Thursday, October 11, 2012

[HoI Course] Daily Life in Haiti (Haiti Today 3/6)



You can find the outline for the course here, a brief history of Haiti here, and an introduction to Vodou here. Please post all comments, requests, and questions in the Reddit post rather than the blog. That way we can continue our discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit.

Daily Life In Haiti
What does it mean to be Haitian?

      The news tends to show a very limited view of what life in Haiti is like. We see image after image of poverty, tent cities, and starving children. These are real and present issues in Haiti. But we miss out on the context of these pictures and the fact that this is a very limited view of Haitian daily life. My goal for this lecture is to use a few different categories as windows into aspects of what it means to live in Haiti. My approach will naturally leave out some things in order to highlight others. If there is an aspect of Haiti that I do not cover but you would like to know more about, just let me know in the comments.

Family and Work in Rural & Urban Haiti

      After the revolution, most Haitians continued to work on the land as farmers producing their own food and selling any extra in nearby markets. Families staked out plots of land where they farmed together as a unit. As children grew up and started families of their own they might build their own house on the familial land or claim an unused plot to begin their own farm. Each family plot had space for agriculture, housing, cooking, religious obligations, and a graveyard for the dead. The eldest male of the family unit was usually in charge of religious duties to the spirits and ancestors. Nearby families came together for special religious and social celebrations, to trade, socialize, and help one another. Individual success was dependent upon communal success and so the tradition of a konbit became an important part of rural life. A konbit is similar to the concept of an Amish barn raising where everyone in the area comes to help out with harvesting, planting, or building. In return when they need assistance, the community will show up to help them. This allows people to do more in less time, helping ensure local success for everyone. It also means that the whole community is fully aware of how many resources every family has available. This helps stem stinginess and hoarding of resources and people are expected to share their successes with others in the community. Yet, they are also fully aware that to get ahead they need to save and reinvest. Some academics argue that this tension between individual and community is fundamental to understanding Caribbean and Central American cultures.

      These communities were usually bounded by geographical features such as rivers and mountains, isolating them to a certain extent for day to day purposes. Once a week women often took extra produce, cooked foods, and handmade goods down to a nearby market to sell. These market women could be absent for a day or two, depending on how long and difficult the journey was. They tended to stay in groups for safety and sometimes sleeping in the open air marketplace at night. They were shrewd negotiators who had to quickly discern local price changes and adapt their strategies to maximize their profits. In times of drought or other misfortunes that prevented families from growing enough produce, they sometimes sold their private "land" i.e. their bodies so they could purchase food at the market. This was only done if absolutely necessary and was not something they were proud of, but mothers did what they had to do in order to feed their children. In the end, the main moral obligation is to one's children and any action that serves to support them cannot be locally considered immoral. Back home, the earnings from the marketplace were usually controlled by the women and were used to send kids to school (when available), buy clothes and other goods in the marketplace, and save for the future.

      The reason that most of my description of rural life so far has been in the past tense is because few people are able to continue living this way. It is still the idealized way of life for many Haitians, the same way we idealize rural American life in TV and movies as an important source of authentic values and principles for the country. And three-quarters of Haitians rely upon agriculture for food or cash crops. Yet, making a living off the land has become increasingly difficult in Haiti due to environmental and socio-economic changes. Haiti has become increasingly deforested due to overpopulation, poor agricultural practices, a push towards cash crops like tobacco, and the need for charcoal. By 1954, only 8-9% of Haiti remained forested compared to 60% in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the need for charcoal grew and the easiest local source were the trees. Today, some of the poorest people in Haiti still make their own charcoal and sell it on the streets of the cities. As of 2008, less than 2% of Haiti is forested. The deforestation has caused erosion of the entire countryside, destroying the topsoil and polluting the water. Additionally, the push for cash crops meant a less stable market and less food crops for when the prices of tobacco and coffee were low. Prices for food crops decreased as tariffs on imported goods were lowered and projects like the USAID's free rice to Haiti program destroyed demand for local rice. Animal domestication suffered a serious blow when the USAID killed 1.3 million Haitian pigs in 1982 due to fears of swine flu. Like I mentioned in the history section, these Creole pigs were bred for the environment and were a safety net that could be sold or butchered in times of need. In short, the environmental devastation meant that farmers had a harder time growing crops, the market meant they had a harder time selling them, and the loss of their savings accounts on hoofs meant they had no backup.

