Haitian Proverbs, Riddles, Jokes and Folktales
Up until 1983 I published a magazine about Haiti called STRETCH.
Occasionally I would publish proverbs, jokes, riddles and stories
from Haiti. None of these are original to me and are taken from
various books on Haiti, particularly from the work of Harold
Courlander. I'll include a sampling from past editiion of STRETCH
which will give you some taste of Haiti's folk literature. Perhaps
others can add their favorites.
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Haiti is an oral culture. There is a long tradition of proverbs,
jokes, riddles and stories which people have been telling around the
evening fire for centuries. We are instituting these two pages for
each edition to help you get a sense of this important part of
Haiti is a non-literate culture. 80% or more of the people neither
read nor write. Consequently, wisdom is oral. There are no detailed
philosophical systems in Haiti. People hand down their knowledge and
express it in proverbs. In the rural areas hardly 5 or 6 sentences
can pass in any serious conversation without someone throwing in a
proverb as defense of some idea. There are hundreds of proverbs. One
very famous one is:
Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li.
Little by little the bird builds its nest.
And that's how we'll proceed. Little by little we'll share many of
the popular Haitian proverbs with you. Here's a small sampling to start.
Konstitisyon se papie, bayonet se fe.
The constitution is paper, bayonets are steel.
Rache manyok bay te a blanch.
Uproot the manioc, and clear the land.
(A political proverb to advocate pulling out the Duvalierist system
by the roots to replace it with something else.)
God is good.
This is a proverb of optimism and fatalism. Whatever happens is what
God does, and what God does is for the best.
There is another similar proverb that translates as
The pencil of God has not eraser.
Dye mon, gen mon.
Beyond the mountain is another mountain.
A proverb of both patience and the recognition of how difficult life
in Haiti is.
Sak vid pa kanp.
An empty sack can't stand up.
You can't get much work done on an empty stomach.
Neg di san fe;
People talk and don't act.
Bondye fe san di.
God acts and doesn't talk.
Pal franse pa di lespri pou sa.
To speak French doesn't mean you are smart.
For most Haitians French is a foreign language; a language for
on airs. Thus the point here is: Fancy talk doesn't mean one has
the brains to go with it.
Bourik swe pou chwal dekore ak dentel
The donkey sweats so the horse can be decorated with lace.
Makak pa janm kwe petit-li led.
A monkey never thinks her baby's ugly.
Si travay te bon bagay, moun rich la pran-l lontan.
If work were a good thing the rich would have grabbed it a long time ago.
Li pale franse.
He speaks French. (A person likely is deceiving you)
Kreyol pale, kreyol komprann
Speak plainly, don't try to deceive.
I've noticed that the concept of humor is quite different culture to
culture. I've spend a good bit of time in Austria as well as Haiti.
The sorts of jokes one encounters in either of those cultures are
quite different from one another, and quite different from the
popular jokes in America. When you read the Haitian jokes we will
present in these pages, you'll have to watch for the pattern of the
sense of humor which is alive and well in Haiti.
There was a man about to be killed by his political enemies. They
asked him if he wanted a cigarette before they killed him.
the unfortunate man replied,
I gave up smoking. It's bad for your health!
- On Saturday evening, Ti Lifet's father gave him 5 goud ($1.00).
Two goud are for Church tomorrow morning. The other three are for ice-cream.
Ti Lifet jumped on his father's donkey and hurried off to buy some
ice cream. When he got there he fell off the donkey, and his money
fell out of his pocket. A dog came up and swallowed two goud.
said Ti Lifet,
how sad! It was God's two goud that the dog swallowed.
- A man moved from Port-au-Prince to Okay (Les Cayes). He wasn't
too sure about living there. But, he met a fellow in a bar and
inquired about life in Okay.
Oh my, it's a great place, said
When I came here I couldn't utter a single word. I had no
hair, no job, no food. They gave me a bed and food and helped me out.
Now, as you see, I am strong and well, and I have a good job. The
Port-au-Prince man was quite impressed.
That's fantastic. When did
you come here?
Oh, replied the man from Okay,
A young couple treated themselves to a meal in an expensive
restaurant in Petionville. After eating a huge meal they had settled
back in their chairs to relax and chat. The waiter came along and
Will you have American coffee or Haitian coffee?
The woman replied that she'd have American coffee, while the man
chose Haitian coffee. The waiter said,
coming right up, and
Ah, said the woman, this is a fantastic restaurant. The
service is so solicitous and they have just everything. Her date agreed.
After a few minutes the waiter returned with two cups, one small
demitasse cup and one large coffee cup. He placed the large cup in
front of the woman and the small cup in front of the man. Then, with
great ceremony, he filled both cups from the same coffee pot!
The priest arrived in the village and went to the church to hear
confessions. As was his custom he left his watch on one of the pews.
After a little while a young man came in to confess his sins.
Father, forgive me, I have stolen a watch.
Well, young man, said the priest, don't just say you are
sorry, but give the watch back to the owner.
Oh, said the sinner, let me give you the watch, Father.
No, said the priest. Don't give it to me. Give it to the owner.
But, Father, I've offered it to the owner and he doesn't want to
take it back, said the young man.
Well, in that case, I've give you absolution for the stealing, but
you can keep the watch. The priest gave the young man
forgiveness. Later, however, when the priest left the church he was
surprised to discover that his watch had been stolen.
Perhaps the most popular form of humor and amusement are riddles.
There is a definite form of the riddles:
The person throwing the riddle says: TIM TIM
Those who want to hear it reply: BWA SECHE
Then the riddle is given. If they get it they announce it. If they
give up they say BWA SECHE which means they eat dry wood (the penalty
for not getting the riddle.)
