I have found and exhausted every reason not to write this post, which has been in orbit for at least four months. After a marvelous send-off, I left Papaye and returned to California on the 10th of May. Now, almost 3 months later, I find myself still reeling a little in trying to make sense of that transition. I continue to work through what I suppose is a pretty standard ethnographic crisis, which provokes this more-or-less methodological reflection. Now – in the writing present – I am finding my way through the web of obligations that ties me to “the field.”
This is the season of dust. Lapli pa tombe, people tell me, looking at crisp-burned heads of millet drooping on tall yellow stalks: “the rain doesn’t fall.” Between November and April, a fine, silky dust comes to cover everything, turning the landscape of pale greens and yellows a monotone khaki. In 2015, there was even less rain than usual, with a mostly dry October and November. It won’t rain in earnest again until April – three months from now. When it rains, the water will rush over the hard-packed earth below, swirling the dust into a squelching grey mud that sucks sandals into the deep rivulets between the road’s rocks, cementing them there like plastic headstones. In the dry season, though, walkers urgently cover their faces as the occasional SUV tears down the road, leaving them in a cloud of dust so thick that wandering goats are invisible at 30 paces. I feel the memory of water press up against my sneaker soles, as I navigate the ridged road.
The first few times I visited Haiti, in 2012 and 2013, there were billboards, posters, and murals like the one above everywhere, urging Haitians to stand guard against the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that lurked in the water they used for drinking, washing, and cooking. Tiny bottles of hand sanitizer dangled from backpacks and belt-loops, and stood conspicuously in the middle of even the most modest restaurant tables. Today, almost exactly 5 years after cholera broke out in Haiti for the first time in recorded history, more than 9,000 people have died from the disease, and ReliefWeb reports that infection rates are up 147% from 2014.
The guilty party: Vibrio cholerae O1, serotype Ogawa, biotype El Tor. How did this particular cholera biotype, the virulent El Tor strain that emerged in Indonesia in 1961, finally make its way to Haiti, which had been bypassed by all 6 of the major cholera pandemics of the 19th and 20th centuries? Do you remember the pig story I told you a few months ago? In that story, at a time of extreme political instability, a problem that didn’t exist motivated an international exercise in biological occupation, which in turn generated an astronomically expensive problem whose only solution was an indefinite quality of foreign inputs. This is a water story, but it reproduces the same formula, demonstrating occupation politics at a microbial scale.
How did V. cholerae get to Haiti, what is it doing there, and why is it important to understand who bears responsibility for what the CDC calls the worst cholera outbreak in recent history?
One morning, I set off early from Papaye to visit a friend’s garden in Mirebalais, about an hour’s moto ride down Route Nationale #3. Heading down the muddy hill from the farm where I live, the air is still slightly cool with the night’s moisture, the sun shining through a fine mist that hasn’t yet burned off. We pass through the already crowded, grey-dusted streets of Hinche, vendors edging out into the road with plantain- and charcoal-laden donkeys and wooden carts, the moto-taxi station packed with rows of drivers leaning on their rides, the line at the gas pumps 30 or 40 deep with moto drivers waiting to fill up. After passing Hinche’s leaning gingerbread edge, we cross the rutted bridge that spans the Guayamouc River. We are now on the delightfully wide, smoothly paved National Route #3, heading South towards Mirebalais, the biggest town between Hinche, the provincial capital, and Port-au-Prince. I can see far across the rolling low hills of the Central Plateau, ringed with the mountain ranges that form Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic and that separate the rural Center region from the “Republic of Port-au-Prince.”
When I arrived on Haiti’s Central Plateau on the 1st of August, maize fields were already full of sharp spears as high as my shoulders, and a friend came to visit with his backpack full of celadon-green ears of mayi. After the end of the rain-soaked month of August, crisp brown leaves rustle in the fields, and sharp spears dry brown on the stalk or hung in bunches from trees and rafters. Now, near the end of the rainy season, feathery pwa kongo (pigeon pea) plants are waving tall as the maize stalks wither. A few weeks ago, when you could count on rain by sundown, children gnawed on ears of sweet boiled corn; now the ears are grilled until the kernels are sweet and chewy – mayi boukane. The hard kernels will feed chickens, pigs, and people alike throughout the year, grilled or ground into mayi moulen, a coarse cornmeal served with bean sauce and, sometimes, spinach – my favorite Haitian dish.
Although Haitians do not share a territorial and cultural unity as “maize people” with indigenous Latin Americans, they are nonetheless a people in part because of maize. Ecological relations linking revolutionary maize to “Miami rice” are profoundly significant to rural Haiti’s tradition of self-reliance, and these relations begin in the 15th century.
When I open my eyes in the grey light that filters through my window slats just before dawn, I usually hear a few hummingbirds buzzing past my shutters. The noise of their tiny wings is surprisingly loud, a rich hum that sounds mechanical in its loopy whirring. These birds — the “Hispaniolan emerald,” or wanga nègès mòn — are tiny, the smallest hummingbirds I have ever seen, and they are drawn to the small yellow flowers outside my window. Like everything on MPP’s campus, they are mostly green. Often I confuse them with the “Antillean mango,” or wanga nègès fran, a sapsucker with appetites akin to those of the Hispaniolan emerald. The similar nomenclature suggests that I’m not the only one to do so.
“Rache manyok, ba nou te-a blanch”
“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.
This is the creole pig, or kochon kreyol, a small, hardy, long-snouted animal introduced to the island of Hispaniola in the Columbian exchange, and now prevalent across Haiti. Between 1984 and 1987, however, the species did not exist in the country.
One of the central explorations of my dissertation research is how plants and animals do political work in rural Haiti. Stories of failure, killing, and expropriation brought my attention to the political life of Haiti’s agrarian ecosystems, but not in the way that I had expected. The replication of the kinds of stories — of suffering, violence, and insecurity — that so often focus public attention on this tiny crescent of mountainous land troubled me, and clashed with what I know of rural Haiti’s anti-colonial agrarian history. Although most Northerners know little of what Haiti’s peasants grow, they know that their fields are pitifully small, the soil degraded, and the crops prone to failure when buffeted by the latest hurricane or gummed with mud sliding down the treeless mountainsides. While ‘we’ in the global North hear of Haitians’ hunger, their poverty, and their dogged survival within a massively unequal global political economy, this litany of lack offers little towards understanding how rural Haitians — long termed the moun andeyo or ‘people outside’ — have nonetheless made and unmade political worlds on local and global scales.