About five decades ago, I lived in Haiti for a year and a half. I was trying to figure out how the marketplaces—which, then as now, tie the country together economically—actually worked.

Learning about the marketplaces—how people bargained; brought things there; sold them to other people; and brought other things, or money, home—is a pretty humdrum task, on the face of it. Yet Haiti is a big country, especially if there is just one of you, and it has hundreds of markets, thousands of people busily engaged in commercial traffic, and hardly ever a wordless exchange. It’s a lot to try to get one’s arms around, as people say these days. But being able to speak to people comfortably in their own language—becoming so familiar on sight that people stop looking at you, even when you are sitting in the market and selling for a friend!—and learning how to find things out without prying or causing a slight, is a special sort of empowerment. It was often demanding work, no matter how softly I trod. A good anthropologist is, among other things, one who knows how to apologize locally, and how to endure being an object of ridicule at times.

I arrived on the island only days after François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had put down the first coup attempt against him. Tempers were short, foreigners unwelcome. At first, life in the countryside—â déyò, as the Haitians say—was little affected, but tensions soon grew. The tonton macoutes, Duvalier’s urban militiamen, spread from the cities and tightened their grip throughout the country; Haiti’s rural officials, nearly all of them local peasants, were gradually being convinced of whose side to be on.

I spent most of my time in two different marketplaces: one, a large regional marketplace in the southern peninsula, near a roadside village; the other in town in the north, not far from the ruins of Henri Christophe’s famous citadel. I figured out how to live in those two places—where I could sleep, who would supply me with food, how I could keep the gas tank of my Land Rover filled, and the like—though none of it was easy to arrange.

I made my first contacts with people who lived some distance from where they traded. This meant wandering off the road, sometimes substantial distances, leaving the car behind so as to meet people and learn how food moved and who moved it. I began to make friends with farmers and the women who went to market. At night I’d get back to my one-room shack in the town of Fonds-des-Nègres, which was furnished simply: a footlocker, a folding cot, a Tilley lamp.

My arrangements for eating were adequate, though a little odd. Shortly after I’d rented my shack, a woman named Destine opened a café nearby. Ti-dè, as everyone called her, had been married to an eccentric Frenchman who processed vetiver for its oil, an ingredient in perfumes and to this day an important Haitian export. When they broke up, Ti-dè moved a hundred yards away from him and set up shop. And because Fonds-des-Nègres is just about halfway between Port-au-Prince and the southern city of Les Cayes, trucks of all sorts would stop there. The café seated only four, if memory serves, but I became a permanent evening fixture for a while.

Kids would gather in front of Ti-dè’s place. They had no money at all, but for them, that café brought the aroma of the wider world. Truckers everywhere are envied by rural youth, and Haiti is no exception. Ti-dè had put two benches in front, for idlers. The kids were almost wholly illiterate; they came from peasant families nearby, and the only work they knew was how to hoe and pick coffee. But they knew about movies and Europe, and they were all wonderful actors, who would fall into a pose and recite a bit of garbled classical verse in an instant. Their antics delighted each other, and they certainly delighted me. After eating I would go home, light my lamp, and work on my notes before turning in.

Although I visited Port-au-Prince occasionally—to send and pick up mail, to sleep in a bed, eat a meal supplied with a napkin and un verre de blanc—travel back and forth was difficult then, even slightly dangerous, and the trips distracted me from my work in the countryside. In the villages, I was left almost entirely alone and had plenty of time to contemplate where I was, what I was trying to do, and the people and places that surrounded me.

There must be few countries where such a mass of bureaucrats is supported by so poor a peasantry while supplying in return neither help nor security.

Though almost all of the people whom I knew and grew to love are gone, I remember exactly how I was received in those places and the kindnesses done me. There were surprises of the palate—the wonderful soups I was given—and the aroma of roast pork. I went to sleep listening to people singing together beautifully and, more distantly, the nightly sounds of drums. For me (not for everyone, I know), those drums became a lullaby.

I cannot turn a page of my field notes without the persons on those pages coming to life for me.

Recent, awful events have reawakened my memory. I realize that the effects upon me of living in that country and with those people are still fresh. The terrible disaster that has engulfed them and Haiti becomes yet more disturbing as its power and destructiveness are laid bare. The occasional dreadful tremors still hang, Damoclean, over everyone.

