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Nathalie Handal: Haiti

January 13, 2012

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In the first piece in our Writers Bloc project, our collection of essays about education systems around the world, writer Nathalie Handal visits Haiti a year after its devastating earthquake.

By **Nathalie Handal**

Haiti-Handal-1.jpgPhotograph courtesy of Writer’s Bloc.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. Still tired, he makes his way to the bucket of water outside to wash his face and brush his teeth. He dresses—white socks, blue pants, white shirt, used black shoes that are splitting and barely fit him. He eats—usually a piece of bread with a little butter. He puts his bag on his back and starts to walk, mountain after mountain, up and down, up and down, for three hours. His name is Frantzo. He comes from the Haitian village of Jeantengué and he is headed to Fondwa between the towns of Jacmel and Léogâne. Asked why he makes the trip, he says, I walk three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon so I can learn. My parents never had the opportunity to go to school. He is sixteen years old. His school is called Collège Fraternité de St. Antoine. A six-hour walk every day without adequate shoes, to learn. This is what some children in Haiti do to get an education.

Since January 12, 2010, Haiti has been an open wound. The shattering 7.0m earthquake, followed by more than 50 aftershocks, ravaged the already impoverished island, leaving an estimated 3 million people affected. Over 200,000 died, 300,000 were injured, and more than 1.5 million were displaced or homeless. This natural disaster was followed by an outbreak of cholera, which has killed over 4,000 people.

It is February 21, 2011, and I am en route to Port-au-Prince from Herrera International Airport in Santo Domingo. I take Tortug Air, a shuttle flight that makes this circuit twice a day. While I anxiously wait to board, I look at the other passengers, most of whom are foreigners—French, Canadians, Germans, Americans—working for non-governmental organizations. Once I am seated, I recall one of the most recent news images I had seen about Haiti: the return to the nation of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The former dictator fled in 1986 to France. His father François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc,” had become president in 1957 and was infamous for corruption and human rights abuses. It has been 25 years since I too was in Haiti, and had not returned except for two brief entrances. I was a young girl then, seemingly exempt from the turmoil that led to the overthrow of Baby Doc and the chaotic aftermath of his regime. Remembering my youth in Haiti brought up images of hopscotch in school courtyards, of school uniforms, of eating mangoes and drinking fresco (ice with flavored syrup). What do children do today in the courtyards of their schools? A year after the earthquake how many children even have a school to go to? A study by the Inter-American Development Bank reported that before the earthquake nearly half the school-age children did not go to school, only one-fifth of teachers had any pedagogical training, three-quarters of schools were unaccredited, and more than half lacked running water. The earthquake destroyed 5,213 schools (4,820 in the West, 154 in Nippes, and 239 in the South-East).

As the plane descends toward Port-au-Prince, the nature of the terrain changes—it is dryer, less green. Haitians habitually cut down trees for fuel and burn them or turn them into charcoal. Haiti’s natural forests are almost completely destroyed, making it one of the most deforested countries in the world. The flight from Santa Domingo is less than one hour but the difference in realities are astounding. Education is an important factor in saving Haiti.

There is something strange about landing in a place that you once knew, a place that remains familiar in many ways yet is a stranger now in ways you don’t expect. As we disembark the plane, the sky is deep blue and the sun sweet. I feel the warmth of the ground beneath my feet even if I am not barefoot. This might not be as bad as I think, I tell myself. But then I see the airport sign: AEROPORT IN ERNATIONAL TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE. The T missing from International. And a sudden rush of heat followed by a wave of anxiety, as if someone had seized my breath for a long moment. From a distance, the terminal looks the same as it did during the Baby Doc regime, a time I associate with the tension of not knowing what was to happen next—every second as if a bomb were about to drop. Even as a girl playing hopscotch, I felt that anxiety. Now as I arrive in Port-au-Prince, I recognize that terrorizing feeling no longer exists inside of me. What I feel is a real desire to see what my too young eyes couldn’t.

