The Haitian Creole language is rich in proverbs and sayings which express the common-sense of ordinary people in metaphorical and vivid ways. Like most examples of folk wisdom, the sayings tend to reflect a realistic rather than an idealistic view of life, and they can cast an interesting side-light on the society which gave them birth.
Many languages have proverbs reflecting the sentiment that you cannot judge a book by its cover, as the English saying has it. Haiti is particularly rich in such sayings, which reflect a wry realism about life. Some of them are as follows: ‘Bèl dan pa di zanmi’ or ‘A lovely smile may not be that of a friend’; ‘Bèl antèman pa di paradi’or ‘A beautiful funeral may not lead to heaven’; and ‘Bel fanm pa di bon menaj’ or ‘A beautiful wife does not mean a happy home.’
There are cynical or realistic sayings reflecting the fatalism of a race which has been oppressed. ‘Nèg rich se milat, milat pov se nèg’, or ‘A rich negro is a mulatto, a poor mulatto is a negro’. There is no close equivalent to this phrase in English, but another Haitian saying which alludes to the importance of wealth and power is ‘Ravèt pa janm gen rezon devan poul’ or ‘the arguments of the powerful will always win,’ which has a rough English equivalent in the pithy saying: ‘Money talks’.
There are unflattering sayings about other nationalities in the folklore lexicon of many countries. For example, the English talk about somebody ‘Welshing’ on a deal, meaning they have failed to honor it. The Haitians say: ‘Li pale franse’ or ‘He speaks French’: meaning, he is dishonest, he is a con-man.
In the case of the Haitian phrase, the reference is of course to the dominant, colonizing, slave owning race, while the English phrase refers to a race which historically has been the underdog. Where inequality between races is endemic, there will probably always be harsh judgments and prejudice born of suspicion flowing both ways between the races.
There are other sayings about the French, for example:‘Pale franse pa di lèspri ou’ or ‘Speaking French does not make you clever’. That is rather an egalitarian than an insulting saying, with a meaning akin to ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets’ or ‘sisters under the skin’, but with a message of equality between races rather than classes.
The saying: ‘Sak vid pa kanpe’ ‘An empty bag cannot stand up’ means that a person cannot work without the fuel of food inside them. It is interesting to compare that saying with the nearest English equivalent, ‘The laborer is worthy of his hire.’ That phrase has a Biblical origin but has been in common currency for many centuries, both in the UK and the US. The Haitian proverb refers to the need to feed a worker in order to fuel his or her work, whereas the English equivalent is an appeal to justice and respect for the dignity of labor. ‘The worker deserves to be paid’ rather than ‘the worker will faint with hunger otherwise.’ This perhaps reflects the harsher conditions for the bottom layers of society in Haiti compared to the UK or the US.
Finally, selected from a vast array of choices, there is this telling proverb: ’Kay koule twompe soley men li pa twompe lapil’, or ‘A leaky house deceives the sun but not the rain.’ That is a proverb in the best sense, in that it conveys by metaphor a truth which everyone can recognize, but which, like poetry, is very hard to paraphrase.