Friday, 10 December 2010

The rule, the exceptions and the normality of unrest

Normally, the flag is raised at seven in the morning, followed by the singing of the national anthem. But today is different. Children run to and fro across the schoolyard of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, the classrooms are empty and there is not a teacher in sight. There is also no sign of the students who don't live inside the SOS Children's Village in Santo, Port-au-Prince. "It's because of the elections", says 14 year-old James, "there's no school today".

As the riots spread all over the capital, children return home from the closed schools. Photo: Hilary Atkins

The students from the SOS Children's Village next door are officially sent home shortly after this; lessons are canceled for security reasons and offices will remain closed as well, since the way here is much too risky today. In this respect at least, the presidential elections have produced the result everyone expected: it caused riots and violent clashes. The key to survival here is to react to new situations every day and make decisions quickly. "Nobody should go out on the street today", says the guardian at the gate in the morning. "People are burning tires in the street and setting everything on fire. The protest aren't taking place anywhere near just yet, but we expect things to get worse throughout the day".

And sure enough, as the day goes on, the scenes of civil unrest are spreading. There are demonstrations against corruption and fraud, the television cameras show pictures of angry young men running through the streets of Port-au-Prince, the stench of burning tires wafts across the village grounds every now and again. The schools and other public facilities remain closed the whole day. Those who don't absolutely have to go out stay home. Both public and private transportation has become impossible due to the ubiquitous road blocks. Air travel has been canceled as well, only the helicopters are doing their rounds above the city. Haitian co-workers in the village say that while there have always been numerous demonstrations in Haiti, they can't recall the level of violence ever having been this high. The people of Haiti feel betrayed and nobody knows how the situation will develop. Meanwhile, the children react to the situation much the same as children all over the world would: they're happy they get a day off school.

In the long run, class sizes will have to be reduced to better focus on the individual child. Photo: Hilary Atkins

On a normal schoolday, 921 students are taught at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, double as many as before the earthquake. Some lessons are being held in the old school building which suffered no damage in the tremor, some take place in tents iset up in the school yard. The emergency relief programme is to be transformed into long-term solutions. This also implies a reduction of class size to allow better education for each individual child as well as additional training for the faculty. New solutions are to encourage long-term stability rather than immediate help.

Everyone hopes that the protests will ultimately lead to stability. As one protester puts it, the protests are like seeds and will continue until they have ripened into fruit. Taking that into account, it is safe to assume that this will not be the last day the schools stay closed. And while many adults gradually despair at the situation in Haiti, the children rejoice that they have the whole day to play as much as they like.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A man of few words

My co-worker and I are sitting on the terrace in the pale blue glow of our computer screens when all of a sudden a little figure emerges from the dark and runs towards us. Marc gives us each a hug and then stands behind us to watch us working. The 9-year old boy does not need many words to say a lot. Usually his reply to any question is a single word followed by a bright smile. He exudes calm and, as my colleague said, "he appears wise". Marc's presence made me wonder what his story was.

Marc is a man of few words, but he always has a cordial smile to give. Photo: Sophie Preisch

I got to know Marc by the name of "Chiquito" (spanish: small). He is the youngest of a group of children that rehearses a choreography on Saturdays. At one show a few weeks ago he was apparently the only child dancing in a group of SOS youth, all significantly older than him. Marc likes dancing - everyone can see that. To the question whether he would like to be a professional dancer he replies with a simple "yes". Asked for his career aspiration, though, he says "doctor".

Nine years ago Marc was brought to the SOS Children’s Village in Santo as a baby, barely a month old. He grew up in one of the 19 family houses with his SOS mother Wilna amongst his SOS brothers and sisters. Wilna is retired by now but she still visits the family and keeps in touch with her former SOS children - just as any part of the family would. Today, Marc shares his house with eight other boys, seven girls, two SOS aunties and his SOS mother Lannecie. Before the earthquake he lived here with seven siblings. Then, the house filled with 28 children and now, after some children could be reunited with their biological families, Marc is one of 16 kids in the SOS family house. He likes being here, and he especially likes playing soccer with the other children. Marc shoots all of this at me in characteristic one-word answers to my questions. He is striker, he adds.

Four of the children who came to live in his house after the earthquake on 12 January 2010, are now living in the temporary shelters that have been set up on the premises of the SOS Children’s Village in Santo. Each of the prefabricated houses is a home to five children and one SOS auntie, four houses make a unit and share housework tasks like cooking and cleaning. Mum Lannecie tells us that those children still come to visit her and the other children.

As she describes her SOS child Marc, she smiles: "Well, he’s very intelligent. He likes studying, he’s good at school. He writes poems. Marc is a good boy, he will be successful".

The first paragraph of this blog was written in a corner of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, where I temporarily use a desk as my working place. I was interrupted by a visitor: Marc came to me, bringing me his smile again. I did a short word-by-word interview with him: "Don’t you have classes?". Marc: "Yes", smile. "Where is your classroom?" Marc points at one of the tents in front of the school building: "there", smile. "And what will you do in the afternoon?" - Marc: "Work", smile. "What kind of work?" - Marc: "Homework", smile. "I am also working." - Marc "Yes". He keeps smiling at me for a few moments before he says goodbye and runs back to his class.