Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Education as an Idol

Haitians worship education. More specifically, the kind that involves classes, books, note taking, preferably with testing and diplomas of course. Imagine the importance of owning a house to the average American family and one may begin to understand the importance of education here.

Sadly, we commit the same sins: we buy more of it than we need; we pay more for it than it is worth; and often, it has a poor rate of return.

For example, a young man, between 23 and 30, had a job as accounting clerk. But then he was told of a chance to enroll in a Bible school program for free. The allure of yet another diploma or certificate was too strong to resist. He quit his job and enrolled in the program. Shortly afterwards, he had to leave the program, but he had already given up his job and has been without one ever since.

Stories like these are not unique or even rare: we Haitians believe in education more than anything else, except real property maybe.  Here, a country with a 60-70% unemployment rate, people walk away from jobs in the name of education. Here, families go without food, using their money instead to pay tuition and uniforms and books, in the name of education. Here, a father leaves his wife and their small children--with her encouragement and blessing--to go abroad for years, in the name of education. Here, parents turn their 15-year-old daughter over to 40-year-old men, in the name of education. (The 40-year old pays for the daughter’s schooling, and she in turns pays with her body--and her life.)

This is insanity. And the problem is compounded each time a national politician or an international figure mindlessly repeats simplistic slogans: “education is the foundation of society”; “education is the foundation of life.”  Maybe. But what if education meant more than school and diplomas? What if honest work really counted? What if actual skills or real experiences mattered more? What if nuclear families were foundational? What about honest common sense?

Such considerations are ignored.  In matters of education, sacrifices are not just accepted: they are promoted.

Forget voodoo: in Haiti, education is our god, our idol, our drug. And the results are just as destructive. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gore and Governance

The news these last couple of weeks have been dominated by the affaire Belizaire: the police met the first-term deputy Arnel Belizaire (the equivalent of a US congressman) at the Port-au-Prince airport upon his return from a trip, and led him to prison. The deputy was released the next day, even though the prosecution explained that he was wanted for having escaped from prison while serving an 18-month sentence circa 2003-2005.

His peers in both houses of the Parliament (deputies and senators), the press, well-known attorneys, average Haitians, have all been outraged at the arrest because the Haitian constitution forbids the arrest of active members of Parliament. The explosion of their anger has been deafening.

Respectable citizens, Christians, professors, attorneys, business owners, PhDs, have all had a same reaction: the violation of legislative immunity by the Executive branch must be stopped. One senator, in a rhetorical volée, proudly declared that a legislator, even if he was accused of killing 100 people, cannot be arrested unless his colleagues officially strip his immunity.

Worse still, the reaction has tended to absolve Deputy Belizaire: to the extent that he was guilty of crimes, he did nothing wrong by running for office, because it was up to the justice system to stop him. The system allowed him to run and win, and therefore he does not need to answer for past alleged crimes.

So in all of this noise, very few voices have asked the following questions: what did the deputy do? What crimes is he accused of? Did he in fact commit them or any other?

According to police records, he has been arrested multiple times for carrying unregistered firearms, driving stolen cars, murder, and kidnapping. Murder and kidnapping.

One can only imagine a US congressman who is discovered to have a long "rap sheet" of serious crimes. The pressure would be on him, on his party, on his allies. But in Haiti, much less so.

This reaction, I think, has at least two explanations.

First, people offered so much support to the deputy because he was arrested after a very ugly altercation with the president, who apparently behaved in a way horrifying to civilized people. There is every reason to believe that the president personally ordered that the deputy be arrested. Given the history of dictatorships in this country, such an order would indeed raise concerns.

But the second cause is less noble: we as a society have grown accustomed to having doers of bad acts, authors of serious crimes, serve in high places. Even from my much removed perspective, I have heard of a few Parliamentarians who have likely committed murder, rape, drug trafficking. Would kidnappings be out of range? How about domestic violence?

Illegalities are not the only concern. There is also the matter of our morality and character. A former presidential candidate was reputed to have fathered half dozen children or more, with as many women, out of wedlock. During the ceaseless radio conversations about him, scant mention was made of his personal life: as if the immorality of if did not matter.

Also, we have just elected a president who continually flaunts his crudeness and rudeness, displaying them as badges of honor in front of a suffering and non-discriminating mass.

Politicians are not the only loose actors. Pastors too have been accused of serious wrong doing, including fraud, with silence from their peers. And at least one Catholic leader has encouraged the president to govern the country as his former Sweet Mickey self--a character whose speech was laced with obscenities and who apparently pranced on stage wearing only pink underwear.

God, forgive us: in many ways, the morals of Sweet Mickey reflect what many of us would never do, but somehow find acceptable in others. Some twisted perversion of "to each his own" or "among friends all is permissible."

So I write against vulgar presidents and criminals in parliament, against religious leaders who lie and peers who stay quiet: please stop. Let’s dispense with the gore so this country can experience true governance. Haitians must be encouraged to dream, to have visions, to work, in respect of laws, decency, dignity and civility. You’re in the way.