Chavannes Jean-Baptiste

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. 

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