"The Peasant and the Kombit" by Melville Herskovits (1895-1963)

An excerpt from Herskovits’s Life in a Haitian Valley (1937). Herskovits helped to pioneer African cultural studies. Below he shows how African traditions endured in rural Haiti.

The life of the Haitian farmer, though hard, is simple and self-contained. With but few exceptions, he supplies all his necessities, for he commands almost the entire range of techniques known to his culture; hence [the] Haitian economy shows a lack of specialization that in the main is only relieved by the sex division of labor. The day’s work begins at dawn, the women rising before the men to prepare coffee, the invariable drink of early morning. When finished with his breakfast, the farmer goes to his field, where, except for the hottest hours, he works until sundown, his one meal being brought to him at about nine or ten o’clock in the morning.

​Though strenuous physical labor is involved in the work of the combite, for the Haitian it symbolizes recreation and enjoyment—the stimulus of working with one’s fellows, the pleasure of gossiping with friends, and the partaking of the feast which marks the climax of the day.

The scene in a field where a large combite is at work is an arresting one. the men form a line, with a drummer in front of their hoes. The simidor, who leads the singing as he works with the others, adds the rhythm of his song to the regular beats of the drum, thus setting the time for the stokes of the implements wielded by the workers.

The preparation of the food is the work of the women of the household giving the combite, aided by their female relations and the wives of friends and neighbors. This is no small task, for goats and even a bullock may be killed to feed a large combite.