Ayiti-Ete 2012: Haiti-Summer 2012

By: John McGreevy

16 JUNE 2012
Jou 12: Day 12
Lapli Pa Tonbe: The Rain Does Not Fall

After 12 days in country, I feel like I have a solid start to my data collection. I have spent the majority of these days in a village near Anse Rouge, where I have performed more than 10 interviews and hours of observation. I have been fortunate enough to talk with a wide range of individuals, including rural farmers, maids, charcoal markers, charcoal distributors, men, women, young adults, and even a voodoo priest. Our conversations have covered ecosystem and social changes, loss of tree cover and its effects of life, differences in uses of trees over different areas, spiritual meanings of trees, and often overlooked uses of trees (medicine, shade, rituals).

As is often the case in qualitative research, emergent topics have risen from the perspective of local peoples that I had not anticipated. Far and away the most common topic of conversation has been the lack of rain this year. Farming families that rely solely on rainfall for agriculture and tree planting have waited for the rainy season to bring life to their soil. And yet, the rain does not fall. Fields are dry, crops planted at historically reliable times have been burned by the sun, and people are increasingly feeling the effects as lapli pa tonbe. Local perspectives on why the rain does not fall has become an important aspect of my research. While not known to the people of this area, I frequently think of the United States, the record forest fires in Colorado, the record droughts in Texas, and the record lows of water levels on many rivers in the West, and I cannot help but see a connection between it all.

Along with issues of rainfall and deforestation, we have discussed topics not directly related to my research, including the following:
– Resteveks (the controversial process where children work for distant relatives for housing and food under questionable living conditions)
– Experiences in US’s Guantanamo Bay prison
– The different balances of Christianity and Voodoo in different regions
– Salt production as a livelihood means
– Tarantulas and scorpions
– And what I have found particularly interesting: The Loup Garou. Literally translated as “wolf man” or “werewolf,” people have told me about how this creature actually takes the form of any animal (some claim it prefers to be a turkey) and can attack children at night. A couple individuals, in response to my repeated questions on the matter, joke that I am now the Loup Garou Slayer, here to rid their town of this shape-shifting beast.

When not tracking down beasts in the mountains, I have found time to connect with local peoples and fellow “blans.” The GSSE Team, TWP, and I have much work ahead of us, but the beginning to this time in Haiti has been more productive than I could have imagined.

11 JUNE 2012
Jou 8: Day 8
Premye Konbit Mwen: My First Konbit

Today, I had quite the rural Haitian experience by participating in what they call a konbit. A konbit is basically an agricultural work party, in which friends gather to work on someone’s field. In return they are given food while they work (maybe some rum) and the unspoken agreement that they will have a konbit at their home in the future. This experience served many purposes for me, including being educational, enjoyable, and one heck of a workout for a blan (white person) like me. Most of all, I believe this experience created a bond between me and some of the people present. They told me I was the first blan who ever wanted to work in the fields with them, which caused them to laugh at most everything I did and open up to me in ways I do not think would be possible before. After my experience, I journaled about my outing. Below is an excerpt for anyone interested in the details.

“My guide, C, seems to know most everyone in the area. He leads me over the hill and down into the garden. As we broach the hill, men begin to notice our presence and call out to us. C responds. There is not much talking as I walk up. I reach a man who C tells me is the owner of the konbit… or at least he tells me that it is his konbit (I do not know if “owner” is the proper term)… he says something along the lines of sa se konbit-li. I introduce myself to the man, who wears a baseball cap, a stripped shirt, and a gregarious smile… He does not appear very old. He is by himself, working towards the lower end of the garden. We then walk to the other two groups of men. On the way, I am handed a hoe that appears to be handmade. The head of it is solid metal and curved. The bottom edge is flat, and the other side has a round hole in which the handle inserts. It is heavier than I anticipated. C then takes it from me and gives me a lighter one. He tries to explain that it is smaller and better for me. (I wonder what he thinks of me as a blan).

I ask what they are growing here. They tell me pitimil and mayi (meal and corn). I begin hoeing with them as they demonstrate. They do so rhythmically, occasionally varying from opposite to unison strikes on the soil. They seem to cut just below the place where plants meet the ground, pulling back to remove the plant. I attempt to mimic this movement, often digging too deeply into the soil and having my hoe get stuck. I repeat this movement, mimicking them for 3-4 minutes. I then pause because of how hot this constant heat is making me. I notice the accumulation of sweat over my body. My back and chest begin to reach saturation point, exposing sweat through my shirt. I notice their grunting. They make a noise similar to the noise of tennis players hitting a ball, yet without the same intensity. They do so as the hoe digs into the earth each time. (I look to their movements and I think of the idea of Wu Wie Wu from Taoism, where people know a sport or other physical activity so well that it appears as if they are “doing without doing,” or doing something so naturally that it flows from them easily. It is almost as if this movement has become so ingrained in their life that they have become efficiently adapted to the movements of the hoe. I, on the other hand, do not have muscles toned for this purpose. While I consider myself to be in good shape, my lack of experience, muscle adaptation, and technique combine to make me an ill-equipped farmer. I hoe with bent arms, using more muscles than needed. The farmers keep straight arms, using the weight of the hoe and the momentum of their movements to work as one with the earth. I fight the land. They work it. I stumble awkwardly across soil, stone, and sickled plants. They move across their terrain in fluid movements. They know this land. Once again, I see myself as the student and they as the teacher… I tell them so.) I say “Mwen se yon elev epi ou se yon pwofese!” They laugh and politely decline this comment.

