Run From the Earthquake, Fall Into The Abyss: A Léogane Paradox

Along with so many emigrant members of Koridò (Corridor), a rural community in Léogane at the epicenter of the earthquake, I anxiously endured the prolonged silence between the Outside and Inside of the transnational community. Until January 13, we had become accustomed to virtually instantaneous transnational communication, thanks to the proliferation of cell phones. The first good news came two days after the earthquake through a phone call lasting only a few seconds, long enough for a son to tell his mother that he and the rest of the family were alive. Each treasured piece of news spreads quickly to other families in the diaspora. By day four, the joyous news had confirmed that residents of Koridò and surrounding hamlets of Ti Rivyè were la “meaning okay, alive.” There was mention of only one life lost. Ironically, the name of the one man who died is Koridò.

Why did the people of Koridò survive? And, in the aftermath, why are their lives hanging in the balance? My immigrant friends didn’t explain how their relatives had managed to survive. The reasons are readily apparent to them but not obvious to those unfamiliar with their way of life. The ordinary habits of everyday rural life in the residential compounds of Koridò and beyond no doubt contributed to their survival. Most residents live outside–preparing meals, eating, washing, braiding hair, talking, playing, and laughing. People only stay indoors to sleep, when it rains, or if they are sick. Indeed a healthy person who stays inside during the day is assumed to be hiding something, or doing sorcery. At 5:00 PM on Tuesday, therefore, when their homes crumbled, most people would have been safely outdoors. As for the relative few who might have been indoors when the earth quaked, the modest style and scale of homes probably proved beneficial: most dwellings are small and there are multiple exits. Each room typically has its own door–a potential escape–to the outside. The older houses are made of wattle and daub with thatch or corrugated zinc roofs. The homes built since 1983 (virtually all financed by migrants) are made of cinder block. Pressure to keep up with the migrant-funded housing boom has accelerated the building of larger homes and even two-story structures. Many of these homes were damaged or destroyed by the January 12th earthquake. Subsequent quakes and tremors have forced many residents to stay outdoors.

Thus it is the quotidian practices of these rural poor families that, I believe, pulled them through the earthquake relatively unscathed. With tragic irony, the same adaptations to marginality are now threatening their survival. Kouri pou lapli, tonbe larivyè. Run to get out of the rain; fall into the river. This pèp lamizè (“people of poverty”) did not store much food. They do not have cabinets, closets, or refrigerators to preserve food and to protect it from pests. People instead tend to buy food daily, usually in small quantities because that is what they can afford: a spoonful of tomato paste, one bouillon cube, a cupful of beans, rice or cornmeal.

Why do the humble residents of this lush coastal hamlet need to buy food? Its rich soil is cultivated, but produces little food. The main crop planted is not a source of nourishment but what Sidney Mintz (1971: 24) has termed a “drug food”: sugar cane. The violent conquest of the island and labor of African slaves in Léogane and other plains of the colony once known as Saint Domingue, advanced the production of sugar cane, to be transformed into sugar, molasses and rum. These “proletarian hunger killers” managed to reproduce the burgeoning working classes of Europe. But, the increasingly desperate situation the people of Koridò now face is in part a legacy of that past. The empty calories survivors suck out of the sugar cane help to keep them alive for a while, but the cane harvest was nearly over when the earthquake hit, leaving little, if any sugar cane for local residents.

Why do the owners of these tiny plots interspersed between the large fields owned by outsiders continue planting sugar cane on their own tiny plots rather than food? Very few gardens are planted with beans, plantains, squash, sweet potatoes and peanuts. The labor to produce them exceeds the return on their sale. Sugar cane proliferates because it is a hardy plant, requiring little labor after the initial work to prepare the field and to conduct periodic weeding. It practically grows by itself. This pattern reproduces an economic system that has insufficient manual labor to cultivate more labor-intensive crops or to dig and maintain irrigation canals, where there is water. The abysmal return these sugar cane producers receive for their crop, despite the high price of refined sugar in Haiti, keeps them mired in poverty. This cycle just pushes their children to disdain farming, to prepare for an exit from their family plots of land. This contradictory process has transformed this society from producers of food to producers of migrants for export that generate wage remittances and channel imported food. Nature violently interrupted that fragile reciprocity on January 13th . There is no way to send money to those at home and no food for them to buy.

As I write, the people of Koridò are camped out in an expansive sugar cane field. In yet another irony, they are squatting on land they once controlled. Joseph Lacombe, a powerful elite businessman from Port-au-Prince, took the land from them in the early twentieth century in a series of “legal” swindles. Some of the wealth Lacombe siphoned from this rural section went toward building a chateau in the Pyrenees with the romantic name, Villa à Léogane. According to my godson Charlie’s last harrowing report on January 20, he and the other “squatters” were staving off their hunger with breadfruit and sugar cane. Seven days after the quake, no one has yet offered them food or potable water. The near unilateral focus on “la République de Port-au-Prince” by foreign aid agencies and the media has exacerbated the neglect of people whose everyday practices got them out of the way of the earthquake but who now flounder perilously at the edge of the abyss.

Karen Richman is Director of Academic Affairs and Center for Migration and Border Studies at the Institute for Latino Studies at University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Migration and Vodou (2005), a multisited ethnography of a transnational Haitian community. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on Haitian and Mexican migration, religion, labor and expressive culture. Dr. Richman won the 2009 Heizer award for the best article in the field of ethnohistory for her article, “Innocent Imitations? Mimesis and Alterity in Haitian Vodou Art.” She has worked as an advocate for refugees and immigrant workers in the United States.

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