Haiti has witnessed great change since I worked there. Its agriculture has been declining (due in good measure to the ministrations of the International Monetary Fund and the importation of cheap, subsidized American rice), while its urban slums have expanded explosively. The two went together. But two-thirds of the population is still rural, and the marketplaces are still where most people conduct the business of business: buying and selling food to eat. Such marketplaces are an ancient Haitian institution—before the Revolution, one of the most important, located in the colonial capital, was frequented on a good day by 15,000 slaves, buying and selling. Markets play the same role in Haiti today.

When I began to work in Haiti, I wondered whether the market system might be the only truly national institution, beyond the army. At the time, eight out of ten Haitians were peasants. Most of them produced their own subsistence—without generators, running water, kerosene stoves, or electricity. They were doing it in a country that had—outside the towns—no paved roads, transport or postal service, schools, hospitals, fuel-powered agriculture, or information media (except gossip, what Haitians refer to humorously as télédyòl, loosely translatable as “telemouth”). In spite of being heavily taxed in every way that an idle, cruel, and cunning state apparatus could think up, the peasantry—illiterate, submissive, unschooled, lacking medical care—fed itself fairly well, reproduced itself, maintained stable family life, and supported on its back the entire state apparatus, including the army.

There must be few countries in the world where such a mass of bureaucrats is supported by so poor a peasantry while supplying in return neither help nor security, advice nor protection, and not even much friendliness and respect. I consider this to be part of the very high price the Haitian people were required to pay when they became an independent country. Even colonialism in Africa provided some institutional continuity. But fourteen years of invasion, revolution, and war waged on the terrain of a huge slave-based economy meant that Haiti’s institutional slate would be wiped nearly entirely clean by the time independence was declared in 1804.

Against that depressing past, the internal market system, by which all of the agricultural produce of the countryside and much else destined for local use reached its consumers, touched every city, town, and rural district in Haiti. When I was working there, more than 54,000 licensed intermediaries plied their skills across the land. All produce for export reached the ports through bulk buyers whose activities grew up alongside the market system and were closely allied to it. The commission buyers who lined the road near a market I studied in 1958-1959 purchased raw produce for export—vetiver, beeswax, goatskins, coffee—from peasants who came to town to sell their products and to shop at the marketplace before returning home. Especially important was coffee: a high-quality, mild variety that went mostly to Germany, France, and Switzerland and was used in mixed blends.

Nearly every one of the intermediaries, known in Haiti by various terms—such as révâdèz, kòmèsâ, machâ, Madâm Sara (this last after an extremely noisy bird that clusters in the trees to chatter)—according to their varying roles, is female. It was common to see three or four daughters, all dressed identically (at that time, blue denim dress and orange head tie), walking single-file behind their mother to market, each with a load of appropriate size on her head. Though there are women who cultivate and men who market, the division of labor is real; it is a key to understanding how Haitian peasants deal with the economics of everyday life. Women hardly cultivate for the same reason that men hardly market, and each task carries particular social messages.

Which brings me to my friend Nana, a market woman from Duverger, in the fifth rural section of Anse-à-Veau, near the marketplace of Fonds-des-Nègres. Planning my fieldwork, I had decided to pick one large regional marketplace in the north of Haiti and another in the south, since the cultural differences between the regions are substantial. In the south I visited several markets before settling on Fonds-des-Nègres, which had Tuesday as its major market day. Fonds-des-Nègres is not located in a town. At one time the government forced the marketplaces into the towns, sparing only a few, like
Fonds-des-Nègres. This marketplace welcomed at least 15,000 buyers and sellers on a brisk Tuesday; with only one exception, the storekeepers had to travel, coming from the towns to sell in the market.

Nana, Madame Anaïs Adrien, was among dozens of women marketers whom I got to know who lived around Fonds-des-Nègres. I was in Haiti not to study a local community but to learn about the marketers within the system. Yet I had already learned in Jamaica that it is feckless to study market women in the marketplace if one does not know them already. They are simply too busy most of the time to be bothered by some silly foreigner’s questions. After I got to know Nana, she introduced me to her friends and taught me an enormous amount about marketing and also about her own life.

