The Konbit

Edwa has what could reasonably be described as a strong preference for driving on the right-hand side of the road. In Haiti, the right-hand side is the right side, too. He drives on the right most of the time, but sometimes he drives on the left. Traffic on Avenue John Brown heading into Pòtoprens has been heavy lately, so one day recently he was on the left most of the way down. What’s most striking is that my confidence in him is so complete that I wasn’t giving it a second thought. I was still sore from working on the
konbit the day before, so that’s what was on my mind.

There are several things I’ve learned to do in Haiti that I might never otherwise have learned. The most obvious is that I can speak some Kreyol, enough at least to get by. But there’s more. I can grind corn into cornmeal. I can iron a shirt with a coal-heated iron. I can ride a moderately feisty donkey of average size, bareback. And there are larger things, too. The sorts of things that are harder to describe. None of these new skills, large or small, prepared me for work as part of the konbit. That’s ok, though. As it turns out, I didn’t need any skills.

A konbit is a group that gets together to do work that can better be accomplished by a team. I’m told that much of the farming in the countryside depends on them. Several men will get together and go from farm to farm, tilling or planting or weeding or reaping. Each day they work a different plot of land. They can be cooperatives, working land which the individual konbit members own. Or they can be a kind of team for hire. Even if it is a cooperative, the owner of the land provides a meal. There are standard fees if the group is a professional team.

Our konbit had nothing to do with agriculture, except that we were working on land where Mèt Anténor used to plant corn. We were a construction team, laying the beginnings of a foundation for a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Ka Glo.

Ka Glo has had an Adventist community since the mid-nineties. Until then, it was largely Catholic. I’m still unclear as to what brought Mèt Anténor and the others to turn to Adventism, but by the time I arrived for the first time in the summer of 1997, Adventists were a large majority. There remained then, as now, only a few Catholics and a few members of an intensely charismatic Protestant group. Our neighborhood of Ka Glo has no Voudoun, or at least none that I’ve ever seen. There are a several practitioners of Voudoun down the hill in Mabanbou, several more across the road in upper Ka Glo, and lots of them just up the hill in Ba Osya.

That first summer, and through the summer that followed, the whole community would go down to Bwa Moket or to Pènye every Saturday for Adventist services. But by the time I arrived in August of 1999, that had changed. They were meeting each Saturday on benches and chairs arranged outdoors, right inside the entrance to our yard, in front of the porch where I like to sit and read. Two or three members of the community in Bwa Moket come up the hill each week to share leadership of their Sabbath service, but for the most part they themselves lead it-Mèt Anténor, Jean-Reynald, and Toto.

For some time now they’ve had plans to build a church on a small piece of land that belongs to Mèt Anténor right beneath the great mapou tree. But even to start a building project is a major undertaking here in semi-rural Haiti, not to speak of getting it finished. Thanks to Mèt Anténor, they had the land. And for months now they’ve had some of the material they would need: a large pile of rocks of various sizes. Several weeks ago, a small group of teenagers was hired to dig the trenches that we would lay the foundations in, but more was needed. We had to have both cement and sandy gravel to mix it with. In addition, we needed labor. And labor was briefly in short supply, because the rains had just started, and it was critical for everyone to get their corn planted quickly. Crops were already about a month late.

But the crops are in the ground, and last week a truck brought a load of gravel and ten sacks of cement up the hill. We were ready to start.

Now, organizing a konbit for farmwork is probably pretty simple: You gather together a bunch of guys with hoes or machetes or shovels or whatever the appropriate tool is, and they get to work. But our construction team was more complex. For one thing, it depended on some real skill. We were to start a foundation. More specifically, our first day’s task was to build a wall about six feet high and twenty-five or thirty feet long, set into a trench about four feet deep on a steep incline. That meant we needed experienced stonemasons. For another, though there would be a bunch of us doing the unskilled lifting and carrying the masons needed all day, there was one aspect of the job that required more consistent, more dependable strength than any of us could supply: mixing the sand with water and the cement to make the concrete. It’s very heavy work, and it would need to continue without pause all day. So there were about 15 unskilled volunteers from Ka Glo, lifting, carrying, arguing, complaining, joking, and chatting all day, but there were also four professional stonemasons, plus two more who were members of the church working as volunteers, and two professional mason’s assistants. Madanm Anténor led a team of six women who made the meal and hauled water-both rainwater for the cement and drinking water for the laborers.

The work that we actually did was pretty uninteresting. I spent the day hauling buckets of concrete and moving rocks. By mid-afternoon, I was sunburnt, but my shoulders were less red than my soft, professorial hands. My awkwardness was enjoyed by all. Passing neighbors stopped to watch. I made, in fact, quite a spectacle of myself. I was, as they say, a “conversation piece.” Finishing the church will require many more such days. I hope I’m part of some of them.