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Time for School - In Haiti

A sister in her blue habit and veil rings her big brass hand bell and students move to line up.  Children in beautifully clean and pressed school uniforms hurry to get in line for Soeur Myriam.  Without a word, just a few nods and looks, the principal, Sr. Myriam has their attention.  The children file into their classrooms, calmly and respectfully.  Sr. Myriam leads them with a quiet word and the occasional stern look, sometimes followed by an affectionate kiss on the cheek. 

It’s a typical March day in Haiti; warm, sunny, and humid, the children walk along dirt roads and paths to get to school.  A mission trip has brought me here, to experience firsthand an education that is often taken for granted in the U.S.  Here in Haiti, very little is taken for granted.  Despite being a tropical paradise redolent with plants, flowers and natural beauty in many places, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world, the poorest in the western hemisphere.  

Deforestation, due to dependence on charcoal for fuel, has left many communities with dry, dusty, and rocky terrain, and diminished opportunity to farm.  Many of the families of area school children live in huts or shelters, sometimes little more than tarps and sheets of metal, scattered down dusty paths.  Few of these have running water, rarely do they have electricity.  However, the community in the area of Leogane has a wider range of poverty and wealth than most of nearby Port Au Prince.  Nineteen kilometers west of Port Au Prince, the capital of Haiti, Leogane is near the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, and despite the eight years that have passed, recovery progresses very slowly.  Fortunately, some people have access to village wells for a clean water source.  School children in Haiti often wear uniforms that have been washed in a bin near the dusty paths they travel to school.  Without electricity, the neatly pressed uniforms may be pressed by hand irons heated with coal.  The pride in the people is evident in the careful grooming of the school children, despite their often-impoverished surroundings.  The children who are able to attend school are the fortunate ones.

According to the United Nations Development Programme and the Haiti country profile from the Library of Congress Federal Research Division, the Haitian Educational System has the lowest rate of education in the Western Hemisphere.   Haiti's literacy rate of about 61% is below the 90% average literacy rate for other neighboring Caribbean countries.  Further, the gender inequity of 64.3% literacy for males and 57.3% for females is also a concerning fact.   Shortages of teachers has exacerbated the problem, as did the 2010 earthquake which displaced between 60-90% of the students in the country, depending on whether their setting was rural or urban.  International private schools mainly run by Canada, France or the United States, together with the religious affiliated schools educate 90% of students.  Only about 80% (statistics vary by source) of children are able to attend even a few grades of primary school.  Often, due to cost and other factors, students may be near 20 before completing grade school.  Additionally, only about 20% of the population is able to attend secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the U.S.).  Despite these daunting country statistics, the schools we visited in Leogane are defying the odds, due to the careful use of resources, and the partnership between the Sisters of the Companions of Jesus and Mission Haiti, Inc.

While 80% of the country lives in dire poverty, a typical day at a school in Leogane, Haiti doesn’t look that dissimilar to a day in many U.S. schools.  Children, run and play outside, and then sit quietly at their desks to learn. Unfortunately, at many Haitian schools, the teachers may only have attended six years of school and may only have advanced one year ahead of those they teach.  Here however, at the Leogane mission schools, teacher training and certification, a critical goal, has been achieved due to the partnership with MHI.  That is not the case in all schools. Often children are taught by rote memory and repetition.  The teaching methods, combined with chronic malnutrition, can make it difficult for students to fully develop critical thinking skills.  But despite that, the enormous pride and joy that the students have about being in the schools we visited is evident.

At lunchtime, a shy little girl named "Edliene" approaches us and we speak in my limited and halting French and her broken English.  Edliene likes school.  She has seven brothers and sisters and enjoys her days at school.  She poses for a few pictures and wants to see cell phone pictures of the U.S.  She especially loves the photos of snow, le neige, and wants to see pictures of ma famille, my family.  Many students here are sponsored by people or organizations, often from the U.S., so that they can stay in school.  Edliene is happy to be here.

Lunchtime at this school is a happy social time.  The children, fortunate to receive a hot lunch here, go to the outside kitchen and line up to receive their tin plate of beans and rice, riz cole ak pwa, and a pouch of purified water.  Following the earthquake, UN workers from Nepal introduced cholera to the country of Haiti, further exacerbating the country's misery.  Residents must now rely on purified water to prevent contamination.  Children are happy to eat their lunch; there are no choices or snack lines, and just like in many U.S. schools, after lunch, the girls group together to play and laugh, and the boys run off to play soccer.  This school is prosperous compared to most.  The sisters work hard to use limited resources as effectively as possible.  However, the mission schools the sisters also now run, on the outskirts of Port Au Prince in one of the most impoverished areas in the world, are not so fortunate.  Lacking books, school supplies, and having little or no electricity makes every day a challenge.

Driving down the dirt roads and rocky paths near these schools, you see piles of refuse in every vacant area.  Polluted water trickles through trash, and pieces of metal, held down by a cinderblock, form a roof for a place to live that is often scarcely larger than a couple of refrigerator boxes.  There are no visible wells.  Women sit near the side of the road with wash bins, dirt coating everything.  In the schools in these areas, there is no lunch served, there is no electricity, there are almost no books or supplies.  The children are much smaller and very reserved.  Many have not seen les blancs (the whites-as they refer to us) before.  Yet they stand to greet us in English and sing a welcome song in French.  Despite the heartbreaking conditions of their communities, these children are still among the fortunate ones, unlike many on the streets, they are in school, at least for now.  And the sisters, along with MIH are working hard to make continual improvements and find necessary resources for these schools. 

Imagine what these children could do if they had a lunch every day?  Imagine if they had books to read?  Just a minimal amount of money makes a huge difference.  It costs only about $400. per year for a grade school education, but the average annual household income in Haiti is also only about $400. The schools in the poorest area of Port Au Prince operate on about $4,000.00 for the whole school for a year.  Many of the teachers are unpaid at times.  Yet improvements are happening.  There is now a gate to keep neighborhood violence and shooting out of the school yard.  The sisters work hard to utilize every donation, every connection, to employ Haitian men and women, and provide safety and education for the children they serve.  With so little, they do so much.

While I felt daunted and saddened by the small amount of difference my presence could make in a country with needs that are so great, I was reminded, by a friend, of the story of the starfish.  As a boy walks the beach and throws starfish back into the ocean, a man comes along and tells him there are so many, he can’t make a difference.  The boy holds one up before tossing it back in and tells him, I will make a difference to that one.  While I may not have made a real difference to Haiti, being in Haiti made a real difference to me.   The strength and compassion of the Sisters of the Companions of Jesus are helping to make a difference in Haiti every day.  And as a sign on the wall of our guesthouse read, "A strong person is not the one who doesn’t cry.  A strong person is the one who cries for a moment, then gets up and fights again."

Mission Haiti Inc. and the Congregation/Sisters of St. Joseph, the mission group I was privileged to be a part of, are making a difference, one life at a time.  They support students, care for elderly women, run a trade school, and teach sustainable farming.  They seek to empower and assist the Haitian people, not provide charity.  Sisters from the U.S. and Canadian Federations of the CSJ and CSSJ adopted a proposal, Rebuilding Haiti through the Empowerment of Girls, and they seek to ensure educational opportunities for all.  Any donation to Mission Haiti will make a difference in someone’s life, and every life touched is a life saved. 


Haiti Country Profile, Library of Congress Federal Research Division

United Nations Development Programme

United States Agency for International Development.