J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat
J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat (born 1970) is an American cultural anthropologist, and the author of Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti (University Press of Florida, 2006). He is a Consultant on Civil Affairs (Officer Grade P-5, Civilian) for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and Distinguished Visiting Research Affiliate and Ethnologist-in-Residence (Recherche Émérite des Affaires Étrangères et Affilié Ethnologue en Résidence) with the Bureau of Ethnology at the State University of Haiti (Faculté d'Ethnologie, Université d'Etat d'Haïti). He serves as Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Society of Small Arms Scholars, and a member of the Editorial Board of Childhood, the international flagship journal of global child research published by SAGE, the fifth largest and among the most prestigious publication houses of scholarly journals worldwide.
J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat was born J. Christopher Bernat in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 14 August 1970. His family lived for a time in the low-income, working-class neighborhood of Harrowgate in Northeast Philadelphia's Kensington section, where he attended St. Joan of Arc Catholic Elementary School. The family later moved out of the city and settled in the small, rural community of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, just south of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Allentown Central Catholic High School in 1988.
In 1993 Kovats-Bernat received a B.A. in Philosophy and Anthropology from Muhlenberg College, and went on to pursue his graduate work in anthropology at Temple University. While there, he became a protégé of Cambridge-educated, Massai specialist and Marxian theorist Peter Rigby, He received his M.A. in Anthropology in 1997, around the same time that Rigby succumbed to a malarial infection he contracted while conducting fieldwork in Eldoret, Kenya. Kovats-Bernat has said in interviews that it Rigby, his mentor, who first raised his interest in Haiti, and who subsequently pressed him to undertake his first fieldwork there in 1994. Kovats-Bernat would return to Haiti frequently over the ensuing years, conducting ethnographic research with street children in the capital of Port-au-Prince, supported in part by a research grant he received from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in 1999. In 2001, Kovats-Bernat received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Temple University; his doctoral advisory committee was chaired by Nigerian linguist and Ife specialist F. Niyi Akinnaso, and included the renowned archaeologist and historian of anthropological theory Thomas C. Patterson, Latin Americanist Phil Evanson, and theologian Katie Geneva Cannon (who would go on to assume the Annie Scales Rogers Professorship of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and would become the first African-American woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church). Kovats-Bernat's doctoral dissertation is entitled "The Impact of Poverty, Violence and State Repression on the Cultural Identity and Social Agency of Street Children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.".
Dr. Kovats-Bernat is widely regarded within scholarly and professional circles as a noted authority on Haitian cultural, social, political, and religious traditions, and is among the most respected living fieldworkers in Latin America and Caribbean, due to his of his extensive record of anthropological research amid conditions of extreme poverty, destitution, warfare, armed strife, epidemic illness and natural disaster in Brazil, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic; but most significantly in Haiti, where he has lived and worked longer than anywhere else throughout his career.
In a series of interviews he conducted with the American novelist and Sports Illustrated correspondent Jack McCallum for an article focused on his lengthy record of research and fieldwork in Haiti despite the perils and hazards he has faced in his two decades doing so, Kovats-Bernat explains that "I believe what I do matters...Why? Because in 18 years I have yet to meet another anthropologist in Haiti. Who would want to work there? I sleep in sewage. I dodge bullets. I fled the country in 2000 after being threatened by a paramilitary group. I'm terrified all the time...I'm not going to say it isn't hard...[b]ut my job is anthropology We immerse, observe, describe, and explain. That's what anthropologists do."
