Back to basics

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Despite the devastation wrought by January's earthquake, nothing can stop the Haitians' determination to resume their education, reports Adi Bloom. Photographs by Richard Hanson

They are wearing school uniform again in Haiti. In the relentlessly brown, dust-filled landscape, small patches of colour are appearing. Boys in shockingly azure shirts cluster together in small groups; girls with scarlet ribbons in their hair scrabble and skip down the dirt pathway. Eventually, they reach their destination: a shelter of heavy plastic sheeting, stretched across a handful of wooden stakes.

In Leogane, at the epicentre of January's earthquake, 120 children cram into two makeshift classrooms, half a plastic sheet acting as a partition wall. Under the midday sun, they cook slowly in a plastic-covered oven; when it rains, water pours through.

But they are learning. Assisted by a puppet called Fanny, the teacher tells the story of a girl who contracted malaria. Here is how to stop this happening, she tells them; then they sing a song about remembering to wash their hands.

Anywhere else this would be the feel-good story of a nation rebuilding itself in the aftermath of disaster. But Haiti is not like anywhere else.

"Even before the earthquake, Haiti was in an extremely bad state," says historian Alex von Tunzelmann, whose book Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean will be published next year. "It was dilapidated and environmentally devastated: there was unemployment, crime and corruption. The situation isn't one of simple reconstruction. It's nation-building from the absolute start."

From 1957-86, Haiti suffered under the sadistic, kleptocratic rule of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"). This was followed by several coups, and governments of varying degrees of repressiveness. In 2004, UN peacekeeping troops were brought in to stabilise the country, but some slum areas were judged too dangerous for them to enter. Four-fifths of the country lives below the poverty line.

"The national highway is riddled with potholes," says Ms von Tunzelmann. "The country's infrastructure is in a terrible state. Education is valued by many Haitians, and historically the culture is strongly literary. But it's the actual, logistical challenge of making it possible for any of these kids to have an education that is the question."

Patrick McCormick, of the charity Unicef, agrees. He has worked in Haiti and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, which suffered a similarly devastating earthquake in 2005. "You can't compare the two," he says. "In Pakistan, they had a lot of resources to draw on, as well as infrastructure and a history of dealing with natural disasters on a grand scale. In Haiti, more people are drinking clean water than before the quake."

Such has been the devastation in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, that there is now talk of abandoning the entire city - a modern-day Pompeii, stagnating in its own unviability - and building it elsewhere, away from the fault-line it straddles. "This is a city where buildings collapsed, even without an earthquake," says Mr McCormick. "Some schools collapsed because they'd been badly built."

Anne McCulloch, a Scottish educational psychologist, has visited several schools since the earthquake, their footprints now traced out in debris. "There was just rubble with the odd desk poking through," she says. "Some had rolled down the side of hills. Communities were thankful the earthquake didn't happen while pupils were at school."

Even where schools do still exist, there are other complications. The vast majority of Haitians are Catholic, and posters promoting sexual abstinence plaster any walls still standing after the quake. It is not uncommon for families to have eight or nine children. Parents earn an average of $1 (66 pence) a day; at $12 (#163;7.90) a term, school fees are all but prohibitive, even for families with one child. Certainly, few families can afford to educate more than one. (Few can even afford to raise them: one in 10 Haitian children is sold into slavery; the buyers are supposed to provide an education, but rarely do.)

"I saw a mother with five children living in one room in a slum," says Ms von Tunzelmann. "She could send one child to school, and had to choose which one. It's a pretty common situation there. That's a huge amount of pressure to put on one kid: not just to achieve, but to become the breadwinner for the whole family."

Before the earthquake, fewer than half of all Haitian children went to school - a statistic that effectively condemns the entire country to poverty. But even attendance does not guarantee an education. Visiting a school in Port-au-Prince last year, Ms von Tunzelmann saw shelves stacked only with books donated by US evangelical organisations. Primarily proselytising texts, they remained inside their plastic wrappers: the books were in English; Haitian children speak Creole or French.

"This was a reasonable school, by Haitian standards," she says. "But they were working in basic conditions. Desks and chairs, that was all. When I talked to an English teacher, we had to speak through a translator. I'm not sure that represents a good education."

Nonetheless, within a month of the earthquake, Haitians were clamouring to see their schools rebuilt. In Leogane, Ms McCulloch told one community there was no land clear enough to erect even the most basic of makeshift schools. Within a single day, the entire village had joined together and cleared the necessary space. On the day the school opened, children happily donned their new uniforms, the girls plaiting brightly coloured ribbons into their hair. "People really value education," she says. "The fact that their children were not in school was a big issue for them."

This emphasis on education is an economic imperative. There are few jobs in Haiti: two-thirds of the labour force does not have full-time work. Instead, educated Haitians leave: a fifth of the country's pre-earthquake income came from expatriates, mostly in the United States and Haiti's neighbour, the Dominican Republic.

The Leogane pupils in their plastic-sheet school, alternately drenched with sweat or rain, are the beneficiaries of this legacy. But, like children anywhere, their inheritance comes with a twist.

In the sea of blue shirts, one girl's red dress stands out. This was the uniform in her previous school, in Port-au-Prince. Her parents were killed in the earthquake and she has now moved to Leogane to live with her grandparents. She is not alone. Across the country, rural villages are witnessing the return of destitute children.

As Fanny the puppet addresses the class, one small boy hovers in the doorway, neither in nor outside the makeshift shelter. He had been trapped under rubble after the earthquake and is now afraid to step indoors - even if indoors is nothing more than a loosely hung plastic sheet - in case it happens again.

Ms McCulloch, working with the Christian charity Tearfund, has provided training for 600 teachers, to help them deal with classes of traumatised pupils. "We tell teachers it's OK if children are upset," she says. "It's OK to express things. Don't tell children they shouldn't cry or shouldn't talk about it. But also, you shouldn't force anyone to talk about what's happened."

The lessons the earthquake survivors learn - how to avoid diarrhoea and malaria, how to cope with trauma - might ensure they reach adulthood. What happens beyond that is anyone's guess.

"Haiti has suffered from years of chronic mismanagement, corruption," says Mr McCormick. "But it's never going to have so much attention and resources and expertise again. This is an opportunity, and there's not going to be another. Maybe this is the time."

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