[T]he parents still have to pay something small… because in Haiti the national mentality holds that if you don’t pay for something it has no value.

I am on my way to Pétion-Ville to meet Mael Fouchard of Editions Henri Deschamps, which publishes a large majority of the books used in Haitian schools. They are accredited by the Ministère de l’Education Nationale et de la Formation Professionnelle (MENFP) in pedagogical formation. They also have about twenty-eight delegates who are the ears on the ground—they regularly speak with school directors in order to access needs and evaluate the best ways to help. The traffic is never-ending. The roads are either not asphalted or damaged, making it difficult for my driver Solon and me to circulate. Solon tells me that it can take more than an hour to get there.

I start to pass scenes that will become common tableaus during this trip, as I travel to different schools. I see people in crowded marketplaces selling similar items—fruits and vegetables, chicletes, matches, oil, shoes, clothes, batteries, and schools items. A schoolboy stops at a chany, or shoe-shiner, on the street. He sits, facing a Cola Couronne sign on the wall, his school bag still on, one foot on the used shoe-shine box, the shoe-shiner using liquid shiner diluted in a plastic water bottle. I later find out that men and boys stop to get their shoes shined a few times a day because of the dust. It’s important for them to have clean shoes, especially if they are heading to work. Everywhere I look, I see fallen buildings or houses, roads where the earth opened, and trash piled up like small dunes. Yet beyond the rubble is also the beauty of the landscape—the mountain in the distance, the palm and flamboyant trees. And everywhere are children walking to school. What do these images teach them: poverty and despair, or, perhaps, perseverance and strength?

I finally arrive to Editions Henri Deschamps, where Mael gives me an extensive list of existing schools after the earthquake. Approximately eighty percent of the schools in Haiti are private; this includes the religious or church-run schools; and twenty percent national or public. Of the public schools some are congreganiste public schools—this is particular to Haiti, where priests and nuns of the Catholic Church run these public schools. The constitution states that schools are free from first to sixth grade but the government doesn’t have the funds to comply. The access to education for all children who have not yet gone to school is a priority. Parallel to that, access to all schools and improving the quality of education and infrastructure must be addressed.

All the schools that have national in their title are public schools. The rest are private. It is important to note that many private schools are funded by international money. Also, family members depend largely on the Diaspora’s money to pay for their children’s education—the school fees are still too high for parents. Unlike many developing countries, there is an equal amount of girls and boys who attend school, and some of the best schools are all-girls. The number of accomplished teachers has progressively decreased since the 1960s when a large number of Haitian teachers, for political reasons, left for Canada and Africa (mainly the Congo). That marks an important moment in the decline of education in Haiti. Over the last ten years, a great number of teachers have left for Quebec. Canada continues to be lenient with visas for Haitian teachers. Many believe that an intensive program of teacher training is essential as well as the revaluation of the teaching profession.

Before I leave Mael explains the new educational system in Haiti: Ecole Fondamentale corresponds to first to ninth grade (within the Ecole Fondamentale are three cycles—1ère (first to fourth grade), 2ème (fifth and sixth grade), and 3ème (seven to ninth grade) cycle. Then students pass a state exam to get a diploma of studies. Le Nouveau Secondaire includes la 3ème, 2ème/la second, 1ère/Rheto, Terminal/Philo (this corresponds to high school). Creole is taught until the ninth year. The social demand is French, and although more children are bilingual, the level of French has decreased. (She also explains that there are many details to consider when speaking of education and the formation of teachers. For example, Editions Henri Deschamps worked on a very basic book where students had to recognize an image and say its name. Among the images, they included, stairs and a key. Easy. Well, not exactly. The majority of the teachers, coming mostly from disfavored areas, could not recognize the images. They have never seen stairs or the new model keys.)

