PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — While Haiti’s education ministry was being demolished by a bulldozer Friday, the country’s children were wondering when they might see the inside of a classroom again.
Corpses were still being pulled from the mountain of concrete that, until recently, was the building that Haiti’s school system was run from.
Employees were struggling to salvage scraps of paper and documents from the piles of debris being pulled away by a forklift.
It was a similar scene several blocks away at the country’s revenue ministry – the demolished department that used to collect the tax dollars that pay for things like schools.
The Haitian government says half the country’s schools and all its biggest universities are gone.
Each collapsed building is another grim reminder of the challenge at hand: barely half the country can read, and simply restoring the education system to its already lacklustre state will be a historic feat.
The first step will simply be getting classrooms open again. Some will open in existing buildings after they pass engineering inspections, and other temporary ones will inevitably have to be set up outdoors.
Other than that, everything remains unknown.
“The president is talking about (reopening schools in) March. But, honestly, we don’t have any details,” said one functionary at the education ministry.
“Almost all our schools – the big schools around here – are totally destroyed.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
For an idea of the state of Haiti’s education system, one need only compare its results with those of the country next door.
The literacy rate in Haiti is 53 per cent. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island, it’s 87 per cent.
The country next door, which has enjoyed far greater prosperity and political stability, spends almost three times more on education as a share of its Gross Domestic Product.
For now, the least fortunate Haitian children are wandering the streets begging for food and water.
Others are whiling away their days in the tarp-and-bedsheet homeless shelters that have sprouted up in every public square across southern Haiti.
The most fortunate ones, those who still have homes, are spending their days there with parents and grandparents.
Delson Sonsone, a fifth-grader, spent one day this week flying a kite in the backyard of his empty school in Jacmel.
His school sustained damage, but is still standing.
The only activity there that day was when Canadian Navy members arrived to tend to more immediate concerns: installing a water-purification unit in the front yard.
Sonsone wants to be a social-science teacher some day.
When asked when he thinks he’ll get to go to school again, he answered, shyly, “I don’t know.”
His schoolmate, Altidor Bardedte, wants to be a lawyer.
The 13-year-old girl in the pink dress, with little sunflower clips in her hair, smiled when asked to describe her favourite subject: math.
But she gave a blank stare when asked when she’d go to school again.
“I don’t know. I want to,” she said.
It was a similar story at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince on Friday.
It’s the same orphanage that offered a joyous welcome when Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean visited just a year ago.
On Friday, the orphans were playing cards and singing by their newest home: the temporary tents erected outside their cracked and battered building.
Classes have been suspended until further notice.
But one teenager was taking her education into her own hands.
Judith Innocent explained that she wants to be a nurse, and she was reading a little handbook on health science.
The page she was reading, the one on dealing with injured bones, might have come in handy. A younger girl with a broken leg in a cast ran to her, crying, after she stubbed her foot.
Innocent calmed her down, then led the younger children as they sang in the yard behind the building.
When a group of them were asked whether they’d rather be in school they answered, in unison, “Yes!” One offered a puzzled grimace, wondering why such a silly question would be asked in the first place.
Gahens Alcius is a university student who lost six of his friends when his university in Port-au-Prince completely collapsed.
Now the 23-year-old has gone back to the family home in Jacmel.
He was supposed to graduate next year. Now, he has no idea.
Alcius does offer one rather radical solution for rebuilding his country: foreign invasion.
“Do you think the American president and your Governor General could please come and occupy the country?” he asks a Canadian visitor.
“The Haitian government has nothing. . . When the Haitian government gets help from outside, the money goes to their friends, ” he said.
“Do you think it could happen that the president or Governor General could come and take over?”
When told his preferred scenario is highly unlikely, he appears dejected.
At this point, while his government is busy bulldozing buildings and burying bodies, he’s looking farther ahead to a very uncertain future.
“For the moment, nobody knows anything,” Alcius said.
“After how many months, after how many years, will schools open? Haitians would like to know.”