A while back, I was talking to a bright young Haitian teen who was preparing for his final exams so that he could graduate from high school. I asked him how his studying was going, and he assured me that it would be no problem for him, but he admitted that some students would struggle. Next he said casually, as if it was no big deal, that the teachers don’t expect every student to graduate.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he responded. “If a student is struggling, sometimes they’ll just tell them that’s okay. Not everyone can graduate.” He explained that they’ll say that if everyone were to graduate this could cause a breakdown in society. “Who would clean your shoes?” they would ask. “Who would be a pote?” (A pote is a person who is hired to carry groceries and other miscellaneous items for people.)
I sat there in disbelief. Were they actually telling kids who were struggling at school just to give up? I asked him what he thought about this and to my dismay he said that it made sense to him.
My first reaction was how could he buy into this? However, upon further reflection I began to think about how all of us tend to accept stories and values that have been instilled in us by our society. I thought about things I used to take for granted that now appear highly questionable or perhaps even foolish. Sadly, from the time that they are born, many young Haitians are conditioned to believe that there are wealthy, privileged people who will lead society and pass their power onto their children, and there are poor, uneducated people whose children should serve the needs of the wealthy.
This class system goes all the way back to the colonization of Haiti when there were two clear classes of people, slaves and slaveowners. In time, a third class of freed slaves developed. These were often lighter skinned people of mixed European and African descent, and they were called “milats” deriving from the Spanish word “mulatto” referring to a person of mixed ancestry.
While slavery was abolished in Haiti after the revolution of 1804, the class system remained and very clearly exists to this day. Present day Haiti is controlled by a handful of wealthy families who monopolize Haiti’s most profitable businesses. They are mostly milats, and they are known as the boujwa (from the French word “bourgeois.”) Most of them are in the private sector (sektè prive), but they actively use their money to purchase the loyalty of Haiti’s government officials.
For generations, the boujwa have been working to preserve Haiti’s class system so that they can retain their wealth and power. Most of them live in the upper neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince such as Petionville where you will find the best roads, nicest restaurants, and the most stable infrastructure of anywhere in Haiti. They live in large houses with hired servants, and most of them send their kids to college in the United States or Europe.
Meanwhile the lower class known as pòv (poor) includes the vast majority of Haitians who live in ghettos on the very edge of survival. They struggle to afford a decent home, keep food on the table, and scrape together enough money for their children’s school. Imagine the frustration of Haitian parents who work hard to send their kids to school only to discover that the teachers are telling their kids that they aren’t smart enough to graduate.
From the time they are young, Haiti’s poor children are conditioned to believe that they are less valuable than the children of the boujwa living just up the mountainside in Petionville. They might not say it out loud or admit it, but this lie can so easily burrow deep down inside of them and affect them in ways they may not even fully understand. This is the insidious lie of the class system that has been perpetuated by Haiti’s wealthy elite, and sadly it has often been unintentionally perpetuated by foreign missionaries and NGO’s.
Exposing this lie is at the very heart of our work in Haiti. At the RISING Resource Center, young Haitians gather together each day to study, learn, and hang out. This space is run by Haitian students for Haitian students, all of whom come from poverty. Through the community that is created in this space, students have the opportunity to encourage and inspire one another so that they can claim their own worthiness. It’s only when they see themselves as worthy that they can realize their full potential.
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