Hurricanes. Poverty. Voodoo. Extinct animals. Disease. Illiteracy. Deforestation. Struggle for survival. These haunting words describe the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti.
Sitting right at the United States' doorstep, Haiti is a West Indies country that occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Over the years, it has been wracked by hurricanes, coup d'etats, political sanctions, poor farming techniques and deforestation, leaving the vast majority of people in abject poverty. Officially, 45 percent of the more than eight million people are literate, although the actual number hovers around 20 percent. There is only one doctor for every 10,000 people, and life expectancy is barely 51 years of age. Only 41 percent of the population have access to safe drinking water.
Haiti ranks lowest in the hemisphere and among the lowest in the world in nearly every social and economic indicator. The per capita Gross National Product is only $250. The infant mortality rate is 95 per 1000 births.
"In Haiti, if you have the money, you can go to a government school," reports the leader of an indigenous ministry here. "In the government schools you have to pay at least $50 a month.
"In many places there are no schools and the children have to walk long distances to go to one. Bassin Tounen is one such place. The children there are without clothes, without good nutrition, and with so many other needs."
Those who cannot go to school run the risk of becoming street children.
"I don't know how many street children there are today," he continues. "Probably 300,000 in all Haiti, although there might be even more than that. Everywhere you go, you see them. If we don't help them, we will have more problems, more voodoo, more killings, and more crime."
Voodoo, a state-recognized religion, includes blood offerings, ritual dancing, heavy drinking, spirit possession, magic, and divining the future. It is a combination of beliefs garnered from various tribes all over Africa.
Although voodoo was being practiced in Haiti by the end of the seventeenth century--when the Spanish ceded the area to the French--it began to flourish from 1730-1790. The French outlawed it, which was one of the factors leading to the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791. In 1804, Haiti was declared the world's first black republic. Whites were expelled (many were killed) and the Vatican broke ties with the country for 56 years.
Early in the 20th century, the United States invaded Haiti. The U.S. military began to build the infrastructure and institutions needed to govern the country. The occupation, which met with minimal resistance, ended in 1934. In the years following, a series of dictators and military juntas ruled the country, the best known of whom were Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc).
Free elections in 1991 saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide become president, but he was ousted in a military coup just months later. After the United Nations imposed sanctions and the US threatened to invade, the military junta stepped aside and Aristide returned to power.
Since then, there has been a wave of violence and political assassinations.
Haiti's history of poverty, violence, and voodoo has left the people grasping for hope. Indigenous ministries are laboring hard to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.
"One thing we see that seems to be very difficult to give up is the hatred that they have allowed to control them for a long time," writes a Christian worker. "To learn the blessing of forgiveness instead of the act of revenge is a process for most of them."
Yet, the missionaries continue to work, bringing hope to the hopeless.
"Even though Haiti has experienced failure after failure in its history, deep in the heart of people lies the hope that they will be delivered," writes the missionary's daughter. "It takes a lot of faith to try and fail, but let's never give up. May our hope lie in the strong tower of our Lord."
After the Catholics, Protestants account for 17 percent of the population (other Christian sources put the figure at 25 percent), followed by independent Christians (5 percent), Anglicans (1.3), spiritists (2.5), nonreligious (1.4), and Baha'is (0.2). There are small numbers of atheists, Muslims, and Jews.
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