As we continue hoeing, I move around hesitantly, trying to find the best position to stand while swinging my hoe and trying not to get in the way or have my toes removed by the undulating iron tools. Within 10 minutes of my first hoe swings, the metal head of my hoe dislodges from its handle. I say some words that no one else understands but my mother would certainly disapprove of. (At this point I feel inadequate to be out in the fields with these farmers and scared that I broke the tool of value to a rural farmer). To my relief, they laugh at my mishap. They grab the handle from me and hand me another hoe (which is the one that I believe C took from me earlier). C goes and stands in the shade while I work. (I ponder how difficult this work seems, and I wonder if it is just because I am maladapted or if it is truly a difficult and laborious task regardless of experience). (I also think about the book “Where the Hands are Many,” which talks about konbits like this, and I wonder if these farmers follow similar cultural norms to those I read about in the book. I wonder if they do indeed “strike their hoes in unison”).

At one point, the two men working closest to me begin to encourage me to grunt while I work. While I feel foolish when doing so, I grunt with each swing of the hoe, attempting to sound as similar to them as possible. They say words of encouragement and we continue working together. After a few minutes, the heat provokes a new level of sweat, with my entire torso being covered by sweat. I take a step back and simultaneously let out a sigh to exclaim about the heat, saying something similar to “whoowee”… to this, the two men working next to me chuckle and begin replacing rhythmic grunts with “whoowee, whoowee, whoowee…” I laugh. (It is encouraging to me that they find my presence there comical. I am glad to have them find comic relief at my sight and I hope that my little bit of work might help them. Perhaps more than anything, I hope that my willingness to work in the fields and my unrequested offering of help may help these people welcome me and see me as something more than just another white person. I remember one of the people I interviewed, when asked if I could work with them in the field as a form of repayment, remarked that I would burn up in the sun and that I could not survive in the field. I hope that this and other outings (perhaps a cock fight) might encourage people to open up to me as local peoples opened up to Geertz in his famous cock-fight escapades).”

No toes were lost in the activity, and friendships were formed. Since then, I have completed 10+ interviews in the area, some of which with men present at the konbit. My research is going great, and meaningful experiences occur on a daily basis.

4 JUNE 2012
Jou 1: Day 1
Ayiti 2012

I find myself in Haiti once again, sitting amidst the night heat and bustling sounds of Port-au-Prince. It is the first time I have been in the country since January 2010, when I witnessed the country’s largest disaster first-hand. The return brings forth a blend of emotions, memories, and excitement for what is to come.

For all who do not know, I am beginning a 47-day trip to perform research for my Master’s thesis in anthropology at Colorado State University. Through the funding of the Center for Collaboration Conservation fellowship program, the generosity of Ed Warner, the guidance of faculty at CSU, and the help of numerous Haitians I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn from the people of Haiti.

More specifically, I am studying the relationship between Haitians and trees. Through interviews, participant observation, and community mapping, I plan to research how people utilize and think about trees in their daily life. Working closely with Fort Collins, CO non-profit Trees, Water, & People, I will then use what I learn with the people of Haiti to incorporate local knowledge and belief into reforestation/agroforestry initiatives in rural Haiti. I am traveling with three CSU graduate students through the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprises program, (Lincoln, Mary, and Jeannie), the international director for TWP (Sebastian), and a new friend and native Haitian (Jean-Marie, or Jean for short). We have quite the blend of experience and personality. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to spend the next month and a half with… but we will see how I feel about that after 47 days of close proximity.

You never know what exactly to expect in Haiti (perhaps that is part of what keeps drawing me back to this place). Past experiences of traveling to and from Haiti have included being accused of having explosives in Miami, being interrogated at the Port-au-Prince airport, trudging through flooded rivers, and bumming a ride in the storage compartment of an Air Force cargo plane. I am happy to report that this journey has been safe, sound, and more mundane than all of that.

For brevity purposes, my day has been filled with the following:
– Arriving to DIA at 10 pm
– Flying out at 12:45 am
– 15 second layover with much sprinting in Ft Lauderdale
– Arriving in PAP at 9 am
– Renting a truck and driving around PAP
– Discussing project goals with the team
– Napping in a hammock with a 115 F heat index
– Waking up to the sound of roosters
– Eating some great local food, including the freshest, biggest, juicest, and cheapest mangos of my life
– Running over translations of research material and interview plans with Jean, the Best Translator Ever (BTE)
– And the highlight my day: Traveling to a local market with the crew, drinking a cold Prestige, and testing out my year of Creole preparation. How great it feels to finally use this knowledge. Thank you to Melissa for your tutoring and the many Haitians that have spoken with me along the way. I am still quite the beginner, but it is so rewarding to finally be able to talk with the people I have come to know and love over the past 5 years. Bondye Bon!!

Since many people have asked me, here are some changes I have notices since the earthquake:
– Streets of PAP
– There seems to be more successful rebuilding than I heard about in the states (while I have only seen a small portion of the city)
– There are exponentially more Americans here than I have ever seen in the country (I even saw an American family carrying an infant through the airport… oh how the times have changed).
– The Haitian people have remained quite a wonderful, welcoming, faithful, and joyful people

That is all for now, but check back for regular research updates, anecdotes, and photos.

Mesi anpil pou ap li e Bondye beni ou!
Thank you a lot for reading and God bless you!

John