Belande Fè Jis!

For the past three weeks, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Belande has sold the most delicious natural juices—grenadia (passion fruit), citron (lime) and cerise (cherry)—to patrons at Joe’s Bar, the local hangout in Léogâne. Belande’s Juice developed out of two tragedies that Christa and I witnessed in September: (1) the collapse of our nascent organization and subsequent unemployment of all staff—including our former cook, Belande—and (2) the complete void of natural juice vendors on the streets of Léogâne.

Though Christa and I have since relocated and begun volunteering at an international NGO only a short walk from our former home, I think I speak for us both when I say that there are aspects of our old lives that we miss, specifically our moments in the kitchen with Belande.

When we felt lonely and overwhelmed, we crawled into a chair at the kitchen table and watched Belande make patés, sauce poi, legume, and of course, an endless assortment of juices. While she cooked, we whined about our problems, told her about the boys we thought were cute, and talked about our respective lives in St. Louis and Brooklyn. In turn, she told us about her children, her eleven sisters scattered throughout Haiti and the diaspora, and her dreams for the future. Our daily chats with Belande anchored us in Léogâne like nothing else could. They reassured us that we were not merely working in Haiti, but living in Haiti, fostering relationships that would last us a lifetime.

Each day, when we sat down with other international staff to eat Belande’s meals at lunch or dinner, we never spoke, simply savoring the taste of her concoctions. Once our plates were scraped clean, we took turns shouting, “Li gou, Belande!” “It was good, Belande!”

Belande nurtured us both physically and emotionally. Now, she and her cooking are no longer formal fixtures in our day to day. Yet, since IFEWA’s end, Belande has become another member of our family in Haiti. Christa and I make surprise visits to her home, sometimes we attend church services together and eat Sunday dinner with her and her family, or we simply walk around town.

And now, together, we sell juice. A 16 oz cup sells for 30 goudes on Joe’s salsa nights. Throw a little rum in it, and you’ll dance the night away. The more juice we sell, the greater confidence Belande has in her abilities as an individual and a chef. We hope soon that Belande will find the courage to go beyond juice and sell her amazing cuisine so that all of Léogâne can know the magic of her cooking and shout, “Belande, li gou!”

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Rele 9-1-1 (Call 9-1-1)

It was a Tuesday night, salsa night at a bar owned by a former New York taxi cab driver. I was sitting at a table with Jessica, as well as people from other NGOs and the UN. Sitting directly across from me was a young Haitian man wearing a white t-shirt adorned with a silver link chain. I caught him staring at me several times. After staring back, without either of us averting our eyes, I finally asked, “Poukisa wap gadem konsa?” Why are you looking at me like that? Surprised that I spoke Creole, he smiled and started laughing. He responded in English, to my equal surprise, “If you don’t like it, call the police. Rele 9-1-1.” With the ice sufficiently broken, we spent much of the rest of the evening engaged in a bilingual conversation.

Felix is from Aken (Aquin in French), a coastal town along the Caribbean Sea in Haiti’s South Department. He was attending university and living in Delmas, a section of Port-au-Prince, with his younger brother when the earthquake struck. The building in which he lived was partially destroyed, forcing him to move in with a friend. He stayed in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, then moved to Leogane to work for a NGO, building furniture for schools.

Every Saturday afternoon, Felix boards a bus to Port-au-Prince so that he can attend church on Sunday mornings. At first, I didn’t understand why he would travel two hours on a partially unpaved road in a standing-room-only bus without air conditioning to go to church, especially because there are a number of churches within the Leogane Commune that he could attend. But when I learned that Felix’s mother moved to France in the late 1990s and again in 2008, along with his two sisters, and his father passed away, the importance of his church family became abundantly clear.

In times of turmoil and instability, we tend to seek comfort in that which is familiar. Those fortunate enough to have access to their families (and get along with them) often first seek comfort in them. But when family isn’t available, we seek comfort in those who play a familial role in our life. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. And it’s what Felix does when he journeys to Port-au-Prince every Saturday. Perhaps that’s why he and others so willingly accept me as part of their family; they are used to instability themselves, and understand what it’s like not to have your biological family around when you need them.

