Toni Pressley-Sanon, assistant professor of African and African American studies, Department of Transnational Studies, conducted ethnographic research in a farmers’ cooperative community called Oganizasyon Peyizan Setiyem Seksyon Gwo Mòn (OP7G) in the mountains of Haiti last November and December. The work will be used in her second book project on Haitian food sovereignty as it relates to national sovereignty.
She shared her reflections on her time in Haiti with the UB Reporter.
Published April 11, 2013
Gwo Mòn, the community in which I lived for two months, is one of several communes that constitute a larger town, also named Gwo Mòn, in the Artibonite Valley of Haiti. The area is surrounded by high verdant mountains. Before I arrived there I tried to tell people who were familiar with the area where I would be. Some would call it Gwo Mòn Gonaives; others Moulin. Still others just stared at me blankly. Never very strong in the subject of geography, I had no idea where I was going. I simply trusted that I would be fine and that my research would move forward.
As I was anxious to get started, I left for my new temporary home the morning after I arrived in Haiti. The capital city, Port-au-Prince, held no interest for me. I awoke at daybreak, which is normal for me since my days as a dissertator. I ate breakfast with the family who owned the guesthouse where I had spent the night and repacked my one suitcase. By 9 a.m. on a clear, bright, sunny morning, a very quiet—and, I surmised—efficient man arrived to take me to my destination. I remember the feeling of anticipation with just a hint of trepidation that surrounded my movements—hugging the family goodbye, hopping up into the truck’s cab, securing my seatbelt, making sure all of my luggage was with me, checking that my camera was at the ready.
The ride out of Port-au-Prince was pretty uneventful. Despite statistics regarding the lack of employment, people are always moving in Port-au-Prince—by car, on foot, motorcycle, taptap, bicycle, donkey, horse. The streets were already clogged with people rushing here and there, selling alongside the road or traveling to unload their wares, fixing tires that have been fixed too many times before, boys and girls in their uniforms heading off to school.
We made good time. Aside from a short detour on the well-paved Route Nationale 1, a moment for me to get my telephone working and a stopover in Saint Marc when I realized that I did not have bottled water to sustain me through the weeks in the countryside, the ride was smooth.
I passed the hours taking pictures of the landscape, training my video camera out the window as fields of banana trees, corn fields, tiny houses, bridges and signs rushed by.
Finally, we arrived at the blue gate that marked the entrance to my new home. My stomach performed a little flip when it became clear that the five-hour drive was over. It suddenly occurred to me that I was at the mercy of these people about whom I had very little idea. There was no turning back. Although I had been told by Cantave Jean-Baptiste, an agronomist in Port-au-Prince and founder of Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL), which works with my hosts and arranged for my stay, that the people of Gwo Mòn would welcome me, there was a bit of skepticism lurking in the back of my mind. Why would these people who were perfectly fine living their lives with people they had known most of their lives welcome a foreigner with halting and heavily American-accented Kreyòl into their midst? Why would they take time out of their busy lives doing work on which the lives of their families depended to explain the ins and outs of their process? Why would they look after a grown woman who, in their world, was like a child, hard to understand, highly prone to illness and unable to make it even a few yards up the mountains that they traversed regularly?
All of these questions raced through my head as the car entered the lakou (yard). I suddenly felt really hot, despite the air conditioning in the cab.
I braced myself, put a smile on my face and exited the car. There was a sizable group of people awaiting my arrival. After a few days when I got my bearings, I realized that they had all assembled just a few minutes before when they saw the car cross the same small river that I was to later cross several times during my stay. They all—men and women—greeted me warmly. They grabbed my bags from the car and one woman showed me the room where I would be staying. She then showed me a huge culinary spread that had been prepared especially for me. I was too anxious to eat and opted to return to sit outside with my new neighbors. For hours we sat, getting to know each other.
