National Geographic : 1944 Sep
Bare Feet and Burros of Haiti BY OLIVER P. NEWMAN P IERRE BONHOMME strode steadily forward on a gravel path alongside a narrow, rocky road through the Haitian hills. A half-smile of pleasurable purpose illumined his black face. One arm swung freely at his side; the other balanced a long-handled hoe over his shoulder. His cotton-print shirt, fresh and clean two hours before, showed streaks of perspiration where it clung to his straight back. One bare foot, with its tough, leathery sole, followed the other in rhythm as his long, steady steps carried him toward a rendezvous. It was not yet 7 A. M., but he had covered 14 miles since he left his valley home. A high-crowned straw hat with a huge, flopping brim, plaited by his grandfather from native sisal in his front-yard shop, protected Pierre's head from the sun, whose burning rays, in an hour or two, would beat down upon him with merciless fury (Plate V). Footprints of Centuries Smooth His Path He seldom looked down. The roadside path was smooth from millions of bare Haitian feet and millions of burro hoofs, which had been treading it for more than two centuries. Pierre was on his way to a coumbite, where a crop was to be planted. He had almost reached his destination, the farm of a cousin. Soon he would encounter others journeying afoot to the same spot. Save for an occasional trip to the near-by village, Pierre, like all Haitian peasants, lives a restricted life. He never sees a newspaper. Except for one weekly in Creole, the few Haitian newspapers are printed in French. Pierre understands only Creole, until recently a spoken, not a written, language (page 328). He never gets a letter. Neither he nor his friends and relatives have a radio. He cares little about what goes on in the world out side his own valley. Rumors come in occa sionally by word of mouth. Pierre has to sweat a living out of a stub born soil, and a bare subsistence is all he can produce. His interest is in rain, storm, drought, flood, crops, harvesting, and market ing done by his mother in the nearest center. There she sells the corn, beans, pineapples, cotton, sisal, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, or bananas which the men of the family raise. The coumbite is a social gathering, where all the problems and experiences of farm life are understood and gossiped about with enthu siasm. Its purpose is to help a friend plant or harvest a crop. Pierre knows he will have to work hard for two or three days. He will receive no pay (not a gourde, equal to 20 cents in U. S. money; not even a centime, a hundredth part of a gourde), but he doesn't care. Nothing but death or illness can keep a Haitian away from a coumbite once he has been notified of its date. A 15- or 20-mile walk to get there he takes in his stride. He hasalotoffun, andheknowshewillbere paid in kind when it is his own time to plant or harvest. Feasting and Dancing Are Coumbite Highlights Of food and clairin (native rum) there will be an abundance. No matter how poor the farmer who holds the coumbite, he must pro vide refreshment in plenty. He pinches cen times with self-sacrificing denial throughout the year to provide highly seasoned stews of meat and vegetables and rum by the gallon. At night there are dancing and cockfighting, chief recreations of the Haitian of the hills. The three million who inhabit the rural sections of Haiti live unobtrusively. In habit and appearance, the prosperous are identical with the average man or woman. It is too risky otherwise. A jealous neighbor might inflict a pretentious man with ill luck brought by a wanga, and the victim may have to go to a voodoo, or vodun,* priest to buy protection in the form of an arret, a garde, or a drogue. Perhaps the wanga of his enemy may be too strong to be overcome. Then evil may befall. His crops may fail, his wife become sick and die, his child be attacked by the evil eye, his house burn down, his work animals break their legs. It is better, he feels, to live simply. The population figure of three million is a consensus of the best guessers of Haiti. An accurate census is impossible. When the cen sus taker comes around, the Haitian people hide out in the hills. A Government agent, they fear, brings trouble, never good. Therefore, when the Government undertakes even such an inoffen sive thing as counting them, they disappear. Hidden valleys, nooks, and crannies in the mountains are so inaccessible that the Gov ernment never finds all of its citizens. At the coumbite Pierre found an animated scene. Seventy-five or a hundred others had * The word vodun is traced by some scholars to a Dahomey (West Africa) word for "god" or "spirit."