Interview with Chelsey Kivland

Chelsey Kivland is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation project, entitled ‘Of Bands and Soldiers: Performance, Sovereignty, and Violence in Contemporary Haiti,’ is supervised by Dr. Stephan Palmie and received funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Recently the Wenner-Gren Blog reached out to Ms. Kivland to learn more about her work with Haitian ‘foot bands’ before and after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

1.    What exactly are ‘foot bands’ in Haiti, and what first drew you to them?

The bann a pye, or “bands on foot,” are neighborhood-based performance troupes. While directed by a group of about ten young men, the full troupe can comprise as many as fifty men and women. The full troupe marches, sings, dances, and plays music through city streets during the Carnival season, as well as at other festivals throughout the year. I was drawn to the bann a pye because of my longstanding interests in popular performance and politics. As a lifelong dancer and activist, I was initially fascinated by the way in which these groups’ performances focused on politicized critiques of governmental leaders and foreign aid. But, I became even more interested when I learned of the ways in which some of these groups—especially in my field-site of Bel Air, Port-au-Prince—function as social service organizations, picking up trash, conducting neighborhood watches, and organizing literacy classes. Together, these practices touched on the power of performance to establish communal attachments and to foster political mobilizations.

2.    How did the 2010 earthquake affect or alter your research methodology and goals?

My research period was coming to a close when the earthquake struck. I consider myself very lucky to have collected most of my data by that point. I view the earthquake as a phenomenon that while drastically disrupting lives and livelihoods, did not create radical change but rather intensified social and political processes that were already underway. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, for example, neighborhood groups were very important in rescue and recovery: setting up small camps, gathering census data, and appealing to aid agencies for help. After the quake, the bann a pye became even more involved in social service projects in the neighborhood, such as removing rubble and applying for reconstruction funds. Finally, many of the political processes that I was tracking in the dissertation, such as the proliferation of global governance structures and the minimal presence of the government, have greatly intensified in the “redevelopment” period, as aid funds continue to bypass government and fall in the hands of NGOs.

The earthquake “gave me a big shock,” as Haitians might put it, and made me refocus on my personal relationships both at home and in Haiti. It also made me rethink how my research and skills might be used to help people in my field-site realize their goals and ambitions.

During my fieldwork from 2008-2010, I volunteered as an English teacher at a community-run primary school in Bel Air called KOREBEL (Konbit pou Rebati Bèlè, or Team to Rebuild Bel Air). Following the earthquake, I co-founded KOREBEL Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding and supporting a community-based school’s yearlong activities. Inspired by my work with KOREBEL, my next major research project will explore the expanding role of community-run schools, often financed by transnational networks and NGOs, in providing “public” education in Haiti. Like my previous work, I hope this research will provide a detailed account of the ways impoverished urbanites in Haiti envision and enact meaningful change in their lives.

3.    How would you say your research speaks to larger issues of state power and violence?

Most significantly, my research provides a framework for understanding why people in a place with tenuous public institutions might conceptualize “the state” not as a source of violence so much as an essential feature of moral and political community. In an era where government the world over is stigmatized, and where global trends increasingly challenge the relevance of the state, my dissertation shows why people in Haiti feel compelled to summon “the state” and its duties into existence. The bann a pye often call what they do a form of “making state,” by which they mean not only performing the (service) work of the state, but also calling on those who govern to make themselves present to the people. This normative idea of the state as an institution grounded in collective performances of moral authority and duty provides a cogent critique of current political discourse in the U.S. and throughout the world.

4.    What advice would you give a new researcher heading out into the field?

Ethnography can feel so unwieldy, so I think the best advice consists of practical tips to make it less so. I think it’s important, for example, to break research into phases, to schedule at least one dissertation activity per day, and to make a list of goals each week. I also think it’s a great idea to get involved in some service work while in the field. I taught English at the KOREBEL school and this gave me a foothold that I would not have had in the community otherwise. In Haiti, as elsewhere, it’s important to be someone “with people.” So, don’t be afraid to ask a friend to be an assistant for a day and walk around with you. And once you know people, be open to asking for help in making the acquaintance of a potential informant. Introductions can go so far in helping secure a contact or interview. And finally, take breaks. For us, this often means leaving your field-site and hanging out in another part of the city or country. I learned a lot on such trips, but also felt for this short time that I was finally free from that ethnographer’s condition that haunted me in my field-side—what I call FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out!