My father was killed in Haiti in 1990 shortly before work began on our shared dream to restore basic dignities to people living in squalor. After he died, the dream haunted me, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Honestly I still don’t, but I’m following the inspiration: “Do what’s possible and what’s impossible becomes possible”, and a very complicated problem is looking less complex. I lit my candle and kept going and I’m certain there’s a light at the end of the tunnel because there always is. There’s always a crack somewhere, a way in and a way out.
The campaign is called Tatu’s Legacy in honor of a child who walked 150 kilometers to find someone and ask him to send her back to school. Motivated children like Tatu, given the chance, have and will bring the inspiration they get at school into their homes and help their parents, grandparents, siblings and community members grow as well.
Public education in Haiti isn’t free. There is a registration fee which amounts to about $120.00 a year and a monthly fee of about $30.00. As of today, August 28, 2016, that’s $25,250 Haitian gourde and most families have from 2 to 5 children. I was told last week while I was in Haiti that $25,000 gourde is a good yearly salary, that’s what teachers make and teachers make more then most.
In September 2004 Tatu of Gonaïves, Haiti, was 12. Gonaïves is a victim of topography. It suffers severe floods, but that’s not what killed young Tatu. She survived the 2004 floods while more than 2,500 people died, many of them her friends and family members.
For children like Tatu, who live in the countryside, floods are not the only challenge. Most people live in homes that are no more than cement boxes, with no running water and no sanitation. Disease from contaminated food and water is common.
Their best chances out of a vicious cycle of squalor are school or being taken in by a relative in the city as a restavek. Literally translated, restavek means “stay with me”, and it is a way of life for one in fifteen children in Haiti. Born into poor rural families, children are given to family members as restaveks not because their parents don’t love them, but because they’re desperate. They can’t afford to care for their children and they hope that their child’s new family will send them to school or give them a better life, or both. In some cases children are given to strangers to become restaveks, where their chances of advancement are usually less favorable. In their new homes children work in exchange for a semblance of room and board that is generally better than what they got at home.
When the floods came again in 2008, Tatu walked 150 kilometers, from Gonaïves to Port-au-Prince. Perhaps she wanted to be a restavek. All she knew was that she wanted to get out. She was looking someone she trusted, someone who visited Gonaïves every year, passed out school supplies and enrolled children in school and she found him.
When she arrived at his home, she was so frightened that it was a month before she spoke to him and even then she spoke very little. He asked her questions about her family and what was going on and got no response. He gave her shelter, food and space, and waited.
Nearly two months after Tatu arrived, when the wreckage had been cleared and over 500 people buried or cremated, he took her back to Gonaïves. It was then that she spoke. She said, “Everything is gone and I’m not going to school.” Tatu had been too frightened to express what she wanted – a chance at a better life, an education in the city. He was not in a position to care for her permanently and he felt she should be with her community and her younger brothers and sisters, who needed her. He returned her to her family and provided her with education, food and clothing until the day she died, three years later.
Perhaps Tatu contracted a disease related to flooding. We’ll never know. Tatu didn’t tell anyone she was ill and no one noticed. There’s a superstition in the countryside of Haiti that if you go to a doctor or to the hospital you will die. This is in some respects true, because people wait so long to seek medical attention that it’s usually too late by the time they do.
Children should not have to fight so hard to survive. No one should.
Gen yon beswin prese prese pou nou pran e nou fet pou nou pran ti pa ti pa. There is an immediate need to fill and we have to take things step by step.
I want to give children the opportunity to do more than read. I want to give them the basic vocational skills they need to thrive as well as survive, we want them to know what it’s like to dream of being astronauts, a privilege they have never been exposed to.
I want to educate children and adults academically and practically. Illiteracy and lack of information and education affect 80 percent of Haiti’s population. In the countryside, this number is nearly 95 percent. Effective ecological methods for farming, building, and sanitation are not known.
I want people to be proud, inspired and encouraged in their own environment. I want children to know that their only chance at a better life isn’t to walk 150 kilometers to the city. In fact children and adults who make the trek to the city do not generally fare better than they do in the countryside and in most cases the conditions are far worse. For children in the city, the situation is disastrous, as they often end up working long hours for little to nothing, or prostituting, or both.
I want to foster an appreciation of Haitian culture, especially in regards to the cultural knowledge that is disappearing. Traditionally, history was passed verbally by storytelling and through dance and song. I want to revive that tradition. I envision a place where community can gather to express themselves through music, dance, visual art, science, agriculture and craft.
I can’t do it alone. Please join me.