Kovats-Bernat has often related to his students and colleagues a story of an encounter that occurred during his first visit to Haiti in 1994 that offers some insight into his record of continuous ethnographic work in that country. During the first week that he spent in Port-au-Prince - a particularly violent period for the country, then under a brutal military dictatorship - he befriended and breakfasted each moring with two older gentlemen to whom he was introduced as simply "Roger" and "Hal". As Kovats-Bernat tells it, it was not until his fifth day into that trip that Roger confided in him that, despite Hal's modesty and wish that his notable past not be revealed, "Hal" was in fact the famed American novelist, folklorist and anthropologist, Professor Harold Courlander. Courlander was among the first American anthropologists to develop a fully professional expertise in the study of Haitian life, and went on to author over 35 books, plays and scholarly articles. Courlander's own impressive record of fieldwork in Haiti throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s formed the basis The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People (University of California Press: 1960), widely regarded as Courlander's masterwork and seminal in the anthropological study of Vodou traditions. Kovats-Bernat reports being as embarrassed for not deducing that "Hal" was actually Professor Courlander after five days of long conversations with the man as he was humbled by the experience of meeting and knowing him. As fate would have it, Courlander was by that time already diagnosed with a terminal illness and would pass away less a year-and-a-half later in 1996. His 1994 visit to his "beloved Haiti" was to be his last. He is said to have told Kovats-Bernat before departing Haiti for what he knew would be the last time, that it was "...not serendipity, but the will of the lwa [the spirits of Vodou]" that brought the two men together at that moment in time. Kovats-Bernat has intimated to many that the fact that his first visit to Haiti was Professor Courlander's final one, and Courlander's belief that their meeting was predetermined, has served as a powerful impetus for his continuous devotion and fondness for his work in Haiti. In a conversation he had in the summer of 2012 with Richard Morse, musician, Vodouist, and hotelier of the storied Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Morse recalled seeing Kovats-Bernat and Courlander dining together on the veranda of his hotel, and was himself overtaken with the belief that the meeting of the two anthropologists was the work of the lwa, and that Kovats-Bernat's destiny therefore lay not in the slums and garrison-ghettos of the capital where he had worked for so long, but in the Haitian interior where Professor Courlander devoted his life's work to the first recordings of the music and oral traditions of the Vodou peasantry. Morse reportedly told Kovats-Bernat that "Hal's ghost has been waiting for you in the valleys. So have the lwa." Kovats-Bernat's shift away from his longtime research with armed youth and gun violence in the slums of Port-au-Prince to his immersion in the study of Vodou belief and witchcraft in the countryside since that time is believed to be due in part to this conversation with Morse, according to anecdotal accounts of some of his students.
Dr. Kovats-Bernat taught at Temple University, Widener University, University of St. Francis, and Pennsylvania State University-Abington, before assuming a position at Muhlenberg College, where he was an Associate Professor of Anthropology until 2014, when he resigned that position in order to concentrate his research efforts in support of the civil arm of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and to pursue more intensely his research into Haitian Vodou.
Kovats-Bernat married Dina Kovats in 1999; both share the hyphenated surname, as do their two children.
Research & Fieldwork
Kovats-Bernat began conducting anthropological research with street children in Haiti in 1994, studying the effects of poverty and civil violence on their economic survival, cultural identity, and social agency. His first book, Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti is based on over a decade of work with Haitian youth living amid the dire circumstances of the streets of Haiti's capital, and is a detailed, anthropological study of the intersection of childhood, poverty and violence in one of the poorest, most destitute and volatile cities in the developing world.
Kovats-Bernat's fieldwork has coincided with a number of critical moments in the social history of Haiti. He first arrived in Haiti in 1994, as the country was in its third year under the rule of Raoul Cédras, a Lieutenant General in the Forces Armées d'Haïti (the Haitian Army) who led the coup d'état that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on 29 September 1991. By the time Kovats-Bernat had arrived in Port-au-Prince, "international observers [had] estimated that more than 3,000 men, women and children were murdered by or with the complicity" of the Cédras regime." During this first visit, Kovats-Bernat was exposed almost daily to the violence and gunplay of Port-au-Prince that would define the backdrop of his ethnographic research for decades. Since that time, he has conducted fieldwork in the midst of US military interventions, electoral violence, natural disasters, economic crises, political upheaval, and historic transitions of state power. In 1995, he served as an International Observer of the Haitian presidential elections that marked the first peaceful transition from one democratically-elected president to the next in that country. Forced to flee the country in 2000 after receiving threats from a paramilitary group with ties to the National Palace, Kovats-Bernat returned to Haiti the following year to resume his fieldwork. In February 2004 he was working in Port-au-Prince during the rebel uprising that unseated then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was in the country when Hurricane Georges struck in 1998 claiming over 400 lives, and again in 2008 when Hurricane Gustav made landfall, killing 77. In the weeks immediately following the January 2010 earthquake that killed almost 310,000 Haitians, Kovats-Bernat worked with Sow a Seed (SAS), a Haitian organization that under ordinary circumstances works to ensure nurturing conditions in Haiti's orphanages. While assisting in the relief effort, he documented the devastation wrought by the earthquake throughout Port-au-Prince and in the provinces, collecting ethnographic data on the impact of the catastrophe on the everyday lives of its survivors.
