My mother, like most immigrants to the United States decades ago, worked in a factory doing a menial job. As a teenager, I sometimes visited her at Luxury Braids, a garment factory that made embroideries for clothes, shoes and other items. I remember the place humming with loud fans and the dust from the sisal flowing through the air. Most of the workers wore masks and gloves along the assembly line.
Each visit, I couldn’t wait to get out of the dank and dusty place to breathe some fresh air.
“If you don’t go to school, this is where you’ll end up,” my mom would often tell me, as a motivator to excel in school.
I don’t know if she intended to scare me straight, but she didn’t need to. The message was loud and clear coming from the fans and the dust. Besides, not excelling in school was not an option for my family. She was belaboring the point.
I’m sure most of my friends heard the same memo of parents extolling the virtue of a good education. For us Haitians, it’s a ticket out of poverty into the middle class, as it is for billions of people in the world.
Today in Haiti, however, mothers have no such opportunity to push their children. Kids growing up in a country that, except for the years when United Nations forces were there, has not had a complete school calendar year since 1986.
This year, the government announced that the first day of school would be in September, dismissing questions about how that would happen given the country’s crises. September came and school opening was postponed to Oct. 3. This week, school doors remain shuttered. When they will reopen, no one knows.
Earlier this month, The Haitian Times published a series of articles depicting a dysfunctional school system and a population struggling to afford school supplies and the costs associated with sending children to schools, even if they were to be opened.
With the current government unable to control the violence unleashed by criminal gangs who are waging a war against society, it means that mediocre education and by extension – a country void of leaders – is destined to remain mired in poverty and chaos.
It begs the question: How can a country move forward with a miseducated populace where schooling is not a priority for the state? The educational system in Haiti, like every other institution, has been backsliding for generations as people migrate out of the country. The few highly educated cadres of young people have little opportunity in Haiti so they leave in search of a better life anywhere else.
Most elites and upper middle-class residents send their children to schools abroad. Since 2018, boarding schools in Europe and the United States have become the norm. So future enterprise managers and government functionaries are being educated abroad, ignorant of the challenges people living in Haiti face. They have no idea how to begin, and so nothing is done to alleviate poverty.
But it wasn’t always that way. Schools in Haiti were once the envy of the Caribbean. Foreign diplomats sent their children to Haiti’s lycées, or public schools, for their superior curriculum and quality teaching, eschewing the international schools. These lycée-educated generations of prominent Haitian leaders are now scattered across the world, making contributions while our country continues its turbo charged backsliding.
Former president Michel Martelly apparently used education as another get-rich scheme, imposing a $1.50 tax on every money transfer, without parliament’s approval, ostensibly to fund education. Before he left office in February 2016, he built a handful of schools, if any. Of all the sufferings inflicted upon a vulnerable population, and there have been many, this one is the most egregious. To this day, no one can say what that money has been earmarked for or spent on since it certainly has not been on school or education spending.
Martelly allegedly used some of that money to purchase a beach house and other luxury goods. A Haitian American law firm has since filed a legal case against the Martelly regime and the successive governments.
As that case makes its way through the United States court system, schools in Haiti meanwhile remain decrepit — with no computers, electricity and learning materials that are part of school systems in the world. Teachers are low-paid and payment is disbursed irregularly. In Haiti, learning materials are only available to a handful of elite students, who make up less than half a percent of the school-age population.
As we ponder Haiti’s future, the next government needs to make education its first, second and third priority. No matter what economic development route we want to embark upon as a nation, we will need not only managers and leaders, but also skilled workers to build things. Importing those workers is not an option, they must be homegrown.
Edwidge Danticat, the writer, told me a story that when she attended Barnard College, the Haitian students there used to congregate and discuss life in Haiti and in New York. There was one young lady who thought she was above everyone else, because she came from a prominent family. But like my mother, who also came from a prominent family, everyone worked low-waged jobs. The young lady’s mother did as well.
In the words of Danticat, ‘In Haiti, we all had maids. In the United States, we are the maids.’