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Made in Haiti

How one woman is helping the women of Haiti help themselves

By Dana Rousmaniere


Marthe Bernadel

Marthe Bernadel is building a house, one cinder block at a time. It's a rare and remarkable accomplishment for a woman in Haiti—or for a Haitian man, for that matter—where most families reside in one-room houses with dirt floors and roofs made of thatched palm fronds. Marthe and her family used to live in just such a house. When it rained, it made no difference whether she and her family were inside or outside, since everyone and everything inside would get wet. That was when Marthe was selling "Akasan," or cornmeal mush, from a cauldron in the market of Fond des Blancs—a poor, isolated, mountainous region about 75 miles west of Port au Prince. It's an area where there's a high birth rate, high illiteracy, wide-spread poverty, and malnutrition. Marthe was forced to abandon her Akasan business when supplies and transportation became prohibitively expensive. With three children and an unemployed husband to support, Marthe found herself desperate for work, knocking on the door of The Cooperative d'Artisanat—a small women's sewing cooperative in Fond des Blancs. Marthe came to the Artisanat with excellent embroidery skills, and was immediately put to work on cotton nightgowns, linen napkins, and tea towels. It was piecemeal work, for which she could earn about $30 U.S. per month, or $1,000 Haitian gourdes—enough to feed her family for a month. The year was 1996, and the Artisanat consisted of six women working in a one-room abandoned schoolhouse.

Nearly 10 years later, Marthe is one of more than 50 women who earn their living at the Artisanat making products from nightgowns to pillow cases to tablecloths and baptismal stoles. Judging from the elegance of the high-quality finished products, one might never guess at the conditions under which they were produced: The women wash the fabric by hand using rainwater, since there's no running water. They use charcoal irons for pressing, as there's no electricity, and they sew on treadle machines. A woman might walk 11 kilometers along a dusty road to deliver and pick up her work every week. Running a small business is difficult under the best of circumstances.

The Artisanat Workroom
In the United States—the wealthiest country in the world—50% of small businesses fail. But in one of the world's poorest countries, under the harshest of conditions, these women are making their small business work. From this dusty crossroads in a remote village in Haiti, the women of the Artisanat are selling their products everywhere from the Artisanat workroom, to the Internet, to the well-heeled boutiques of Martha's Vineyard. A growing number of women in the United States are also selling Artisanat products from their own living rooms, organizing "trunk show events" that work much like a Tupperware party, where the proceeds go directly back to the women of the Artisanat. One trunk show event can nearly cover the Artisanat payroll for an entire month. While the cooperative still depends on donations to meet some of its operating expenses, it is on the road to becoming self-sufficient. And so are the women of the Artisanat, who are beginning to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. And it's due in no small part to Artisanat founder Sarah Hackett.

Sarah Hackett never expected to be working in Haiti at the age of 79. She originally traveled to the country at 66, as a recently retired (yet tireless) American nurse who intended to spend a year working in a backcountry health center. During her time at the health center, Hackett met women who had scraped together the dollar it would take to come for a consultation, who then couldn't afford the resulting prescription for antibiotics. "If you saw a woman who had a baby screaming with an earache, you'd reach into your own pocket and pay for it. But, that's not the way it's supposed to be…the Blancs (slang for "foreigner" in Haiti's native Creole) paying for everything," says Hackett. "I don't believe in handouts." Hackett decided to stay and find a way to help the women of Haiti. "I couldn't leave Haiti…mostly because of these women. Because they have no choices—no possibilities—and I thought I knew how to help them."

And help them she has. Hackett founded Haiti Projects, Inc., a charitable organization whose mission is to help Haitians help themselves.

Sarah Hackett (right) with Sonia

To that end, Hackett and her organization have created a library to encourage reading skills, an education initiative to send children to school, a family-planning clinic, and a very successful micro-lending program to help local farmers buy tools and supplies--all in addition to the Cooperative d'Artisanat. "I went to Haiti to do my nursing thing for a year, and then I was supposed to come home and sit in a rocking chair and say that I'd done my bit for the Third World," says Hackett. Thirteen years later, the rocking chair sits idle, while Hackett continues to work tirelessly in Haiti.

Sarah Hackett is no stranger to adversity: Widowed in her 30s with four children to raise, she learned to pull herself up by her own bootstraps. She began a nursing career, and later started a visiting nurses business, which she grew from the ground up to a highly successful enterprise. Hackett applies the same sound business principles she used in her own company to her work in Haiti--each of Haiti Projects' initiatives are designed to be self-sustaining enterprises. That said, her work is not without some fundamental challenges. Take, for instance, the time she made a business decision to sell some of the Artisanat nightgowns without the crocheted necklines, thinking she could increase profits by selling some plain gowns at a lower price. After asking the Artisanat director to put the crocheted necklines on only half of the gowns, Hackett later received a batch of nightgowns that were crocheted halfway around the necklines. "You just can't be too clear," says Hackett, "especially when you're working in the backcountry where there's such a high percentage of people who lack a very basic education."

