Chelsey Kivland explores how Haitian performance troupes affect their country’s social and political life.
In the summer of 2008, when anthropology doctoral candidate Chelsey Kivland, AM’06, settled in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to begin her dissertation research, one of the first things she bought was a wooden rolltop desk. Kivland liked the desk so much that she paid $50 for it, well over Haiti’s fair market value. Over the next 18 months, the desk became her office as she studied the role of street performance troupes in Haitian society. Then, on January 12, 2010, a seven-magnitude earthquake ravaged the country, and Kivland’s home collapsed. Kivland, who was not in the house when it fell, was evacuated from Haiti to Santo Domingo after three days and assumed she’d never recover the months of ethnographic research stored on her laptop and in her notebooks. Several of her friends decided to search the rubble the following week: “I lived on the first story in the back room,” says Kivland. “The way the home collapsed, there was an entryway into what looked like the space where my room had been. They could see the desk, which had somehow stayed intact. They opened it up and found everything.” With her files once again in hand, Kivland has spent the past year and a half writing her dissertation about Haiti’s Carnival groups, composed of performance troupes, also known as bann a pye or “foot bands,” and their associated social organizations. In particular, Kivland is examining how such groups in Bel Air, an impoverished neighborhood in central Port-au-Prince, organize and carry out community projects and use politicized performance to garner support for their initiatives. Trained as a modern dancer, Kivland studied sociology and dance as an undergraduate at Colorado College. After graduation, she taught middle school in the South Bronx and then high school in Brooklyn, coming to know many Haitian students. As her knowledge of the country grew, Kivland also learned that her late grandfather, Edward Guzi, had imported baseballs from Haiti. “My grandfather died fairly young,” says Kivland. “But my grandmother, Anne, had traveled to Haiti quite a lot with him, and we started talking about it. That’s when my interest really developed.” From the start of her doctoral studies, Kivland knew that she wanted to write a dissertation on performance and politics and perhaps focus on Haiti; in 2006, she traveled there for the first time. When she met with an official in the Ministry of Culture, Kivland remembers, “He said, ‘Why are you sitting here talking to me? If this is what you’re interested in, you should walk up this hill to the neighborhood of Bel Air.’” He suggested Bel Air because “the tradition of Carnival groups has been established in this neighborhood for a long time,” says Kivland. “I met with the directors of two of these groups on the trip and realized that this was exactly the kind of project I wanted to do. The Bel Air groups have a strong tradition of both performance and neighborhood social work.” Two years later, she began her doctoral research. Each morning, Kivland left her home on a tree-lined side street, took public transportation—that is, a pickup truck—to the city center, and then walked up the hill to Bel Air, where she observed and interviewed members of the neighborhood’s 38 Carnival groups. Kivland set out to explore the widespread perception in Haitian society that “there is no state” and how the groups act politically given this perception of living in a country without a clearly defined government that is accountable to its citizens. The Haitian notion of statelessness stems from the country’s diffuse network of governance, says Kivland; that network is composed of governmental ministries, the UN peacekeeping mission, and nongovernmental organizations. “Governance is done by many different players, and there is no centralized locus of power provisioning services to the public. There are named leaders, but in everyday reality, the government is one of many players doing what we would call governance.” Chelsey Kivland (right), visits her godchild and his mother on the Champs de Mars, the central plaza in Port-au-Prince. Photo courtesy of Chelsey Kivland. Enter the bann a pye, whose motto is “we make the state.” Dating back to Haiti’s early independence, they are composed of musicians, actors, and dancers and led by an organizing committee. During Carnival and other festivals throughout the year, the performers, mostly young men, take to the streets, putting on performances with political content. The ethos of the performance troupes, says Kivland, is bringing citizens out of misery, keeping them active, and stressing the need for education, healthy living, and a clean neighborhood. This philosophy is reflected in their song lyrics, for example: “Haitians who do not eat well, Haitians who are in misery, begin to cry without stopping, but go, but go, but go, people of Bel Air” (from “The People Are Standing Up,” performed by L’as ou Neuf Band, Port-au-Prince, 2009). Over the past five to seven years, Kivland says, many of the bann a pye have founded associated social organizations. These organizations—which share their performance troupe’s committee members, motto, and guiding principles—plan and carry out community projects such as street cleaning, building playgrounds, or running adult literacy programs. To fund their initiatives, they may petition the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs, a Brazilian NGO, or the UN peacekeeping mission. According to Kivland, they understand “making the state” as calling on those who govern to provide services and in so doing, compelling these disparate agents to act like a state. The bann a pye perform in public spaces to secure community support for the projects and petitions and demonstrate their social organizations’ local influence. “The performance is important because it shows togetherness,” says Kivland. “That this is a group with the capacity to organize and with a crowd of people backing them.” Through their social projects and performances, the Carnival groups act as brokers between the network of governance and the public. Because they’ve cultivated strong local support, foreign and national agencies depend on them to carry out development projects, which, in turn, helps these groups secure funding. Kivland hopes that her research will help illuminate their strength and effectiveness. “I think the international community would be well served to see, in these poor neighborhoods in particular, what Haitians are already doing to make a better life for themselves,” she says, “and to help make those actions possible instead of imposing methods from outside.” After the earthquake, Kivland returned to Haiti for two brief stints in August 2010 and January 2011, but she has spent most of her time in Chicago, writing her dissertation, which she intends to complete next year with the support of a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. According to Kivland, the Carnival groups have resumed their activities, but, given the total devastation, their song lyrics and project petitions reflect less optimism and new priorities, for example, moving people out of tents back into homes. The natural disaster was “such a disruption in people’s lives that in many ways, if the earthquake did anything to my research, it made it a historical project,” she says. She thought long and hard about doing further research on postearthquake Haiti, but, with input from her advisers, decided to write now and pursue that work next: “I plan to continue with this topic, and my next project will deal in depth with the earthquake environment.” The devastation, says Kivland, “has made me feel like this is important work.”