This is a song about the hardworking Haitian farmer. The song helps one to realize that those locked in poverty in Haiti remain poor despite their strong work ethic. The song begins by repeating the term “working” “Travay, m ap travay o” to emphasize the gruelingly hard work performed daily by Haitian laborers and farmers. In general, a farmer’s day begins at the first rooster crow, which occurs before sunrise, and their day ends after sunset. Indeed, equipped only with tools such as the hoe and sickle, it can take a farmer more than 12 grueling hours to till the land. It takes long hours to sow seeds, remove weeds, and tend to an exhausted and rocky plot. Erosion of the topsoil and a never ending cycle of tropical rain showers and drought add to the daunting task of cultivating the land.
The Haitian farmer has had to survive alone. Despite the recent proliferation of NGO’s in Haiti making it rival India for the country with the most NGO’s per capita, most Haitian farmers rely only on their own creativity and on ancestral knowledge passed down to them. That knowledge is embodied in Zaka, the Patron Spirit of Agriculture. This is why the song says Zaka, I am working with you. Zaka is referred to as Cousin Zaka. Country folks commonly call their close friends, Cousin.
It is indeed because ancestral knowledge is the only assistance received by the Haitian farmers that they refer to Zaka as the real minister of Agriculture. Zaka offers spiritual support to compensate for the government’s neglect of the Haitian farmer’s needs. Nonetheless, every election cycle, lip service is given to the plight of the Haitian farmer. Once in office, the Haitian government collaborates with its sources of foreign aid and with the business community to undermine the local farmers. Duvalier and Aristide removed taxes on foreign rice imports and President Martelly as Sweet Micky advertised for Diri Tchako, a foreign brand of Arkansas rice that replaced home grown Haitian rice.
While many governments subsidize their farmers, and help them in obtaining loans to procure such modern tools as tractors, fertilizer, insecticide, and weed kill, the Haitian farmer is largely deprived of such assistance. The song describes their use of non-powered tools, like the kouto digo, a sickle used by many to work the land. They are forced to compete with mechanized farming and subsidized foreign products on the international market. This is partly what keeps them poor despite their hard work.
Although the Haitian farmer competes at a disadvantage, their lives are very much integrated into the world economy. The song describes the farmer as carrying an alfò lunch bag on his back. The shape and name for this bag was adopted from the Portuguese handbag called alforge. Inside the alfò, the farmers carry their lunch to the field because they do not return home for a meal until very late. The song also calls the Alfò a dyakout. Dya is a KiKongo word for food and Kout for bag. Dyakout is a Kongolese word for lunch bag.
Long work hours can undermine the relationships of farmers as it forces them to neglect their home life to try to meet their economic needs. This often leads to estrangement from their significant other. This is why the song says that once Zaka has a woman in his life, she leaves him. The Haitian farmer toils in the hope that one day he will make ends meet. It is that hope that keeps him working these long hours at little pay, commonly said as “travay anpil, lajan piti.” It is that same hope that gives him the reassurance that someday, he will be able to nurture a home life and meet another partner.
The song ends with the farmer in amazement that he is able to cultivate his land despite so many obstacles. The song refers to the farmer’s field as his bitasyon, a term borrowed from slave plantations, but which has come to mean garden - jaden. Haitians rebelled against slavery and against working the land for the benefit of a third party. Following slavery, the Haitian people became committed to preventing the return of the plantation economic system and the Haitian farmers created a different social structure. They created a system where people own and cultivate their own individual plots. It is to emphasize the importance of land ownership and of working under one’s own rule that the song ends with the farmer saying that he works on his own land.
When the US occupied Haiti, the American government tried exhaustively to seize land and to open American owned plantations like those it revitalized in the Dominican Republic and in Cuba. Many of these plantations became modern enslavement camps for Haitians. In Haiti, the Haitian farmers fought back against America’s superior military might. They fought to repel the American invasion with the same tools that they used to work the land. Farmers called Kako, protected the Haitian lifestyle and the US eventually pulled out having failed to re-introduce the plantation system that became a mainstay in other countries that the US conquered.
Zaka is considered to be the Guardian Spirit of self-subsistent farmers. He is not a guardian spirit of a plantation that enslaves people like those of the Dominican bateys. Zaka is celebrated in this song because he is symbolic of the Haitian farmer’s commitment to working his own land. The sacred duty to uphold this principle is inviolable and is said in religious terms: Zaka mete m travay lan bitatsyon mwen – The Patron Spirit of Agriculture has put me to work in my garden.