manyok

“Rache manyok, ba nou te-a blanch”

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A field ready for planting in Papaye

“Pull up your manioc to give us a clear field.”

Legislative elections – 5 years overdue – were held in Haiti last Sunday, the 10th of August. Heated debates continue as citizens wait for the results of the vote. More than 1,000 candidates were running for deputy, the lower house of Haiti’s Parliament, and nearly 200 for senate. After the dissolution of Parliament earlier this year, a provisional electoral council (CEP) was convened to oversee the elections. As reports of “irregularities” in the voting process, as well some incidents of violence and intimidation circulate, I am thinking about what rache manyok might offer to Haitians, and in particular the rural poor, who have been pushed to the political margins for so long.

Maniok (cassava, Manihot esculentus), is a remarkably resilient plant.

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This resilience is the origin of the saying, rache manyok — when a farmer sells land, he is to clear it of his manioc crop so that the buyer can plant the field anew. The plant is both itself resilient, drought-tolerant with deep roots that draw nourishment even from poor soils, and supports the resilience of populations with limited nutritional security. Cuba and Haiti cultivate the most manioc in the Caribbean, with Haiti producing the greatest quantity. It grows, however, across the tropical and subtropical world — you might know it in the form of tapioca, while Brazilians top their feijoada with farofa, and Peruvians may brew it into Amazonian chicha.

On the island of Hispaniola, Taino Amerindians cultivated manioc before the Columbian encounter. Today, more manioc is eaten in the North than the South, and more is eaten by rural than urban people. In the Center province, where I am living, the heavy brown tubers are a frequent sight at the market, and I see shrubs intercropped with maize in most farmers’ fields. Here, manioc is most often processed into a dry flatbread called kassav. Manioc must be processed, however — it is poisonous if not treated correctly, containing a high quantity of cyanogenic compounds.

So what does it mean for Haitians to rache manyok? Following heated street protests that shut down Port-au-Prince and other cities early in the spring, long-overdue elections were called and talk of rache manyok proliferated in the news media. In The Rainy Season: Haiti Then and Now, Amy Wilentz writes about the dechoukaj (uprooting) that followed the departure of Baby Doc, Duvalier fils, in 1986. Aristide preached rache manyok to his congregation at St-Jean-Bosco, and the call was taken up by those who opposed the military junta in those chaotic years.

Manioc calls to mid then at once rooting and uprooting – rasin and dechoukaj. With more than 70 parties represented in Haiti’s presidential race (the first round is set for October), it is unclear what will follow this period of rache manyok. To me, at least, it is unclear whether anything will change at all.

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Many peasants voted proudly, showing their inked thumbs and discussing their choices along the road leading back from the voting site

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Lining up to vote

Nonetheless, voter turnout nation-wide seems to have been extremely low, perhaps due to fears of violence or intimidation, perhaps simply due to apathy at the constant merry-go-round of national politics here. Like the concept of resilience itself, rache manyok lends itself to a double reading. What is resilience but clinging to the barest margins of land, of global capitalism, of political possibility? Like the fiction of the “level playing field” so dear to North America’s left-leaning liberals, is a field cleared of manioc even possible, more than 200 years after the Revolution that grew from the world’s only successful slave revolt? I’m left again with the question of what rache manyok offers to the farmers whose lives quite literally depend on the deep roots that have so long sustained them.

Sources for this post:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassava

http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5271e/y5271e05.htm

McAllester, M. (2011). Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents. University of California Press.

Wilentz, A. (1989). The rainy season: Haiti since Duvalier. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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