Over the past couple of weeks, Felix has proven to be a valuable addition to my Haitian family and an amazing friend. Whenever I need anything, whether it’s going to the bank, searching for new headphones for my iPod or making a late night food run, I can “rele” Felix. No need to call 9-1-1.

Premye Jou Lekol La (The First Day of School)

I frequently talk to my girls about the importance of education. I ask them of their plans after completing high school, and encourage them to start thinking about attending university. It’s an easy discussion to have, as most of them have lofty dreams and aspirations. But, one can’t talk about education in Haiti without having a parallel discussion about the fact that many families cannot afford to send their children to school.

When I was in Haiti in late May, some of the girls indicated that they wouldn’t be able to enroll in the 2010-2011 school year, as their parents didn’t have the money. I inquired as to the cost for them to attend school for the year, and the fees ranged from US$25 to US$230. Given the relatively inexpensive cost – at least from my American perspective – I offered to pay their tuition for a year.

Despite my own financial woes lately as a result of the fallout from IFEWA, I’ve (thankfully) been able to follow through with my commitment to the girls. So, for the last several weeks I’ve been helping a few of them acquire materials they need for school: books, uniforms, shoes, socks and notebooks, in addition to paying their school fees. Some of those materials were finally put to use yesterday, as both Veronique and Doune returned to school.

After school, they stopped by all decked out in their school uniforms with knee-hi socks and neatly braided hair with barrettes to tell me about their first day. The girls, as well as most other kids and teenagers in Haiti, have such an enthusiasm for education – an enthusiasm that many kids in the United States lack. I suppose it’s because, like many things, kids in the States take for granted the fact that they have access to education, whereas in Haiti, being able to attend school is truly a privilege reserved for a lucky few.

I feel honored to be able to help provide the girls with an education so they have an opportunity to do better. I realize that I’ve been truly blessed in my life, despite any “hardships” I may have encountered. So it’s only right that I help others in any way that I can. Imagine how many children in Haiti could go to school if everyone felt that way…

Frem (My Brother)

Growing up, I always wanted a brother. I think my sister always wanted one too. Too much estrogen in one house made life difficult for all of us. And even though I was a tomboy through much of my childhood, my boy-like tendencies were no substitute for the real thing.

Imagine, I spent all those years longing for a brother, only to find out that I have two living right here in Léogâne.

On my second visit to Haïti in July, I met two amazing young men, Emmanuel (18) and Benji, (15), that have become my family on the island.  While we’re not biologically related (I don’t think…), they are my little brothers.  We look after one another, we defend one another, and we confide in one another.  In the midst of the instability that characterized my month of September, Emmanuel and Benji incorporated me into the fold of their daily routine, and shared their lives and their families with me.  They offered me stability where I felt none, and they gave me a home.

Now that I no longer conduct regular school visits, I see my frem every day; we walk the dirt roads of Léogâne, running errands or grabbing a Tampico while chatting about the banal events of our days. We talk about our problems, our families, and our dreams for the future. Benji wants to be a pilot.  Emmanuel wants to attend university and learn just about everything.  I want to help them get there.

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In the evenings, at Joe’s, the local hangout, they are the first people I greet. I love hearing, “Ey! Sem! Fe ti bo a! “Hey! Sister! Give me a kiss!”  I smile.  They smile.  We, then, wander off to our respective friend groups (even though we’re not biological siblings, it’s still not cool to hang out with each other’s friends).  But we keep an eye out for one another; occasionally making eye contact and ensuring that everyone and everything is okay.

For the past two weeks since my unemployment, I’ve had a barrage of questions about my safety and why I’ve thus far refused to come home.  But when I think about Emmanuel and Benji, I know why I stay and I know why I’m safe.  I have family here; they keep me sane, they keep me healthy, they keep me here.

Sis Demwazel Yo…e Mwen (The Six Little Misses…and Me)

For the past week, after hastily leaving the house I lived in for the past seven weeks and announcing to the local staff that IFEWA was a fraudulent organization, I’ve been trying to move forward and reassemble my life in Haiti. It hasn’t been easy, as everyday I’m reminded of the events that transpired, be it from strangers or friends offering their apologies and words of encouragement or completing official complaints to local and international agencies to document what occurred. One of the things that has helped ease the uneasiness – and bring back some sense of normalcy – is spending time with “my girls”.