      The increasingly inability to sustain an agricultural lifestyle meant more and more people went to the cities looking for work. With few non-agricultural skills and low levels of education, most people had to take menial jobs if they could even find them. Slums grew along the edges of cities, creating extremely condensed spaces of poverty and violence. The most well known example is Cite Soleil, a shanty town right outside Port-au-Prince which grew quickly after the slaughter of the Creole pigs and then again when President Delatour (who succeeded Baby Doc) encouraged people from the countryside to come to the neighborhood for industrial jobs. Unfortunately the industrial sector broke down after 1991, and most people living there have little to no education, half the houses are built from scrap, about 65% of the homes do not have latrines, and armed gangs are a serious problem. The damage from the earthquake was devastating to these shanty towns, especially since many of these homes were barely standing to begin with. However, there is a public school Lycee National where parents can try to send their children. And these neighborhoods provide free or extremely cheap places for people to use as a launching pad to better their situation. The problem, of course, is that it can be difficult to find the jobs necessary to afford better housing.

      In the city there are more job opportunities for women than men like doing laundry, cooking, caring for kids, and cleaning. Women still dominate the markets, though men also sell goods there too. Men with trade skills like carpentry might find a job working in a warehouse or doing construction. If they have some education they might be able to find a job working in a store or hotel. Most government jobs are doled out to friends and family, though some people do earn those positions through higher education. Jobs that pay a known amount at a known time are called travay and are highly coveted but very hard to come by. The vast majority of Haitians do what is called commerce. This is when someone sells goods or food on the street for a profit. Early in the morning Haitians will purchase items cheaply from a source, cook or make goods, or gather items like coconuts. They then go out into the streets to hawk their wares for the day. In Port-au-Prince pedestrians have to walk in the street with the cars because every inch of the sidewalks are covered in goods for sale. In this sense, all Haitians are entrepreneurs. But most days they are lucky if they can make enough to feed their families for the day and buy items to sell the next. If they do manage to save, however, they might build a stand, send their kids to school, and move their families out of the slums. However, without access to higher education, most people reach a plateau since even if they understood the process of buying property and starting a business they could not get the loans to do so.

      These days many people migrate back and forth from rural to city many times over their lifetime. Rural families have few economic opportunities, but can provide housing and support for extended family members. Mothers who are unable to care for their children might send one or more of them to live with well-off extended family or rich families in city. These children are called restaveks, and in its ideal form they children do chores in exchange for free housing, food, and education. Unfortunately, many restaveks are taken advantage of and there are numerous cases of sexual abuse or children who are treated like slaves. When the restaveks become adults they usually go home or transition into being domestic servants for a well to do family in the city. Adult men may leave their children and partners behind in the city or rural family homestead in search of job opportunities, splitting up families. But this also extends networks across multiple spaces allowing people the ability to tap into extended family and friends for help wherever they move. Modern day technology of cell phones are cheap and easily accessible, meaning that even when separated in different cities people can stay in touch and maintain networks in ways previously impossible. Fathers who were no longer able to live with their children will pull out their cell phones to proudly show me tons of photos of their kids. Coffee farmers can call down from the mountains to check prices to avoid getting ripped off by middle men. And family that has immigrated to America can call home and easily send money. Modernization and technology have only increased the importance of networks and family and the ability to connect to them.

      Family is an incredibly important part of Haitian life because it is the foundation for the networks that help people succeed. In small rural communities everyone is a cousin if you go back far enough, which intensifies the bonds and obligations to assist one another. In cities it is harder to keep families together since often only one or two members left the homestead at a time and apartment or shanty spaces are much smaller. But fictive kinship (like your uncle who isn't really your blood uncle) can fill those spaces. Vodou houses have adapted to this reality, and in the South where people undergo initiations they become spiritual brothers, sisters, and children to other members in the group. These relationships provide familial networks allowing relationships similar to those found in rural regions to continue in urban spaces. Over time, these Vodou familial networks extend across rural and urban as well. All of these relationships provide friendship, assistance in times of need, links to news and gossip, and comfort.


