Subterranean Secrets: Defecation, the Bayakou, and Social Inequality in Haiti

Publication date



This thesis explores the ways in which people in Haiti interact with “waste,” both materially and conceptually, and the relationship that this has to socioeconomic inequalities. The poorest members of society have the most intimate contact with discarded materials, excreta, and disease, and the least access to basic sanitation and clean water. The closer one is to the conditions of absolute poverty, the more one is likened to waste in a moral and sanitary sense, and thus poverty is naturalized in a pervasive “culture of poverty” logic that mystifies the historical roots of poverty in Haiti. The bayakou are manual pit latrine desludgers who occupy the most stigmatized position in Haiti because they immerse themselves in human excreta in order to empty pit latrines. They are so maligned that they traditionally work only at night, hiding their true occupation even from their families. The subterranean worlds in which the bayakou work are Haiti’s unseen spaces of abjection. Since the 2010 earthquake and cholera epidemic, some bayakou in Haiti have begun to make a place for themselves in public society, thus disrupting the mechanisms of abjection.

Based on Paul Farmer’s concept of structural violence (1996, 1999, 2004, 2006), I describe how histories of exploitation and discrimination are embodied as preventable illnesses such as cholera and premature death. I use Judith Butler’s (1993) description of the abject and draw from Mary Douglas’s (1966) anthropological study of dirt and pollution in order to understand the category of waste as it is taken up in Haiti. Additionally, I base my analysis on the ethnographic study of waste economies in Port- au-Prince by Federico Neiburg and Natacha Nicaise (2010), as well as data that I collected during two weeks of ethnographic field research, which included interviews with eight bayakou, sanitation professionals in the public and private sectors, and a midwife.



The Economic Consequences of The Haitian Revolution

Haiti is among the poorest nations in the world and it is the single poorest country in the western hemisphere. Yet, Haiti once possessed the exact opposite connotation. Haiti was once the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest, most profitable colony in the world. Saint-Domingue was France’s most prized possession and it became the prime destination for fortune seeking Frenchmen.

Read More »