“Education is a weapon” – this is a saying that rings true, but in more ways than you would think. In Haiti, education is often seen as a weapon against poverty, against misery – a road out of the slums or the mountains. But education is a weapon that can be turned against the poor too: the few that actually beat the odds and make it to graduation can be told that they are better than the people they’ve left behind, that they should get out and leave their neighborhoods while they can, that they shouldn’t ever have to work with their hands again. This can leave behind rifts and divisions in neighborhoods, and even families – this narrative is so ingrained that many high school graduates who want to go home to the ghettos or the mountains to help their communities are rejected by their families. We have a friend whose parents told him, ‘we didn’t sacrifice everything so you would come here and live like us – we sacrificed everything so you would escape’. They kicked him out of the house.
The question isn’t how education can help the educated – that much is clear. The question is how can education lift up families, neighborhoods, communities, and – dare we say it – a country like Haiti. It isn’t clear yet.
So when the graduating class – known as the Philosophe class – at the Lycee Nationale de Cite Soleil called Robi in to ask him advice, he was brutally honest with them. He told them that while getting to graduation was an amazing achievement, the road ahead would be rocky. And that they needed to find a way to move forward without kicking their communities to the curb – to use their education to bridge divides in the neighborhood, not deepen them. After a lot of brainstorming, the group came up with an idea: the 28th of January is the annual Fete des Philosophes, a time many graduating classes take to celebrate their achievements and success with a big party. They would break with tradition, and instead of a loud celebration, make the theme of the day an important question: ki sa ki yon filozof vre? What does it mean to be a graduating student?
They asked that question with their actions this morning: at 7 am, the entire graduating class was out in the street, dressed in their neatly ironed, spotless school uniforms. They lined up outside of the school, as student leaders distributed shovels, buckets, rakes, and brooms. And without a word, the students got to work cleaning the canals and streets around the high school. Teachers, students, community leaders, random passersby – everyone got in the spirit, working side by side, getting their clothes dirty, getting the streets clean.
At 8 am, the national celebrity Met Fey Vet showed up – Robi had told him about the students’ ideas and invited him to come. This was the statement that the young people wanted to make: they were graduating, they had big dreams, but they weren’t too good for their neighborhoods. They could still get their hands dirty, and knew that books couldn’t fix everyone’s problems. And that even national heroes like Met Fey Vet could see that and respect that – and even join in. The work continued under the hot sun until about 11am, when everyone went inside of the Lycee, exhausted, dirty, and happy.
They went into the auditorium, where Met Fet Vet gave a speech about what he felt it meant to be a graduating student, how they now had more responsibility to be stewards of their environment, their culture, and their communities. He spoke about Kita Nago, and the untapped potential in the Haitian people, what they could accomplish when they put aside the complexes that tie up this country and work together – like they had this morning. And he congratulated them.
Then Robi spoke – less than 10 years ago, he was sitting exactly where they were, as a graduating student of the Lycee de Cite Soleil. But he said if he learned one thing since he left this school, it was this: intelligence isn’t the ability to read. He’d met rich, educated people who were ignorant, and he’d met poor, illiterate people who were geniuses – he shared the story of Fenek, a peasant in the Artibonite that we’d met who never learned how to read, but who knew more about trees than any agronomist graduating from college. He said intelligence was how you took what you knew and used it to make a change for the better, that they owed it to their families and neighbors who protected them and allowed them to get here – and that they also owed it to themselves to celebrate a little.
Then local musician Gueldy Rene took the stage to perform for the young people, and a modest celebration began from there.
Robi left with Met Fey Vet, visited the local hospital, and then went on to take care of some other activities he had on the other side of Cite Soleil. It was then that he heard the volley of bullets.
The territory war between Lower and Upper Cite Soleil was raging – there was a drive-by motorcycle shooting the day before, and it was time for retaliation. Even Soleyans – who are used to these almost daily outbreaks of violence – were shaken up by today’s street battle. Bagay yo pa te jwet, a friend told Robi – it wasn’t a game today, it was real. A young student from Cite Soleil who goes to school in Tabarre was on his way home and was hit by a stray bullet – while it wasn’t fatal, it was a reminder to the Philosophe students about how fortunate they were to have just survived long enough to be graduating. Many people – armed and innocent – were shot this afternoon, as the Lycee students cowered inside of the school compound, their party cut short by the reality they had been talking about overcoming.
Robi was crushed when he heard the extent of the damage tonight – he wouldn’t blame these young people if they ran away as fast as they could after getting their diplomas, and never look back. He couldn’t ask them to stay when nothing was sacred, and nowhere was safe. Education may be a weapon – but it was no match for the semi-automatic weapons in Cite Soleil. Even the symbolic gesture of solidarity this morning felt ridiculous to Robi – brooms and shovels couldn’t clean up the blood on the streets. He remembered what education was to most Haitians – not a weapon to stay and fight with, but a ticket to get the hell out.