      In 1825, Haitian peasants were legally made second-class citizens. In 1945, the law required paysans (peasant) to appear on their birth certificates. This was eventually repealed, but the repeal was not implemented until 1995. Therefore, the divide between rich and poor has always been a part of the Haitian socio-political system. Though this divide is sometimes explained in racial terms with the elites being light skinned mulattos and the peasants dark skinned without French heritage this is not how it always plays out in reality. Mulat and Neg (mulatto and black) are more economic and social classes than racial ones, since people can easily transcend skin color barriers through economic status changes. There are mulats who are quite dark skinned and negs who are light skinned. Rather than using skin color and other racial markers, class is maintained through cultural aspects of language, dress, education, and behavior. Language plays a major role in this, with elites using French for all official purposes such as government, business, and education. Peasants usually only speak Haitian Kreyol fluently, which is a different language. Members of the lower class who have gone to some school may claim to speak French because that is the only language in which education takes place and therefore indicates they have some schooling. Yet, they are rarely fluent and at most speak a broken form of French. Access to education is a serious problem for many Haitians, but once there it can be difficult to adjust to instruction in a new language that is not taught as a second language. Children tend to sink or swim, and even if they catch on poor families can rarely afford to send their children to school past elementary age. This lack of education and language skills often prevents members of the lower class from achieving financial and social success, regardless of their intelligence.

      In rural and city areas there are hierarchies within the peasant class. Women gain status through success in the marketplace and marrying up (hypergamy.) If they save up enough from selling items in the market they can start what is called a boutique, which may be a store in a permanent structure or a business they run out of their house. These businesses have more stability than commerce on the street and tend to carry nicer items. Women who marry in a church wedding also gain a certain status in part because of the lavish public parties and conspicuous consumption required of a wedding and in part because they tend to have husbands who can support them. Men are often lumped into either gwo neg or ti neg (big man and small man). Gwo neg are financially and socially successful, often having small businesses like a taxi service or store. They maintain their status through sponsoring dances, Vodou fets, and Rara parades. Ti neg are men who are not as successful and are dependent upon female family members. Machismo can be proven other ways, however, through excessive drinking and sexual prowess. 

      The elites make up about two percent of the entire population in Haiti. The vast majority live in big cities such as Port-au-Prince and Okap. They have the ability to send their children to school, hire domestic servants, and often have significant influence over governmental policies and decisions. While there have been presidents and prime ministers from the lower class, they require the support of elites to stay in power and get things done. Socially it is important to maintain the class hierarchy and hegemony, so that children are often forbidden to speak to the maid in Creole (even though they know the language) or even at all. As adults they are expected to marry within their class, get a college education, and go on to a job that is appropriate for their station. Though many experts recognize the importance of overcoming these class barriers to helping Haiti succeed, elites who do so commit class suicide and can result in being ostracized. Therefore, while educated elites may speak of treating everyone equally and working towards a unified Haiti, they rarely interact with the lower class. 

The middle class is made up largely of foreigners, who are called blans. Most businesses like hotels, grocery stores, book stores, etc. are owned by blans. They are often from the Middle East (sometimes just referred to locally as Arab) and represent a wide variety of backgrounds such as Lebanese, Palestinian, and Algerian as well as religious affiliations such as Jews, Muslims, and Bahai'i. Many are refugees from regions that were politically unstable or where they were persecuted. In Haiti they often band together for business and social purposes, leading to the oft heard joke that the only place in the world where Muslims and Jews get along is the Caribbean. Because they are isolated from most of Haitian society, they have maintained many of their own cultural traditions and their money tends to stay within their class or go abroad to help those back home. There have been frustrations with some of these financial aspects since many lower class Haitians feel they are prevented from entering into certain business opportunities because they are dominated by blans. Some have also taken advantage of the fact that embassies are not considered Haitian soil so that businesses built there are not subject to local taxes. However, they do provide jobs to many Haitians and are important for the economy and providing access to the goods they sell. 

Gender and Relationships

      In 1805, right after the revolution, Dessalines declared that unlike under French rule children born out of wedlock were legitimate heirs. This made sense considering the fact that after the white population either ran away or was killed, most of the Haitians who remained never even had the opportunity to marry. Some had also engaged in a formalized mistress relationship called placage prior to the revolution. This was common in many French colonies where white French men would marry white French women, but keep a placagee as a mistress in the city with her own household and promises that their children would be free. Eventually, this also became the term used for any couple that cohabitated without marriage - slaves included. This became the norm and continued after the revolution. To this day, church marriages are expensive and unnecessary from both legal and social viewpoints. Plus, avoiding legal documentation means avoiding the government, which given the history of corruption and violence in Haitian politics can be a wise decision. There are formal names sometimes given to partners or the relationship (fiyanse, renmen, marye, placage, viv avek) but outside of marriages documented by church and state none have legal ramifications. Most women engage in relationships with men one at a time (though some do have multiple partners) while many men may have loose arrangements with one or more women. Sometimes women are aware of their significant other's partners, but accept this as normal. Remember that in addition to what I've mentioned above, two-thirds of slaves at the time of the revolution had been born in West Africa where polygamy is common among many of the communities. Polygamy was important in rural areas of Haiti for a long time as a practical way to increase the labor needed for working the farm. Terms for female companions were fanm marie (married woman/spouse), fanm kay (house woman), and fanm jadin (garden woman). Today these more formal arrangements are less usual and relationships tend to be less well defined - especially since men can rarely stay on the family homestead.

