From my room above the rectory I can hear children arriving at the school. It’s 7am. I’m up and ready for some strong Haitian coffee, waiting for us in the dining room. From the balcony outside my bedroom door, I see two boys in green uniforms emerge from their home, what appears to be a one-room cement box with a corrugated tin roof beneath the broad leaves of a banana tree.
Over the next hour, 1100 children stream to the school from the streets of Hinche, the younger ones in tow behind a parent. This school is considered one of the best, of not the best, and some students have even left their families in the countryside to come here. About half the students’ families pay a meager tuition, allowing others to attend for free. Those from the country come with what little money and food their families can provide, which is often not enough to get them through to the next visit home.
Upon entering the courtyard, the students go directly to one of 17 classrooms until the 8:00 assembly. At the appointed time, they file out of their classrooms and gather in their cohorts, filling the courtyard and sides of the buildings – preschool and elementary in green shorts and jumpers, junior high in blue pants or skirts with white pin-striped shirts, and the “terminales,” senior high students in their own more sophisticated navy solids. The girls have their hair braided and knotted with color-coordinated bows and baubles. We observers stand in a corner under the eaves, looking overly casual and somewhat unkempt in comparison. We are grateful for shade from the relentless Haitian sun.
Speaking on a portable PA system in his neat beige suit, Pere Noé greets the students and encourages them to work hard, work competently (that was about the extent of my French comprehension). They all sing a song and raise the school flag. Then they file quietly back to their classrooms, in a hiatus of calm before the chaos ensues. Suddenly the Kindergarten 1 children are crying, the elementary children are singing, the older children are reciting, teachers and students are shouting…just to hear each other over the chatter of the other classes. By now, I’m standing in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by the cacophony, feeling a bit like a helpless guard in a rioting cellblock.
This morning our plan is to visit the classrooms to get a feel for the learning environment—painfully evident before we have even begun. However, the lively din is just the surface of the true reality of life here: Our tour delves beneath the clamor and the tidy uniforms and smiles and lace socks and laughter and hair ribbons and tiny backpacks, revealing layers of discomfort and distress. There are no textbooks to speak of. Wires hang where light bulbs should be, or perhaps once were. The only light is what can shine through the door and slots in the walls. Kim, a nurse, detects signs of malnutrition and disease. Some of the smaller children are listless or cry inconsolably.
Four to five students squeeze together on wooden bench-style desks, amounting to some 36-80 students packed tightly together. The rooms have a doorway but no door, and slots in the concrete above the heads of the students provide a means of ventilation—except in the 10th grade classroom where a building next door blocks one wall of slots. Despite this attempt at aeration, we are all swimming in the same humid soup.
In the afternoon we visit an English class for the 10th grade. The teacher asks us to perform a dialogue he writes on the blackboard so that the students can hear native speaker language. Then he invites them to ask us questions. “Why are you here?” (To help develop the English language program.) “How can I come to the US?” (Study hard and get a scholarship.) “Will you help me?” (If you are a very good student, I will help you.) “What religion are you?” (Buddhist.) “Why did you come to an Episcopalian school?” (Because we are all one.)
A serious young man raises his hand. “What is the meaning of ravooonos.” I don’t understand his question. I ask him to repeat. But I’m at a loss. We ask him to spell it, and the teacher writes it on the board: r-a-v-e-n-… “Ravenous,” I say. He nods his head. “You know,” I reply. “It means very, very hungry.”
Today was school for the kids. We were introduced, and we got to sit in to some of the classes. It was really interesting watching the English class, teaching foreign kids words we already knew so well. “She is a girl. She is a her.” Then he would have the class repeat. It was actually pretty similar to an American class. I think one kid even got it wrong on purpose, just to make people laugh – and we all have at least one kid in our class that does that.
