Ti machann pa fè kob. It’s a Haitian saying in reference to the men and women who sell products on the sides of the streets, everything from secondhand clothing to hygiene products, chicken and rice to medication. The small vendor doesn’t make money. Up until this year, Haiti was, and had been for quite some time, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. But this past spring, Venezuela replaced Haiti’s long-standing position due to its rapidly failing economy, not only giving Haiti a new rank amongst the statistics, but perhaps also giving the country’s poorly painted image a fresh (or fresher) lift. Despite its position nestled in the middle of the Caribbean, Haiti, the Dominican Republic’s neighbor, struggles to invite tourists to explore it’s natural beauty. The media has successfully scared away foreigners even though issues and news stories are often exaggerated for the networks’ followings. Thus, Haiti has been left, often forgotten by the rest of the developed world, to fend for itself, creating an economic system based upon surviving rather than thriving. Therefore, due to the lack of infrastructure and high unemployment rates, the Haitian people have invented their own means of entrepreneurship, better known as the machann.
A vendor’s hours are not dependent upon the clock, but rather the sun. Men and women rise before daylight in preparation for what’s to come for the next fourteen hours. Some travel to downtown Port-au-Prince to purchase their supplies from the large distributors, while others collect the inventory that’s left in their home, all hoping to make a profit to feed their families that day. They wake their children before embarking on their work day to bathe them, feed them, clothe them, and, if they have the means, send them to school. They’ll spend hours in the sweltering heat, competing with other vendors selling the same product at a slightly higher mark up than for what they purchased it. And when the day is over, they’ll close their eyes to sleep only to wake up the next morning to do it all again.
Driving down the crowded streets of Haiti, walking through the bustlings markets, it’s difficult to imagine this kind of lifestyle, a lifestyle fueled by a need to survive. The women grab my hand as I pass them, hoping I’ll stop to look at their products, hoping maybe I’ll decide to buy something – a few onions, a small sack of potatoes, a new pair of sandals most likely imported from the Dominican Republic or Panama. My eyes trace the line of machann before me, and the line behind. I can’t help but notice that while there is little variety, the produce neatly arranged before them is much the same. Tomatoes, onions, carrots, an occasional green pepper, potatoes, garlic. How do they do it? Not only physically, but how do they have the will power to do this every single day?
In the summer, the temperature lingers around 100 degrees, but it feels much hotter. The dust, the pollution, the overpopulation – it all contributes to the climate. And yet, much of the time, those who sell beside the road are clothed in long sleeves, pants, sometimes hats in order to protect their skin from the sun. Sitting right beneath the rays, they sell from morning until late afternoon. And because of the risk of theft, they pack all of the belongings up to take them home until the next day.
The life of a machann is not easy. It is a life more difficult than one can imagine, and yet the machann is the backbone of Haiti’s society and economy. Often unrecognized and unnoticed due to their lack of legitimacy in the business world, the machann keep Haiti going. They provide for their families when no other jobs are available. They see past the way the world wants to label them, because they must. And while many may not have the opportunity to receive an education due to high rates of poverty, their resourcefulness is ingenious. The Haitian people have, despite their circumstances, developed their own system, even when the foreigner tries to “fix” them. The machann may not appear to be much to the outsider, but it is a way of life in Haiti. It always has been and it always will be.