As a consequence of his years of experience conducting fieldwork amid circumstances of crisis, insecurity, violence, catastrophe, and terror, Kovats-Bernat is a strident critic of what he has identified as a specific set of assumptions still espoused and taught as axioms of the ethnographic method that undergird a number of traditionally orthodox theories, methodologies, and even certain tenets of the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) that he has variously described as "insufficient, irrelevant, inapplicable, imprudent, or simply naive" (Kovats-Bernat 2002: 208-209). Because of his longitudinal history of fieldwork at the frontlines of conflict and war, Kovats-Bernat is regarded as one of few researchers working at the vanguard of theoretical, philosophical and methodological innovations in the still-emergent specialization in the "anthropology of violence". He is the subject of a feature-section about his ethnographic fieldwork amid violence, instability, and terror in the 2014 edition of Serena Nanda & Richard Warms' textbook, Cultural Anthropology (Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 11th edition).
Click HERE to read the feature.
In the summer of 2012, Kovats-Bernat returned to Port-au-Prince to carry out ethnographic fieldwork investigating the pervasion of gun violence and the ascendance of armed gangs in Cité Soleil, the city’s most destitute and notoriously violent slum districts. For decades, rampant gun violence had been fueled by the influx of hundreds of thousands of illicit small arms into the country. Street gangs, known locally as “clans”, have been the most significant benefactors of these guns, and have used them to systematically seize control of entire slum districts of the capital.
Home to almost a half-million people, Cité Soleil’s exceptional destitution and marginalization have made it rife for exploitation by armed groups, and neither MINUSTAH (the UN military mission in Haiti) nor the Haitian National Police (HNP) have been able to stanch their ascendance. Following a failed 2007-2008 joint MINUSTAH-HNP operation intended to break the power of the clans, in which dozens of UN soldiers and scores of civilians were killed in firefights throughout the slum, a military official overseeing the retreat of peacekeepers from the area called Cité Soleil “the most dangerous place on earth”, declared the district beyond the rule of law, and announced an end to UN disarmament operations there, effectively ceding the entire slum to the clans.
In late June 2012, Kovats-Bernat settled into blok 19, a squalid neighborhood of around 1,500 residents in the southwestern corner of Cité Soleil. It is a densely packed warren of serpentine footpaths and alleyways that twist tightly between the shanties of its residents, roughly half of whom live under shelters of tarpaulin or in corrugated tin and cardboard shacks, while the rest reside in squat, one-room cinderblock huts. Blok 19 is, like most of Cité Soleil, devoid of paved roads, clogged with mud and sewage, lacking electricity, plagued by cholera, largely abandoned by the UN Stabilization Mission and the Haitian National Police, deprived of political representation, and menaced and controlled by powerful and heavily armed street clans. Most notorious among these is the clan that calls itself Lamè sans Manman - “The Army of the Motherless" - a hardened cadre of loosely organized young men and adolescents who have claimed control over many sections of Cité Soleil, including blok 19. Younger members of the clan are commonly armed with machetes or small-caliber handguns, though older clansmen are known to carry a range of semiautomatic handguns, machine-pistols, and assault rifles. Lamè sans Manman has in particular been associated with a range of criminal enterprises including drug trafficking, prostitution, small arms brokering, the hijacking of food aid, the extraction of “taxes” from residents in the clan’s spheres of control, and the provision of mercenary services to political partisans (usually during electoral seasons). Many of its foot soldiers are children and teens, some as young as 10 years-old. Both the UN Mission and the Haitian government have attributed to Lamè sans Manman a lengthy catalog of rapes, kidnappings, beatings, arsons, summary executions, and lynchings of those perceived as threats to their authority.
Kovats-Bernat's 2012 fieldwork included his residence in Cité Soleil, interviews with child soldiers working for Lamè sans Manman, accompaniment of armed "vigilance brigades" made up of residents who patrol their neighborhoods and engage the gangs to deter their incursion. He also participated in and documented a number of Vodou rites intended to protect and heal the communities affected by gun violence, and to avenge the crimes committed by the clans through the use of malfektè, a complex system of necromantic black magic believed to be capable of harming or killing the gang members who are its intended targets.