Despite such challenges, Hackett and the women of the Artisanat have overcome the odds. They're beginning to prosper. Their work brings hope, and dignity. "It's given me such a thrill to see these women be able to buy food…to buy shoes for their kids…to buy the medicines they need," says Hackett. "Lately, the women have been showing up for work with these imported purses that you can buy in the markets for about $2 U.S. All the women have one, and they take such pride in it—it's shown me that they have some discretionary money that they've never had before. They're contributing to their own prosperity, which fills them with a sense of power and pride."

An Artisanat knitter

"Like any good idea, the Artisanat has grown by word of mouth. The sense of belonging to something that's working is really important for these Haitian women, because not much works in Haiti," says Hackett. As more Haitians witness the growing prosperity of the members of the Artisanat, more women are arriving on the Artisanat's doorstep. "We started a knitting program because there were women who wanted desperately to belong, but who couldn't embroider to our standards," says Hackett. "I started the knitting program because I can't say no to the women who knock at the door. It just breaks your heart. Everyone said to me, 'People in Haiti don't knit,' and I said, 'Well, guess what—they do now.'"

The Artisanat's knit products have since become some of its best-sellers. Next year, Hackett has plans to add an appliqué program to provide even more opportunities for women with needlework skills.

Sarah Hackett's spitfire attitude does have its consequences. She's single-handedly created a business in which 50 women now depend on a paycheck every month, whether or not their products are sold. "This is what puts a strain on me," says Hackett, "I have to put the brakes on these women sometimes, because they just knit and knit and knit, and we can't afford it until we grow our market. This is not a cooperative in the strictest sense of the word, where members buy supplies communally and don't take a profit until they sell the products. These women were so poor that they couldn't contribute even needle and thread. I once found a woman on the side of the road who was sewing with a straw instead of a needle, because she didn't have a needle. These women don't have anything. And, it's difficult to cover costs until we sell the products, but I can't let them down, because these are some of the hardest-working women in the world:

Photo: Lyn Jones©1999

The laundry team shows up at 7:30 a.m. to wash and iron the linens. They have to wash everything by hand. And to do that, they have to carry the water on their heads. (We used to have a water pump, but it broke, and the community can't afford to fix it.) These women have so many worries. But this is not a 'stitch and bitch,' as you might think. While they're working, you hear only the sounds of the pigs and the chickens and the roosters in the background. Sure, sometimes someone will tell a story and they'll all laugh— but then the room falls silent again as they resume their work."
Despite their struggles, Sarah Hackett and the women of the Artisanat continue with their hard work, and their hard-won successes. But, says Hackett, "We have a long way to go." Their goal right now is to build their markets and inventory. A U.S. foundation has helped by donating money for materials, but much more needs to be done. "In Haiti, it doesn't take a lot," says Hackett. "You can change someone's life with $100 U.S." On that note, Hackett herself was off to convince an American friend that he should match her donation of $50 to help improve the life of a Haitian woman who wants to start her own business.

And in the meantime, Marthe Bernadel continues to build her house—-one cinder block at a time—-with little more than the money she makes embroidering and crocheting at the Artisanat, one nightgown at a time.



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How Can I Help?

1. Give a little bit. If there's one thing the Artisanat always needs, it's funding! Contributions of any amount help. Checks can be made payable to Haiti Projects, Inc., and mailed to Haiti Projects, 31 Leonard Street, Gloucester, MA 01930. (100% of donations go to the Artisanat; Haiti Projects' administrative costs are covered by grants and fundraising.)
2. Focus on the material things. To donate materials such as yarn, buttons, linens, sewing machines, and shipping supplies, please contact Sarah Hackett at Haiti Projects, 31 Leonard Street, Gloucester, MA 01930 for more information.
3. Be the hostess with the mostest. Like to throw parties? Why not give a party for a good cause? Artisanat products can be sold from your own home through a sales event that works much like a Tupperware party. For details and information, contact Anne Anninger, Manager, Haiti Projects, at anne@anninger.us.
4. Talk shop. Know a store in your area that would be interested in carrying the Artisanat's unique hand-crafted items? Contact Anne Anninger at anne@anninger.us
5. Get crafty. Does your church or club host a Holiday Bazaar? Find out how to include Artisanat products by contacting Anne Anninger at anne@anninger.us
6. Spread the word! Give this article to five of your friends.

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Handmade in Haiti

To view and order products from the Artisanat, visit the online catalog at:

www.haitiprojects.org

Proceeds from sales go directly to the women of the Artisanat.



Photography: Jeffrey Dingle and James E. Tew; Woman ironing copyright Lyn Jones, 1999
 
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