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How Natural Disasters Threaten The "Madan Sara," The Women Driving Haiti's Economy

The Madan Sara provide a vital service by collecting farmers’ produce and selling it in urban communities. But natural disasters and growing insecurity have threatened their way of life.

Image of a woman who's a wholesale produce buyer looking for quality products amongst fruit and vegetable baskets set on the floor at the market in Maniche, Haiti.

Cedeniese Lexima, a wholesale produce buyer known as a Madan Sara, searches for quality produce at the market in Maniche.

Rose Hurguelle Point Du Jour

MANICHE — For more than 20 years, single mother Cedeniese Lexima has supported herself and her four children by buying produce from local farmers to sell in the southwestern town of Les Cayes. She is one of hundreds of Haitian women known as Madan Sara, who provide an essential link in the country’s food supply chain.

The Madan Sara, named after a migratory bird adept at foraging food, work together and rely on public transport to move local produce between communities.

“I am not part of any Madan Sara group or any state-owned organization,” Lexima explains. “We are the ‘left behinds,’ but we do our best to help each other out and always travel in groups, never on our own.” Lexima says the mayor’s office does not give them the same support, such as health insurance, that it affords to other workers.

Spending days away from her home in the Haitian city of Maniche each week to travel to markets, hotels and restaurants to sell fresh goods, Lexima provides a vital service for farmers by collecting and selling their produce and enabling the urban community to access locally grown food. But this way of life is under threat as the country grapples with natural disasters, a fuel shortage and roadblocks, leaving many of these women unable to make a living.

And the farming community, which the Madan Sara rely on, is still struggling to restore production after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit on the morning of Aug. 14, 2021.

“Everyone around me started running and screaming, ‘Jezi sovem’ [‘Save us, Jesus’],” the 50-year-old widow recalls. “Everywhere was covered in white dust, and Maniche was left in ruins.”

Crossing Martissant

The small mountainous commune of Maniche was one of the hardest hit by the earthquake, destroying nearly all homes, which had a devastating impact on the agricultural sector. Storms and flooding followed the 2021 earthquake, leaving many farmers forced to start again. With less produce available, it’s even more vital that the Madan Sara sell what they can access.

The most lucrative markets to sell produce are in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, which, from Maniche, requires traveling through Martissant, a neighborhood now plagued with roadblocks and gangs that demand payment to pass.

Those who attempt the journey soon discover it isn’t worth the risk.

“There were a few others with me on the truck the first time I took the risk of crossing Martissant,” says Didine Durand, a Madan Sara. “We were stopped by heavily armed bandits but were able to continue our route once the driver had paid them. I paid to avoid getting killed. I never took that risk again and only sell the products I purchase in Maniche at the market of Les Cayes.

I make a smaller profit but at least it’s safe for me to get there,” she adds, referring to the southern seaport, an hour’s drive south of Maniche, where she has to sell her produce at a lower price.

No assistance 

With more than a third of the population facing acute hunger, food access is vital, and farmers rely on these women to transport their goods to market. The local economy in Maniche is driven by agriculture; small-scale farmers grow food for themselves and for market in their garden plots.

The earthquake buried many farms and gardens, and damaged irrigation systems in Desrodieres and Dory, communes in Maniche with a large number of rice, potato and black bean farmers. They say they did not receive the assistance they needed to get back on their feet.

We’ve been left hung out to dry.

Jean Calèbre Rebecca, a Maniche farmer and the coordinator of Organisation pour la Promotion des Agriculteurs Généresse/Maniche, an advocacy group that works with around 400 farmers, says the farmers who lost their land and livestock in upland areas due to landslides did not receive enough help.

“We find it difficult to recover from the damage caused by such a disaster,” Rebecca says. “We have no support from the state, seed prices have gone up due to the fuel supply shortage and we have no access to financing services. We’ve been left hung out to dry.”

Image of bags of produce piling on top of a car and being transported.

Bags of produce at the market in Maniche, Haiti. The Madan Sara transporting bags of produce at the market in Maniche, Haiti, on their way to sell in other communities, such as Les Cayes, an hour’s drive south of Maniche.

Rose Hurguelle Point Du Jour, GPJ Haiti.

Governmental indifference

But Maniche Mayor Jean David Brunard says some farmers received seeds from the government to help them reestablish their farms.

“I don’t like hearing some farmers say that they receive no support from the state,” he says. “International organizations have to enter into a partnership with the mayor’s office before they can help our communities, which means we are providing an indirect form of support.”

Farmer Rose Marthe Desrivieres says the government distributed black bean seeds, but as this crop requires a lot of water to grow, only those farmers near a water source could make use of the seeds.

Continuing as a Madan Sara may not be an option for many.

“The government distributed bean seeds in December, but the planting season is generally in November,” she adds. “Like other farmers, I had to sell some of my goods to buy seeds in November and sold the ones I received [from the government] in December.”

Insecurity issues

Pierre Thomas Raphael, a farmer who grows rice in smaller quantities than he did before the earthquake, says free seeds isn’t the answer.

“What we really need to get back on our feet is security, financing schemes for farmers and microloans for the Madan Sara,” Raphael says.

Maudeline Rozin stopped working as a Madan Sara, a way of life she was introduced to at a young age, after roadblocks made the job no longer viable. She now sells cooking oil in Maniche.

While some of these women seek alternative economic opportunities, and others settle for less income, continuing as a Madan Sara may not be an option for many.

“Our future will continue to be shaped by insecurity,” Durand says. “We still won’t be able to travel and sell our products at a reasonable price.”

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The Colonial Spirit And "Soft Racism" Of White Savior Syndrome

Tracing back to Christian colonialism, which was supposed to somehow "civilize" and save the souls of native people, White Savior Syndrome lives on in modern times: from Mother Teresa to Princess Diana and the current First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.

photo of a child patient holding hand of an adult

Good intentions are part of the formula

Ton Koene / Vwpics/ZUMA
Sher Herrera


CARTAGENA — The White Savior Syndrome is a social practice that exploits or economically, politically, symbolically takes advantage of individuals or communities they've racialized, perceiving them as in need of being saved and thus forever indebted and grateful to the white savior.

Although this racist phenomenon has gained more visibility and sparked public debate with the rise of social media, it is actually as old as European colonization itself. It's important to remember that one of Europe's main justifications for subjugating, pillaging and enslaving African and American territories was to bring "civilization and save their souls" through "missions."

Even today, many white supremacists hold onto these ideas. In other words, they believe that we still owe them something.

This white savior phenomenon is a legacy of Christian colonialism, and among its notable figures, we can highlight Saint Peter Claver, known as "the slave of the slaves," Bartolomé de Las Casas, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Princess Diana herself, and even the First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.

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