KBHeadshot J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Acting Chair of the Department, AY 2012-2013

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Click the book cover below to view a feature article about Kovats-Bernat's ethnographic fieldwork amid violence and instability in the 2014 edition of Serena Nanda & Richard Warms' textbook, Cultural Anthropology (Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 11thedition).






Selected Publications

Research & Fieldwork
Children & Youth - Vodou - Violence & Crisis - Cité Soleil, June 2012
Doing Ethnography in Blok 19
The Kid with the Empty Clip

Teaching (Courses)

Public & Professional Service


Ph.D.  Anthropology, Temple University, 2001  
M.A. Anthropology, Temple University, 1997  
B.A. Philosophy & Anthropology, Muhlenberg College, 1993
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"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.
"No Balm in Gilead: Childhood, Suffering and Survival in Haiti." In Children in Crisis: Ethnographic Studies in International Contexts.Edited by Manata Hashemi and Martin Sánchez-Jankowski. New York: Routledge.
"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.
"Haïti Chérie." In Childhood 17(3): 426-429.
Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
"Factional Terror, Paramilitarism and Civil War in Haiti: The View from Port-au-Prince (1994-2004)." Anthropologica. Vol 48 (1): 117-139.
"Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork amid Violence and Terror." American Anthropologist 104(1): 208-222.
"Anti-Gang, Arimaj, and the War on Street Children in Haiti." Peace Review 12(3): 415-421.
"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.

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Children and Youth
I began conducting anthropological research with street children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1994, studying the effects of poverty and civil violence on their economic survival, cultural identity, and social agency. That work has afforded me the opportunity to know and to live among many different groups of Haitian youth, mostly kids working hard to make an honest living from wiping windshields or shining shoes or cleaning the fry-pots of street vendors.
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Boys 1
Street boys, Port-au-Prince. Kovats-Bernat has conducted ethnographic fieldwork with street children in Haiti since 1994. His research focuses on their cultural identity, their social agency, their strategies for economic survival, and their negotiation of violence on the boulevards of the capital.

I have worked with children incarcerated in the squalid cells of the Juvenile Prison, and among the zombi-boys who sniff glue all day in the Me & MarieNational Cemetery. I have worked alongside teenage toughs who prowl the slums of Cité Soleil with assault rifles that are too heavy for them to brandish steadily. I have lived among girls and boys who prostitute themselves in the interest of survival. I have observed among all of these adolescents both acts of brutal violence and heartrending overtures of love and care. To be sure, these kids are not the Hobbesian brutes they are feared to be, and share the same range of feelings, aptitudes, capacities, and abilities found among children everywhere. They are given to fits of sorrow and rage, glee and wonder. They establish among Gun Boythemselves networks of friendship and mutual support. They share their food and defend the interests of themselves and their allies. They live in a cultural world of their own making, one that renders their lives both sensible and meaningful. What they lack most profoundly is the care and security of adult guardianship that would ensure the conditions under which they would be nurtured and protected, rather than battered and exposed.

Sleeping Rough in Port-au-PrinceMy first book, Sleeping Rough in Port-au-Prince: An Ethnography of Street Children and Violence in Haiti (University Press of Florida, 2006), is based on over a decade of work with Haitian youth living amid the dire circumstances of the street. It is a detailed, anthropological study of the intersection of youth, poverty, and violence in one of the poorest, most destitute, and volatile cities in the developing world.
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While my focus on childhood and youth has remained fundamental to my scholarship, I have pursued at length other research interests in Haiti as well. In 1999, I began fieldwork beyond the capital and deep into the Haitian countryside as I explored the use of Vodou as a framework of belief giving form and meaning to the social world of the peasantry, and as a ritual system for negotiating the scarcity and insecurity characteristic of the 80% of Haitian families who depend upon small-scale horticulture for their survival, despite the fact that over 75% of the rural land base is unarable and almost 98% deforested. Since then, my research with Vodou practitioners, priestess, priests, black magicians, seers, witch-finders and leaf doctors has expanded as I have focused greater attention on the deployment of Vodou ritual and magic in deterring, resisting, and combating violence and strife, and the role it plays in individual and collective healing in the aftermath of catastrophe.
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Images of Vodou
Images of Vodou: Dolls nailed to a tree in the National Cemetery (left); human remains accompany an offering to the spirits (center); and iron crosses, rum, and both human and animal crania adorn an altar to Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead and Protector of Children (right). Kovats-Bernat's research into Vodou explores the role of folk belief and ritual in mediating everyday life in the countryside.

