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One Day in Port-au-Prince: The Textbook Seller

One Day in Port-au-Prince: The Textbook Seller

Marie-Carmelle features in One Day in Port-au-Prince, a multimedia documentary.

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - There’s a sad irony in Marie-Carmelle Sainton’s story. She provides for her family by selling school textbooks but can’t afford to send her own six kids to school.

At a street stall in downtown Port-au-Prince, on the edges of the central market, she was carefully spreading out her stock for display: French primers, mathematics books, Creole dictionaries.

A man was lying behind her in the shade of a twisted building, shouting drunken obscenities. She hollered at him to be quiet.

“I’d like my children to get further than me,” Marie-Carmelle said, laying out history, geography and science books. She is 38 and her eldest child is old enough to be in 11th grade , approaching the end of high school.

“I’d like the country to change. I'd like them to create colleges where poor children can go. Personally, I can't stand to think of my children doing what I do. I can take the dust. I can be humiliated and I can go through all kinds of disappointments. But my children shouldn’t do this.

“That's my dream. That's why when I come here in the morning, I sweep the garbage; I remove the dust. I go through all kinds of disappointments that life has to offer. But I still know that God can change our leaders' minds. God can inspire them to create possibilities to help the country, so we can live well, so my children don't have to come here tomorrow.”

Marie-Carmelle was lucky that her house wasn’t destroyed by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. But her stall was pulverised by a toppled building, along with all the stock she kept locked in a metal box.

“The way I managed is with a good friend...who loaned me some money, with interest, just so I could go out again,” she said. “The only thing is that now I live on borrowed money. The interest is a bit hard, because you borrow it and you have to pay it back almost every day.”

Marie-Carmelle is not the only textbook seller in this part of the market. Her street is where you buy school supplies: pencil cases, notebooks, protractors and knapsacks.

It was the day before a new school term but there were hardly any shoppers. “Since this morning, you’d think you’d see people coming in and out,” she said. “But people need to have money.”

Even before the quake, half of primary school-aged children were not in school because their parents simply couldn’t afford it. And almost 40 percent of Haitians aged 15 or over are illiterate, compared with about 11 percent across the border in Dominican Republic.

There are plans to build up the education system. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates the cost of overhauling the system from preschool to university at about $4.2 billion over five years. That kind of money could build at least 625 new primary schools and train
50,000 new teachers.

The government spends about 1.5 percent of gross domestic product on education each year, compared with a Latin American average of around 4 percent. It does intend to gradually increase that to 4 percent of GDP.

For booksellers like Marie-Carmelle, all that is too little, too late.

“The government should take responsibility for education, because education is first after God. There is only one door, and if a parent doesn’t put his child in school, that means he doesn’t do anything for you.”