In the evening, I check into to a bed and breakfast in Pétion-Ville where I stay for the week. In the morning, I head to École Plein Soleil in Delmas 95, in Pètion-Ville, founded by Michel Vaillaud, which has been in existence since 1982 and has a good reputation. Initially, it was a school for boys of the streets; eventually became co-ed. We drive through a dusty unpaved road to reach it. When I arrive, directly in front of me, a car honks. It is Vaillaud himself. He gets out of the car, greets me, and asks me to wait for him as he looks for a generator, the most reliable source of electricity. As I stand by the school gate with the director, a shy boy leans on the wall nervously waiting to be let in. When Vaillaud joins us, he opens the gate. As we walk inside, he tells the boy, “you know the rule—if you are late, you’re not allowed in.” He explains to me that they cannot make any exceptions for tardiness: otherwise soon, five, ten, and then twenty students will be late. The school has been successful for two reasons, Vaillaud says. The first is its discipline. The second is that the classes have students of the same age group, which is often not the case in Haitian schools. In schools with mixed ages, the older students are more rambunctious, bothering the younger ones, and fostering an unproductive atmosphere.

The students who attend this school are from the area and their parents don’t have much money. However, the parents still have to pay something small (250 gourdes for the first cycle, 350 gourdes for the second, and 700 gourdes for the third cycle for the whole year, books and meals included), because in Haiti the national mentality holds that if you don’t pay for something it has no value. The school is supported by grants. Vaillaud also buys works from Haitian artisans and sells them to France. This money helps support the school.

Outside of the director’s office mothers wait on benches with their children, seeking to enroll their sons and daughters. A girl of about 4 years old with piercing black eyes looks at me, I greet her, take her picture, but she never gives me more than a half-smile. When I enter the office, a boy is being interviewed by a staff member to assess his level in French. Vaillaud tells me that most students arrive speaking only Creole but within a few months are speaking French. The classrooms are spacious, clean, and light-filled, the students disciplined. I feel some joy in these classrooms, which I didn’t feel in the waiting room. The younger children are reading a book called Bonjour, created just for their needs by Editions Henri Deschamps.

Some classes are held outside due to lack of space, but the school will move into a much bigger building down the street thanks to donations from European backers. Vaillaud took me to the construction site, where the building going up promises to be a haven for the poor children in this area.

I leave feeling hopeful, intrigued to visit another school—one of the best schools in the city, Institution Sainte Rose de Lima. I am taken aback by the beauty of Sainte Rose—a 1891 landmark building made of brick and metal, painted in green, yellow, and terracotta. Perched atop the building is of one of two public clocks working in Port-au-Prince. I also notice the damage to some of the school’s buildings. I meet Sister Anne Marie Boisette and almost immediately understand why she is loved and admired by students, family and faculty alike at this Catholic school. Her enthusiasm and vibrant energy are contagious. The school, founded in 1864, educates girls from all over the city. At one time, most of the students were of Haiti’s higher class, but today that elite has transferred to the Lycée Français, which is much more expensive. Now the girls attending are mostly of middle class families.

I ask one of [the students] what he wants to be when he grows up. “A mountain climber,” he replies. Intrigued by his answer, I asked him why. He says, “So I can find God.”

All her students have passed their state diploma and baccalaureate. “Their will to learn is fortified since they are prepared for both the French and the Haitian baccalaureate,” Sister Anne Marie tells me. They even still study Latin. She tells me the story of the school driver, who has been working at Sainte Rose for thirty years and who has two daughters who attended the school for free. He feels comfortable being a parent of children at the school; his goal was to make sure his daughters got the best education. Today they both have two diplomas. One daughter lives in Switzerland, the other in Canada. Both improved their economic status, Sister Anne Marie explains, and “that’s what education can do.” All the girls who graduate here go to university either in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, France, or the United States according to their means or whether they receive financial aid.

She attributes the school’s good reputation to the teachers, who connect humanly with their students and are well paid, which encourages their pride and personal investment in the school. The instructors go through teacher training and are continuously given pedagogical training. The school is well equipped, with a lab, library, movie theater, and stage. It even has a website, maintained by Sister Anne Marie’s nephew who lives in Germany.