Cantave had told me shortly before I arrived that the valley had no reception and I would need to climb one of the mountains in order to make phone calls. So, after a couple of hours when there was a momentary lull in the conversation, I took the opportunity to ask if someone could show me where I could make calls. One of the men volunteered. We had to leave the compound, cross the road and walk several yards up a craggy mountain and stand in a particular spot in order for me to get a few bars indicating I had reception. We were kept company by a few cows and goats having their evening meal. After I caught my breath, I marveled at how absolutely beautiful the view was from that vantage point and over the next few weeks I would make my way up that mountain just to think and take in the beauty. Rather than the denuded, chalky white mountains that one sees from Port-au-Prince, these mountains are lush green, populated by small houses perched atop them.
As the sun began to go down, a man arrived at the compound with a large speaker strapped to the back of his motorcycle. It was unloaded and the man went away. Shortly thereafter, the same man returned with another speaker strapped to his moto. The unloading and retreat was repeated. Soon a whole sound system was in place and popular dance music, called konpa, blared. I spent the rest of the evening dancing with various people, including Manca, the woman who was designated to take care of me for the rest of my stay. She was a very skilled dancer.
From my very first moments with the community of OP7G, I felt as if I had arrived at a very special place. After my time with them I am even more convinced that this is true. As a child of the city with an occasional jaunt to a farm to pick apples or warily pet a few goats, I have had very little exposure to the earth and its amazing ability to yield sustenance. In Gwo Mòn, I was constantly in awe of my neighbors’ intimate knowledge of the various plants and trees and their properties, how they should be planted and handled, when they should be harvested, how they should be stored, which foods were best combined with which. I was equally astounded at my neighbors’ generosity with their bounty of vegetables and fruits. I cannot count how many times in my short stay that I arrived back at my room to find a huge bowl of richly colored—and even more richly flavored—mangoes, pineapples, avocadoes waiting for me from people whom I had not met but who had heard that I was there. It was a pleasure for me to go and visit those kind people, introduce myself and sit with them as they worked their fields or grated manioc to be dried in the sun. As I prepared to take my leave, they never failed to ask when I would return. I cannot convey the joy of sitting with others and shelling peas, exchanging gossip and stories, shooing away chickens that I came to learn love peas. This was one of my favorite activities while I was there.
It may be cliché, but during my time in Gwo Mòn I began to get a sense of the weightiness of the often-quoted proverb “Men anpil, chay pa lou” (Many hands make the load lighter). I saw it in the preparation of food, in the organizing of konbits (workgroups) to do the planting, the harvesting, in the building of houses and in the taking care of me, the foreigner.
I had the privilege of “participating” in two konbits while in Gwo Mòn. The first occurred about a week after I arrived. I had awoken that morning to the sound of a conch shell being blown. The sound persisted throughout the morning, later accompanied by song. By the time I arrived in the early afternoon, under a misty rain, a couple a hundred people were gathered in the nearby cemetery, weeding and hoeing the area around the raised tombs. Over the next few hours the tombs were washed and shelters were erected over some. Kleren, a potent local brew made from sugar cane, was flowing freely, jokes were flying, someone would begin a song and others would pick it up. I realized just how soft my professorial hands were when I borrowed a machete from one of the women and tried to cut some weeds, so the rest of my time was spent sitting with the older women and children while they took a rest from work. They made sure someone kept me company “Pa kite’l pou kont li” (Don’t leave her alone), the women told the others when they had to get back to work.
When all the gravesites were clean, sufficiently weeded and tidied, the real festivities began. Drums were gathered. Sticks and vaksins (bamboo horns) appeared and after about an hour of discussion and more jokes, we proceeded to make our way around the cemetery and then along the path to greet our neighbors. It was then that I realized that many people assumed that I could not dance. I received a lot of enthusiastic compliments on my moves along the way until, sweaty and exhausted, I made a beeline for home and stayed quiet for the rest of the day.
When my son joined me in Haiti after I had returned to Port-au-Prince, we went back up the mountain on Dec. 24 and spent Christmas there. Our gifts were simply each others’ company.
With the support of a faculty research grant from the Gender Institute, I will return to Gwo Mòn again this summer to continue my ethnographic work. Only this time, I won’t be amongst strangers.