Insights from my first visit to the EcoVillages of Haiti

U.S. Americans tell me, “Haitians are poor.” Haitians tell me, “we aren’t poor, we are happy.” On this, my first trip to Haiti, I have come to believe the truth is dependent on one’s perspective.

Haiti is a land plagued by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tropical storms, and waves of cholera.  Records going back to the 1700’s show this, and the inhabitants know more will come. The earthquake of 2010 is probably the worst tragedy most have experienced in their lifetime. The country is still struggling to come back from the severe devastation and loss of life it caused. There is still a lack of infrastructure, paved roads, repaired bridges, unclean drinking water, food shortages, crowding, unsanitary living conditions, health issues, and high unemployment. 

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For Haitians it doesn’t help to dwell on a past that can’t be changed or fear a future that is unknown, yet will inevitably bring more disasters with it. They focus on living in the present: learning what they can each day, understanding it fully, improving what they can – so the future will be better too. 

Getting through hard times is easier if one has support from others. Pooling resources and sharing helps everyone. 60 disparate families that came together after the 2010 earthquake to build a community with the help of an Haitian organization, MPP.  First MPP helped them get shelter and food. The next thing the families fought for was a school for their children. With the help of the Atlanta Partnership for the Haiti EcoVillage School and the UUSC, the villages now have a nationally certified school. Every family works in the school garden so the children have food at school. 

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Now each village is tending goats, growing manioc, goat feed and moringa. They are working together so the village can become self-sustaining and bring in some income from these products. They started learning to sew over a year ago. They make school uniforms for their children and hope to sew them for surrounding schools as well. This is a joint effort of all the EcoVillages. In observing this group I saw them working hard, hours long without a break, yet they laugh and tease one another as well. Small children come to work with their mothers. When the older children come in after school they help take care of their siblings and seem to enjoy playing with them. When I visited the school the children all smiled and laughed and were eager to learn.

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The U.S. seems so different. It is an individualistic society where often suburbanites drive into their garage and walk directly into their house without seeing anyone. When we pass someone in the grocery store, we seldom know or greet one another. We have individual goals – a more prestigious position at work, a better car, a bigger house. We work long hours under great stress to “make it” in our jobs. Many people live alone and are lonely. That is not to say we are unhappy, for we are fortunate in many ways.

In contrast in the EcoVillages of Haiti everyone lives together, works together, and struggles together. The individual depends on the community for spiritual and emotional health. One Haitian, who moved to the U.S. and then came back to live again in Haiti, told me stress in Haiti is different. In the U.S. we are under a lot of pressure to succeed and build a career and to have material possessions. In Haiti happiness is independent of the physical. It is based on family and community.

Haitians are proud, proud of their heritage, proud of their culture, and of what they have accomplished. They need and want the help U.S. Americans are giving them but they do not want to be told what to do and how to manage their affairs. They want the relationship to be one of mutual respect. 

So, are Haitians happy or poor? Happiness seems indeed to be a matter of perspective. Despite meagre physical infrastructure, money, and comforts Haitians are happy for they have what they value most, community and family. We could all learn something from them. I know I have.

Written by Marty Maxwell

Life Improves in the EcoVillages

Education. Enrollment at the school has grown from 170 last year to 267 this year. A new 7th grade classroom was added. 

The thirst for learning is contagious. Parents are now clamoring for adult literacy classes so that they can learn to read and help their kids in school.

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Electricity.  It doesn’t look like much, but a pole can be a beautiful thing.  Our partners at the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) in Boston approved a grant to bring electricity to the six EcoVillages this year.  The power is now on! There is a pole next to the community center building in each village which provides light at night.  Residents must buy a meter to bring power to their own homes, which some have already done.  Residents are already imagining how their lives might change.

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Water. Wells in two of the villages were broken last year. UUSC paid to have them fixed.  Now there is nearby water for everyone. Clean clothes feel good.

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Food. Everywhere you look there is food: congo beans, cassava, plantains, papaya, bananas, peppers, cabbage, squash.  You even hear chickens peck and goats bleat and an occasional pig grunt.  The days of empty pots and lean harvests are behind them – at least for now. 

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Collaboration.  Parents understand that they must coordinate their efforts to grow food for school lunches.  Thanks in part to a grant from PATH (Atlanta’s Presbyterian Answer to Hunger) new school gardens have been planted, expanding their contribution dramatically. Hot, organic meals are served to the students every day of the week. Cassava came in this month, cabbage next week and squash in November.  As a result, the school budget for food has been slashed so that precious funds can be allocated elsewhere.