Violence and Crisis
Since 1994, I have witnessed and documented a number of critical moments in the social history of Haiti, including coup d’etat, US military intervention, electoral violence, natural disaster, economic crisis, political AK-47upheaval, and historic democratic transition. In 1995, I 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. I fled the country in 2000 after receiving threats from a paramilitary group, and returned in February-March 2004 during the rebel uprising that unseated the president. I was on the ground in Haiti when Hurricane Georges struck in 1998, and again in 2008 when Hurricane Gustav made landfall.

I arrived in Port-au-Prince a few weeks after the January 2010 eaMaprthquake to assist in the relief effort, working with Sow a Seed (SAS), a Haitian organization that under ordinary circumstances works to ensure nurturing conditions in Haiti's orphanages. That work permitted me to document the extent of the destruction throughout Port-au-Prince and in the provinces, and its impact on the everyday lives of the survivors.
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Relief Effort
The magnitude-7 earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 killed close to 250,000 people and virtually destroyed the capital of Port-au-Prince (left). Working with Sow A Seed, a Haitian-run child advocacy organization, Kovats-Bernat traveled to Haiti in the wake of the disaster to assist in the relief effort (center). That work included the delivery of food, water, and other aid to the survivors. In Gressier, a village at the epicenter of the quake, Sow a Seed also delivered knapsacks of school supplies, toys, and crafts to children (right).

Cité Soleil, June 2012
In the summer of 2012, I returned to Port-au-Prince to carry out ethnographic fieldwork investigating the pervasion of gun violence in one of the city’s most notorious slum districts. Despite the passage of over two years since the earthquake, much the capital remains shattered and broken. The city is racked by the largest outbreak of cholera in the world today. Thousands huddle in the IDP camps (for ‘Internally Displaced Persons’) that dot the landscape. The destitution of the urban infrastructure (medieval in the best of times) is utterly crippled. The people of Port-au-Prince suffer the most abject poverty on the planet, and have endured decades of rampant gun violence fuelled by the influx of hundreds of thousands of illicit small arms into the country since the 1980s. 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. Cité Soleil is the largest of these.

Home to almost a half-million people, Cité Soleil’s exceptional destitution and marginalization have made it rife for exploitation by the clans. State services such as electricity, standpipe-water access, adequate sanitation, Cite Soleil sewage control, and garbage collection are non-existent. Following a failed 2007-2008 UN military operation intended to break the power ofthe clans in which dozens of UN soldiers and scores of civilians were killed in firefights throughout the slum, the Brazilian commander overseeing the retreat of peacekeepers from the area called a press conference at which he proclaimed Cité Soleil to be “the most dangerous place on earth”, declared the district beyond the rule of law, and announced an end to stabilization operations in Cité Soleil, effectively handing it over to the clans.

In late June of 2012, I 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 these live under shelters of tarpaulin or in corrugated tin and cardboard shacks, while the rest reside in squat, one-room cinderblock huts. It is a deeply impoverished district, devoid of paved roads, clogged with mud and sewage, lacking electricity, plagued by cholera, abandoned by the UN mission and the National Police, deprived of political representation, and currently menaced and controlled by a powerful and heavily-armed street clan.

Lamè sans Manman (“The Army of the Motherless”) is a hardened cadre of loosely-organized young men who have claimed control over many sections of Cité Soleil, including blok 19. They are exceptionally well-armed with a range of semiautomatic handguns, machine-pistols, and assault rifles, though many carry machetes as well. The clan’s nèg sòlda Lame sans Manman(“soldiers”) are 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). 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.

Terrorized, frustrated and angered by the presumptive powers of Lamè sans Manman, residents of blok 19 have responded with a two-pronged strategy designed to directly confront the clan’s soldiers and to moderate the dangers that they pose to everyday life and survival. The first prong in the strategy is the establishment of the “vigilance brigades” – civilian patrols armed mostly with small-caliber revolvers and a handful of semiautomatic assault rifles charged with monitoring gang activity in the area. When necessary, and this is often, the brigades attempt to drive out the gangs by engaging them in pitched firefights.

