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Natural & Unnatural Disasters in Haiti by: Katia D. Ulysse

Enough is enough. Haiti has been dealt another crushing blow; and most people have yet to recover from 2010’s devastating 7.0 earthquake. Hurricane Matthew pounded our side of the island, leaving hopelessness in its wake. The death toll, now one thousand, continues to soar. We cannot take much more.

The country has not seen a storm this monstrous since Hurricane Hazel, in 1954. The category 4 monster brought treacherous winds, debris, and swollen rivers that rushed past with a fury. Bridges collapsed, ripping families apart, leaving husbands stranded on one side and wives on the other. The flood stripped away layers of what remained of our thin-thin topsoil, taking with it delicate saplings, crops, and faith.

Danger, that loathsome insomniac, is relentless in its courtship of Haiti. Recently, the UN issued an apology for inadvertently bringing cholera to Haiti, killing 9,000. The hurricane will exacerbate conditions. Homelessness and disease will be widespread. Again.

Friends inquire about the well-being of family members, using an all-too familiar question: Has everyone in our family been accounted for?

Sadly, we are used this. We have seen our homes slide like lard down mountains. Year after unforgiving year, we lose loved ones to blood-thirsty floods. We have felt the earth shift under our feet, pulling us under. We are accustomed to disaster.

But our children deserve to live with a modicum of expectation that tomorrow will bring something good. Safety from harm is a birthright. We owe our sons and daughters that much, even if Nature continues to outsmart us.

Deadly earthquakes and hurricanes are beyond our control, but there is another dangerous threat courting Haiti. This one is man-made and affects millions of people daily—for generations. This unnatural disaster is called illiteracy.

It is hardly coincidental that, for generations, only the elite and that sliver of the middle class learn to read, write, and speak languages the masses do not understand. While millions of dollars circulate like dust in a hurricane, economically-challenged Haitian parents have to choose between feeding their children and sending them to school. And when there is enough money for tuition, students are taught in a language which they cannot use at home or in their neighborhoods with friends.

MIT Professor of linguistics, Michel Ann Frederick DeGraff, understands this unnatural disaster and has spearheaded a movement to educate Haiti’s children in their primary language. Bringing Kreyòl into the classroom helps students to succeed. A good education will give future generations of Haitians the tools necessary—not just to survive—but to thrive.

Haiti needs a new narrative, writes anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse. We need a narrative of children succeeding in and beyond the classroom. We need stories that portray our people finding ways to thrive in the midst of natural and unnatural disasters.

As the death toll from Hurricane Matthew rises, orphanages may once again run out of beds. When bridges collapse, the focus is on rebuilding them. Rebuilding Haiti and educating our children are not mutually exclusive. Natural disasters cannot be avoided, but we can prevent further intellectual erosion by making education accessible to children of all social classes. Closing the chasm that keeps millions illiterate is crucial. Bridges may collapse, but education is durable. Educated children will surprise us with their ingenuity. They will design and build even stronger bridges and means by which everyone can be better prepared for Danger’s next date with our island home.

The sequel to Fabiola Can Count, Fabiola Goes to School, tells the story of a stay-with child whose dream comes true. Fabiola is a fictional character. She is very fortunate. But her story does not have to be the stuff of books. Every child must have a chance at receiving an education; it’s a birthright.

While we work to rebuild the damages caused by Hurricane Matthew and the massive earthquake, let us remember that education needs to be more than a footnote in some lengthy report—written in a language the masses do not fully understand.

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