When we became friends—Nana’s son, Jis (Gustave), had already helped me greatly with my initial work in Fonds-des-Nègres—Nana was in her late 50s, a plump woman deeply intent on her business ventures. Every two weeks she made a round trip journey from her village to the capital, Port-au-Prince, buying and selling. In my company she was mostly silent, even shy, until my interest in her work awakened her own.

Nana was born in 1902 and had been going to market since her infancy. Her first business dealing was in sugar; her mother gave her one centime to buy a packet of sugar, which she resold for two centimes on returning home. She explained to me that the centime she earned was bénéfis (profit) whereas the centime she had been given was not lajâ but mâmâlajâ—that is, not money, but capital.

Countless women start marketing in Haiti, only to fail. Most of us would fail, too. Capital is hard to come by. The competition is stiff, the dangers many.

Nana’s mother traveled regularly to Port-au-Prince before the American occupation in 1915, and occasionally Nana would be taken along—four days’ travel by mule each way. Though the U.S. occupation was much deplored, and justly, both by North American critics and by the Haitian bourgeoisie, Nana remembered it mostly because it provided people in her region with an easier way to get to the capital to buy and sell. Thereafter, over her lifetime, Nana learned how to negotiate and haggle, how to judge quality, how to cipher, how to measure—like most Haitian market women, Nana was illiterate—and how to cope with the many perils of market trade. She had raised five children, mostly by herself—her husband had died in 1939, when the youngest was only two years old—hiring labor to work her land and getting most of her income from marketing. Though she had begun as a local révâdèz at Fonds-des-Nègres, by the time I knew her she had been doing much more serious and demanding work for nine years. Her income was very substantial by Haitian rural standards; she was grossing as much as $400 a month. Every other Friday she carried produce she had purchased during the weekly market in the neighboring town of l’Asile and around her own rural section to Port-au-Prince, by truck.

Depending on availability and season, she sold husked and unhusked sorghum, ginger, peanuts, pumpkins, fowl, and eggs. She would stay in Port-au-Prince until Monday morning, selling and sleeping on sacks of grain in the depot, then buying goods to carry back to her home village.

The difficulties and hazards of these trips were daunting. Most of the food the intermediaries carry is highly perishable. Trucks often go off the road, even fall into ravines. For most rural Haitians, there was no medical care of any sort. I remember one particularly taxing trip to the Cap Haïtien regional hospital in a raging thunderstorm down a dark mountain road, carrying a local peasant badly gored by a bull. It took six hours to drive him and four members of his family about 30 miles. There is no doubt at all that he would have died if I had not been there to give him a ride.

In the trade itself, dealers cheat; patrons go back on their word; there are thieves, some of them very clever. Capital is extremely hard to come by. Countless women start marketing, only to fail. Most of us would fail, too. The competition is stiff, the dangers many. Yet Nana pursued her profession with zeal and sometimes even with pleasure, each round trip a measure of her skill and success.

In order to understand better her mode of operation, I might carry her and her stock to Port-au-Prince in my Land Rover. It was fewer than a hundred miles, but took nearly six hours over difficult terrain—with one gas station and six Duvalier guard posts en route. The guards often could not read. They were armed with either ancient Lee Enfield rifles or Thompson submachine guns. They always seemed at least as scared as I was.

When the rivers were high, it might easily have become a two-day trip—though we never got stuck. Nana carried bread, bananas, water, and clairin, the raw local rum, for her own nourishment on every trip. On reaching the city, I would take her to her regular depot, watch the unloading of her stock while she greeted her friends there, and set the time for our return trip on Monday. I visited her each day in the depot for several hours to watch her transactions. When I would leave her at night, I would drive through the market area to my pension. I was familiar enough to the police there to be left alone, in spite of Duvalier. The sidewalks, along the market streets, some of them arcaded, were always lined at midnight with hundreds of sleeping women from all over the nation, each on her own burlap sack.

Monday morning we would load up three five-gallon tins of lard, 25 gallons of clairin, some yards of blue denim, two boxes of locally made soap, and a few items to satisfy special requests. Locally made white and yellow soap for bath and laundry was one of the Haitian peasants’ true necessities, and the demand for soap was inelastic. The Duvalier regime’s tax increases on soap were among its nastier everyday exactions.

