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Archive for March, 2014

Haiti and Grit

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This past week, I traveled again to Leogane, Haiti to a small school, St. Matthieu Episcopal School. It was not a mission trip, and I am not a missionary. In fact, if anyone was sharing or living the gospels, it was the Haitians, and I am the beneficiary of all that they teach me about faith, hope, and love.

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I’m a teacher, and I believe in the power of education. I keep returning to Matthieu because the parents in the community desperately want an education for their children, and their children love to learn. In Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, which chronicles the work of Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, he emphasizes the value of building schools, which may seem like poor triage when you consider the level of homelessness and hunger that prevails. However, one peasant woman explained why school is critical to Haiti’s future, “A lot of us wondered what would have happened if we had known how to write, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this situation now.” She rightly understands that knowledge is indeed power.

The annual cost of education for each child at Matthieu is roughly $100, which importantly includes a mid-day meal, often the only meal those children will receive. On my first visit in 2009 with a group of seniors, my students were surprised to discover that the Haitian students were learning math on a level commensurate with students in America. It’s a remarkable feat when you consider the nature of their classrooms: wooden benches, a rudimentary board, and chalk. Technology is non-existent, and yet they still learn.

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Ten months after the 2010 earthquake, my friend John, a retired Episcopal priest, and I hatched an idea for a fundraiser. We photographed every child and teacher, placed their faces on holiday ornaments, and sold each ornament for $100, raising over $40,000 in three weeks. Every child attended school free in 2011, and every teacher received a salary.

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Recently, we learned that the children have not been receiving lunch and the teachers have not been paid in months. We needed a new idea. How might we raise money to help sustain the good work of this school?

Unfortunately, the Haitians have few products to offer the world. There are no stores; instead, make shift stands offer goods that would be turned away from our local Goodwill stores.

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Instead, what they have to offer is the work of their hands and their imaginations: their art. And their creations are their way of telling stories about their lives.

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So, on this trip, I traveled with two friends: John, the retired priest, and Susan, an artist who could help us discern what might sell at a future fundraiser in Atlanta. On our four day trip, we spent two traveling through the streets of Port au Prince, Petionville, Carrefour, and Leogane, looking for local art. The art is hung outside on the sides of buildings, strung up daily by the artisans.

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We haggled over the price of each painting we purchased, recognizing that we would also have to frame the pictures once back in the States. The artists fought back, laughing, cajoling, and arguing with us. They’d ask our names, and say, “Holly, Susan, come into my shop,” pointing in the direction of their paintings hanging in the open air.

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It was difficult. Their paintings are beautiful; their colors rich and vibrant. But we’ve held an auction before, and we knew that we needed to find works that would appeal to American sensibilities. In the end, we purchased thirty paintings, bullhorn bracelets and earrings, hand carved salad bowls, and tin carvings. Here are a few of the paintings yet to be framed.

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Our church has graciously agreed to allow us to host the auction in its fellowship hall. Fingers crossed, we hope to raise at least $20,000.

In addition, St. Matthieu has graduates who would like to attend university. We identified twelve individuals to begin with, graduates who would like to study nursing, accounting, engineering, and religion. Annual tuition at the university ranges, depending on the degree, from two to three thousand a year. After interviewing and photographing the individuals, I will begin writing their narratives. In the next few months, we’ll be meeting with donors who have already expressed a willingness to sponsor these students. However, I know that a face and a story will be important in building that relationship.

So, that in a nutshell was the purpose of my trip. But as always I return deeply reflective about what I believe. One incident in particular troubles me. We were traveling to visit another school up in the mountains, St. Jean Baptiste, even poorer than St. Matthieu. Through our last fundraiser, we were able to sustain Jean Baptiste, but since then it has fallen on even more difficult times. We have relative poverty in America, but in Haiti, poverty is absolute. The earthquake had destroyed much of the infrastructure, and what they had left they were holding together with the aid tents dispersed by USAID in 2010.

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The road up to Jean Baptiste traverses a riverbed, which was dry since the rainy season has yet to begin. Traveling in a truck, crossing the dry, bumpy bed, the three of us were silently reflective after seeing the grim circumstances at the rural school. It was Saturday, washing day for the Haitians, when they wring their clothes out in the river bed or gully and then dry them in the sun. Walking with their baskets on their heads or traveling by donkey, they were all gathering by the water.

