Hats Off to Madan Sara

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Madan Sara: “Named for a migratory bird that assiduously searches for and finds food wherever it goes.” – Timothy Schwartz

When I was around nine years old, I always wanted more snack money than my brothers, and my parents would always give in. One day, my mother forced me to accompany her on one of her  trips to purchase mangoes, so that I could understand where the money I was always demanding came from. I worked so hard that day, that when I returned home I was sick. I’m still not sure if I fell sick because I worked too hard, or if it was because I ate too many mangoes (I am kidding of course, I fell sick because of the hard work and the long trip). Once I finally understood where my parents’ hard earned money came from, I became more rational in my requests. It was a valuable experience.

You might be asking yourself why you are currently reading this story. It is simple! I am the son of a Madan Sara. My mother used to sell mangoes when I was a child, she would buy car loads of mangoes in Dabòn to resell in Port-au-Prince. It was a great way to make a living, and it was our family’s second source of income. My dad owned a hardware store that was doing really well at the time.

Formally, women do not hold many positions of power in Haitian society, but in everyday life, it is women sitting on sidewalks and marketplaces fighting to make a living. The local economy sits on their shoulders. Over the past 30 years, Haiti’s economy has gone from a system of production to retail trade. Women make up a majority of this new system. In the market place, on top of cars, during the harvest, it is women leading the charge. There is no aspect of the economy where women are not at the base. If the Madan Sara does not go to work, the city does not eat. If the Madan Sara does not go up into the mountains and back down into the slums, the market will not function. Without the Madan Sara, there is no market, and without the market there is no economy, and without the economy there is no country. If today Haiti is still surviving, it is mainly because of the self-sufficiency of various economic sectors, and the direct participation of the Madan Sara.

A Madan Sara is a woman who engages in business activities that connect local goods from the country sides to consumers in the cities. There are different types of Madan Sara. Some Madan Sara are wholesalers; some are retailers; while others buy at retail to resell in even smaller quantities. (For example: buying one bag of sugar and separating that one bag into smaller portions to resell in small quantities, like a can.) Because of the lack of access to education in Haiti, the majority of Madan Sara are either unable to read or write, or have not completed very high levels of schooling. However, that does not mean that it is easy to cheat a Madan Sara.

It might be easy to own a small business, but it is not easy to be a Madan Sara. Being a Madan Sara requires bravery because it is a very dangerous business.  The first risk is the trip. In Haiti in general, transportation is a headache, but in the case of a Madan Sara who carries a lot of merchandise they need a specific type of vehicle, mainly large trucks. In Haiti, these types of cars are usually second hand, and have been used extensively in other countries before being sent to the country. These vehicles are in terrible shape, packed beyond capacity, and these ladies sit on top of these big trucks to travel to their destinations. Accidents during these trips are commonplace, and many people lose their lives. It is in these precarious conditions that Madan Sara spend their days and nights, travelling on the roofs of these big trucks.

The second major risk is security, or lack thereof. For thieves, Madan Sara are easy targets and guaranteed money. Imagine, women travelling with cash in their pockets to purchase merchandise, usually at night, in a country where there is limited electricity and security. This is the actual situation for Madan Sara all over Haiti. The third biggest risk is credit. Many Madan Sara start their businesses with little money. Some have sold their land, or livestock to get their business started. A lot of them resort to informal credit “eskont” to get their startup money. Informal credit or eskont is a form of credit that has no regulations; the lender decides how much interest to put on the loaned money. Interest on informal credit range from 20% and can go as high as 50%.

So, why don’t Madan Sara have a bigger role in our society? How come their work isn’t as valued as it should be? The answer is simple, it is because of the culture of exclusion in Haiti. But there are a few complicated aspects to explain this answer. One aspect is a lack of support. Madan Sara do not find the much needed backing because since the 1980s, Haiti has adopted a system of importation/contraband that kills national production. This new structure relies on nonexistent capital within the Madan Sara community because they are the ones who have the most to lose with this system of importation. For example, in regards to financial backing and support, most Madan Sara do not qualify for loans because they have no support or assets to hold as collateral to borrow money from the bank. For someone to get a loan, in most cases, they sell assets they already owned, or  mortgage their homes to start their businesses.

The fight for a stronger middle class in Haiti is based on this Madan Sara philosophy, “I want my children to have a better life than me.” This is the main objective that motivates every Madan Sara. If you are familiar with everyday topics of conversation on public transportation in Haiti, you understand what I am referring to. This desire to make tomorrow better than yesterday goes beyond a personal goal, it extends to communities as a whole, and has a major impact on the development and advancement of communities all over Haiti.

17 years have passed since the day I went to work with my mother, she is no longer a Madan Sara, but that phase was important in my family’s development. All five of her children, four boys and one girl all have good educations, and are progressing well in our careers. We are not rich but we are independent, and have made great strides.

Recently my mother asked me to learn to speak Hebrew, so that I can translate the original document of the Bible for her. I already speak five languages, but I can’t say no to her because her money as a Madan Sara sent me to school. (You see how high maintenance this woman is?)

I have decided to make a documentary on Madan Sara in Haiti, and further explore all aspects of  the business and lifestyle. (Stay tuned!) In the United States, they have the American Dream. In Haiti, we have the dream of the Madan Sara, and I am happy and proud to say that I am a Madan Sara’s dream.



Photo Credit: Samuel Dameus
Etant Dupain

Etant Dupain

Etant Dupain is the founder and Director of Kombit Productions. He is a freelance journalist and producer who started as a reporter for Telesur in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He has worked as a producer and fixer for numerous international news media outlets and documentary films, including the British film company RAW TV, Discovery Channel’s The Unexplainable Files, the award winning documentary Where Did the Money Go?, Aljazeera, Canal+, Telesur, and Venezolana Televisión Vive TV.

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