So then Mom and I went to help out with the little kids. They were about three years old and more than half of them were crying their eyes out. They hardly had any toys, and were basically just sitting around. So I brought out Mom’s iPad and set it to the “photo” application, so the kids could see their reflections and play around with that. Before long, however, they figured out that if you touch the screen, things will happen. Within seconds they were messing around with the iPad, banging and rubbing the screen. I raised it over my head so they couldn’t reach and pulled out a piano app, which they totally loved. Then I decided to put it away before they broke it in two. I went and grabbed my flute, then came back and began to play. I attracted a crowd of seven or eight kids at the height of my career, before they all got bored and went away. Anyway, I started playing “When the Saints go Marching In,” and the teachers began to sing along in Creole, which was cool. When that was over, I played other songs, but soon the kids were pressing various buttons on my flute while I was trying to play. Then I would kind of glare at them in a playful way and say, “What are you doing?” in sort of a strange voice. Of course, that made them crack up. It became a game, but they began hitting my flute pretty hard, so I stood up where they couldn’t reach. After a while I could sit back down again, and this one little boy sat on my lap and stayed there for an hour. Whenever I would stop playing to think of which song to do next, he would turn around and press the flute back onto my lips. “Keep playing!” But in about half an hour he started to get restless, so even though he wanted to stay and listen, he started doing all sorts of parkour stunts on my knees like a little swagmaster. He was my favorite.
It was pretty cool, too, because no one in the classroom spoke English, so I could basically say whatever I wanted to the kids. “You – you’re my favorite. You’re cool. You – You are a little stink.”
They were also playing around with my hair a lot. All of the girls had their hair up, with no bangs, so they kept grabbing mine and trying to put them up on the top of my head, like it was supposed to be. It was pretty cute.
Also. I caught the gecko. It was very cute and I was very proud of myself. I took pictures.
Geckos are really cool, when you think of it. They’re like the Spiderman equivalent of lizards – they can walk up walls and across ceilings, they can jump surprisingly high, they can pretty much do whatever they want. The only difference is they don’t wear tights and they can’t shoot web stuff out of their wrists (but their fingers are sticky and the feel weird). They also probably would not be good at fighting crime, unless you got a bunch of them together and tackled the bank robber so he couldn’t move, idk.
Today was the first official day of school at St. Andres. We began the morning with assembly. The children were packed into the courtyard where the morning ceremonies took place. They just enrolled 200 new students this year bringing the total to 900+. We are trying to get a head count over the next few days as this will certainly impact the food program. Trying to work out the math, that would be 18,000 meals a month for 9 months. Today there was no hot lunch program, it starts tomorrow. I took the opportunity to see how many children brought lunch. In the 3- 5 year old range, it seemed to be about 75% of the kids. The others went without. We also met older students who travel from villages far out from Hinche. They stay with family or acquaintances for the week to study then return home for provisions on the weekends. The money and provisions sent, rarely is enough. This is why the Stop Hunger Now food program is so important. How can children learn if they haven’t eaten all day?
There are 17 classrooms at St. Andre’s, which makes the average class size 53. And let me tell you, the rooms are small, dark and hot. Additionally, there is so much noise from other classes that it is difficult to hear the teachers. The children are provided a very thin notebook per class and some pencils. These were distributed today. There are text books available in the secondary school if the student can afford them. Most of the learning is rote memorization or note taking. The teachers work very hard and the students seem very committed to learn.
I think I am trying to fill this blog entry with facts and figures to protect myself from my overwhelming emotions. It isn’t working. I spent a few rushed weeks before this trip creating this website. I used photos from other parishioner’s trips. The children looked so bright, happy and well kept. The truth is the children are bright, happy and well kept. But they are also in dire need of access to the most basic care and nutrition. After having several children from the 3 year old class on my lap for about an hour, I identified several children with signs of malnutrition. There were distended bellies under those well pressed smocks. One child seemed to have a possible tumor or herniated umbilicus. One had opaque pupils and several had slightly reddish tint to their hair, signifying vitamin deficiencies. I spoke with Pere Noe about a vitamin program with Vitamin Angels we are hoping to apply for. He said it would be very welcome. It will be on the top of my to do list when I get home.
We got to know an English teacher today called Evens. He is very bright, hardworking and has a good command of English. He was an accounting student at the University in Port au Prince. That was until his father passed away and he could no longer afford school. He teaches at the Catholic school as well and he runs an adult learner English business two nights a week. He says that most of his students can’t afford to pay. He teaches them anyway. He invited us to his evening class to help his students with English. So we went and it was a very cool experience. The students seemed happy to have us there. The majority of the students were young adults who want to learn English for job opportunities. They call English “the commercial language”. Lisa asked about 8 of the students what jobs they had; only one had work, as a book keeper.
On a personal note, Katie is struggling with the heat and I think the sensory overload. She is going to be ok, but she misses her home and friends very much. She is quite a trouper and I am so proud of her. If she would just stop asking me to buy food for the starving stray dogs, of which there are at least 3 every block...