When asked about his life in the village, one man replied matter-of-factly, “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not.” In other words, for many life has returned to familiar routines.  The struggle for basics -- survival and safety and a place to belong – is being replaced by the struggle to get ahead.  You know -- normalcy. 

Gardens are growing

 Moringa, hibiscus, bananas, beans—beauty surrounding the houses in EcoVillage 1.

Moringa, hibiscus, bananas, beans—beauty surrounding the houses in EcoVillage 1.

 Luscious papayas!

Luscious papayas!

Our travel team is listening, meeting, watching, sewing, talking, playing and absorbing all the news and needs. With deep gratitude for this Partnership, they continue their work today. I’ve included two photos they were able to send this morning.

View from the EcoVillages

The rains have arrived in the Central Plateau, and it is a sight to behold. The countryside is lush, the rivers are full. Papaya trees bear many fruit and the breakfast passion fruit juice was rich with taste.

As Claude and I stood at the entrance to the Community Center for EcoVillage 1, he asked “But where are the houses?”  In the early years you could stand there and count all 10 houses. Today, you can see some roofs and paths to those houses. What you see is papaya trees, moringa shrubs, bougainvillea flowers, banana trees and bean gardens. What a relief for people who two years ago went hungry during a year-long drought. This is the break from hardship they deserve after years of struggle since their homes collapsed in the earthquake.

It is good to return to the EcoVillages to see their promise being fulfilled — at least for this year.  
What about the school, you ask?  Today we took the all-school photograph. 264 students, preschool through 7th grade. There were 170 students last year.

We hope to send photographs tomorrow.

Bringing a Gift of Adventure

Tomorrow I will travel to Haiti with Claude Henry Pierre and Marty Maxwell, two new members of the steering committee of our Haiti EcoVillage School Partnership.  Claude will translate both the language and the culture for us while looking for ways to improve our long distance communication with our partners in Haiti.  Marty will study the prospects of forming a sewing business using the six machines that have been donated and the ample enthusiasm of the people to learn both how to sew at a commercial level and how to run a successful business.   

One of the joys during our trip will be to deliver many books for the children.  Supporters have been providing funds for books each year for the past 3 years. This year, for the first time, we have targeted a wide range of interests beyond just early Kreyol readers. Here are some of the books we will be taking to the school.

 Many of the early readers are in two languages – English & Kreyol or French & Kreyol – with familiar titles designed to expose children to the stories of the world. They will learn about the Little Red Hen, Aesop’s fables and Beowulf.

Many of the early readers are in two languages – English & Kreyol or French & Kreyol – with familiar titles designed to expose children to the stories of the world. They will learn about the Little Red Hen, Aesop’s fables and Beowulf.

 Some of the books about Haiti come in sets of 5 so they can be used for group reading in class.

Some of the books about Haiti come in sets of 5 so they can be used for group reading in class.

 Can you figure out what story is told in the book titled Wow ak Jilyet? Many of the books are more advanced and tell stories about Africa and soccer. Think Shakespeare. Haitian kids must learn French so they can pass a national exam after the 8th grade and there are books to polish that new skill. Here’s a cool book about the caves of Haiti. Poetry. How about Songs for Kids in French and Kreyol?

Can you figure out what story is told in the book titled Wow ak Jilyet? Many of the books are more advanced and tell stories about Africa and soccer. Think Shakespeare. Haitian kids must learn French so they can pass a national exam after the 8th grade and there are books to polish that new skill. Here’s a cool book about the caves of Haiti. Poetry. How about Songs for Kids in French and Kreyol?

 From early reader content through 8th grade, we offer them English parallel text.

From early reader content through 8th grade, we offer them English parallel text.

 Our most ambitious experiment is the entire Harry Potter collection in French. We hope some children will become engrossed in Harry’s adventures so thoroughly that they master French in the process and discover the wonder of imagination and a culture far away.

Our most ambitious experiment is the entire Harry Potter collection in French. We hope some children will become engrossed in Harry’s adventures so thoroughly that they master French in the process and discover the wonder of imagination and a culture far away.

Follow our posts this week as we deliver the books and talk about our trip to the school and the EcoVillages.

from Seeds of Hope to Students in Classrooms

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This fall more than 200 students skipped and ran to their school. These are students who live in villages without electricity, without running water, without conveniences. These are students who survived the worst natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere.