When I ask about the earthquake, Sister Anne Marie tells me they suffered some damage, in the chapel and other locations, which they are still trying to repair. Thankfully, the school is big enough so the damage has not stopped them from functioning. They have helped other schools by giving them some place in their property but the earthquake left them devastated financially so she had to look for funds to keep the school going. In the year since the earthquake, Sister Anne Marie was able to solicit about 40 scholarships, mostly from Germany, to help the students whose parents lost their homes or jobs. But she says firmly, “I don’t want that to last too long. I don’t want to give them the mentality of assistance. I just want to lend a hand in a time of need.”

The atmosphere at Sainte Rose is far more congenial than what I experience at the next school I visit, École National de Soisson, in Tabarre (the road to Tabarre is also known as the Aristide Road, because Haiti’s controversial priest-president had it built during his regime). École National de Soisson is one of the poorest schools I visit. The director whom I am supposed to meet is not there; he is away tending to an emergency toothache. I walk alone through the dusty, un-kept school, past some of the open classrooms, the students are far more belligerent than any I have met elsewhere; most did not want their pictures taken. Neither did most of the teachers. The school is almost barren, its classrooms featuring little more than desks, chairs, and blackboards—all in bad condition. The students themselves are also not as well kept and do not seem to be paying attention to the teacher. In one of the classes, I don’t even discern that the teacher is there. It is not until I ask the students to direct me to their teacher that she greets me. École National de Soisson hardly has a playground, and does not have a kitchen; its food is cooked outside in steel pans placed on bricks, above charcoal fires. I notice signs for UNICEF, which is evidently helping out.

The École National République des États-Unis, which was built in 1950 during the tenure of Haitian president Paul Eugène Magloire was also destroyed in the earthquake. The school is another example of struggle and persistence. Rose Thérèse Magalie, the director of the school, proudly tells me that she was able to reopen three months after the earthquake, despite the total collapse of the school—they use makeshift classrooms now. It was one of the rare schools to reopen so soon. The École National République des États-Unis has 1300 students now, far more than before the earthquake, and divides its pupils into morning, afternoon, and early evening sessions. The school’s thirty teachers, whose salary is between 6000 and 8000 gourdes, Magalie explains, do not have the training they need, but are desperate to learn and eager to work. Of the school administrators I met, she is the only one to mention the psychological effects of the earthquake on the teachers—most have lost everything. In this school, neither students nor teachers have received any form of psychological counseling.

The physical facilities are practically nonexistent. The school has sixteen rooms with benches and tables for students but only six tables and chairs for teachers to share. The teachers have nowhere to store the students’ papers and cannot take work home because they often live far away and use crowded public transportation. The director also highly emphasizes the need for better sanitation at her school. The single latrine, painted light yellow, is in a small cement room in the back of the school. I saw a few children outside of it washing their hands in a blue plastic barrel that was not clean. As I walk through the school, the children scramble to pose for photos, and soon enough there is a huge crowd, energetic and lively. When I get to the smaller children who are playing in a small playground with two swings and one small slide, all of them want their portrait taken and are excited when I show it to them afterwards. On my way out, I visit the cantina where they eat—usually rice and beans. I ask one of them what he wants to be when he grows up. “A mountain climber,” he replies. Intrigued by his answer, I asked him why. He says, “So I can find God.”

