P. Anthony Scaletta<br />Dr. Monica Frölander-Ulf<br />Anthropology 1720<br />March 3, 2009<br />Exploring Rural Haiti th...
Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community  Organization and Social Change in Rural ...
Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community  Organization and Social Change in Rural ...
Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community  Organization and Social Change in Rural ...
Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community  Organization and Social Change in Rural ...
Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community  Organization and Social Change in Rural ...
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Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti

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Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti

  1. 1. P. Anthony Scaletta<br />Dr. Monica Frölander-Ulf<br />Anthropology 1720<br />March 3, 2009<br />Exploring Rural Haiti through Jennie Smith’s: When The Hands Are Many: Community <br />Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti<br />The Caribbean island nation of Haiti is poor, dreadfully poor. In fact, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and its rural peasant population is considered to be the poorest of the poor. In her ethnographic work, When The Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti, anthropologist Jennie Smith points out that, “Haitian peasants are some of the most politically disempowered, malnourished, and illiterate people of the world” (2). Exactly how does a country and its rural citizenry become so subjugated and poverty stricken? Perhaps more importantly, is the question of how the peasantry responds in the face of such adversity. Let us turn to Jennie Smith’s ethnography to better answer these questions and gain some insight into rural Haitian society and culture.<br />Haiti has a long history of exploitation and deeply rooted racist ideologies that have played major roles in shaping the country’s current political and socioeconomic conditions. This exploitation began with the very first European colonizers of the 16th century and is upheld to this day by current neo-colonial practices. In 1664, the French claimed the western portion of Spanish controlled Hispaniola and named it Saint Domingue (which later became known as Haiti as a result of the successful slave rebellion). Before long the French colonizers established a large scale plantation economy on the island. Using the racist ideology that dark skinned people are inferior and therefore need to be ruled, the French were able to justify their use of Africans as enslaved plantation laborers. Rooted so deep was this ideology that to this very day, many Haitian peasants feel that that “the powers that be treat them as though they are beasts” (103). This feeling would appear to be duly justified as evidenced by the extreme amount of inequality that exists in Haiti. However, this is profoundly paradoxical, as Haiti is a country that was founded by those that rebelled against this very type of oppression and exploitation in hopes of creating a more just and equal society. Smith observes that historians explain this paradox as a result of “the ideals of the Saint Domingue revolution (being) subverted even in the first days of the Haitian republic” (19). The new rulers simply readapted the ways of the European colonial system and left things largely unchanged. Although the former salves were liberated from the cruelties of slavery, they remained inferior in the eyes of those in power and continued to be exploited to the fullest extent. <br />A little over two centuries later, these socioeconomic inequalities still exist. Anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reasons that, “the campaign of Haiti’s rulers to subjugate and exploit the rest of the population has continued largely unabated ever since (the Saint Domingue revolution)” (20). Within the Haitian government corruption and greed reign supreme over the ideals of justice and economic equality. So intimately intertwined are the government and economic elite in Haiti that Haitians have a term (leta) that they use to refer to this cozy relationship. This unequal power balance is reflected in the tremendous gap in wealth that exists between these privileged few and the rest of the country. Exacerbating this problem is the grossly uneven income tax structure that is in place. Only in a corrupt system could the wealthy minority get away with paying less income tax than the poorest citizens. What little money the peasantry makes is taxed heavily by the Haitian government. In fact, peasant revenues account for more than 80 percent of government revenues (21). The real problem lies in the fact that absolutely none of this revenue is reinvested into the rural areas that is extracted from, where infrastructure and social services are desperately needed. Rather it is spent in the capital of Port-au-Prince where it has “fattened Haitian rulers’ bank accounts, expanded their real estate holdings, built their mansions, and amassed the magazines of weapons they have used to secure their reign against challenges by the populace” (21). It is a depressing realization that the Haitian leta are getting richer off the country’s desperately poor peasantry. Smith illustrates this “predatory-parasitic” relationship with the following data: 1% of Haitians control 50% of the country’s wealth, while more than 70% of the population lives in severe poverty (21). It is understandable that the incredible magnitude of this chasm has created a genuine distrust between the people and their government. Making matters that much worse is the fact that this exploitation of the rural peasantry extends beyond