Christine Das features in One Day in Port-au-Prince, a multimedia documentary.
PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - Christine Das couldn't recall the philosopher’s name but she remembered the quotation: “Education raises a man to the dignity of his being.” She continued in her own words: “If there is no education, if you don’t go to school to learn, you are nothing in this life.”
Christine, 14, was reflecting on her desire to go back to class after the Jan. 12 earthquake that destroyed her apartment, forcing her family to seek shelter in a camp by Port-au-Prince’s international airport.
In fact, the man she was quoting was Alexandre Petion, one of Haiti’s founding fathers and an early believer in universal education. If such allusions seem precocious for a 14-year-old girl, they are typical of the thoughtful, well-read Christine.
It’s been almost a year since the quake brought Christine and her mother, brother and sister to this muddy sprawl of tents by a garbage-choked canal, where planes roar overhead and cars and trucks zoom close by.
In that time, only half of children living in camps have returned to school.
The disaster left almost 5,000 of Haiti’s primary and secondary schools in ruins – including 80 percent of schools in the capital. The result was that a million children were suddenly out of education. Many schools have since reopened, but only those who can afford fees, uniforms and textbooks get to return.
Christine is one of the lucky ones. On the day she showed us around her camp, she was proudly wearing her black and white uniform, ready to begin the new term. Her hair was tied up with light blue ribbons.
“I can’t wait to go back to school because I love school very much.”
She explained how she had kept up her learning in the months since the quake, reading whatever she could get her hands on by mooonlight or torch. She showed us where she would sit on a stool in front of her tent, screening out the hip-hop bass lines pounding from a speaker near the camp’s entrance.
“When I grow up, I’d like to be a great doctor, a great gynecologist, and to run my own private hospital,” she said. “I’ll have compassion for the people.”
Christine got out one of her notebooks filled with elegant cursive handwriting and page after page of anatomical diagrams.
“I do a lot of research, like who invented what,” she said. “I write – like now when I’m doing research, I write in a notebook or I draw skeletons. I write down body parts and I describe them. I write French expressions.”
Her memories of Jan. 12, 2010 are vivid and sad.
“We were standing in the middle of the street: myself, my mum and my younger sister,” she said. “We were holding each other. We were in a circle, screaming: ‘Jesus, save us, save us.’
“The place where I stayed was destroyed. Our stuff was destroyed; our things, everything was destroyed… Our other relatives, like my grandfather and my sister’s dad, they died.”
After a week of sleeping on the street, they came to the Mayi Gate camp. In the absence of desks and blackboards, Christine’s mother was keen to give her kids a sense of routine.
“When I wake up, I wash the dishes,” Christine said. “If we have food, I cook. I write. My sister plays with her doll. My mum plays cards with us. Sometimes we go to church for rehearsals…and when we come back, we go to bed and sleep.”
She showed us the inside of her tent. It was spic and span, with comfortable-looking bedding and clothes neatly arranged in a plastic hamper.
“Sometimes my mum punishes me,” Christine said with a smile. “She punishes me for notdoing my lessons, my homework. Sometimes my mum is sad too. Sometimes there is a tragedy that takes place. When we go out, if I see an accident, that makes me sad.
“What makes me happy is to see my younger sister laughing, playing, when we make jokes and we laugh together. And when we’re in class, we make jokes and laugh. Sometimes I’m reading a book with nice stories and I laugh. When my mum is happy too, that makes me happy.”
If you'd like to send a message to Christine, please leave a comment below. We will happily translate and deliver it.