The second prong in the strategy is a reliance on a set of Vodou rites designed to elicit protection from spirits capable of safeguarding the community, Goviempowering the magic behind various charms and amulets worn by individuals as guards against physical harm, and directing forces of black magic against the clan’s soldiers to avenge their crimes and discourage their continued menace.  I worked the closest during this stretch of fieldwork with the local prét malveyan, a specialist in malfektè, black magic in which the remains of the dead (mostly ground human bone) are used in rituals of supernatural assault against the gangs (the well-known rites of zombificasyon – zombification – are among the most feared forms of such magic). The efforts of the Vodouists are intended to protect the residents of blok 19 from the violence of Lamè sans Manman, to strike back against its soldiers, and to repair the social damage they have caused and continue to cause in Cité Soleil.
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Throughout this stint of fieldwork, I lived with families in blok 19. I participated in everyday life. I attended public Vodou services intended to protect the blok from the clan’s soldiers, and was permitted privileged witness to the secret rites performed by the prèt malveyan whose black magic was aimed at killing the soldiers of Lamè sans Manman. I walked night patrols with the vigilance brigades. I spoke with everyone, even some of the soldiers of Lamè san Manman. Teenagers, really. Shirtless and sinewy with ropy muscle, their eyes glazed with alcohol or marijuana or both, a handgun shoved casually into the waistband of their pants. I ate with street boys. I listened as young girls sang as they washed clothes in buckets. I played soccer with children.

Early on, it rained steadily for almost three days and nights, and I slept very little. I squatted in the mud-walled temples and thatch sanctuaries of the Vodou priests at all hours, documenting their work and inquiring after elusive meanings. On one saturated evening, dusk imminent, I escorted the prèt malveyan through the local cemetery as he collected human bone material for his magic. As the last of the grey light was slipping away, the priest had me climb down into a broken crypt and wade calf-deep into a stagnant, greenish pool that bubbled up from a spring inside the tomb. I duck-waddled into the darkness of the now thigh-deep water, and climbed atop the coffin entombed there, but still ankle-deep beneath the pool. The priest handed me down the empty pint bottle of rum from which he drank as we navigated our way to this place. “Fill it,” he instructed me, and so I did, squatting atop the casket and dipping the mouth of the bottle below the surface, listening to the silence of this place of the dead, broken only by the gurgle of water into the bottle. When it was full, he took me by the forearm and pulled me up out of the grave. He forced a cork into the mouth of the pint, and gave it to me. “It is the home of Simbi Makaya,” he said. Simbi Makaya – a demon, a trickster, an activator of magic, a healer. “Pour it onto your wounds and they will heal, rub it into your hair and you will not be harmed while you are here. Not by Lamè, not by anyone. Not by anything.”


Simbi TombI uncorked the pint, poured the greenish water into my palm, and rubbed it vigorously into my hair. The rain began to fall heavily then. So we gathered the priest’s plastic bags, now laden with the crania, the jawbones, the femurs, the ulnas, the vertebrae, the teeth, the power, the magic, the mystery of the dead, and trudged through the mud and out of the cemetery, back to Cité Soleil.

One afternoon, there was a sudden eruption of gunfire, so close thatthick, humid air around me concussed. Having heard some version or another of this score too many times in the 18 years I have worked in Haiti, I slid down low Kids and Guns in Cite Soleilbehind the cinderblock walls of the house in which I wasstaying, and listened for the instruments I knew well enough to identify by the notes they struck: the Glock staccatos, the chesty whump! of a pump-action shotgun, the chainy-chatter of a machine pistol. Minutes later, it ended, and I heard the shouts of profanity of the gangsters as they ran off, promising to “dance with the blok” again soon.
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Cité Soleil, June 2012


It is two days before I am to leave Haiti for home. I am standing astride a footpath flooded by raw sewage as the rain pounds down around me in a Cité Soleil neighborhood just outside of what most residents consider to be blok 19 proper. I am leaning beneath a narrow outcrop of a corrugated steel roof, against a cinderblock wall pockmarked with the dimples left by small-caliber rounds, probably fired from a handgun, a few days prior (no one in the area is sure who was responsible for the gunfire, or why). I am huddled there with a young nèg sòlda who fights for Lamè sans Manman. I will call him Lucien. He is around eleven-years-old or so, and he is armed. A TEC-9 machine-pistol variant known as the TEC-DC9 is slung far too casually over his left shoulder by a loop of brown extension cord that he has tied through a ring mounted behind the pistol grip. In 1994, Intratec, the manufactuer of the TEC-9 series, dissolved and therefore ceased production of these weapons. But the TEC-9's mass production when in service, its concealability, its low consumer cost, its lethality, its durability, and its compatability with high-capacity magazines ensured that it would remain a coveted assualt weapon on the worldwide black market. In Haiti today, a TEC-9 in serviceably-fair condition can be had for as little as US$100.