      When couples cohabitate or have children together, it increases the odds that the man contributes economically to the household. But in most cases women are the primary caregivers and financial supporters for the children. Women are called the poto mitan, a term for the central pillar that holds up a house. Since men so often must leave for work or because a relationship has ended, women and children are the primary familial unit in Haiti. Women and girls take care of all household duties such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child rearing. They sometimes help out in the fields and also engage in certain folk crafts such as basket weaving. They are also in charge of selling any items the family makes in the market, though men and boys also help sell items in commerce. In the past, boys were sent to school much more often than girls often because if the family could not afford to send all of their children they chose the males. Men were thought to put the education to better use and girls were more valuable at home. Yet, today the literacy rates and enrollment rates are quite close for girls and boys. Since more jobs are available to women than men, families may be beginning to see the value of educating their girls. Women also played an important role in fighting for their own education through the Mouvement Paysan Papay in the 1980s. As adults, poor women have a fair amount of autonomy and freedom. They control the finances, set prices for goods being sold, make most of the decisions regarding the household and children, and can end or being relationships with men as they see fit. Some researchers argue that upper class women have less freedom since they do not work and therefore are dependent upon their husbands and more limited to the household. However, it is important to remember that poor women are expected to do all household chores, some work in the fields, care for the children, and engage in commerce - an exhausting list of activities.

      Like many Caribbean societies, there are sexist views about women and their ideal roles. To be fair, anthropologists argue that women are second class citizens in every society on earth so that what we see in Haiti is just a local form and expression of ideas that exist everywhere. But every time there is an issue of political unrest that requires movement of people, military, and/or temporary camps it is women who often bear the brunt of the violence and sexual assault that seems to go along with such events. Haiti is no different but their frequent political unrest, the occupation of the island by various foreign nations, and the tent cities have led to upsetting amounts of violence and sexual assault against women. Women in dire economic situations may also find that their only option for feeding their children is prostitution. Not only is all of this traumatic, but it leaves women burdened with children they may not be able to raise and diseases they cannot afford to treat. Paul Farmer documents how these factors played a large role in the spread of HIV in Haiti, an issue I will take up in a later lecture. Despite all of this, in recent years Haitian women have fought for their rights and education. Women have formed organizations to support one another from domestic violence, to train other women to do jobs traditionally done by men, to teach women to read and write, and even purchase land together in order to farm without the assistance of men. Today there are a number of female Haitian politicians such as former prime minister Michele Pierre Louis who today is an ardent promoter of women's rights in Haiti. Many experts believe that economic empowerment and education are major factors in improving women's status and safety in Haiti.

      Men also have a social role and set of expectations to fulfill, though few are able to sufficiently do so. From a young age, boys begin helping their fathers in the field and carrying out duties considered too difficult or dangerous for women and girls. The traditional space for men is one of social authority, the head of the household, and the family member whose labor provides the financial support for the family. However, as I've explained above, for the most part this is no longer a role that men can completely fill. This tension is part of the reason why men so often out migrate from their families and plays a role in violence against women. From the day they are born men are told to expect this status and position, yet rarely are able to attain it. With few job options at home, men often tap into their networks of friends and family to find job opportunities outside their hometown. This might mean going into the city, traveling to another rural region for farm work, or going to Cuba or the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane fields. Sugar cane work promises guaranteed pay, but working conditions are often terrible. During periods of political instability men can temporarily gain status through joining militias such as the Tonton Macoutes. But these positions of power never last longer than the political power, which in Haiti can be quite fleeting. In the end, many men cannot find long-term work or the social positions society has told them to expect. Many turn to commerce, but some also become alcoholics. 