These are students who can dream and hope again. These are students who exude joy and celebrate learning.

This is their school. From gracious donations, hard work, long conversations, many voices and hands, this school has emerged. The construction of the fundamental school (K-8) is almost complete. The next challenge is sustainability.

To address this challenge, a group of 3 will travel to Haiti in October. Follow their journey and hold them in your hearts and minds as they explore options with MPP and the families.

Celebrating Success

We all know that education is important and is vital for a country like Haiti where most citizens struggle for the basics in life. But did you know that gathering with others to raise funds for a village school could be so much fun?
An impressive group of more than 200 members and friends of three churches came together in Clarkston to learn about and support the work of an exceptional leader, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. This extraordinary man responded to the needs of children, including many refugees escaping the horrors of the earthquake, by coordinating the efforts of local Haitians and those far away in the U.S.
As they say, success breeds success. The evening was part celebration of the classrooms that have been built and the improved lives of many children, and of the partnerships which have made this EcoVillage School possible. It was also an opportunity to highlight the needs of the children for further education and to support the teachers dedicated to helping them with the most basic of resources (chalk, paper, pencils). The fundraising portion of the evening was a quick and lively “auction,” with a rewarding end. A quick tally indicated that nearly $30,000 was raised for another year of school for children who are obviously eager to learn.
As a new attendee to the Flavors of Haiti event, I encourage everyone to attend in 2019 and experience a warm evening of collective enthusiasm for strong partnerships, good food served by conscientious youth, the satisfaction of donating to a cause that has been vetted and endorsed, and the very grateful appreciation of those involved with the EcoVillage School.

Across the Divide

 Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, Islands & Island Nations (Haiti), at a traditional konbit--a communal work day spent building walls to conserve the soil.

The divides are many.

We are the richest nation per capita in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is the poorest.

We speak English. They speak Kreyol and French.

Our lives are aided (dominated?) by complex, ubiquitous technology.  The EcoVillages don’t even have electricity.

We drive and walk fast.  They walk everywhere at a relaxed amble.

We live in splendid isolation behind the walls of our houses, where most of the faces we see each day are on our devices.  They live interlocked lives with their neighbors, with whom they collect water, raise large families and even share outhouses.

We demand security from police, EMTs, retirement funds, Social Security, warranties, contracts, and armies.  They have no security except for the good will of their neighbors.

We grouse about pot-holes near us.  The nearest paved road to the EcoVillages is 5 miles away.

We shop at Kroger, Publix, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, depending on what specifically we want. Plus, we eat out a lot.  They eat what can grow in their yard gardens. 

We watch AcuWeather forecasts and movement of temperatures during the day.  They pray for a safe hurricane season that doesn’t level their crops.

We are God’s Frozen Chosen, adhering to the rules of the Book of Order, but keenly aware of an elusive God whom we cannot detect with our scientific instruments and whose presence in the world seems confusing.  They are part Catholic, part charismatic, part voodoo, 100% believers that God controls their fate.

We frown a lot. They smile a lot.

I know.  I am going on, but I could keep going.  The differences are many and they are fundamental.

From the beginning of our project to build a school for children who would otherwise not learn to read, we articulated a commitment to bridge that gap, to build relationships.  We intended to know these people, to understand their struggles and their joys.  We decided to learn from their wisdom and to authentically present ourselves so that we could be known to them, too. For 5 years we have dispatched delegations to meet, learn and share. Ask anyone who has been and they will tell you about the life-enriching experience. And our Haitian partners know something more about us, as represented by the child who reaches out to touch our skin to learn if it is real like her own skin.

Last year we exchanged art between the children at the EcoVillage school and our own children.  We said, “Draw a picture about your life.”  The art about their lives has hung on our walls for our children to see.  Our children’s life art hangs on their school walls now. Photos show curious children looking at the others’ images, wondering about their lives.

This year, to bridge the distance, we have invited the founder of the EcoVillages to come to us.  He is a man worth knowing. 

When you meet him you’ll be drawn to the smile, in part because you’ll see that his 70-year-old face has spent a lot of its time smiling. This from a man who has avoided assassination through exile and has spent all of his life living among some of the poorest people on earth. There is wisdom to be learned from someone so courageous.

