Haiti's urban poor: `You eat when you can'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Statistics show the unemployment rate for Haitians is about 50 percent of the adult population. Somehow these people scrape together a way to survive. Seamstress Josette Lareche, like thousands of other poor Haitians, fled the countryside to escape rural poverty.

Josette lives in a two room cinder-block apartment in a hillside tenement with her sister, niece, and eight-year-old son, Jimmy.

The air in the windowless rooms is damp and hot. The family has tried to cheer the atmosphere by posting a Texaco calendar and a snapshot of relatives on the coral-colored wall. There is electricity, but no running water; the toilet is a jar, and food is cooked over charcoal in the busy pathway leading to a hundred other little nooks like Josette's. The sounds of radios and squalling babies fill the air.

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Josette says she normally only makes $30 to $40 a month. Her sister earns $60 a month as a nurse's aid. The rent is $300 for six months. Jimmy's grade school tuition is $20 per month. And she and her sister try to send $2 to $3 and some clothing every month back to their 5 sisters and one brother in the countryside.

On a recent Saturday, there was only money to buy fresh water. But Josette's sister was paid unexpectedly so there was money for a Sunday dinner. A dinner of meat, rice, beans and carrots cost $4.

But days are not divided by meals, she says, ``You eat when you can.''

Josette earns about $3 profit on the $20 dresses that she makes for upper class clients on her old Singer sewing machine. She has to constantly hustle to keep a steady flow of business from clients who live high in the hills of the suburb of Petionville - a 20-cent bus-ride away.

The bane of her existence, Josette says, are the second-hand clothes donated through foreign charities and sold here. These clothes, she says, compete with Haitian-made clothing, endangering scarce jobs. The other problem, she says, has been the month of political unrest and strikes which have closed down business.

``The people calling for the strikes have kitchens stocked with food,'' she says.

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