The materiality of poverty I: Crisis and resilience in Haiti

If materiality is integral to poverty, can poor people have positive relationships with materiality? Common understandings of poverty reduce the relationship of low income people with material culture largely to the expression of inequality as seen in their lack of income and possessions.

But just like everyone else, ‘poor’ people use material forms to creatively construct their social identities and communities, and transform their socioeconomic situations. Indeed their relationship to homes, clothes and other material goods may be more complex and nuanced precisely because the range is more constrained.

The materiality of the poor is not necessarily a materiality of poverty.

If there is one place in the world that is emblematic of both the materiality of poverty and the depth of cultural meanings of things, it is Haiti. Famous for being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, the home of voudou and a distinctive artistic style, Haiti presents to the developed world two distinctive faces of materiality and a people’s astonishing ability to be creative in the face of abject poverty.

This is a capacity that dates back to the late 18th century, when the slaves of Saint Domingue freed themselves from the ultimate form of commoditization–that of human beings–to become the first black nation in the Western hemisphere.

The Republic of Haiti is founded upon the idea that people have the right to sovereignty over their own bodies, regardless of their poverty, the colour of their skin, or the power and resources commanded by an enslaving power. Materiality is at the heart of what made, and continues to make, Haiti and the Haitian people.

The materiality of Haiti tragically came to the fore when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Leogâne on the 12th January, 2010. In just a few minutes, thousands of free people were dead, tens of thousands of homes destroyed, and people found themselves without possessions and searching desperately for their loved ones.

The earthquake itself had no bias: it struck people of all kinds of social classes and nationalities. Yet many more poor people than wealthy people fell victim to the quake; more black people than white people. Why?

The technical answer is simple: wealthy, white people tended to live in well-constructed houses high up on the hill where layers of rock protected them from the quake, whereas poor, black people lived in inadequate housing on the former swamp of downtown Port-au-Prince. 

The moral answer is more troublesome: why, in a world where disaster-safe housing has been around for hundreds of years, and the international community pours funds into places like Haiti, were these people not safe? After all, subsequent earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand and Japan saw far lower numbers of fatalities.

The question of "why Haiti?" has been answered in great detail by people like the medical doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer, who has published extensively on the history of what made Haiti poor and has been campaigning for years for changes in the international community’s approach to socioeconomic development in this small Caribbean nation of ten million people.

Many others have approached this problem globally: from Karl Marx’s analyses of capitalism, Wallerstein’s World System Theory, and countless studies of how race and poverty tend to coincide, much is known and understood about the workings of the world.

What’s worse, world leaders and the general public alike get this picture: we generally agree that it is unfair that some people are born into abject poverty, and that something should be done about it. Yet people continue to suffer from abject poverty–and not just in the developing world.

Homelessness, lack of access to medical care, and the marginalization of indigenous populations also leads to suffering in wealthy countries. The problem is global–it is just more intense and persistent in places like Haiti.

Yet, just like everywhere else in the world, Haiti is much more than a place of abject poverty. Since the earthquake, there has been a growing voice in the international community discussing "the resilience and creativity of the Haitian people."

This is the observation that, despite huge obstacles, Haitians immediately started to remake their lives: removing rubble, rebuilding houses, selling things on the street, returning to life as normal.

To foreigners who cannot imagine experiencing, let alone surviving, such a disaster, this vision was nothing short of incredible. In one sense it is due, sadly, to the fact that Haitians have lived through numerous disasters and conflicts, and so are mentally better prepared to start again.

In another sense, one could argue that Haitians have a long history of innovation and creativity–they are nothing if not entrepreneurial–and it is this collective skill that they are drawing upon to rebuild their country.

But in yet another sense it is generally attributable to the productive nature of human beings: what marks us out from other animals is our habit of making things out of our environment. We are productive creatures: we take raw materials, or things others have made, and shape them, add our own meanings to them, use them to improve our lives, or decorate ourselves, or cement social relationships.

If some material thing exists that a human can adapt for its aesthetic or utilitarian properties, you can bet your life that someone, somewhere, has done just that. This creative adaption of material forms is something that all people share.

Understanding this basic fact about humanity can help us comprehend why Haitians can get back on their feet after such a disaster. It can also help us understand how poor people around the world can survive, adapt, innovate, and live extraordinarily rich social and cultural lives despite the pressing problems they face in their everyday lives.