Extreme Poverty: Women’s Collective Sell Clay Cakes in Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A woman working for a collective prepares “clay cakes,” sun-baked disks of clay, butter and salt.

The collective works from before sunrise to mix, strain and shape hundreds of cakes to sell in markets around the city for approximately 10 U.S. cents each. Clay cakes, according to the United Nations, have become a ‘symbol of Haiti’s struggles with extreme poverty and hunger.’

Clay cakes have become the physical manifestation of Haiti’s struggles with extreme poverty and hunger. In an ironic twist, a collective of women are using these same sun baked disks of clay, butter and salt to stay one step away from becoming another statistic.

Clay cakes have become the physical manifestation of Haiti’s struggles with extreme poverty and hunger. In an ironic twist, a collective of women are using these same sun baked disks of clay, butter and salt to stay one step away from becoming another statistic. Photo: United Nations.

“Geophagia” is the practice of eating earth or soil-like substrates such as clay or chalk. It occurs in non-human animals where it may be a normal or abnormal behavior, and also in humans, most often in rural or preindustrial societies among children and pregnant women.

In Haiti, like in countries around the world, people afflicted by poverty are known to eat biscuits made from soil, salt, and vegetable shortening. These biscuits hold minimal nutritional value, but manage to keep the poor alive. However, long-term consumption of the biscuits is reported to cause stomach pains and malnutrition, and is not recommended by doctors.

Cite de Soleil - Les StoneChild at play in Cite de Soleil, in the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 
© Les Stone 2004.

Jim Luce witnessed this practice for the first time in the Port-au-Prince slum known as Cité Soleil in 2002. This city is an extremely impoverished and densely populated commune located adjacent to Haiti’s capital. Cité Soleil originally developed as a shanty town and grew to an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 residents, the majority of whom live in extreme poverty. The area has virtually no sewers and has a poorly maintained open canal system that serves as its sewage system.

“This is not common, but does occur… Among the poorest of the poor,” Jim states. “I have traveled to Haiti 28 times since 1999 and witnessed its strong upper class and growing middle class, but also its poor and very poor. Geophagia is as much indicative of Haiti as a homeless man with severe dementia on the streets of New York and is not meant in any way to represent ‘normal.’ It is just incredibly tragic and we must all acknowledge that the poor of the earth are our sisters and brothers and commit ourselves to assisting them in whatever ways we can.”

According to Wikipedia, “Geophagia is nearly universal around the world in tribal and traditional rural societies (although apparently it has not been documented in Japan or Korea).”

Editor’s Note: Although we are committed to ‘connecting goodness’ and highlighting the positive, on occasion we run pieces that portray the underbelly of human existence, from the extremely unfortunate (hunger, homelessness, etc.) to pure evil (authoritarian governments, racism, etc).

See more on geophagia on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagia.

See United Nations photo essay on geophagia in Haiti here.

See also: A Tour of Cité de Soleil on the Edge of Port-au-Prince.

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The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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