by Kaye Bennett

The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, says Kalamazoo College Associate Professor of Anthropology Espelencia Baptiste, caused many people to examine the role of money in the impoverished Caribbean nation.  Baptiste, a cultural anthropologist who is Haitian by birth, is part of a research team from the University of California-Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI).  The Institute team was already studying the social uses of mobile phones in developing nations, including Haiti, when the earthquake hit.  Their project took on a new urgency because most of the country’s physical banks were destroyed.

Post-quake recovery offered the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation a unique opportunity assist Haitians in addressing both the country’s short-term emergency needs and its long-term development needs.  In June 2010, the Gates Foundation made a $10 million grant to the United States Agency for International Development to create a challenge for mobile network operators:  Which company would be the first to come up with a plan for Haiti, recruiting 100 agents and performing 100 mobile financial transactions per agent?  The time frame was short:  It had to be up and running in just six months.

As mobile network operators were preparing their bids, IMTFI wanted to learn more about Haitian culture and attitudes toward money.  When Baptiste learned that IMTFI was looking for a researcher to study Haitian monetary ecologies, she applied.

Mobile banking, says Baptiste, is a way of using mobile phone technology to store and transfer money. For example: a Haitian woman who sells pineapples in the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince goes to an approved representative of the mobile banking operator (T-Cash or Tchotcho Mobile) and opens an account.  She receives a password.  She then gives cash from selling her pineapples to the agent, and it is deposited into her mobile account.  That money is then accessible only via the woman’s phone.  To give money to a relative, she enters the relative’s phone number on her phone.  They receive a message that they have received a deposit; then they visit their agent’s facility and withdraw cash.

In addition to the obvious benefits of providing safer and faster transactions, Baptiste points out that mobile banking can help people learn to save.  The temptation of a pocketful of cash is removed.  “Mobile banking lets you hide money from yourself,” she says.

Jamaica-based Digicel Group won the grant; its plan democratized the mobile phone industry in Haiti by lowering the cost of phones and the cost of calls.  According to Baptiste, “Everyone in Haiti now has a phone.”  At the same time, the phenomenon of mobile banking, with its lower minimum deposit and its accessible agents has made it easier for Haitian people to bank.

Baptiste’s initial involvement in the project began in the summer of 2010, when she set about to learn how Haitians use money.  She learned:

There was always a big fear of being robbed.  People tucked their cash into their underwear or their shoes to be safer.

Sending money to someone often involved giving it to a bus driver to pass along to someone in another village.

Making a deposit in a physical bank took an average of three and a half hours – three minutes for the transaction and the rest: waiting in line.

She’s discovered that there are some unique challenges in doing research in her home country, especially in a country as social and tightly knit as Haiti.  “I’m known through my parents and grandparents,” she says.  “I spend a lot of time sitting, talking with people until they forget who I am or that I am even there.”

Baptiste says that one of her long-term goals is to engage people in real conversations about what she describes as “the other face of Haiti,” so unlike the Haiti Americans think they understand from media coverage of the country’s ills.  That goal has been growing in her for many years.

When she was 16, Baptiste moved to New York City, where her father and many other family members were living.  It was less than a month after “Baby Doc” Duvalier had fled the country, and newspapers were filled with stories of atrocities and unrest.  “While some of the unrest and atrocities did take place, the idea people had of Haiti was that all Haitians were violent and blood thirsty,” says Baptiste, “but that was not true from where I had been sitting.”

Baptiste enrolled in Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, where she learned English.  After graduating in 1989, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, then went to the Johns Hopkins University for master’s and doctoral degrees.  She chose to study sociology and anthropology and French literature, she says, because she pictured herself doing development work in education and language policy.

Instead, she came straight to Kalamazoo College from Johns Hopkins.  Here, she found the people friendly and the weather cold, but she was happy to be back in smaller city.  “I’m a small city person,” she says.  “Kalamazoo fits my personality most of the time.”

Though not all of the time.  Like so many members of the Haitian diaspora, Baptiste
"We cannot start from a place of superiority."
finds herself drawn back to the island.  “My head is in Haiti,” she says.  Haitians across the globe continually send money home to support family and friends and sometimes provide upkeep on family properties.  Haitians fill planes headed for Port-au-Prince.  “When you read about Haiti,” says Baptiste, “you might think it’s a hell hole.  Yet Haitians go back all the time.  Land value continues to go up in Haiti because Haitians living abroad want to buy it all.  They want to build retirement homes for the day they will return to the home island. 

“Haitians are stubborn in their Haitian-ness,” Baptiste adds.  Though she doesn’t know why this is true, she notices it within herself.  “I get there, and I’m a completely different person.” She finds herself both calmer and more energized when she visits home.  People interact more there, she says.  “As soon as you get to the airport, Haiti—the heat, the noise, the smell—is in your face.”  An introvert in the U.S., Baptiste says she’s not given that opportunity in Haiti.  There’s an expectation of interaction. She reports someone complaining about her behavior there:  “I didn’t say hello often enough.  I had to relearn the Haitian codes.”

Baptiste feels that a foundation in cultural anthropology is important to K students if they want to become the enlightened leaders the College’s mission obligates it to develop.  “The place to start,” she says, “is to understand that what I believe is not the truth or the answer.  Whatever we hold dear, someone else holds something else equally dear. We cannot start from a place of superiority; we must not belittle anyone’s ideas or beliefs.”

As a board member of International Child Care (ICC), a health development organization that has been operating in Haiti since 1967 and in the Dominican Republic since 1988, Baptiste has been involved in the creation of a new public health internship in Haiti on behalf of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.  During the six-week program, students will rotate through the different services offered by ICC’s Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, including its HIV-AIDS clinic and its field community health efforts.  For more information on this internship, contact Hussain Turk at the Arcus Center for Social Justice.  Call 269-337-7033.

Photo 1 – Dr. Esplencia Baptiste in class on campus.

Photo 2 – Dr. Baptiste in Haiti.

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