Richer than most marketers, Nana was able to leave some of her less perishable stock at the depot to be sold by associates or the depot owner on commission during the week, when prices often rose. Women with less capital could not hold back that way. Nor could poorer women enjoy the luxury of sleeping, safe and dry, in a depot. We would get back to Fonds-des-Nègres in the afternoon and deposit the stock in the house of a komè (a kind of ritual relative or godparent) on the road, from which it would be moved by burro to Nana’s house in Duverger the following day.

It is always a pleasure to be reminded just how smart Nana was, sharpened by her lifetime in the market. I might ask her about local marketing by choosing a hypothetical situation of a classic sort. For example, one quickly learns in a Haitian market that sellers of the same item gather in the same place, and that the same item always seems to sell at the same asking price. What would she do, I recall asking, if she and several friends were selling red beans at 3.5 gourdes the gro-mamit, and a new marketer appeared who was willing to sell at 3 gourdes? She cocked her head and chuckled, asking me a question that immediately laid bare the intimate link between theory and practice. “How many pwa rouj does she have?” “Oh,” I said, “about a dozen gro-mamit.” “Oh, we would let her sell,” she said simply. “And what if she had a whole lot?” “Ah, then we would aim to buy her out!”

Nana knew about oligopsony, all right; as well as about capital, long-term supply costs, zero opportunity costs, marginal utility, and arbitrage—but she and her sisters had no need of Western terminology.

In the aftermath of slavery, the ancestors of Haiti’s market women, showing enormous energy and determination, built new ways of life for themselves.

Of course, sometimes not even experience, intelligence, and courage are enough. When money is scarce in Port-au-Prince and the local supply of food piles up, skill, and even daring cannot change the situation. The taxes that machâ paid were always extortionate. And there are other catastrophes besides gluts and taxes, such as political violence or war. In 1957, while she slept in a Port-au-Prince depot, Nana was robbed of nearly a thousand gourdes—$200. She almost gave up her trips then, she told me.

In my work with market women, I discovered significant similarities between their economic maneuvers and those reported by anthropologists and economists who had worked in West Africa. In societies where capital is rare and labor cheap, people engage in near-superhuman feats to get their hands on operating funds, and informal interest rates can be astronomical. Haitian market women were willing to pay interest for three days’ use of capital that would have amounted to 600 percent if it were calculated on an annual basis. Working with Nana and her friends, I recognized that extortionate rates of interest on even the most modest of loans were a major obstacle to economic growth in such societies.

The West African practice of “Gold Coasting,” which requires the swift sale of goods at an extremely low rate of profit so that the supplier can be paid off in as little as seventy-two hours, was common in large Haitian markets. Such transoceanic similarities argue for a common cultural heritage. But in at least some cases, it may be structurally parallel economic situations producing like solutions, rather than a shared tradition.

Nana Adrien represents for me the achievements and tragedy of Caribbean peasant life. In the aftermath of slavery, the ancestors of people like her, showing enormous energy and determination, built new ways of life for themselves, ways of seeing and doing that drew on their pasts but were constructed, bit by bit, out of their ongoing lives. However, their aspirations were frustrated. Nana and other marketers, instead of being helped to build their businesses, were encumbered by taxation and lacked an infrastructure to provide reasonable business loans, schools for their children, roads, buses, decent market roofs and stands, and clean toilets—services that the taxes exacted from them each day could have paid for. Instead the ruling elite lived on peasant sweat.

The profoundest drama of the Caribbean region lies in its rootedness in a violent and degraded past. That is because it stands to this day as a testament to the courage and creativity of those millions who were dragged from their hearths, mostly to awful suffering, humiliation, and early deaths, in what may have been the most terrible demographic event in history. The Haitian people are their descendants. I believe that knowing something of the ways that Nana Adrien and those thousands of others like her talked and worked and lived helps us to better understand that past, and to understand Haiti today.

Everyone now knows about the catastrophe that has brought Haiti to the brink of destruction. The earthquake revealed the threadbare infrastructure upon which Haitian people had no choice but to depend. For nearly everything, they learned long ago to rely entirely upon themselves.