I recently returned to the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, from a three-day trip to the South East of Haiti, which included six hours of hiking and 10 hours on the road. The reason for this trip to Port Salut was to inaugurate the last of 15 schools, concluding an endeavor that started in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
Fortunately, we had left Port-au-Prince on a Sunday, as the next day demonstrations (against the high gas prices) made it impossible to leave the capital. On Monday morning, after a breakfast of wonderful mangoes and strong coffee, my four colleagues and I started the ascent to Mont Sinai, crossing the river four times on our way.
We were following in the footsteps of those local construction workers who had carried the building materials to the top, from cement blocks to iron bars everything had to be brought up.
Temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius didn’t facilitate the task.
These 15 schools are a tangible illustration of equity in action. The location of the new buildings, chosen in collaboration with the Haitian Ministry of Education, manifests UNICEF’s ambition to make children’s right to education a reality for every single child in Haiti. For some of the children, it will be the first time that they will attend school, for others the new schools mean that they must no longer walk for hours to reach their classroom.
(Funnily the local communities see it as normal that children as small as five years old walk for hours uphill, but they have trouble imagining that someone from outside can do the same. My Haitian teammates told me afterwards with a big smile that the villagers who saw us leaving had bets running, convinced that I would never make it to the top…)
The schools are a step towards addressing the challenge of access to basic social services in rural Haiti, which includes building back better after the 2010 earthquake. But it goes far beyond. In terms of reconstruction, UNICEF worked in three waves to get children back into school. Thousands of tents distributed during the days and weeks that followed the disaster allowed us to restart an education system that had stopped. To make this sustainable 196 semi-permanent schools were eventually (re)built in the regions most affected by the disaster.
Finally, moving beyond access to setting standards for quality, the opening of 15 schools with permanent, anti-seismic and anti-cyclonic structure in remote areas in the North and South now allows over 5,000 children to learn in a safe environment. And the schools are more than safe. In the words of Paul, a 7-year -old student at Mont Sinai: “I am proud of my new school. Everything is clean, and solid. We now even have banks and tables.”
Wherever I’ve been so far, the local communities are convinced of the necessity of education. And indeed, building these schools wouldn’t have been possible without the commitment of the villagers who contributed their time, land and advice. As of today, the primary school of Mont Sinai has 325 students, who, before, were learning in a dispersed manner in the homes of individuals or under trees. “It’s a relief that all children are now together in one location,” one of the teachers told me on inauguration day. Previously he had to visit three different places during one day to teach all of his students.
The school in Mont Sinai is earthquake and cyclone certified, has six classrooms, an office for teachers and space for a school canteen. It has ramps to ensure easy access for students and teachers with disabilities; as well as a system for water harvesting, hand-washing stations and separate toilets for girls and boys. It is likely to become the new community center as if provides clean water and – thanks to a solar panel, has electricity at night.
Still, so much remains to be done, including the gap of health services. It takes 3 hours to reach Mont Sinai from Port Salut, and 3 hours from Mont Sinai to access the closest health center. Hardly a feasible journey for a sick child or a pregnant woman… “Every day we can hear the RaRa around here (RaRa are the traditional music bands that are playing at special occasions), usually this means that someone has died,” explained Jean, our young guide.
I am now back in the capital, once again reminded of the luxury of electricity and running water. And once again, I am amazed by the strength and smiles of those families who take the little they have to make sure their children have the best possible start in life.
Cornelia Walther is the Chief of Communication at UNICEF Haiti.