigue and well-meaning investors who are confused or unsure what else to do in the country. I wanted to encourage them to not stop investing in Haiti.
I also wanted to help with questions asking why Haiti is as it is. What should donors do? This book is a capsule of my experiences and what can be done to improve the situation in Haiti.
In my doctoral research, I stumbled across numerous details about Haitian history, the country’s perception in the mainstream and Western media, and how it handles foreign aid. My doctorate adviser told me, “You have to make sure you get this research out. This would be a real plus to the humanitarian sector and NGOs.”
When I started teaching at the university in 2020, I held a symposium where I received feedback from university students about foreign aid. While they asked questions, I immersed myself in their culture in order to learn more about Haiti. The perspectives in my book include, among others, the voices of businesspeople as well as high school students, who are part of Smart Haiti, a leadership program I founded for young people.
What prompted you to move to Haiti?
From around the age of 15 or so, I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary. At first, I thought that this would be in Africa. But when I met my husband, Guenson, and learned more about his homeland, I felt that it was the Lord confirming to me that Haiti is like a chip off the continent of Africa.
When I arrived, I started an English school in order for Haiti to integrate more globally, as they are quite isolated from the rest of the world. Teaching English equipped me in learning Haitian culture. I now teach at Emmaus University, a school founded by Methodist missionaries, as the dean of business. It is at this university, in 2020, my husband became the first Haitian appointed president of this institution.
What do you think the mainstream Western media misses about Haiti?
As I write in my book, the most common words the US newspapers use to describe Haiti are violent and some form of the word poor or blood. During the pandemic, it was really upsetting to see how biased media reports were against Haiti. At the beginning, so many people were afraid of Haiti and its poor living conditions. We have only around 11 ICU units in a country of 12 million people, and many live in cramped living quarters, so some people said Haitians would be really wiped out.
Next door, the Dominican Republic, which is much more developed and has a similar population size, had 10 times the COVID-19 rate as Haiti despite more social distancing, vaccinations, and other precautions.
Here in Haiti, we had a medical miracle, despite the fact that vaccination was almost nonexistent and there was no social distancing because people have to go out every day to get food. (There’s no electricity to power a freezer to conserve food.)
Nevertheless, as I note in the book, as the COVID-19 predictions from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders fell through, the media scrambled to explain the death toll of “only 54” as “not reflect[ing] the reality on the ground.” At the same time, the Dominican Republic had 10 times Haiti’s death rate yet received none of this negative press.
I also have noticed that other upheavals in the Caribbean, like violent uprisings, rarely make the Western news. In the Dominican Republic, if there is something terrible in the news, this would not be widely reported because they have a vibrant tourist industry. But the media reports on bandits’ uprisings in Haiti (only) because Haiti is poor and the leaders are negligent.
Beyond Haiti’s struggles with poverty and unrest, many also associate it with Vodou. What has been your experience with this?
I live in a community that is very involved in Vodou ceremonies. I have encountered ceremonies at night and hear the drums beating throughout the city. There are a lot of witch doctors and seers. I’ve seen sacrifices in the streets left in the mornings, like chickens left dead in the intersection of the roads. But mostly, I’ve heard other people’s experiences where families consult a witch doctor for advice on marriage, sickness, and other ordeals they are facing.
Haitian Vodou is very pervasive in the country. And unfortunately many Haitians practice Vodou to try to be true to their culture and identity. They feel like they have to continue performing sacrifices for their ancestors and worship their families.
What does Christianity in a Vodou context look like?
The Catholic church here in Haiti is different from the Catholic church in other parts of the world. There is so much syncretism with Vodou. There is a popular expression that Haitians are 90 percent Catholic, 10 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodouist! Many of the Catholic saints symbolize Haitian gods and goddesses. They use a combination of saints, like Saint James, Saint Peter, and Saint Mary, for Haitian gods and goddesses.
One similarity between Haitian churches and Jamaican churches is that women’s dress tends to be very conservative. Many women do not wear jewelry or pants. I assumed that conservatism was a carryover from Victorianism or repression of women. But when I did my research, I found that in the Haitian pantheon of gods, there is a goddess of excess beauty and fertility who was characterized by extravagant dress, expensive clothes, and jewelry. If associated with this goddess, Haitians believed that she inspired seductive behavior.
Typically Haitians make a mental decision to follow Christ but tend to fall back on Haitian Vodou especially in times of crisis. When they encounter sickness, loss, or uncertainty, they may go to a witch doctor for healing, or sometimes they seek a clairvoyant. They want to see if there’s a spirit that wants to harm them. Haitians are continually trying to find out, What’s happening? What’s going to happen? Why is this happening?
What allows Haitians to continue to find hope amid significant amounts of adversity?
Haiti has had a very rough history. Coming from the height of their economic dominance and expansion in the 1700s, Haiti was known as a pearl of the Antilles. It was a wealthy colony because the biggest exports are sugar and cotton. As a French slave colony, Haiti had 8,000 plantations and produced 40 percent of France’s foreign trade, including more cotton than Maryland and Virginia put together and 40 percent of the world’s sugar at that time (late 1700s).
Post-emancipation, Haiti began to struggle. In 1825, to maintain their freedom, they had to pay an indemnity or the freedom tax of 150 million [francs] (equivalent to $21 billion today). They also faced two US occupations and subsequent political upheavals, coup d’etats, trade embargoes, and natural disasters.
Despite all the despair, bad history, and bad experiences, the Haitian culture is very resilient. There are a lot of proverbs and sayings about persevering and being patient. One Haitian proverb that I highlighted in my book was “Bondye pa bay pitit Li penn san sekou,” which means “God never gives his children a problem without giving them a solution.” One of the most beautiful things about Haitian culture is how they are survivors and how, despite the difficulties, they really believe that things will change no matter what.
When comparing Haitian culture to Western culture, I began to notice how rare suicide is here. It has only been in rare instances that I have heard of anyone killing themselves in my entire 12 years living here. So, imagine, we’re in a culture of so-called poverty and a culture of despair. But despite these hardships, the cases of suicide, especially when compared to the US, are low.
The low suicide rate shows that Haitians generally don’t tend to give up. They find comfort by enjoying time with their families, in having babies, and in the little things in life. In a country that’s supposed to be full of despair, there is contentment.
How do you feel the church can truly help Haiti?
One of the purposes of my book is to highlight what has worked and what we should continue doing. Foreign aid and missions groups and churches have helped Haiti. The Haitian educational system is largely privatized; many students can’t afford these private institutions until the church steps in and church groups sponsor them. My husband is an example of someone who sponsored him to go to Jamaica. In my book, I enjoyed writing about positive stories to inspire people.
Part of what we need to revisit as a Christian community is our partnerships with other organizations. Many of the efforts are segmented or fragmented in Haiti. It’s a deficit-based community-development approach where many outsiders feel like there are no resources on the ground. They come in with a savior mentality: “We’re gonna come in and save Haiti because there’s nothing there.”
Quality public schools in Haiti are limited, which leads to high levels of illiteracy and a struggle with math. I know many donors complain to me and tell me that reporting and providing receipts are a big issue for their big projects, but many people might not understand that Haiti is mostly an oral culture. Consequently, if we have to provide receipts for everything, the project becomes quite challenging. Donors might assume it is dishonesty, but Haitians just need better training.
I want those on the outside to transition to an asset-based community-development approach—where you come to Haiti with the posture of a learner, with the idea that there’s already something working no matter how terrible the communities. If there is something that works fine, then organizations on the ground, churches, schools, assets in the community can partner with foreign churches. Faith groups need to build partnerships with the locals and to involve them in the project.