Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Exchanging views on life

I have come to the conclusion that there is no such a thing as a quiet classroom in Haiti, or at least in Santo. At the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, which is located on the children’s village compound, classes start at 7.00 am and continue until 5.00 because the children go to school in two shifts i.e one shift in the morning and the other in the afternoon. This is not normal for this school (although many Haitian schools had this system), but is a result of January’s earthquake, which it is said, destroyed up to 4,000 schools.

Since the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School now teaches almost double as many children now as it did before the earthquake, some lessons are held in tents. - Photo: Hilary Atkins
So the SOS school, which used to have around 450 pupils now has over 900, (many of the extra ones were taken into the village after the quake). And to compound matters, because the SOS Haiti national office is no longer usable, at least three of the classrooms have been turned into offices. Thus three classes are taught in tents. And everyday the sounds from the school carry across the compound as children recite their alphabet, answer questions in rote, sing or simply chatter – as children do.

Before I left for Haiti I asked if some children at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Nairobi could do some drawings about life in Kenya. The Nairobi children obliged and I carried their drawings across a continent and an ocean, careful to keep them flat. Yesterday Mr Myrtil, the school principal, and I showed them to a class of 12 and 13 year olds.

It turns out that being a child in Kenya was not that different from being a child in Haiti - until the earthquake changed everything. - Photo: Hilary Atkins
I needn’t have worried about noise. The class was quiet, perhaps because these children are some of the oldest in the school, or because the head teacher was with me, or maybe because the quality of the drawings was so good, As Mr Myrtil showed each picture, he explained its significance and talked with the children about similarities to Haiti. Then the drawings were passed around so the children could look closer.
The subjects were varied: some related to child rights – the right to education, to shelter, to play, etc. Others showed Kenya’s beautiful coast with its varied marine life. There was a drawing of a traditional thatched house, two of Kenya’s police working to catch criminals and an excellent depiction of urban housing complete with high walls and barbed wire, which is not so different to Port au Prince. Two more showed cattle in Kenya and I explained that cattle and wealth usually go together – not so in Haiti.

The children willingly asked questions: mostly about the people, languages and geography of Kenya and I did my best to answer. I have another date with the same class next week to receive their drawings about life in Haiti for the children of Nairobi.

I tell myself that children are children everywhere and they usually do the same things: learn, play, sing, help out at home etc. But not so many have lived through an earthquake that killed over 200,000 people, including friends and family, or seen everything they owned destroyed, or live in tents. So whatever the Haitian children decide to draw, I will not be surprised.

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