Haiti’s borders. <br />Haiti’s neighbor to the north, the United States, through its neo-colonial practices has managed to do much more harm than good in the country. From the onset of its imperial ventures, the United States government has felt that the Caribbean region is theirs to do what they want with and Haiti has proven to be no exception. Things certainly didn’t get off to a good start between the two countries, as the U.S. found the success of the slave rebellion to be troublesome. Sociologist Alex Dupuy reasons that “the presence of an independent black republic in a sea of slavery threatened white supremacy and the slave system” (23). Then, and to a large extent now, racist ideology has helped shape the United States’ attitude toward Haiti and still plays a major role in the dynamics of its international policies and aid efforts. In typical imperialistic fashion, the U. S. has always felt the need to manipulate the Haitian people and its government in order to best protect and promote its own economic self-interests. It was precisely this manner of thinking that led to the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, during which the Haitian constitution was rewritten to better suit U.S. economic and political interests. Never mind that it worsened economic and political conditions for most rural Haitians. The 1970’s “Swine Aid” project is another excellent example of the U.S. sticking its snout where it doesn’t belong, while managing to overlook the negative consequences of its actions on the Haitian people. In the name of protecting the U.S. pork industry from the spread of African swine fever, the U.S. slaughtered the country’s entire population of Haitian Creole pigs. Never mind the loss of economic security that the Creole pigs provided the peasantry or the fundamental disruption of the religious and cultural practices that were associated with these pigs. Unfortunately, it is this “we-do-whatever-we-want” attitude that characterizes U. S. foreign policy toward Haiti. Interestingly, the American media really helps to justify such ways of thinking. It tends to paint this sad portrait of rural Haitians as a “backward” and “underdeveloped” people that just aren’t intelligent enough to figure it out without U.S. intervention and aid. As terribly inaccurate as this may be, this ignorant ideology has become deeply ingrained in the minds of many Americans and as a result has profoundly affected the lives of the Haitian peasantry. <br />As Smith reveals, the Haitian peasantry is actually quite deft at assessing and tackling the many challenges and struggles that they face. Central to their way of life and key to their survival and adaptation to their harsh circumstances is their strong sense of community. It is at the very heart of the peasant way of life and pervades all of their cultural practices, from family to religion to work patterns. Smith notes that, “the most distinctive characteristic of Haitian peasants is that they commonly own at least part of the land they work” (11). This practice of joint land ownership is inherently community-based and therefore both nurtures and strengthens the peasant’s sense of community. Smith’s detailed descriptions of the different community-based peasant organizations, wonderfully demonstrates the structure and patterns of rural Haitian social organization. <br />There are two traditional labor exchange groups, such as the smaller atribisyon-s and the larger sosyete-s, as well as the more contemporary development-oriented gwoupman peyizan or GP. All three groups utilize the collective agricultural work parties, known as the konbit and the kόve, as integral tools in carrying out the many arduous tasks of rural Haitian life. Both konbit-s and kόve-s use music and song to help lighten the load of the often difficult work. Typically this involves the use of African derived drumming patterns and call-and-response style singing, which provides the peasantry with a vital link to their African roots. These songs were one of the few things that the colonizers couldn’t take away from the slaves and therefore became a means for passing on essential African cultural characteristics. The importance of both the role of song and konbit-s and kόve-s in the peasant’s lives can’t be overstated. Smith asserts that konbit-s and kόve-s “have been foundational building blocks for much contemporary community-based organization in rural Haiti” (87). Although the sosyete is a much larger group than the atribisyon, both rely on a membership inheritance system to keep the groups intact over the years, ensuring the group remains viable and strong. Both also use a system of officers that hold certain managerial positions that help to run and organize the groups. However, it is interesting to note that in the smaller atribisyon there is virtually no social stratification within the group, while there is some that exists in the sosyete. The nature of the larger-sized sosyete is that its members are from different neighborhoods and for this reason are typically not “kin or close acquaintances” (105). The key characteristic that differentiates the GPs from the atribisyon-s and the sosyete-s is their “association with outside institutions” (171). Indeed, the GPs strength lies in their willingness to blend the old with new in order to foster a more holistic development in rural Haiti.