Saturday airport arrival went smoothly. The view of the Mountains from the plane window was spectacular. I sat next to a group from Living Waters. They were on a 3 day trip to construct a well and teach hygiene and dental care to children in Cap Hatian. A women from Living Waters named Carol promised to email me the curriculum they use.
I wasn’t sure how customs would go with all the materials we were carrying. Turns out “customs” was one fella at the luggage exit who made a decent attempt to look official and contemplative as he looked over the customs sheet, then looked us over for a second and waved us on.
The aggressive bag handlers I was warned about were all corralled outside the airport exit behind barracades. So we simply waited inside the air conditioned airport and looked for Pere Noe behind the window.
Pere Noe gave a few stern words under his breath to the men who followed us to through the parking lot. They were looking for a few Gourdes to help with the bags. They gave up, we loaded up and off we went. You can read Katie’s entry to get a sense of the pace through Port au Prince. We saw really very little of the city. But what we saw was an overload to the senses, sight, sound and smell.
Interesting fact about driving in Haiti… the best offensive tool is the horn, which it seems all Haitian drivers use liberally and skillfully. I can attest to this first hand as Pere Noe used this tool at least 952 times during our drive to Hinche and we managed to avoid hitting every moving target on the road.
So last night, as we settled in to our room, which is arms reach to the alter side of the church, the evening thunder showers began and the temperature became cooler. And then…. the choir began rehearsing for Sunday. It was so amazingly beautiful , and I apologize if I sound over sentimental, but the lightning and thunder started and it certainly appeared to me as though the people were singing and God was responding. I was certain in that moment that this would not be my last trip to Haiti.
lEnjoy the clips from the St. Andre’s Choir!
Well, after an entire night of plane rides and minimal sleep, we arrived in Haiti in the early morning. We were picked up by Father Noe, the man that we are staying with, and drove through the streets of Port au Prince. There were no traffic lights, and a policeman stood in the middle of the road directing traffic. At times the cars were so unorganized that I was surprised they didn’t scrape up against each other. Other than that, the city was surprisingly lively. We had the windows down, and it was not uncommon to hear music playing loudly from inside shops. The buildings were painted bright, cheerful colors, as were the tap-taps; or public trucks used for transportation. Sort of like taxis. In fact, they were more works of art than vehicles; it made me want a car like that, too. (But I doubt Dad will let me paint colors like that on his brand-new company car. Maybe I can just draw pictures on it with marker or something.) I was surprised by how in touch the people were with God, as well. People had things like “I love Jesus” and pictures of crosses on their cars. I even saw a license plate (it wasn’t really a license plate) that said, “God loves you!” I think that’s pretty incredible, coming from a country as poor as Haiti.
From what we saw, the city was really small, considering it was the largest one in the country and comparing it to American cities. It was more like a town, and didn’t take long to drive through at all. Soon we were on a long road with few other cars and rolling hills surrounding us. Everything was so green! On the side of the road, you could see goats, cows, horses, and donkeys grazing. Some people tether their goats to the side of the road to let them feed, then bring them back at night.
So the drive to Hinche took about three hours. It’s pretty hot here; I didn’t even need a blanket when I slept last night. I was disappointed; the spiders are only average-sized (though I did see some that I’ve never seen before. It had sort of zebra stripes, it was awesome). Anyway, I am still keeping my fingers crossed for a tarantula. Also, at night, there are geckos that come out on the little bit of ceiling outside; I saw them on the window. Unfortunately, there was a large swarm of mosquitos outside, and as I didn’t want to get bitten, I didn’t try to catch them. Maybe they’ll be gone tonight. If I do manage to catch one, I’ll take a picture and post it up here so you all can see (they were very cute geckos).
In the morning, we went to church. The choir was beautiful; even better, actually, than the one in our own church (though we still have a pretty great choir). The service was interesting, as we couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, and it was three hours long. It was pretty much the same, though, other than that. We had the Peace and took communion, recited the Lord’s Prayer (at least, I’m 90% sure it was the Lord’s Prayer), and the confession of sins (again, fairly sure).
Anyway, we walked around the town a bit, and Father Noe introduced us to some of the people who lived there. They were all very friendly.