      Mansisi, a somewhat negative but prevalent term for gay men in Haiti, are another category that are worth mentioning. In anthropology we recognize that gender is not necessarily linked to sex in that our concept of what makes someone an appropriate woman or man is cultural rather than biological. Once we step back and recognize the variety of ways people are good men and women across the world, we can also see that this binary is not cross-cultural. Some societies have more than two genders, which we sometimes call third gender. In Haiti, it could be argued that mansisi can fall into a third gender category. Homosexuality is stigmatized in everyday Haitian life, but many men still choose to live openly as gay through specific dress, mannerisms, and occupations. Most openly gay men work selling clothes, and as such are considered good at this position and they can become financially well off through a pathway closed to most straight men. They also find a safe haven in Vodou communities where homosexuality is religiously sanctioned. There are a variety of explanations, from a ritual to change their sexuality for financial gain to a spirit such as Erzulie Freda controlling their head and imprinting her desires onto their own. Many mansisi can attain social status through Vodou initiations, and in Okap I once saw an entire Vodou house made up of mansisi who for all the world looked like Haitian versions of Hijras

      These gender ideals and realities are reflected in the Vodou religion. Erzulie Freda is sometimes characterized as the lwa of love but this is not quite correct. She is the seductive virgin, the excitement of the first blush of love, the possibility of everything that could be. She is light skinned - the ideal of beauty in Haiti - and desires all things beautiful and luxurious. But she often cries because she cannot reach the very ideals she represents. In another nation (lwa are grouped in the spiritual nations that reflect their West African geographical & cultural origins) Ezili Dantor is a very different kind of woman. She is tough, dark skinned, and a devout mother. In her Catholic form she holds a baby - but this child is a daughter because daughters are more highly valued. Her veve is a pierced heart that may bleed but still stands strong. She is the peasant woman's reality. These are just two female ideals present in the Vodou pantheon, but they stand as contrasts to one another. They are what women want to be, what they are, and what they cannot always attain.

      For men, Ogou Feray represents the powerful warrior king who is attractive, manly, a good father, and a leader. In this sense he represents what men could and should be. But unable to attain this, many men also find reflections of their reality in other Ogou members of the Nago nation. The Ogous are brothers that at times work together but might also fight one another. Some are healers, father figures, or elders. But some are also womanizers, drunks, and are vain. Ogou is the lover of Ezili Dantor, but in this form he is unreliable and does not provide economic assistance. Thus, their relationship mirrors the reality for many Haitians. But there are also positive examples of relationships through Azaka and his wife. He is a hard working peasant farmer and his wife is a shrewd market woman. Together they make a formidable pair and represent the achievements of hard work not only for material things but relationships as well. Of course, Azaka sometimes partakes of his wormwood laced alcoholic drink a little too much. But he is not abusive or cruel as a drunk - merely bratty and sleepy. Drinking is a common pastime in Haiti but men without concerns about their machismo can enjoy it as a social activity rather than a way to prove themselves. There are still spaces and opportunities for men to be successful and content with their lot in life, and Azaka is one example of how that can be achieved. 


      These categories have hopefully provided windows into the Haitian world and what life is like for many people living there. Despite the length of my lecture, it is obviously incomplete and at times simplified. You can also see my obvious anthropological bias given that the categories I chose fall in line with topics covered by many classic ethnographies. However, these categories of kinship, gender, economy, and class are real concerns and important aspects of the Haitian people. I've built this paper around my readings but also my personal experiences and conversations in Haiti. If you have any questions or want to discuss a topic, please post your comments in the reddit thread here. I have also put together an album of relevant photos I have taken that you can view here. If you would like to do your own research on these topics I have included some suggestions below. Thanks for reading!

'Fanm Se Poto Mitan': Haitian Woman, the Pillar of Society
Author(s): Marie-José N'Zengou-TayoReviewed work(s):Source: Feminist Review, No. 59, Rethinking Caribbean Difference (Summer, 1998), pp. 118-142

Women's Moral and Spiritual Leadership in Haitian Vodou: The Voice of Mama Lola and KarenMcCarthy BrownAuthor(s): Claudine MichelReviewed work(s):Source: Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall, 2001), pp. 61-87

Oswald, Laura. Culture Swapping: Consumption and the Ethnogenesis of Middle‐Class Haitian Immigrants.
Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 25, No. 4 (March 1999), pp. 303-318

Kovats-Bernat, J. Christopher. Sleeping Rough in Port-Au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti

Of Men and Gods - A documentary about Haitian sexuality

Melville J. Herskovits. 1937. Life in a Haitian Valley. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Mintz, Sidney “The employment of capital by Haitian market women,” in Firth, R., and B. Yamey, eds., Capital, Savings and Credit in Peasant Societies: 256-86. 1964.

All photos and text are my own original work. 
If you would like to reproduce them in whole or in part please contact me first. Thanks!


  1. If you could change one thing in Haiti what would that be?

  2. Thanks for this!! It really helped me with an assignment in my human geography class!