- When the Hands are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti
The Haitian peasantry emerged in nineteenth century, post-revolutionary Haiti as liberated slaves and their dependents reclaimed most of the former sugar cane plantations of France’s richest new world colony. In When the Hands are Many, Jennie Smith fills a conspicuous gap in contemporary Haitian studies by examining the peasantry’s strategies for assessing and addressing the challenges they face in their struggle to create a better society. As some of the world’s most impoverished and politically disempowered, Haiti’s rural poor have been targeted by many development and democratization projects. These projects usually conceptualize the peasantry as lacking the resources, experience, and knowledge to achieve any real advances for themselves—a reality “confirmed” by the lack of results seen by the scores of international NGOs, which create these projects. As Smith aptly demonstrates, this is a gross misunderstanding based on foreign concepts of progress and success. Haitian peasants have a rich tradition of organizing to help one another while working toward a cohesive vision of a good society.
Smith’s study explores several distinct types of peasant organizations that vary in size, structure, context, and purpose. These organizations have a surprising degree of variation: from a ten-member labor-exchange Kove, to a neighborhood association, to a fifty-member Sosyete which contracts its labor and acts as a mutual-aid association, to a Gwoupman Peyizan recently formed to work with NGOs on a community latrine program. Membership in such organizations is not mutually exclusive; peasants demonstrate both complexity and flexibility in utilizing these different organizations. Smith focuses on a song tradition grounded in local subsistence rather than neo-liberal globalization. These songs, called chante pwen-s (pointing songs), illustrate how peasants conceptualize, debate, and articulate their visions of what a good society is and how to create it.
The major strength of this study is Smith’s careful attention to authorship. As in colonial and post-colonial studies, critiques of how anthropology has spoken for and subjugated the voices of its objects of study (and to what ends) are increasingly familiar within the discipline. Less familiar, however, are ethnographies that successfully incorporate these critiques; Smith accomplishes this difficult task with considerable skill. In her introduction, she identifies the goal of letting the Haitian peasantry “do theory”—they are the ones who debate progress, modernity, development, and democracy through lengthy quotations and translations of chante pwen-s. Contrary to the development industry’s view of the Haitians, the peasants in Smith’s study demonstrate an ability to assess challenges critically, conceptualize remedies, and work together toward implementation. When the Hands are Many is a skillfully wrought ethnography that pays careful attention to questions of voice and authorship.
While an excellent study of Haitian peasant organizations, there are some notable omissions. No organization in Smith’s study has official legal status (as recognized by Haitian law). Even though she recognizes this as one of the constraints facing community organizations—they cannot borrow money or open bank accounts, for example—Smith fails to examine the role of legally organized peasant groups. Legally recognized cooperatives may hold different visions of how to create a better society. Such groups maintain a different relationship to the Haitian state and have varying degrees of access to the international community; their inclusion would have enriched this study by presenting a broadened range of strategies Haitian peasants employ in their struggle to improve their lives.
Additionally, a more contextualized historical analysis would have strengthened this work. Smith does explore Haitian history, but only as it relates to the formation of the peasantry and peasant groups. In her analysis, Haiti’s peasantry is articulating a vision of a better future that is very much informed by and in contrast to foreign concepts of development and democracy. As such, the formation and evolution of these concepts—an archaeology of “development” and “democracy”—as well as the growth of the development industry in Haiti, would have broadened this...