In the evening I meet a friend, the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat, at the Karibe Hotel (the former location of Union School, the best American school in the city before it moved elsewhere). The tall lush trees and splendid garden form a striking contrast with the reality of the devastated streets. The view of the mountain is magnificient, but if you peer closer, you see the small tin houses that populate much of it. Edwidge and I just happened to be in Haiti at the same time. She is accompanying a delegation of women who are visiting a woman’s clinic in Cité Soleil. The organization is called We Advance, Nap Avanse, and was started by the Haitian singer and activist Barbara Guillaume and the American actress Maria Bello. It is Carnival weekend. Edwidge is also celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the publication of her travel book, After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. This reminds of how persistent the Haitian people are. How music stirs their spirits, takes them back to what is most essential: creating. It reminds me of the Haitian writer Yannick Lahens, whom I visited in Place Boyer—now a homeless camp—who continues to create haunting narratives and teach in disfavored areas. Reminds me of the theatrical and well-known writer and painter Frankeitienne, a mythic figure in Haiti and a child of the ghetto, who continues to capture the madness and triumph of his country. Haitians aren’t defined by poverty. Their soul speaks the language of drums. As I depart, I take with me the persistent refrain of Haitians, Bon Dieu Bon—God is good. Haiti has always been unpredictable. What I know for now, as I look at the drawing a student gave to me of a flag planted on top of a pile of books, is that its young people ache to learn, and only education can liberate them. Stuck to the drawing, is a receipt written in cursive listing the items I bought as gifts that day at the pastry shop—one rum cake, one fruit cake, one croissant, one pate, one chocolate tart. At the top, like a title, also in cursive, is the date—February 24, 2011. And at the bottom of the page, the word cash. The receipt reads like a poem, like Haiti, where every detail creates a world.

________________________________________________________________________

Nathalie Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, and recipient of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature 2011. Her latest book, Love and Strange Horses, was an Honorable Mention at the San Francisco Book Festival and the New England Book Festival. Her new collection, Poet in Andalucía, is forthcoming.

  We Are All Going to Die: One year after the earthquake that devastated her native Haiti, the novelist on rebuilding the island, art in a time of trouble, and inhabiting bodies. More
 
  The Harmonizer: Kwame Dawes on Haiti’s continuing struggles and Jamaica’s AIDS crisis and his new role as editor of Prairie Schooner. More
     
  Rebecca Solnit: Covering Haiti: When the Media Is the Disaster: The media in disaster bifurcates. Some step out of their usual “objective” roles, while others assault the survivors all over again. More
 
  The Burden of Aid: Big donors like the U.S. and the U.N. have invested in Haiti, the most corrupt country in the Western hemisphere. But have they helped? More

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4 comments for Nathalie Handal: Haiti

  1. Comment by Myriam Handal on January 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Amazing piece of work! Congratulations Nat , once again you seem to amaze me. Continue the good work.

    We love you,

    MIMI

  2. Comment by Pradeep on January 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Good read. The classroom in the picture reminds me of schools in the remote villages of India. They may lack the glitter and sophistication of modern schools in urban centres. But the village schools with their antique and pockmarked furniture and numerous scribblings have a charm of their own, much like the generations-old teak wood furniture in one’s ancestral home. It gives one a sense of belongingness and rootedness. I’ve heard older people in our place narrate how they walked 5 or 10 miles to school. They say it with such pride. And they learnt and did things they would never have in city school, such as the one I went to. Honestly, I have marvelled at their wisdom, resilience and maturity. Not to say, their experiences: plucking berries, scouring the woods, and climbing trees on their way to school. The best possible intervention for children in the so-called ‘deprived’ and ‘underdeveloped’ communities is to facilitate a safe environment — infrastructurally (by constructing quake-proof buildings), socially and politically. Then, leave them to learn in their native environment, even if it means having to walk 3 or 4 kilometres.

  3. Comment by Maryse Dorfeuille on January 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Hi Nat,

    Iam floored at this article and telling the true story about Haitians school system. This situations continue to break my heart deeply. This was awesome work! Thank you for telling the truth..I am forever grateful to know you.

    Maryse

  4. Comment by Lorraine Adams on January 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    This piece explains in the most recognizable human terms what too often seems impossible to grasp — how, in the aftermath of the earthquake can a child learn in Haiti? Nathalie Handal’s straightforward humility — here i am, here is what I saw — communicates so much more than the usual huggermugger of most literary non-fiction, which too often seems to me to serve the ego of the writer.

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