Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Lakou System: A Cultural, Ecological Analysis of Mothering in Rural Haiti

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Lakou System: A Cultural, Ecological Analysis of Mothering in Rural Haiti

Article excerpt

This descriptive exploratory study uses a cultural-ecological framework to examine mothering and the role of family support within the lakou (group living) system in the rural province of Leogane, Haiti. Historically, the lakou refers to clusters of homes in which Haitian families reside, as well as to the extended and multiple-generation family form that is prominent in Haitian culture. Initially, the members of a lakou worked cooperatively and provided for each other with financial and other forms of support.

However, the original lakou system has changed due to the pressures of increased poverty and landholding fragmentation brought about by the globalization of capitalism. One of the detrimental impacts of these changes in the lakou system is the disruption of parenting. This difficult shift has fallen largely on the shoulders of Haitian mothers. The move from multiple mothering, wherein several women in the lakou shared in the caring and supervision of young children, to individual mothering, wherein single mothers are now the sole caretakers, constitutes a major social change that needs to be understood within the cultural context of the Haitian framework.


"Fam se poto mitan" (women are the center post) is a well-known Haitian proverb that highlights the central role women play not only in Haitian commerce, but also within Haitian families. In Haiti, 70% of rural households are headed by women, despite a history of embedded male dominance. Against the backdrop of ongoing poverty, sociopolitical crisis, and gender discrimination and oppression, Haitian women have been the stabilizing centers to uphold unique African traditions of womanhood and multiple mothering within a distinctive African space known as the lakou. Since the 19th century (1804), the lakou, referring to family members and the cluster of houses in which Haitian families reside, has been the principal family form. Initially, the members of a lakou worked cooperatively and provided for each other through financial and other forms of support (LaRose 482). Moreover, the original lakou was based on the African reality that raising children was too great a responsibility for only one or two people to bear, and that it was healthier for children-- and mothers-- to have contact with a wide circle of people and share parenting responsibilities (Ambert 530). Therefore, within this location or bounded space, where children have multiple caregivers, Haitian mothers were able to carry out their traditional functions according to the healthy, successful parenting models of Haitian communities.

Although the new lakou system continues to provide a range of support that sometimes serves to reduce family hardship and buffer daily stressors for poor parents, some research has noted that in high-poverty communities, the support received may be compromised by highly stressed network members (LaRose 488). Given the central role of women in families and that women in general are more bound to the parenting role, such high stress may, in turn, adversely affect the mental health of mothers. Since this early work, Haiti's social conditions have worsened due to economic instability, political unrest, and destructive hurricanes. Yet little information is available on the sources of parenting stress, or the role of family support in the lives of Haitian mothers within their country of origin. Research on Haitian mothers and the lakou system is needed to assess contemporary patterns of support in this socio-cultural context. Therefore, this pilot study explores parenting stress within the lakou in a sample of parents living in rural Haiti.

Theoretical Framework

This study is grounded in a cultural-ecological model, which posits that child and family well-being are influenced by the differential and interactive effects of individual, family, community, and larger societal systems, as well as the context of the values, attitudes, and skills of particular cultural groups (Bronfenbrenner 725; Ogbu 413). …

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