The riddles themselves are very difficult. They require a transition
from the literal problem to quite fanciful and figurative answers.
They serve it food, it stands on four feet, but it can't eat.
- I enter white, I come out mulatto.
- Three very large men are standing under a single little umbrella.
But, not one of them gets wet. Why?
- When I sit, I am taller than when I stand.
- How many coconuts can you put into an empty sack?
Ou bwa seche? (You give up?) The answers are:
- It's not raining.
- A dog.
- Only one. After that the sack's not empty.
Tim Tim (a challenge)
Bwa seche (bring it on)
What has four legs, eats straw, has a single heart and can see just
as well in the dark as it does in the day?
- Why is it that when you lose something it's always found in the
very last place you look?
Ou bwa seche? (You give up?)
A blind donkey.
- Because after you find it you quit looking.
Bouki and Ti Malic
Stories are introduced by the invitation to hear a story. The person
willing to tell the story shouts out: KRIK. If people want to hear
the tale, and they nearly always do, they answer in chorus: KRAK.
The most popular folk tales concern the smart, but mischievous Ti
Malice and his very slow-witted friend Bouki. In this first issue of
tales, I'll just share two very short anecdotal tales.
One day Ti Malice went over to Bouki's house. When he arrived at the
lakou (farm yard), was was shocked at what he saw, and watched for
some time. Bouki was playing diminoes with his dog! Ti Malice say, Bouki,
what a brilliant dog you have! He can play diminoes. I don't know,said
Bouki, he's not so smart. I beat him 3 out of 5 games already!
Bouki: Did I tell you that Madame Joseph had triplets two weeks
ago, and now she has twins!
Ti Malice: But that's impossible! How can it be?
Bouki: One of the triplets is staying at her grandmother's house.
More Folk takes:
Everyone is supposed to know that a long time ago there were no
people in the world. The forest was populated with beasts; among them
were Bouqui and Ti Malice.
It was the time that God had begun to change animals into men that He
called the animals and told them to build a great house to keep out
rain and storms and to live like one big happy family.
The animals were eager for this change. At once they set out to cut
some wood for poles and split some into shingles for the walls and
roof. But Ti Malice, who was lazy even then, refused to help. All the
animals talked it over and decided that if he refused to help, when
the house was finished they'd not let him in, in rain, in storm or in sunshine.
They built the house quickly because of all the willing hands
working. Ti Malice, seeing the great achievement, became envious, and
curious to see inside it. He tried to go in but was barred. They even
threatened to beat him with a cocomacaque, which contains some sort
of charms that kill anyone who receives its blow.
Ti Malice, who never gave in to anyone, made up his mind to get in
the house if it was the last thing he did. So, he made himself a
small wooden whistle. When night came he slipped into the house and
lay under Uncle Bouqui's bed. At midnight, when all were sound
asleep, he blew on the instrument--toot, toot, toot, toot. It sounded
like a ferry-boat's whistle.
Then, in a disguised voice, he said, I'm from God's house. He sent
me to tell you to leave this house at once or it will fall upon you.
The animals were scared sick and fled pell-mell into the forest,
pushing one another out of the way as they fled. Uncle Bouqui,
however, just turned over and continued to snore.
Ti Malice blew again, toot, toot, toot, toot. I say I'm from God's
house! He sent me to tell you, too, to get out, or you'll be killed.
You lazy scoundrel, get out!
Bouqui grumbled at being disturbed from his sleep; but he finally got
out and joined his comrades in the jungle.
Since the animals were very democratic then, the first thing they did
in the morning was to call a meeting to decide what to do about their
house. The meeting resulted in sending a pair of cats back to see
The cats went along and from a distance saw Ti Malice walking to and
fro on the veranda of the house, whistling. Ti Malice saw them, too,
and had to think quickly how to handle the couple. At that moment he
saw pieces of a broken bottle on the ground. An idea came to him of
how he might get to keep the house forever. He picked them up, and
waited for the visitors.
Compere and Commere Cat, how are you?
Not so bad, Compere Malice responded the cats.
I came to see my friend Uncle Bouqui and found the doors of the
house open, so I walked in and found not even a fly around. But,
since you're here, maybe you could do me a little favor?
What's the nature of this favor? asked Compere Cat suspiciously.
I would like for you to shave me, he said, handing the broken
bottle pieces to the cat.
Compere Cat shaved Ti Malice in the shake of a lamb's tail. Then the
latter stuck out his tongue and asked the cat to scrape it for him
too. I'm going to a rada dance tonight and I want to be spick-and-span.
Compere Cat did Ti Malice's bidding. Malice then said, I'd like to
take you two along with me to the dance, but, Compere Cat, your face
must be shaved clean and your tongue too, like mine.
Oh, oh, said Commere Cat, you'll shave him and scrape his
tongue, won't you, Compere Malice?
Sure, indeed, said Ti Malice.
Compere Cat stuck out his tongue and in one stroke Ti Malice sliced
half of it off, together with part of his throat. Then, with another
stroke, he reached over for Commere Cat's throat, but he missed her.
The two cats leaped through the door like a gale. Compere Cat ran to
his comrades in the jungle and tried to tell them what had happened,
but nothing came out but the rattle of a piece of tongue, and he soon died.
Commere Cat was so scared that she never tried to find the others.
She went further and further into the woods, coming out at night to
steal people's chickens. All the animals became more scared and never
returned again to the great house, and don't even like houses to this day.
If the men in the Haitian hills knew what happened to Compere Cat's
throat, maybe they wouldn't still be shaving with bits of broken glass.