Lecture, Session 5

Contemporary Caribbean peasants, strategies for survival

Creativity, resiliency, strategic flexibility

Strategic flexibility in the West Indies is a cultural value taught from a very young age.  This includes adjustment, being ready, and being receptive.  Students are taught to pursue multiple options or potential capital and to diversify risks.


Africans love proverbs.  They create many coded messages that allude to various aspects of their lives.  This follows a long tradition of eloquence and pieces of wisdom. Many Haitians know hundreds of proverbs.  They apply them to everyday situations. They are created on a receiver-based message system, often relying on the listener to interpret them in their own way.

Most proverbs have two part form: statement and resolution.  Often, they are executed in call and response--a structure in which the speaker makes a statement and a listener provides a resolution. 

Uncertainty of future
    Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.
    Behind the mountains, there are mountains.

    Kouri pou lapli, tonbe larivyè.
    Run to get out of the rain, fall in the river.

Diversifying risks
    Ou pa sa lage kò ou youn sèl kote.
    You can't drop your body in only one place.

    Ou pa sa manyen youn sèl rou.
    You can't handle only one hoe.

Adapting to new opportunities
    Manke chen, pran chat.
    "If you lose the dog, grab the cat."

    Lè ou pa jwenn manman ou tete grann.
    If you don't have a mother, you suckle your grandmother.

    "Si ou mache, ou a jwenn.  Si ou pa mache, ou pap jwen.
    If you walk, you'll find.  If you don't walk, you won't find.

    Jan l vini an, se kon sa m ap pran n.
    The way it comes, that's how I'll take it.



     Lè ou pa genyen, nenpòt ti kabrit kale ou.
    When you don't have anything, any old goat beats you.


Cooperation, depending on others
    Ou pa sa kale kalalou avè youn sèl zong/dwèt.
    You can't peel okra with only one nail/finger.

Translations courtesy of Karen Richman, Ph.D.

Help and Assistance 

Another common theme among proverbs is: only people can help you.  If you come from a poor family, you seek out better-off patrons.  There is frequent use of fictive kinship, like godparenting to create long-term, diffuse bonds.  Godparents are often from better-off families.  They can help their poorer godchildren and sometimes raise them.

    De mèg pa fri.
    Two lean pieces of meat don't fry.

People as Resources 

People are always seen as resources, but they are also loved.  Children are valued as resources; parents invest in their own futures when they invest in children.  Everyone works, including children, from the time they are able.

    Bourik fè pitit pou do l poze.
    A mule bears children to rest her back.

Migration and Diversification 

Today, migration is part of diversification.  Families typically diversify their investments through their own people or resources by "sending" members outside.  Migration does not have a stigma. 
Migration is largely a product of the market system (see below).

Types of migration:

  1. Rural-rural (usually agricultural labor),
  2. Rural-urban migration and
  3. Regional: and people moving between the islands within the Caribbean have a long history.
  4. International migration this century.  Two kinds:
    1. temporary or seasonal, e.g., Jamaican cane cutters in Florida. and
    2. longer-term, e.g., movement to the U.K.

The point is that these movements are seen as perpetual circulation, rather than permanent exile.

    Viv isit, chache lavi lòt bò.
    "Live here, search for life over there."

Carnegie argues that we must look at the way the actors understand their actions instead of imposing our values.  If they don't integrate into host society, do not simply see them as underadjusting.  Perhaps they have a different objective.  Our biases regarding the nation-state surround its exclusivity, its threat of creating interdependence, and a general fear of strangers polluting our society. 

The Internal marketing system

The internal marketing system is a system for the circulation of local produce.  It is run mainly by women.  Men maintain their roles as farmers.  The system is complex and multi-tiered.  It unites the regional networks of entire country, and further links the wider regions of the islands.  Inter-island trade has been going on probably since before emancipation.

On the small scale, the system is made up of small farmers working plots of less than three acres, higglers who buy products in small quantities, and customers who purchase tiny amounts at a time (e.g., one clove of garlic, one teaspoon of tomato paste, three small potatoes, one cigarette at a time).  The system thrives on diversity.  Farmers produce small quantities of diverse products, and higglers sell more than one thing (e.g., Miss A sells carrots, thyme, beets and scallion).

There are small profit margins.  It is best to sell in the greatest volume possible.  However, this is limited by a lack of capital.  The average farmer, higgler or customer never has enough to save to be able to buy in quantity.  A farmer doesn't have access to credit to buy or rent more land, or for tools, seed, to hire labor to work an expanded plot.  All formal credit goes to urban businessmen.

People--especially relatives--do lend one another money.  But, because of this, everyone is always in debt. Credit for large outlays or to pay for unexpected calamities is sold by usurers at very high interest rates of 100% or more.  At best, a successful country higgler manages to make enough to pay for the week's provisions.  This is typically done on Saturday, after she finishes collecting her money. Friday and Saturday the big market days, known as days of "making provision" (fè pwovizion). 

Higglers are famous for their thrifty nature.  Many will walk for several miles up steep paths to save the few cents of a truck ride. They will sleep on ground in the market place to guard their wares themselves rather than pay someone else.  

Participants in internal market system: farmer, country higgler and speculator (can be male), town higgler, tray girls, vendors (male) machand, revandèz, buyer

Country higgler 

Higglers (typically a female task) serve as link between farmer and town. The Higglers go around by foot buying from individual farmers at the field.  They learn to balance weights from the time they are very young. They are graceful and steady.

Higglers serve as messengers between two places.  Families whose members reside in both places communicate via the higglers, sending packages, messages.  Local people ask a higgler to buy things for them. Social relations between higglers and farmers are also more than economic.  Long-term relationships are valued over short term.

Admittedly, the system has a lot of risks; there is no insurance system other than your relations with other people.  To maintain said relations, a higgler will wait to sell to her bwata, even if someone else comes and offers a better price.  She looks out for long-term goals.  Her dependence upon a special client is more important than the short-term gain of a new one.

With such connections, higglers demonstrate a wide breadth of market knowledge.  They must keep up on current information and must constantly be on top of the movement of market conditions (i.e. how goods are selling that day, who is selling what and at what prices, etc.)  They keep all of this information in their heads, without writing records.  They maintain consistent records in their heads; they remember every penny that is owed even though they never write anything down (most cannot write).

Daughters of higglers often learn the trade by accompanying their mothers on their daily activities. At a young age, they are given large responsibilities.  For example, a ten year old might be seen circulating with a basket on her head selling carrots. 

Citation: Richman, K. (2008, April 20). Lecture, Session 5. Retrieved October 23, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/romance-languages-and-literatures/creole-language-and-culture/lectures/lecture-session-5.
Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License