I really should’ve studied my Creole better, though. They speak a little French, but as I haven’t taken a foreign language class in three years, I was pretty much stuck with the basics like “bonjour” and “merci” (if I’ve spelled them correctly). Fortunately Father Noe can translate for us.
I am also having a lot of trouble with the stray dogs. I was allowed to pet one, who was someone’s pet dog, but he was still in pretty bad shape. Mom started freaking out about halfway through, though, because he had fleas and she was worried I would catch the bubonic plague or something. Seriously, grown-ups worry way too much. Anyway, after several hours of begging on my part, she said we can go out and buy some bread that I could feed the strays, as long as I set it right in front of them and walked away without petting them. Well, I’ll take what I can get.
So, I’m sure I’ve bored you all enough by now with my rant. Since this is the whole “well, we’re here” post and I have to tell you guys all about Haiti, the others probably won’t be this long. Even though I’m a little homesick, it’s a really fascinating country. Mom is already talking about coming back in a few years.
Hello everyone : ) We are currently waiting at the San Francisco airport. We’ve got a good two hours before our flight takes off of sitting in these fancy spin-chairs in front of the indoor Pete’s coffee shop (which Mom was very happy about). Anyway, Mom had the idea to write out four questions for each other. She thought we could answer them now, have our adventure, and then answer them again when we returned. It sounded good to me, so we jotted them down and are putting them up here. (I think my questions were better, though.)
Questions for Mom from me:
1) What, do you think, is the best part about Haiti as a country?
I have to say that Haiti’s history is as amazing and inspiring as any I have studied. After a brutal and hard fought uprising against the French slave owners, Haitians won their freedom and became the first free Republic in the Western Hemisphere in 1804. They also defeated Napoleon’s army and became instrumental in America’s acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase from the French. So without Haiti, we would be minus a few states. Unfortunately, France made Haiti pay reparations for its freedom. Haiti paid in full, but it took them until the 1950’s. So, I don’t want to ramble on, which as you know I can, so let me stop there.
2) What do you think you are looking forward to most? For the way back – what was your favorite experience there?
I am most looking forward to meeting the people and hopefully building relationships. I have heard such wonderful things about the people.
3) What do you think is the best thing we can do for the country?
I guess the best thing is to go and see and learn, then do. The Haitians have a proverb that goes: “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe.”
It translates to “God gives, but does not share.” It basically means that God gives wonderful blessing to so many, but it is up to each of us share those blessings with others.
4) Do you think there is any hope of recovery for the Haitian people?
Absolutely! I know things can’t improve fast enough, but there is a new era forming in the humanitarian aid community. People are beginning to see the importance of partnering with the people they help. We know in particular through success by people like Paul Farmer and Partners in Health that the model is education and empowering local people to implement change. One village at a time. When this is combined with addressing infrastructure deficits, roads, sanitation, safe building practices… things will definitely continue to improve.
Questions for me from Mom:
1) What is the most interesting thing you have learned about Haiti?
Well, Mom had me read all of these Haitian history books, so I know a bit about the country. I think the coolest thing about it is how it was the first nation made up entirely of slaves, who gained their freedom during a revolt.
2) What is your biggest concern or fear about going?
Probably that I will be tempted to pet all the stray dogs. That will be hard not to do, especially if they look hungry or scared.
3) Why did you want to go to Haiti?
Well, one, because it would just be a really awesome adventure to have, and two, because I would be able to help the people who lived there.
4) Do you think you personally can effect change for the impoverished?
I think so. Even if I can’t do anything major at this particular moment, we are going to be doing art projects with the kids, which I think they will really enjoy. I brought my sketchbook, my flute, and sheet music for a traditional Haitian folksong. So at the very least, they’ll have fun.
This is Lisa Donohoe Luscombe, one of the blog contributors traveling to Hinche, Haiti.
Today I am packing for our trip to St Andre’s. My role will be to do an extensive English language teaching and learning assessment. I’m packing OLPC laptops, soccer balls and laptop chalkboards. I’m still waiting for jump ropes to arrive. We’ll see how we can use these for kinesthetic learning activities!
Also, allow me to introduce our awesome English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Haiti curriculum design team from the Monterey Institute of International Studies! These students are very excited and bursting with ideas about their project. They are working on a curriculum that integrates One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) with English language learning.
Meet, from the left: Maggie, Syd, Haley, and Dane!
“Deye mon, gen mon”
Beyond mountains, more mountains