Madam Gerard is a madam sara living in Ka-Blain. “Madam sara? You want me to tell you what it means? You buy, you resell, that’s madam sara,” Gerard explains. Millions of Haitian women do this work, financing small farmers by buying their crops and distributing them to urban markets. The cash market system you see in the video accounts for 85 percent of Haiti’s total economy.
Gerard, 56, and her husband have a classic rural partnership: he working the garden, she collecting and selling the harvest. We met through anthropologist Talitha Stam during her field study of madam saras for Cordaid. Not since Sid Mintz shadowed madam saras in the 1950s and ’60s has serious attention been paid to them.
Together the Gerards are successful enough to put all of their children through school. “Me and my husband, our parents never put us in school,” Madame confides with a regretful smile. “I have two eyes. I can see, but I cannot read. That’s why I’m sending my kids to school.”
In Stam’s survey of madam saras, fifty-four percent of the women reported the same experience as Gerard’s. They had never been to school, but their children were attending. Their determination to give the next generation a better life earns rural Haitian women recognition as the poto mitan, the backbone of their country.
“In the rural areas, there are few families that do not have a madam sara,” Maria Yanick Mezile, Haiti’s minister of women’s affairs, told Stam and me in an interview. “They are raising the next generation of doctors, lawyers and presidents. They are bringing a new social class into the world. The women are the pillars, the motors of this economy. When the husbands are working the land, it is the women who are collecting the harvest. They give us life. It’s true, we are neglecting them, and we’re trying to correct that.”
But progress is not straightforward. The children’s schooling is often interrupted when money is short, sometimes for years. Natural disasters, health, the cost of transportation, robbery and product spoilage can reverse the womens’ fortunes in an instant. Educated to the 1oth grade, Gerard’s oldest daughter Madame Davide reads and writes as her parents cannot, but she can’t find a job. Davide works for her mother, as Gerard worked for her mother, sending the children to school in hopes their prospects will be better.