By Bertrand Laurent
It was a warm spring evening as Yves, my sociologist colleague, and I, an agricultural anthropologist, visited Remèd, a rice farmer near Acul du Nord in Northern Haiti to expand our understanding of local governance relationships.
As my colleague, a PhD in Sociology, interviewed Remèd, I was looking at the way he had organized his field, the position of his house, the species of fruit trees he was growing and the distance between them, and so on. I was also noting number and relative ages of pigs in his yard, which gave useful hints at Remèd’s animal husbandry strategy and to some degree whether he was raising them for family consumption or for market. When I noticed the majestic Citadel on the distant mountain behind Remèd’s humble house I tried to take a photograph that would capture both buildings, but the sun wasn’t cooperating and I joined the conversation as I awkwardly positioned and repositioned my camera. As Remèd squinted toward the Citadel I inserted myself into the conversation. “When were you last up there?” He looked at me and shrugged “Ah, I haven’t been there in years. It’s far, and there’s no reason to go.” Some people go, he added, “pou fèt”, for festive occasions.
“It’s an important place, isn’t it?”, I probed, inviting him to say more.
“Pa pou mwen” he responded. “Not for me. It really doesn’t have any use. Never did, really”.
I looked at my colleague and our eyes met. Remèd had just given us the most urgent piece of information we gathered that day, and it capped observations we had been making in conversations all week with both urban and rural, young and old, men and women folk: there is a gulf between nation and state that runs so deep that it separates people from the very history of their statehood, and it separates their values as farmers, workers, masons and merchants from notions of citizenship. Even when one of the hemisphere’s greatest monuments to freedom has been in the back yard for two centuries.
Beyond names such as Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, and Dessalines, popular stories rarely incorporated those of individuals and families into the history of their communities or the state. No one in the urban or rural communities we visited could name anyone from their family or community who had played any role in any event they considered to be of civic importance, but they could easily name people who had left for New York. Stories that are commonly told to children by met cont, traditional storytellers, gave high marks to much loved, traditional characters’ ability to trick friends and family members and to outsmart adversaries, but do not convey social or civic values. To some degree the trickster stories reflect an assertion of the self, a libertarian quality of resistance. But stories about heroism and sacrifice for community are mostly about distant elite politicians. They end with the heros, after short-lived apotheoses, being assassinated, burned at the stake, or kidnapped. But the tricksters survive.
We tend to think of social media as electronic. But in reality, well before the current era, social media have evolved through European bards and their popular sagas, African grios and their interactive historical epics, and countless other ways all over the world in which people contribute to a collective identity and propagate it beyond their immediate families. Irrespective of how it is propagated, the traditional story is the most powerful social medium. In essence, the traditional story is the oldest app for broadcasting information and values. Civic content in this most powerful medium, the traditional story, is being lost at a time when civic engagement is urgently needed. A community’s data and values are recorded and transmitted via its stories, poems, songs and other oral traditions. Folk tales portray the essence of a culture. They convey core values and traditions. The fact that national character is shaped by popular stories is well understood by opinion shapers, educators and revolutionary leaders throughout history. As we all know, colonial and political and other types of experiences can affect those stories and their content, even to the point where values can be diluted or deleted altogether. Formal assessment of Haiti’s democracy and governance such as a survey of democratic values undertaken several years ago, evaluations of several donor funded democracy enhancement programs of the nineties, and evaluations of recent decentralization initiatives like the one during which Yves and I met Remèd, have documented that a great deal of work is needed to strengthen governance in Haiti,- not only the institutions and processes of governance but also in the ownership -or lack of it- that people feel vis a vis the state, and their engagement in civic affairs.
There are many strains common to West African traditional story telling that are widespread in Haiti, variations of which are also found throughout the Caribbean. These include the participatory “cric crac” riddles and the Akan people’s Ananse tales (culturally transmitted as Bouki and Malice in Haiti, and transliterated as Aunt Nancy stories in parts of the American South). Two other traditions are found in increasingly isolated pockets in Haiti. One of these is the tradition of weaving the stories of local individuals and the geneologies of local families into accounts of local history, a tradition that binds people to their communities and reinforces the sense of ownership and collective responsibility. It defines a historiographic commonality that is as important to a community’s social fabric as a public square is to a community’s geographic space. It is no coincidence that respect for public spaces and common property are weak in Haitian governance. The second is the centrality of values that place the wellbeing of the community above the wealth of the individual. This tradition is characterized by a recurring moral that centers around the message that a good individual (the story hero) is one whose desire takes second place to the wellbeing of the community, for which all are responsible. Though Ananse has survived the middle passage as Haiti’s Malice, the “moral tensions between his individual desire and collective moral obligation” (J.W. Shipley, Indiana U. Press. 2015.) have not traveled so well. For many political and social reasons, much of the civic content that is abundant in African traditional stories is missing in Haitian folk tales.
But not totally. I have found some elderly story tellers in the countryside who are able to release deeply embedded civic messages from the idioms in the stories. The images that people associate with everyday idioms reflect deep conceptual metaphors that underlie the meanings of those idioms. (Gibbs and O’Brian, European Journal of Cognitive Psychology Vol7 Issue 3). These are widely used in oral tradition, for example the use of certain animals, foods or plants to convey political, sexual or social messages. But younger story tellers do not seem to “get the message”, unless it is very obvious, and therefore do not convey it. It may not be an issue of the age of the story tellers per se, but rather a newer “school” of story telling, characterized by a tendency to drop otherwise important story elements, and having a smaller repertoire of stories. From a governance standpoint this reflects a problem with resilience, as much with the stories themselves as with the civic education of the story tellers.
Author: Bertrand Laurent
Post script: TCI has since designed Civics Education Through the Arts, a program to search and collect folk stories that have civic content, and to re-share them widely among Haiti’s traditional story tellers to enhance civic education among children in Haiti. TCI is currently raising funds and recruiting two story collectors for this program.