In July of 2014, Kovats-Bernat traveled over 95 miles out of Port-au-Prince and into the Haitian interior to study the religious beliefs and practices of the residents of a small hamlet (lakou) of Vodouists in the Artibonite Valley region of the country. Given their extreme geographic isolation from other lakous, this unnamed ville is noteworthy for its insularity, and the peculiarity of the Kongo rites they are said to practice, so esoteric in their "Africanism" that their rituals and magic are generally regarded with wariness by mainstream Vodouists. Not only did Kovats-Bernat succeed in living among these folk for close to a week, he also underwent a series of purification and protection rituals, culminating in a lave tet ("washing of the head"; a kind of baptismal bath) during which he was fully initiated into the local temple society and "married" (or otherwise given protection and counsel for life) to the powerful Kongo spirit Papa Wangol. A number of tattoos on Kovats-Bernat's forearms attest to his close fraternization with the Vodou cults. A well-worn rumor among his students (not known to be substantiated) holds that he is a quiet devotee of the religion.(br />
2014. “After the End of Days: Childhood, Catastrophe and the Violence of Everyday Life in Haiti.” In Childhood, Youth and Violence in Global Contexts: Dialogues between Academics and Practitioners on Violence in Everyday Life. Edited by Karen Wells. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
LINK TO THE BOOK WEBSITE
2013. “No Balm in Gilead: Childhood, Suffering and Survival in Haiti.” In Children in Crisis: Ethnographic Studies in International Contexts (Routledge Advances in Sociology). Edited by Manata Hashemi and Martin Sánchez-Jankowski. New York: Routledge
LINK TO THE BOOK WEBSITE
READ THE CHAPTER
2013. “The Bullet is Certain: Armed Children and Gunplay on the Streets of Haiti.” In Adolescent Identity: Evolutionary, Developmental and Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Bonnie Lynn Hewlett. New York: Routledge.
LINK TO BOOK WEBSITE
READ THE CHAPTER
2010. “Haïti Chérie.” In Childhood: A Journal of Global Child Research 17(3): 426-429.
READ THE ARTICLE
2008. Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida (Softcover 2008; Hardcover, 2006).
LINK TO BOOK WEBSITE
READ AN EXCERPT
READ REVIEWS OF THIS BOOK
2006. “Factional Terror, Paramilitarism and Civil War in Haiti: The View from Port-au-Prince (1994-2004).” Anthropologica. 48(1)
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2002. “Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork amid Violence and Terror.” American Anthropologist 104(1): 208-222.
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2000. “Anti-Gang, Arimaj, and the War on Street Children in Haiti.” Peace Review 12(3): 415-421.
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1999. “Children and the Politics of Violence in Haitian Context: Statist Violence, Scarcity, and Street Child Agency in Port-au-Prince.” Critique of Anthropology 19(2): 121-138.
READ THE ARTICLE
- Obituary of Peter Rigby. Anthropology News 38(4): April 1997.
- Interview. News Radio Canada: 1 March 2004.
- Interview. Voice of America: 22 September 2004.
- McCallum, Jack (Spring 2013). "[http://Working%20Rough%20in%20Port-au-Prince:%20A%20Muhlenberg%20Prof's%20Research%20in%20Haiti Working Rough in Port-au-Prince: A Muhlenberg Prof's Research in Haiti]". The Muhlenberg Magazine: 18–22. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Kovats-Bernat, J. Christopher (2006). Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
- Whitney, Kathleen Marie (1996). "Sin, Fraph, and the CIA: U.S. Covert Action in Haiti", Southwestern Journal of Law and Trade in the Americas, 3(2): 322.
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- Sontag, Deborah (2010). "Election Violence Flares in Haiti." New York Times, 8 December.
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- UNICEF (2008). "Hurricane Gustav Strikes Haiti, Forcing 6,300 People from Their Homes." 29 August. http://www.unicef.org/media/media_45388.html
- BBC News (2010). "Many Feared Dead in Haiti Quake." 13 January. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8455759.stm
- World Food Programme (2009). "Haiti: Economic Crisis Impacts Children’s Health." 8 May. http://www.wfp.org/stories/haiti-economic-crisis-impacts-children%E2%80%99s-health
- Beaubien, Jason (2010). "Political Crisis Thrust Upon Tragedy-Ridden Haiti." 29 November. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/29/131660127/political-crisis-thrust-upon-tragedy-ridden-haiti
- Klapper, Bradley (2011). "Clinton in Haiti /to Mediate Political Crisis." 30 July. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41336890/ns/world_news-haiti/#.UJixK2f4WSo
- Knapp, Lauren & Kwame Holman (2011). "Haitian Police Struggle to.Combat Gang Violence." 11 January. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/01/post-5.html