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Many others were traveling to market. The majority of Haitians don’t own their own transportation. They travel in tap-taps, vibrantly painted trucks or buses adorned with devotional messages that serve as share taxis, or on motorcycles, three or four at a time.

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Right ahead of us, coming in the opposite direction, a motorcycle hit a large stone, spilling its riders onto the ground. The driver, a young man, was uninjured, but his passengers, three older women were badly injured. One had clearly broken her ankle. Another, who was not wearing shoes, had split open the bottom of her foot. We carried them to the back of the truck and took off to the Sainte Croix Hospital in Leogane. It is unfortunately closed during the weekends, so we rushed to the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) Center nearby. It’s a guarded, gated center, but they let us in quickly, assuming that either Susan or I was hurt. The urgency of their concern quickly dissolved when they discovered we had brought injured Haitians to their door. We helped them out of the truck and into wheelchairs; the elderly woman with the broken ankle was quietly crying. Although MSF is a global humanitarian aid organization, it does cost to receive care. We were able to notify their family members, and I paid what I hoped would cover their expenses. Nevertheless, the experience left us all dispirited.

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Apparently, eighty percent of all emergencies in Haiti result from motorcycles and tap-tap accidents that topple from their top-heavy weight. Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains recounts a story of a woman tossed from the top of a tap-tap whom he found dead in the street, surrounded by mangoes and covered in a small sheet of cardboard. The tap-tap’s bumper was painted with the apt Creole phrase, “Lord, a word on all this.”

It’s easy to say the motorcycle simply hit a rock – an accident. But Farmer asks us to look deeper: “Accidents happened. Sure. But not every bad thing that happens is an accident. There was nothing accidental about the wretchedness of the road … or the overloaded tap-tap, or the desperation of a peasant woman who had to get to market and make a sale because otherwise her family would go hungry. These circumstances all had causes…” What Farmer is asking us to recognize is that there are hidden causes that exist whether they are invisible to us or not. It’s a reality that I share often with my students.

That reality goes to the heart of the grit discussion that Grant Lichtman, Ira Socol, and Paul Thomas have been engaged in and about which I thought often during my trip. The nature of that discussion surrounds the question of whether the current buzzword in education – grit – belies an unwillingness to challenge the social, political, and economic conditions in America that often makes life so difficult for minority and poor children. In the truck on the way from Port au Prince to Leogane, John shared some stories of his visits to an orphanage and a kindergarten in Cite de Soleil, considered perhaps the most notoriously dangerous slum in the Northern Hemisphere. At the Marguerite de Nassau kindergarten funded by Food for the Poor, whose motto is “Come to learn, come to love, come to be,” John was struck by the strictness of the teachers. They tolerated no dissension or divergence from their rules. They explained to John, “We are hard because life is hard, and these children must learn this.” The teachers then led the students in a recitation, which included the mantra, “Seize your power.” Similarly at the boys’ orphanage Our Lady of Hope, the nun in charge said to John, “Without this orphanage, these boys would be murdered or become murderers. But we teach them that they are the future of Haiti, and they could teach you one thing: your money makes a poor master.”

On that trip, John and I discussed grit often. Yes, young Haitians need to learn endurance. They will grow up in a world where they will enjoy few governmental services. There is no trash service, no public and few private latrines, limited water, and no sewer services.

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And yet in my conversations with them, the Haitians asked me to view their lives through the lens of their perspective.

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They live in poverty, but not in misery. Suicide is virtually non-existent in Haiti, and their lives are not marked by isolation, depression, or anxiety. When they turn to one another to express pain or hunger, they are greeted with understanding. The children are born in their mother’s homes, and the neighbors all know one another by name. Their lives are marked by a shared experience.

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Grit is not something others tell them they need to survive; they naturally possess grit. More than grit, which only ensures survival, they seek and share faith, hope, and love, which makes for a life worth living.

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Rereading Mountains Beyond Mountains on my trip, I was struck by one Haitian phrase, which I kept turning over and over as I reflected on grit: “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe.” It translates in English to, “God gives but doesn’t share.” What the Haitians are trying to explain is that he intended the sharing to be left to us.

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