Haitian Folktales and Proverbs

These folk tales came to me compliments of Harold Courlander, one of the finest literary anthropologists who ever worked in Haiti. Harold died about two years ago. I salute him with this file.

Someone wrote in asking for Haitian folk tales. Some follow below

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.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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. 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.)

Bondye Bon
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 no 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 "putting 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.


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 SECH

Then the riddle is given. If they get it they announce it. If they give up they say BWA SECH 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.

  1. They serve it food, it stands on four feet, but it can't eat.
  2. I enter white, I come out mulatto.
  3. Three very large men are standing under a single little umbrella. But, not one of them gets wet. Why?
  4. When I sit, I am taller than when I stand.
  5. How many coconuts can you put into an empty sack?

Ou bwa sech? (You give up?) The answers are:

  1. A table.
  2. Bread.
  3. It's not raining.
  4. A dog.
  5. Only one. After that the sack's not empty.


Tim Tim (a challenge)

Bwa sech (bring it on)

  1. 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?
  2. Three very large men are sharing a single small umbrella. Yet none of the three is getting wet. How can this be?
  3. Why is it that when you lose something it's always found in the very last place you look?

Ou bwa sech? (You give up?)


  1. A blind donkey.
  2. It's not raining.
  3. Because after you find it you quit looking.


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."

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 what happened.
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.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu