Documentary “Madan Sara” offers an inside look on Haitian women’s lives

By Maxwell Robinette, Associate Editor

Novelist Edwidge Danticat shares a universal truth about women in the world in the documentary “Madan Sara.”

“Women’s work becomes so commonplace that it goes unnoticed,” Danticat said. “You start to wonder: Do we even see them? Did they become invisible to us?”

Women’s labor underpins society in Haiti. Yet Danticat said women everywhere are unacknowledged for their work.

The documentary’s title, “Madan Sara” is the Haitian name for women who bring food and goods from country-farms to city-markets. They are the middlemen between farmers and vendors, and they deliver food to the nation.

In America, people call them entrepreneurs. In Haiti, society calls them Madan Sara.

“If the Madan Sara are not collaborating with farmers, the country will come to a halt,” an interviewed farmer said. “Our crops would go to waste. The city and the countryside would suffer. The farmer, the Madan Sara, and the marketplace are one in the same.”

The Madan Sara sell hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods in Haiti. In a nation that imports 70 percent of its goods, this farmer-to-market industry constitutes the majority of the country’s internal economy.

While conventional business practices prioritize profit and individual gain, women merchants seek opportunities to share their commercial success. They bring family and neighbors into the market not as competitors, but as fellow earners.

Mothers teach their daughters. There are generations of Madan Sara in many homes. Women throughout the documentary speak about their family’s work and take up their mantle with pride.

“Often the idea is for profits to be shared as widely as possible in the community,” economist Camille Chalmers says in the documentary. “The approach is much different than the competitive approach of capitalism. On the contrary, merchants generally bring other women, family and friends, into the business.”

It’s tireless work. They carry bulk goods long distances with inadequate transportation. They spend long hours in markets, selling as much as they can. They coordinate between farmers, vendors and customers. They teach newcomers necessary skills. They account for all finances. They raise families.

It’s relentless. According to the documentary, a full time Madan Sara expects no more than five hours of sleep on a good night. A day’s work alone often proves their strength and character.

But, in Haiti and the world, the work of women comes with unnecessary risks and unjust treatment. Madan Sara are frequent victims of theft and assault along country roads. An impoverished population sees them as easy targets. Even state officials occasionally prey on them.

Danticat said this risk makes banks hesitant to establish credit with Madan Sara. In many cases, these women continue their businesses by getting high interest micro-loans through unconventional lenders. They often risk injury or death if they can’t pay them back.

Haiti’s political climate compounds the risk further. Poverty, government corruption, and unstable democracy often make life in the country unpredictable. Political dissidents use marketplaces as political tools especially during elections or times of unrest.

Market-burnings are common. When a person or group are dissatisfied with the current party or leader, they hurt the economy to smear whoever is in power at the time. By burning marketplaces and crippling economic activity, political dissidents pressure the government in hopes that it will change its policies, or the people will oust it.

When marketplaces burn, women suffer the most. The fire destroys their goods, and if they owe money, they can’t pay it back.

A memorable image in the documentary comes from a Madan Sara filmed outside a market-burning.

“I’ve lost everything,” she said. “No one will help me. The money I lost was a loan.”

Despite the Madan Sara’s vital role in Haiti’s economy, and a political urgency to prevent market-burnings, the Haitian government does little to protect its merchants. Leaders and the public continually minimize the Madan Sara’s role in the market. The country continues to target and abuse women.

The documentary argues that the Haitian people and government must recognize the work of its women, and their value to the country. While it remains contained to a Haitian context, the documentary speaks to a greater need to acknowledge the work of women everywhere.

At the end of the documentary, a Madan Sara speaks about her work and her place in Haitian society.

“People don’t think much of the Madan Sara, but we are important. Without us there would be no community,” she said. “We keep this country running.”

“Madan Sara” is currently screening for select audiences.  For more information on the film, please visit madansarafilm.com.

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