<br />Perhaps the peasant group that tells the most about rural Haitian family and kinship is the atribisyon. Due to its small nature, the group typically “consists of one or two extended families,” which helps to ensure that membership and leadership positions are kept within the family (94). Gender roles in the atribisyon require that membership is limited to mostly men and teenage boys. However, some older women are generally sought out as “trustworthy managers of community funds” and are treated as equals within the group. Atribisyon-s are certainly a time-proven strategy for organizing and carrying out rural labor tasks, but it is their annual traditional feast, known as the rachόt, that enables us to peer deeply into the culture of the Haitian peasantry. This cultural practice is downright fascinating because the group’s members forgo a “relatively steady income flow during the year in favor of a few days of communal feasting” (98). To an outsider it may seem puzzling why a people so poor and desperate wouldn’t spend the atribisyon-s monies more frequently to provide a somewhat consistent influx of much-needed goods and services into the community. This is truly a testament to the cultural value that the peasantry places on this practice. They use the feast to evoke their ancestral spirits and pay homage to their fallen brethren that freed their people from the tyranny of slavery. As an atribisyon member explained to Smith, the feast provides the atribisyon members with a rare opportunity to “live as humans should” (102). Taking this time to acknowledge and honor their past, bestows the peasantry with the strength to face their present realties, however unforgiving they may be. The rachόt affords the peasants a glimpse of their ideal society and allows them to live, if only for a few fleeting moments, as dignified humans. <br />In stark contrast to the “developed” world’s racist ideologies, Smith is able to demonstrate that the rural Haitian peasantry does indeed have the ability to articulate a better and brighter future for themselves. Nor has the relentless subjugation of the peasantry by the leta stopped them from communicating and expressing their political views. One such way for the peasantry to convey their social and political views is through the use of pointing songs known as chante pwen-s. These songs can be sung anytime by anyone and are a key component of rural Haitian cultural, as they provide the peasants with a platform for commenting on and critiquing Haiti’s social and political issues. The chante pwen-s are skillfully crafted so that the message is hidden just below the surface and thus can be expressed without fear of retribution from those in power. Smith asserts that chante pwen-s allow “Haitian peasants (to) actively challenge their reputation as unenlightened and hapless victims of chronic oppression and actively reformulate both individual and collective identities…chante pwen-s have been important tools in the struggles of Haiti’s poor to construct more dignified and fruitful lives and a more decent society in which to live” (67). Ethnographically speaking, the chante pwen-s can be seen as quite valuable for their ability to both elucidate the peasantry’s views on society and their portrayal of their visions for constructing a better society. <br />In working with the various Haitian peasantry organizations, Smith was able to conclude that all the groups shared a common vision of what a good society should be and how to achieve such a society. Smith discovered there are nine particular elements that the peasant organizations commonly believe form the “foundation of a truly civil society” (178). The following is a summary of these nine elements: Relative economic equality with equal access to resources; a sociopolitical hierarchy that ensures their leaders are willing to “care for” and “stand for” them; a society built on respect for one another; they be respected and their human dignity recognized by all people outside of rural Haiti; all individuals “have a voice” in society and therefore are able to be heard; cultivating sensitivity to different religious beliefs and proper ancestor veneration; collective play, performance and song as part of cooperative work; all citizens have equal access to basic social services such as schooling, transportation, health care, land redistribution, and a fair judicial system; and government protection and security against crime. Smith notes that according to the group members “a central objective of the (various groups) is to redress the chronic failure of the Haitian government to develop their communities” (176). In many ways all of these elements are striving to unravel the deeply ingrained ideologies of both the leta and the powers that be in the “developed” world in an attempt to foster a more equitable relationship between the peasants and the outside world. Once this type of relationship can be established, a just society can begin to be constructed. Not surprisingly, another central theme to these nine elements is that of community. The peasantry’s philosophy of “one and the same we” seems to reverberate through all aspects of their visions for a brighter future. Then again, why wouldn’t it? <br />The rural Haitian proverb of Men anpil chay pa lou (When the hands are many the burden is light), which is also appropriately the book’s title, serves as a mantra for the peasantry and this philosophy is truly evident in all aspects of rural Haitian culture. It is precisely this strong sense of community that has enabled the rural Haitian peasantry to survive through two centuries of persistent repression, socioeconomic struggle, and desperate poverty. The beauty of Smith’s work is that it takes us deep inside of rural Haiti and affords us the opportunity to experience both the struggle and strong sense of community from the Haitian peasantry’s perspective, rather than through the often stereotype-tainted lens of the American media. <br />Works Cited<br />Smith, Jennie M. When The Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in<br />Rural Haiti. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001. <br />

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