The Story Hunters
An Anthropologist’s Conversation with a Caribbean Peasant Rice Farmer Inspires an Innovative Civic Project.
The author, Bertrand Laurent, is an anthropologist who works on governance, workforce development and crime reduction in the Caribbean. He is Executive Chair of The Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a warm spring evening as my sociologist colleague, Yves François Pierre, and I, an agricultural anthropologist, visited Remèd, a rice farmer who lives near Acul du Nord, Haiti. Yves and I were evaluating the impact of a local governance project for an international funding agency.
Yves and I, both born in Haiti, had first met each other as graduate students at Columbia University years ago. Though we were both of Haitian origin and graduate students at the same university, we had come from different backgrounds. Before studying for his PhD in sociology at Columbia Yves had grown up in Haiti and New York and was personally very familiar with Haitian culture and issues of class and social division. I had grown up in Africa because of my parents’ work in international development and was more familiar with issues of governance and community structure, and had been introduced to Haiti, my country of birth, when I was assigned there as Peace Corps’ first Haiti Country Director in the early eighties. It was a treat to now be working in Haiti with Yves decades later, each of us with different areas of specialty and experiential frameworks, but with so many common areas of interest.
As Yves interviewed Remèd about his membership in local community groups and their advocacy work, I was looking at the way he had organized his field, the position of his house, well and kitchen garden, the species of fruit trees he was growing and the distance between them, etc. The number and relative ages of pigs in his yard gave me a sense of how many he was planning to retain for family consumption versus for market. Because of the importance of pigs as peasant bank account, this would reflect his plans for major family expenses such as school fees, weddings, rainy days, and so on. Rèmed was obviously a careful planner and didn’t take risks.
I looked at the mountain in the distance behind Remèd’s house and noted the huge, imposing old Citadel, the UNESCO World Heritage site that had been an impregnable fortress during Haiti’s successful slave revolution against France, Britain and Spain in the early 1800’s. I tried to take a photograph that would capture both the distant grand Citadel in the background and Remèd’s humble house in the foreground, but the sun wasn’t cooperating and I sat on a stool in the yard and joined the conversation as I awkwardly positioned and repositioned my camera.
When 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 besides, there’s no reason to go.” Some people go, he added, “pou fèt yo”, for festive occasions.
“It’s an important place, isn’t it?”, Yves probed, inviting him to say more.
“Pa pou mwen” Remèd responded, with a dismissive shrug of his shoulders. “Not for me. It really doesn’t have any use. Never did, really”.
I looked at Yves and our eyes met. Remèd had just given us one of the most urgent pieces of information we gathered that day, and it capped all the observations Yves and I 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 and nature 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.
At issue was a straightforward problem. A community’s 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 certain values can be diluted or deleted altogether. A survey of Haiti’s democratic values, undertaken several years ago, along with the democracy enhancement programs funded by international donor agencies during the nineties, and the research program during which Yves and I met Remèd for a formal assessment of Haiti’s democracy and governance, all documented that a great deal of work is still needed to strengthen governance in Haiti,-not only the institutions and processes of governance but also in the ownership people feel vis a vis the state, the public domain, and their engagement in civic affairs.
Beyond names such as Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, and Dessalines, the stories told by Haiti’s traditional story tellers rarely incorporate the experience 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 of civic importance, but they could easily name people who had left for New York. Most stories about heroism and sacrifice for the good of the people are only about distant elite politicians, and often end with assassination, burning at the stake and kidnapping after short-lived adventures of the sort that characterize trickster folk tale heroes. Many of these stories, commonly told to children, gave high marks to the much loved, traditional characters’ ability to trick friends and family members and to outsmart adversaries, and rarely convey social or civic values the way traditional West African stories are told by African grio’s do.
Nonetheless Haiti’s vanishing mèt kont, or elder “story masters” like the Sahelian grio, have the skills to release deeply embedded civic messages from the idioms in some of the stories. 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 (translated as “Aunt Nancy” stories in the old US south or as “Bouki et Malice” in Haiti). But two other traditions are found only in increasingly isolated pockets in Haiti.
One of these is the Sahelian grio tradition of weaving the stories of local individuals and the genealogies 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 the community’s geographic space. It is no coincidence that respect for public spaces and common property are weak in Haitian governance.
The second of these traditions 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 Ghana’s Ananse has survived the middle passage as Haiti’s Malice, the “moral tensions between the hero’s individual desire and [his] 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. We have encountered, though increasingly rarely, these people Haitians call mèt kont. These story masters and the idiomatic keys they used to unlock civic messages are two traditions that are found in increasingly isolated pockets in Haiti.
We know that 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”, and therefore do not convey it. It doesn’t seem to be an issue of the age of the story tellers, though, but rather a newer “school” of story-telling, a tendency to drop important story elements that are difficult to reconcile with today’s transactional social values, and a shrinking repertoire of stories. This is a problem with the selection of stories as well as with the education of the story tellers.
The Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development has developed an ambitious and highly original civic education and cultural preservation program. In a nutshell it involves first creating a civic culture map that delineates areas defined by the level and nature of civic engagement and cultural traditions of governance. The map, along with the data used to create it, will serve as baseline and will also be used to train and deploy a team of carefully selected university students to interview mèt konts and collect traditional stories that are rich in civic culture. Those stories will be classified using specially formulated governance criteria, to be printed for use in schools and audio recorded for wide redistribution among all mèt kont, younger story tellers and community workers for “village square” civic education and community building.