Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

Kòltiz, a Patriotic Haitian Practice of Solidarity

Haitian collaborative groups affirm that “every human is human.”

By , an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida.
Decoder-Haiti-Koltiz_Alexandra_Antoine_illustration-3-2
Decoder-Haiti-Koltiz_Alexandra_Antoine_illustration-3-2
Alexandra Antoine ILLUSTRATION for Foreign Policy

Haitian agriculturalists build solidarity by working and socializing together. In towns such as Camp-Perrin on the southern Tiburon Peninsula, groups of poor farmers called kòltiz complete periodic wage labor throughout the year to set aside enough money to purchase a cow in December. The shared meat of the slaughtered cow is a necessity for soup joumou (pumpkin soup), a dish made across the nation on New Year’s Day to celebrate Haiti’s independence. In 2003, UNESCO inscribed soup joumou on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Kòltiz is one of several solidarity practices central to the economy of Haiti’s Creole-speaking majority. Despite the preponderance of the Haitian Creole language and culture, members of the Haitian state and urban elite orient themselves instead to the French language and culture. This means they often ignore compelling Indigenous Haitian Creole models of a good society, including solidarity practices such as kòltiz.

Collaborative work in towns on the Tiburon Peninsula forms the bedrock of Haitian rural economics. Such work arrangements are exemplified by echanj an wonn (exchange in rounds), in which neighbors in fixed-membership eskwad (squads) carry out reciprocal labor. Cooperative behavior is also found in sòl (savings groups), which receive equal contributions from their members and provide them with turns at withdrawing large amounts of money. Some Haitians also participate in unregulated mityèl (mutuals) that function like micro-credit unions.

Haitian agriculturalists build solidarity by working and socializing together. In towns such as Camp-Perrin on the southern Tiburon Peninsula, groups of poor farmers called kòltiz complete periodic wage labor throughout the year to set aside enough money to purchase a cow in December. The shared meat of the slaughtered cow is a necessity for soup joumou (pumpkin soup), a dish made across the nation on New Year’s Day to celebrate Haiti’s independence. In 2003, UNESCO inscribed soup joumou on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Kòltiz is one of several solidarity practices central to the economy of Haiti’s Creole-speaking majority. Despite the preponderance of the Haitian Creole language and culture, members of the Haitian state and urban elite orient themselves instead to the French language and culture. This means they often ignore compelling Indigenous Haitian Creole models of a good society, including solidarity practices such as kòltiz.

Collaborative work in towns on the Tiburon Peninsula forms the bedrock of Haitian rural economics. Such work arrangements are exemplified by echanj an wonn (exchange in rounds), in which neighbors in fixed-membership eskwad (squads) carry out reciprocal labor. Cooperative behavior is also found in sòl (savings groups), which receive equal contributions from their members and provide them with turns at withdrawing large amounts of money. Some Haitians also participate in unregulated mityèl (mutuals) that function like micro-credit unions.

As for kòltiz, several people band together for a year to save up for the cow that will provide the meat for soup joumou to celebrate the nation’s birth. These peyizan (agriculturalists) earn cash day-laboring on farms, periodically paying a required kotizasyon (contribution) to the kòltiz treasurer. In chronically hungry Haiti, many members forgo meat for long periods during the year. The cow purchased at year’s end is sent to slaughter on Dec. 30 or 31, in time for preparing the soup. On those days, visitors will hear “bidip bidip bipbip” filling the air as the cows are struck with wooden poles made from the bwa gayak tree. Striking the cows in their last moments symbolically reenacts the suffering and death of the nation’s ancestral fighters who perished before Jan. 1, 1804, when independence was declared. The New Year’s Day feasting reenacts the celebration of the founders. As the cows of liberty are butchered, the members of the kòltiz wait with their meat tubs while conch blowers, drummers, and singers create a vibrant ambiance.

When asked about the history of kòltiz, residents of Camp-Perrin recalled that their grandparents participated in them, suggesting that such groups originated in the newly independent Haiti of the 19th century. In western parts of the Tiburon, the same practice goes by the name atribisyon (attribution).