You will see a man of the world who has traveled to Lima and Durbin to contribute to United Nations conferences on climate change, Paris and San Francisco to receive honors for his work.  Yet he still lives in Papay among the people he spends his life helping. There are insights to be gleaned from someone so broad.

You will hear from a man who has wielded political power as adviser to Haiti’s president, but has never compromised the well-being of his people for personal gain.  Can we ever get too much from people of integrity?

So come meet Chavannes.  Broaden your experience and understanding.

At the same time, let him learn about us through your presence.  You will be one of the people he talks about when he returns to talk to the families in the EcoVillages and the children at the school.  Your presence will help build that bridge of understanding and respect that holds the promise of a better tomorrow for all of God’s people, Haitian and American, rich and poor, smilers and frowners. 

Hear Chavannes at Emory University Candler School of Theology, Thursday, 4/12   5:30-7:30pm

Party Planning

Plans for the 4th Annual Flavors of Haiti are underway! As we prepare for our one fundraising event of the year, we try to consider ways to make the event meaningful, inviting and fun. We want to raise funds, and we want our guests to feel energized and enthusiastic and educated about the impact their support makes.

These critical components of party-planning are also basics in community building. As we have worked to build a school, we have worked to build community in Atlanta with our three-church partnership and to build community with our friends in Haiti.  We are excited, enthusiastic and energized! We celebrate the new friendships, relationships, understandings and potential for the future that these years have provided. 

We invite you to come to the Party! April 15th, 5:30-7:30pm. Meet the person who founded the EcoVillages.  Hear the leader who inspired us to build the school.  Learn about the families who have hope because of the communities that support them.

 

Building from Bricks to Business Development

As we begin our fifth year with our school project, we celebrate the accomplishments and the beautiful school that is central to the lives of the EcoVillages.

We also recognize the impact of the crippling poverty on these families.  They work hard and struggle to find ways to provide income for themselves and for supporting the school.

We realize the key to the future of the school is the ability of the families to become self-sufficient.  We need business-minded friends to share their ideas and expertise with us as we search for ways to support the work of the families.

Gather with others to share food, friendship and your ideas.  Join us to apply what you know to the challenging situation facing the people of the EcoVillages.

Dinner and Brainstorming, Saturday, January 20, 2018, 7:00p-8:30pm

For more info or to RSVP: sowseedsofhope@gmail.com by Jan. 17

Tenacious Tanisha

As Chris and Scott were walking through village 5 with Jean and Michael, we heard music playing on a radio--the first radio we had heard in the EcoVillages. Electric power is not available and batteries are expensive, so few villagers have radios. This radio was connected to a solar panel for power. On this trip Chris had brought six hybrid radios powered by hand cranks and built-in solar panels to give to MPP, one for each of six the EcoVillages. 

We followed the music to a house where a mom and dad were sitting on their front porch with a young girl, Tanisha. Tanisha was sitting in an improvised wheel chair constructed using a bicycle handle and pedals. Her mom explained her daughter Tanisha could not walk because she was severely injured in the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. She was buried in the rubble for 3 days before being rescued. In addition to not being able to walk, Tanisha also appears to be unable to speak. We believe the music playing on the radio was to entertain Tanisha.

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Tanisha's presence and courage are a constant reminder that every Villager 7 years old and older survived that terrible earthquake. Each person has scars of the trauma, visible or invisible. Each person lost a family member or loved one on that day.

In helping these former city dwellers find ways to recover from the disaster, we are also engaged in humanitarian assistance and in development. With tenacity and courage, we travel together towards hope and brighter futures.

by Scott Grosse and Carolyn French

Report from Day 2

Our second full day in the Central Plateau was our opportunity to visit the EcoVillage school and see the progress that has been made.  The first thing we noticed was the new gate and fence that surrounds the school. 

Upon entering the school yard, we see the 2 new classrooms and a storeroom for the kitchen.  We hear sounds of students reciting their lessons and so we quietly make our way to the school director's office making an effort not to be a disturbance.

The students are in classes from 8am-10am, and this is a good time to interview the school director, Romain Exil.  We learn that the school has 172 students enrolled in grades PreK - 6th grade.  The enrollment breaks down like this:

  • PreK &  Kindergarten - 33 students
  • 1st grade - 34students
  • 2nd grade - 29 students
  • 3rd grade - 23 students
  • 4th grade - 30 students
  • 5th grade - 15 students
  • 6th grade - 8 students

The two new classrooms are being used for the 5th and 6th grades.

