Of madam saras and journalists

“It was often demanding work, no matter how softly I trod. A good anthropologist is, among other things, one who knows how to apologize locally, and how to endure being an object of ridicule at times.”

Sidney Mintz wrote those words about his experience following Haiti’s women traders in the 1950s and ’60s, and my experience as a journalist in 2012 was the same. Add to that the fact that I don’t speak Kreyol yet, as Mintz does, and was carrying a DSLR video camera, as he wasn’t, and the challenges increase by an order of magnitude.

I’m deeply grateful to the ti machann and other traders of Ansapit and Jacmel for speaking with me at all. The woman you see here, Marilin, is considered formidable even among her fellow pepe sellers. Yet she tolerated my presence and camera in her tent at Larat, the bulking station in Ansapit where she takes and sorts her deliveries of pepe before returning fby boat to Jacmel. The first thing I learned from her is that much of the information I sought from her — her profit margin on a sachet of pepe, for instance — is a closely guarded trade secret. “I’m not giving this without knowing why, ” said Marilin as we sat surrounded by piles of pepe at Larat. “To tell you how much money it costs, no, even with the person who lends me money I can’t do that.”

It’s not only a business issue. Divulging her finances would expose Marilin to theft and physical danger. “The ladies are mad because thieves are threatening them,” explained her son Jean Thonny. “They say they’re going to shoot them for the pepes they purchased. Imagine, there’s no electricity in the area. At 6:00 everybody goes to sleep, and the thieves threaten your life. When you drift off to sleep, you have to keep alert. My mother’s life is at stake.”


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