Haitian President Michel Joseph Martelly emphasized the importance of learning to a crowd of faculty, students, and other attendees at Howard University on Feb. 5, saying that “education frees us of ignorance and servitude.”
Martelly and his wife, Sophia Martelly, visited Howard’s School of Business to talk about education and the positive changes Haiti has experienced following a catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Martelly made education one of the four top priorities of his platform when he ran for president in 2010. Early in his term, Martelly proposed a revolutionary program aimed at providing free and mandatory education to primary school-aged Haitian children.
“Two years and eight months after taking office, I am proud to report that nearly 1.3 million primary school-aged children have been enrolled in school as part of my government education program,” Martelly said to the crowd.
According to the president, nearly 4,000 schools in Haiti were damaged by the earthquake. But under his presidency, “329 classrooms have been built, many of them equipped with computers and Internet access. In addition, we have rehabilitated 125 schools and other facilities.” Also, a fleet of buses have been purchased to provide free transportation to students.
Leticia Lamour, 22 and a nursing student at Howard University, was eager to hear what Martelly had to say.
“I go there quite often, so I see for my own eyes that the images of Haiti are changing,” Lamour said. “I like that he wanted to have a partnership with Howard, which I think is a great idea for Haiti, being the first Black capital of the free world. I am leaving with a little more of an understanding on the president’s plan for the country, and I appreciated the candidness that came from him.”
Martelly said he found it unacceptable and shameful that millions of Haitian children were not going to school because their parents could not afford the school fees.
“In Haiti, education is highly valued in Haitian culture,” said Martelly. “Some people consider having a college degree more important than having many material possessions.”
Martelly said that, until recently, poor parents in Haiti regularly skipped meals in order to pay for their children’s education, and typically spend 40 percent of their meager income on school expenses.
Martelly acknowledged that the country still has a long way to go, and said he has not taken his eyes off of the needs of older children and young adults.
“We have built several new public high schools and are strengthening the curriculum, and adding more teachers training programs.”
A number of vocational training programs have also been introduced to the country. The president said that his government is working hard to give the country’s college graduates a reason to stay in Haiti after they complete their study, and to give Haitian students abroad a reason to return back to Haiti.
Despite a mostly receptive crowd, some still had criticism for the president. Jean Ford Figaro, 35, is a medical doctor who flew from Boston to hear Martelly speak, and said he has yet to see how the president is helping Haitians. Figaro was born in Haiti, but moved to the United States to study medicine.
“I can’t say what he is trying to do on education in Haiti is really working,” Figaro said. “I do recognize that he is trying to make it a priority but, until today, no result for the students and also for the country.”
Martelly concluded by recognizing Haiti’s enduring relationship with Howard University. Howard students, faculty and alumni were among the first to respond to the earthquake by organizing relief programs and medical aid. Howard also has an annual Alternative Spring Break Program and an International Medical Rotation in Croix-des-Bouquets and Fort-Liberté, Haiti.
Martelly said he was very interested in partnering with Howard administrators to create student exchange programs between universities in Haiti and the D.C. institution. He encouraged the audience to visit Haiti to experience the economic renaissance taking place in the first free Black nation.
“Come and be part of the new and better Haiti that we’re building,” Martelly said.