“We know we have neglected them.”
In the Haitian suburb of Petionville the sidewalks are stacked with paintings of markets and market women wearing head scarves and turbans. Behind the scenes are hundreds of real markets and millions of women who run them, called madam sara, ti machann, and other names. Together they run a market system that’s unique in the world, through which most of Haiti’s cash and products flow. The Madam Sara project journeys behind the painted canvasses into this Haiti of everyday.
Until recently, the last person to appreciate the importance of Haiti’s market system was the anthropologist Sid Mintz.
” … marketplaces are an ancient Haitian institution. Before the Revolution, one of the most important, located in the colonial capital, was frequented on a good day by 15,000 slaves buying and selling. Markets play the same role in Haiti today.”
When Mintz did his field work in the 1950s, “eight out of ten Haitians were peasants. Most of them produced their own subsistence—without generators, running water, kerosene stoves, or electricity. They were doing it in a country that had—outside the towns—no paved roads, transport or postal service, schools, hospitals, fuel-powered agriculture, or information media.” It’s not so different today.
I undertook the project because Haiti’s cash markets represent 85 percent of the country’s total economy, and women power 75 percent of it. In a country with almost no jobs, the informal markets hold Haiti together. Through a complex system of cash exchange, the women distribute the produce of 700,000 farms and the imports of other countries including ours. Their work creates work for others. They are often heads of households — 44 percent of Haitian women are. While Haiti’s elite live on 48 percent of the country’s wealth, they along with the poorest 72 percent of the population live on 10 percent.
When I began to work in Haiti, I wondered whether the market system might be the only truly national institution, beyond the army. At the time, eight out of ten Haitians were peasants. Most of them produced their own subsistence—without generators, running water, kerosene stoves, or electricity. They were doing it in a country that had—outside the towns—no paved roads, transport or postal service, schools, hospitals, fuel-powered agriculture, or information media (except gossip, what Haitians refer to humorously astélédyòl, loosely translatable as “telemouth”). In spite of being heavily taxed in every way that an idle, cruel, and cunning state apparatus could think up, the peasantry—illiterate, submissive, unschooled, lacking medical care—fed itself fairly well, reproduced itself, maintained stable family life, and supported on its back the entire state apparatus, including the army.
There must be few countries in the world where such a mass of bureaucrats is supported by so poor a peasantry while supplying in return neither help nor security, advice nor protection, and not even much friendliness and respect. I consider this to be part of the very high price the Haitian people were required to pay when they became an independent country. Even colonialism in Africa provided some institutional continuity. But fourteen years of invasion, revolution, and war waged on the terrain of a huge slave-based economy meant that Haiti’s institutional slate would be wiped nearly entirely clean by the time independence was declared in 1804.
Against that depressing past, the internal market system, by which all of the agricultural produce of the countryside and much else destined for local use reached its consumers, touched every city, town, and rural district in Haiti. When I was working there, more than 54,000 licensed intermediaries plied their skills across the land. All produce for export reached the ports through bulk buyers whose activities grew up alongside the market system and were closely allied to it. The commission buyers who lined the road near a market I studied in 1958-1959 purchased raw produce for export—vetiver, beeswax, goatskins, coffee—from peasants who came to town to sell their products and to shop at the marketplace before returning home. Especially important was coffee: a high-quality, mild variety that went mostly to Germany, France, and Switzerland and was used in mixed blends.
Nearly every one of the intermediaries, known in Haiti by various terms—such as révâdèz,kòmèsâ, machâ, Madâm Sara (this last after an extremely noisy bird that clusters in the trees to chatter)—according to their varying roles, is female. It was common to see three or four daughters, all dressed identically (at that time, blue denim dress and orange head tie), walking single-file behind their mother to market, each with a load of appropriate size on her head. Though there are women who cultivate and men who market, the division of labor is real; it is a key to understanding how Haitian peasants deal with the economics of everyday life. Women hardly cultivate for the same reason that men hardly market, and each task carries particular social messages.
From a journalist’s perspective, theirs is a story of cultural resilience and lost potential rather than headline-making crisis. That’s why it needs to be told.
I hope the Madam Sara project will raise awareness of this large but ignored sector.