Today (Sunday) is payday for the all 525 workers (non-qualified labor in USAID-speak) on our road rehabilitation project.  These workers have worked 24 days over the past 5 weeks, doing heavy manual labor on the roads.  Since this is a Food-for-Work project, the workers get paid at the end of their 24 day shift.   Over a 7 hour period, about 58,000 pounds of dried green peas, 58,000 pounds of soy-enriched bulgur, and 2625 gallons of cooking oil will be distributed.  Each worker gets a 110 pound bag of peas, a 110 pound bag of bulgur and 5 gallons of cooking oil. (total weight of about 265 pounds).  A little bit different from going to the grocery store in the US.

For some, it was a family outing.  The whole family came, brought extra bags and containers, split the large bags into manageable portions, and then carried them home together.   For those of you wondering what “manageable portions” might mean, we saw women carrying half-bags (about 55 pounds) on their heads with no discernable problem.  Local folks who own donkeys, mules or horses are doing a good business carrying the large bags for some workers.  Donkeys are queued up at the bottom of the driveway like cabs outside a major hotel, waiting for a fare.

The process is well organized and thorough, to prevent cheating and fraud.  These additional steps, however, slow the process somewhat.  Despite the long wait, people are very patient. Fortunately, a light cloud bank covered the area soon after the distribution started, so waiting for a long time in the middle of the day is a little easier.

In some ways, the distribution has become a social event, as families from all over the 40 sq mile area who have not seen one another for several months get a chance to visit, catch up on community events and maybe even exchange some juicy gossip.  There is a constant din outside of the house here, but the smiling faces of those receiving food, and even those waiting, portray the happiness of everyone here.  This food will feed families well for weeks.   After Hurricane Tomas ruined so many people’s crops in early November, this food will prevent hunger and associated disease and misery for many families.

Workers are called to the registration desk by team, have their hand stamped, dip their index finger in indelible ink, and stamp their fingerprint on the payout record, next to their name.  More than half of the people are completely non-literate, so getting signatures is not an option.

Not directly seen is the pride and satisfaction of the workers, whose hard work has allowed them to provide well for their families.  Many, especially the refugees from the Earthquake, have been forced to wait in many “free food” distribution lines in the past months in order to feed their children.   People find those distributions demeaning, albeit necessary. Nothing restores self-esteem for these than being able to take care of their families through their own work.   As one man told me, “I feel like a real person again. I can take care of my family.”  The project targeted equal opportunity, so about 35% of the workers are women, many of them single mothers.  The work was hard, but these women want and need to feed their children.   There is no social safety net here, except the generosity of neighbors and fellow parishioners.  With everyone’s crops damaged or destroyed, even this safety net is considerably frayed.

Work begins again for 525 workers on Wednesday, if the weather cooperates.  This project, which we expect to last until the end of February, has truly meant the difference between famine and a meager, but respectable, life for thousands here in the Sassier area.