Reflections on Our First Konbit
It starts with a drum and ends with rum, but it’s what happens in between that makes konbit the cultural institution that’s helped the Haitian peasantry survive for centuries against all odds. Konbit, the Haitian Kreyòl word used for just about any collective effort, usually refers to the equivalent of a Haitian barn-raising. It’s a work exchange, when a community member calls upon his or her neighbors to join a work party to help clear, plant, weed or harvest their fields. It’s all completed with the expectation that the work will be reciprocated when a member of the work party has a similar need.
We just returned from our first Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) konbit, a quarterly staff gathering. While there was no back-breaking labor involved, there are more similarities between a traditional konbit and MCC’s than you might think.
Hard work. A konbit in the field usually starts as the sun is rising and lasts until mid-day or early afternoon. Our konbit is really a series of meetings where every member of our team is able to speak his or her mind. Two of the three days involved eight hours of meetings like this, all in Kreyòl. We agreed on an agenda together, reported on our activities, and posed questions to puzzle through difficult issues.
A coming-together. Beyond work in the fields, konbit has survived because it is a social scene: a chance to trade stories and gossip, complain and sing. Our konbit is a chance for MCC’s Port-au-Prince and Desarmes teams to reunite. Though we sometimes cross paths in the intervening months between konbit, this was a chance to really catch up: to meet new staff members; to see how a staff member’s baby has grown; and to deepen relationships.
Music. Drums, bamboo or conch-shell horns, flutes: the chef of the konbit in the fields often employs a band to play these instruments throughout the day. The music serves to set the work team’s tempo and keep up the party-like atmosphere. Our konbit started each morning with the sounding of the drum and Kreyòl worship songs that prepared our hearts and minds for the work ahead.
Food. Any good konbit starts and ends with food. Maybe a cup of sweet coffee and bread to begin, and a stomach-bursting meal at its end. The Desarmes team’s cook Lucilla made hearty meal after hearty meal, providing the foundation for times that were fit to laugh and share and enjoy one another’s company.
Respect and Mutuality. Both types of konbit grow from the recognition that we need each other. There’s a common Kreyol proverb that’s translated as “Many hands make the burden light,” and as I reflect on our first konbit experience, I’m reminded of a command in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” In sharing the load, we are able to see our hearts resonate with Christ’s own love and concern for others, and we’re further knit together as a community.
The rum. Just kidding. While many traditional konbits do see the bottle passed around throughout the day and end in a big rum-drenched party, ours did not. We instead closed out ours with fritay--fried goat, pressed plantains, and pikliz--a crowd-pleasing combination of foods meant to mark a special occasion, of which it most definitely was.