The TEC-9 is a prefered weapon for younger soldiers in the clan for a number of practical reasons. It is made mostly of plastic and stamped-metal parts and so it is very lightweight (around 1.5kg unloaded), has an easily-concealable low profile, and a relatively soft trigger mechanism making it well-suited for child soldiers. Once trained to press firmly down on the top of the weapon when firing to resist the force of the blowback and its tendency to track the muzzle skyward, even the slightest of children can squeeze off a three-second salvo of hellfire sending three to four rounds 9mm slugs into the center-mass of a human target less than 15 meters away (a typical target distance in the clautrophobic, close-quarter firefights amid the congested shantys and in the narrow alleyways that define armed combat in the ghettos). The child soldiers of Lamè sans Manman are instructed to master this kind of controlled fire. Given the restrictive confines within which gang battles are fought, the ability to rapidly and accuately delivery three to four rounds into the body of enemy at close-quarters is considered absoluetely essential due to the relatively slight "stopping power" of the TEC-9's 9mm ammunition. As such, all clan soldiers are trained and speak very often about mastery of the "Mozambique technique", in which the shooter fires two rounds directly into the torso of his target which usually is enough to stop his forward momentum (this known as a "doub-tiyo" or "double-tap"). As the trigger mechanism is retracting back into its firing position, the shooter simultaneously raises his aim a few degrees upward and fires twice again, ideally placing these third and fourth rounds into the face, neck or head of their target. 

Because of the desirability to control as much as possible the discharge of each round, the TEC-9 is rarely converted to fully-automatic, although there are blacksmiths in Cité Soleil who specialize in retrofitting semiautomatics to this purpose. The weapon's powerful blowback system of operation generates a substantial recoil, making it very difficult to control even after the first round is fired. So most models found on the street in Haiti are like Lucien’s: unmodified semiautomatics that require the shooter to pull the trigger after each round is discharged, making it somewhat more manageable for a child to handle in combat.

Like many child soldiers here, Lucien has personalized his weapon: it is adorned with Hello Kitty stickers, and he has printed his name in neat, block letters below the slide-bolt along the upper receiver of the weapon with a black permanent marker. He presses the catch mechanism below the trigger guard forward, releasing the slender magazine. It is a high-capacity clip, capable of holding thirty-two 9mm rounds, but he is out of ammunition.

The rain is hammering down loudly against the metal roofs of the scores of shanties that surround us, so we have to almost shout to one another to be heard. He squints up at me through the rain with blank sincerity and asks if I have any bullets.

Non,” I tell him, “m’pa genyen okenn minisyon pou zam’w” – “I have no bullets for your gun.”

He looks down at the empty magazine, and then back to me.

Eske ou genyen nenpòt sirèt?” he asks me, expectantly.

Wi, mwen fè genyen,” I answer – “Yes, I do have candy.”

So I reach into my satchel for a handful of peppermints, and we lean together against the wall, in the clamor of a driving rain, and suck at the candies in silence, waiting for the next thing to happen.

My primary goal as a professor and an advisor is to assist students in their development as mature, independent and critical scholars. I believe that a liberal arts education should provide a fertile ground for intellectual curiosity and discussion, as well as opportunities for students to develop as a true academic community; one marked by its commitment to inquiry, integrity, honesty, and respect.

ClassroomWith this in mind, I believe in teaching an engaged kind of anthropology, one that draws heavily on the ethnographic data and is grounded firmly in theory. Consistent with the academic standards of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, I place a high premium on intellectual rigor in all of my courses. If the real value of anthropology as a discipline of the liberal arts is to promote a deep and critical understanding of the human condition worldwide, then I believe that it is the obligation of the teaching anthropologist to press students forward in this manner.

I take it as a given that lecture and seminar discussion is enriched by active faculty research. As such, I bring much of my own fieldwork experience into the classroom, especially the data that I have garnered from a decade of working with children. The anthropology of childhood is a relatively new area of specialization in the discipline. Doing ethnographic research with children and childhood in this decade is akin to doing ethnographic research with women and gender in the 1960s. It is a revolutionary, yet oddly intuitive, way to think about society and culture. Children have a unique perspective on social and cultural problems that should be integrated into classroom discussions, so I believe they should have a more fundamental place in the thinking of the discipline. I try to incorporate their "knee-high" perspective into all of my courses.
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Cultural Anthropology
Anthropological Theory
Human Evolution
Witchcraft, Magic & Sorcery
Vodou in Haiti & the Diaspora
Plantations, Possessions & Power: Ethnohistory & Anthropology in the Caribbean
Anthropological Ethnography
Anthropology of Childhood & Adolecense
Fieldwork Under Fire: The Ethnography of Violence & Mayhem
Advanced Seminar in Anthropology
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My expertise as an anthropologist and a Caribbeanist has allowed me to work as an advocate on behalf of Haitian refugee children seeking political asylum in the United States. Since 2001, I have done consulting work for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, writing affidavits and providing expert testimony on the current social and political conditions in Haiti that make some children particularly at risk of illegal detention or death in those countries.
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