Friday, 26 November 2010

Goodbye Haiti – hello Sophie

How quickly time passes; yet four weeks seems such a long time ago. Four weeks in Haiti in which I have been bombarded with sounds and images that have had opposing effects.

The crushed and broken buildings in Port au Prince saddened me, as did the makeshift homes, usually tents, in any vacant space from a rooftop to an alleyway.

Amidst the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, thousands apon thousands of rickety shelters have been put up in any available free space. Photo: Hilary Atkins

The rotting garbage and chaotic traffic, (a sure sign of poor leadership) depressed me as much as the ugliness created in an already disfigured city by thousands of election posters advertising the very people who should be cleaning up.
And I was burdened by the inevitable guilt that goes with being a foreigner in a car, when most of the population have nothing except the ability to survive.

Yet I was surprised by the beauty of the rolling green landscape, which is always around you - the result I suppose of ancient seismic movements like the one experienced in January – which no politician can destroy.

And I was inspired by the resilient, smiling people, rising at 3 or 4 in the morning to be at work by 7, clean and smartly dressed. I also admired their courage in the face of extra adversity such as the cholera outbreak and the hurricane.

I was fascinated by the streets of Port au Prince, where, as in any overcrowded and under-resourced city, all business takes place. Small vignettes stick in my mind: the man carrying a heavy TV set on his head; the lady examining a second-hand bed sheet; the little girl begging, bemused when a passing lady dropped a US dollar in her hand; and the tap-tap (brightly coloured taxi) that said, Merci Jesus, despite all the hardship.

Sometimes, the Haitian's resilience in the face of poverty, civil unrest, famines, natural disasters, and most recently disease, defies comprehension. Photo: Hilary Atkins

Most of all I was absorbed, entertained and engaged by the children in the school and the village, who surrounded us as we worked. The noise from the classrooms was incessant, a mixture of chatter, singing and learning by rote, impossible to escape, but a constant reminder of why we are here – to help each child, as one co-worker put it, “become a better person for tomorrow”.

The bursting classrooms make for plenty of noise... Photo: Hilary Atkins

And now I hand over to Sophie who will be a more permanent feature of the children’s village because she is staying much longer. With 13 months of living in children’s villages in Latin America, she already feels at home. Welcome, Sophie, to the SOS Children’s Village Santo.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

One step at a time…

My colleague Max comes from Luxembourg and is in Haiti to source institutional funding (i.e. funding from governments and development agencies) for SOS Children’s Villages programmes. He told me today that in Luxembourg there is a traditional dance where the people take two steps forward and one step back. This is apparently to remind them that progress is not always easy – you may go forward quickly, it seems, but sometimes you go back. The lesson is not to be put off when progress seems slow – you will make it in the end.

Max’s job in Haiti therefore, is to ensure that the progress SOS Children’s Villages makes is not so quick that it starts to fail, but instead has a solid and secure grounding which will allow them to develop and grow.

Ensuring quality education for the youngest is key to the development of the country. Photo: Hilary Atkins 

One of the most important programmes for Haiti today is education. It is said that up to 4000 schools were affected in the earthquake and possibly 6000 teachers were killed. Can you imagine how many children that touches? One day they are at school, the next they have nowhere to go.

SOS Children’s Village’s has committed to building 10 schools in Haiti which will initially be run by the organisation before being handed over to the government. So Max is working regularly with the Ministry of Education to secure a lasting agreement.

Max says that there are many governments who want to help Haiti rebuild and strengthen its education system and the initial commitment has come from the German government, which will fund the first new school, to be built in the extensive grounds of the SOS Children’s Village at Santo. Because it is due to open in a year’s time this school will be constructed from containers, purpose-built for the job. It will supplement the present school, which currently houses double the number of students that it used to hold, many learning in tents. The German Red Cross has also stepped in and is donating semi-permanent buildings to take in this extra capacity.
4000 schools were destroyed in the earthquake, 6000 teachers killed. Schools that remain standing are overflowing with new students.

But schools are usually better places when children have somewhere to sit. So Max’s first real step forward has been to secure a grant for school furniture which he recently received from the German Embassy in Haiti. In addition, he and other programme staff are hoping to develop a teacher’s training programme for both new and existing teachers who have tended to educate along very traditional lines, and with little formal training. Now Max has to find established and respected partners who will work alongside SOS co-workers in this laudable project.

So it’s going to be a challenging couple of years for Max as he negotiates his way through the many development agencies working in Haiti. He will not only have to show them that SOS Children’s Villages is worth supporting but also convince them that by building a solid foundation, SOS Children's Villages will be contributing to Haiti’s future rather than just the present. Two steps forward, one step back? Maybe for Max, it’s one step at a time…

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.