We talked about the new video system being installed.  MPP has partnered with an organization which provides instructional video systems to public schools. The organization providing the system has certain requirements, including security, which motivated the construction of the fence around the school yard.  We saw the beginnings of installation of the system which will be run off solar power.

Romain was excited to hear about the book project going on now at our churches in Atlanta.  He asked that the books be printed in the US and transported to the school if there is a way to do that without high shipping costs.  He would like books in both Kreyol and French side-by-side, primarily for beginning readers. 

We discussed the likelihood of 'nationalizing' the school, which means the government will pay the teachers' salaries and possibly other costs.  The director told us that the government has provided some furniture to the school and has conducted on-site inspections.  The director has worked with MPP to create a dossier for the staff and school which will be submitted to the government.  He admits that nationalization is a political process but is hopeful that they can make it happen.

We presented Romain with a framed photo of the students in front of the school taken by David Diener during our April 2017 trip.  He immediately sought out a spot on his office wall to proudly display the photo.  We also delivered colored paper donated by Good Shepherd which was greatly appreciated.

The students break for lunch from 10am - 10:30am eating in shifts in the cafeteria.  This day the kitchen staff has prepared a hot meal of beans.

The lunch break was the perfect time to get an updated photo of the student body standing in front of the school. 

While Chris setup for the photo, Scott interviewed students asking about the hopes and dreams for the future.  It was satisfying to be able to spend a little time interacting with the children.

After the children returned to class, we decided to tour the large garden beyond the school.  We learned that the vegetable garden adjacent to the school is fallow because the ground was too wet to cultivate. We walked through the gap in the fence through which the path to the outhouse goes, then down the hill and up the next hillside to where the fields start. We walked through a field planted with sweet potato vines, then a field newly planted with moringa. We kept walking and came to a field where two men were cultivating. We were told that that land was cultivated by people in village 1. We then walked back toward the school and saw an ox, which we learned belongs to the school. We also walked through fields planted with peas.

It is wonderful to report that everything is noticeably greener and lusher that we observed on previous trips.  More of the land is being cultivated, and there is no evidence that recent hurricanes provided anything other than needed rainfall.

by Chris Calia

Haitian Students Love Math!

Scott Grosse and Jean Lindor interviewed some of the children at the school during the lunch break Wednesday. They asked the students to tell them what their favorite school subject is and what they want to be when they grow up.

 

Dorcelis Chalinda especially likes math.

 

She wants to study to be a medical doctor and take care of children.

 

 

 

 

Bienaime Louisky also likes math best.

He wants to become a civil engineer and build roads throughout Haiti.

 

Other children agreed that their favorite subject is math. Desired occupations listed include nurse, accountant, pilot, and plumber. 

by Scott Grosse

 

 

Enterprising Farmer

Carel Sinfinice lives in village 4. At the end of our visit to the school gardens on day 2 (Wednesday), Carel chased us down to invite us to come see his farm. 

He took us to the Community Center where the floor was covered with recently harvested peanuts.

We also saw wooden beehive boxes presumably used for honey production and pollination of the vegetable garden. Then Carel proudly showed us a mature cassava field that he cultivates. Next to that was a MPP moringa project nursery protected by a fence and roof.

Carel also has built a pig pen where we saw a female and 6 piglets.  He said that he recently sold a pig to pay school fees for his three older children who are attending university.

Carel is married to Annette who works as the Kitchen manager at the EcoVillage school.  They have six children.  Their fortitude proves that people in the villages can provide more than a subsistence living for their families.

 

by Chris Calia

Report from Day 1

Chris Calia and Scott Grosse are representing Atlanta’s EcoVillage School Partnership during meetings in Haiti with our partners, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP).  Here’s a brief report on their first day.

They delivered and assembled a sewing machine. This brings the total to 6 machines.

Chris made friends with a fellow wood worker during his last visit.  He delivered some modern tools as a gift.

They watched the children play corn hole using a game donated in 2015.

They witnessed early stages of agricultural projects that we have funded. Proceeds from the projects are earmarked for support of the school. They saw fields of cassava and peanuts as well as goat husbandry projects.

They collected information to guide our book purchases that have been funded by book drives at our churches.

They worked out arrangements for the visit to Atlanta by Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who will speak with our supporters during our spring fund-raising.

The meetings continue through Wednesday.