For linguists, the origin and history of words such as kòltiz are of great importance for understanding the ways the creators of Haitian Creole adapted both African and Gallo-Romance cultural and linguistic traditions. Between 1650 and 1700 in Saint-Domingue, colonists created a colonial French koine through borrowing and mixing, dialect-leveling, and simplification. Between 1680 and 1803, enslaved people from Africa and French colonial residents subsequently creolized the colonial French koine in a process that gradually constructed Saint-Domingue Creole, ultimately giving way to Haitian Creole. While much about Haitian Creole at first glance seems connected to colonial French, it has significantly shifted away from equivalency and mutual intelligibility, a point illustrated by the challenges of pinning down an etymology for kòltiz.

The first syllable of the word can possibly be traced to French-origin words such as kolekte (to collect), kolektivite (community), or rekòlt (harvest). Tellingly, however, kòltiz is not found in standard French. Consultation of the principal etymological dictionary of the Gallo-Romance languages, Walther von Wartburg’s Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1950), provides a few hints. For example, the word colletin, attested in the Gaumais dialect in 1580 of what is now Belgium and southern Luxembourg, referred to a leather vest that protected the neck and back of a porter, the coltineur. Colletin was also attested in popular French slang in 1869 with the meaning of “force, energy, and work.” In the Occitan dialect of Toulouse, in southern France, coultino was a “sleeveless buffalo vest,” another hint at bovine semantic associations. Other source candidates include collecte (collection of money) or even collectif (collective) from French.

Establishing the precise origins of kòltiz is elusive given that the word is possibly derived from any number of French or Gallo-Romance words. As with the word kòltiz, the Haitian Creole language is also not equivalent to French.

Despite the majority of the population speaking Haitian Creole, French remains the primary official language in Haiti. This has knock-on effects for policy, which is often divorced from the linguistic and cultural realities of the lives of the nation’s people. Why isn’t the political class looking to Haiti’s inexhaustible cultural capital—Haitian Creole with its unifying models of collaboration, exemplified by kòltiz—for inspiration and answers to questions about how and with what language development can be achieved? Is there any excuse for a state and society that advance the linguistic interests of the 5 percent while shutting out the other 95 percent? Given that societies under minority linguistic rule lump together at the bottom of the human development index, policymakers need to reevaluate the viability of their projects in light of this underlying linguistic obstacle.

In her book When the Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti, Jennie Smith points out that collaborative groups reflect local efforts to correct the government’s failure to develop communities. Collaborative groups demonstrate rural people’s strong will to develop and provide insight into how they visualize a good society. Relative economic parity is one of the leading definitions of a good society. Resources should be distributed in the community and not monopolized by small groups or outsiders—a trait illustrated in the equal distribution of meat to members of the kòltiz. The Haitian proverb Tout moun se moun (Every human is human) affirms this.

Haitian collaborative groups such as kòltiz reveal important lessons for Haitian and international policymakers. They show that Haiti’s culture is built on a Haitian Creole foundation, not a French one. They show that Haitian people are strengthened by their collaborative culture, desire responsive leaders who respect them, seek a society of relative economic parity, and engage in community labor that connects to leisure as well as history. In his 2006 Creole linguistics study, Yon lekòl tèt anba nan yon peyi tèt anba (An Upside-Down School in an Upside-Down Country), the linguist Yves Dejean argues that teaching Haitian Creole-speaking children in French runs against the grain of their lived experience and knowledge of the world. Solidarity practices such as kòltiz, konbit (reciprocal labor with feasting), and sòl connect to Haitian cultural and civic values, and they reflect an Indigenous visualization of the good society. Kòltiz and soup joumou unify teachable dimensions of animal husbandry, cattle selling and buying, community savings, cuisine, values such as collaboration and honesty, and virtues such as patriotism.

More than 200 years of minority French language dominance in the Haitian state and schools have not improved the quality of life of the majority of Haitian people. If policymakers embrace and empower the Indigenous Haitian Creole majority language and culture, including practices such as kòltiz, the Haitian people will have a genuine chance at improving living conditions in Haiti.

Benjamin Hebblethwaite is an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses on Haiti, Jamaica, and France. His books include the forthcoming A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou, Stirring the Pot of Haitian History, and Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. He is currently investigating Arabic influences in French, German, and Dutch rap lyrics.

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