My girls include a group of six teenagers, from ages 13-18. I met Doune, Veronique, Katia, Stefani, Mikerlange and Shepsly when I came to Haiti to volunteer with a disaster relief organization in March – less than two months after the earthquake. While on a break from hauling wheel barrels loaded with rubble, I noticed the girls laughing and talking together. They looked like typical teenage girls, and I marveled at the fact that they were laughing and smiling despite all the destruction around them. At the time, I didn’t speak Creole, so I pulled out my camera to indicate that I wanted to take pictures of them. The girls responded with enthusiastic, affirmative head nods. What followed was a fifteen minute photo shoot, during which the girls took photos together, separately and with me. We then did some singing and dancing, and did our best to communicate with one another despite the language barrier. From that day forward, the girls, and their families, have been an integral part of my life in Haiti.

So the bright side to being unemployed and relocated is that I get to see my girls everyday, sometimes multiple times a day. Whenever I’m with them, I feel like a teenager myself, as we exchange gossip, talk about boys, discuss our favorite musicians, go shopping at the market, and giggle at anything and nothing at all. But there are other times, when I clearly play the role of “big sister”, taking them to the doctor, stressing the importance of an education and giving them general advice on life. No matter what role I’m in, when I’m with my girls, I’m with them. I don’t think about anything else. And I think that’s what makes my time with them so special and enjoyable.

I feel so blessed to have the girls in my life, as without them and their families, I’m certain that by now I’d be back home in St. Louis, sitting on the couch, eating chips and watching reality TV. But instead, I’m hanging out with my girls in the hot sun, drinking Tampico, wiping sweat from our brows and holding hands while dodging piles of mud as we walk through the streets. Yeah, Haiti, Leogane specifically, with my girls is definitely where I need to be.

The Private School’s Dilemma

As a former public school teacher who believes in free and universal primary, secondary and post-secondary education, the thought of paying for basic educational services is disheartening.  Yet, in Haiti, the trend is ubiquitous, with approximately 80% of schools privately operated and requiring tuition payments, and even state schools charging minimal operational fees.  In my search to survey the current state of secondary schools in Léogâne Commune, I found only two public secondary institutions of more than one hundred thirty.  Thus, I began my interviews dismayingly in the private sector, both conducting needs assessments post-quake and secondarily attempting to understand the privatization of education in Haiti.

In my mad search for schools to visit, I began calling the CASEC offices in each section of Léogâne.  The CASEC (conseil d’administration de la section communale) offices are the first point of governmental contact for citizens, and they are located in each section of a commune. CASEC officials were incredibly helpful in delivering contact information, specifically those in rural sections, as they jumped at an opportunity to have their conditions documented so that they might receive aid.

The first private school I visited in one of these rural sections was COFEREB, located in Palmiste a Vin and founded only a year prior by former public school teacher, René Lionel.  COFEREB is a school in its infancy; before January 12th, the school had yet to be accredited, only served fifty students all between seventh and ninth grades, and relied heavily on teacher volunteerism, paying only 15 HTG per hour (the equivalent of 1.92 USD, just over half of the average hourly wage at most private schools I visited).

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COFEREB was created in 2009 in an effort to address the needs of a rural community with access to only one private secondary school.  Most students attending secondary school travel “en ville” to the town center for secondary education, about a twenty-minute car ride on well-paved roads.  Yet, like most private school entrepreneurs in Haiti, Lionel has confronted one primary obstacle that impedes his school’s success: limited funding. Relying solely on student tuition payments for staff salaries and operational costs, COFEREB struggled to stay afloat prior to the January 12th disaster.

The problem: tuition payments exist at all private schools, but are not mandatory at most. According to Lionel, “Les ecoles non publiques sont plus publique que les ecoles du publique.” Why would private schools be more public than their public counterparts?  The reality is that private school directors often admit students who cannot pay or only submit partial payments, and then scramble to meet operational costs.  Whereas at public institutions, students who do not pay the minimal requisite fees are not educated. Period.

Yet, it is clearly the desire for quality education that has led to the creation of so many private schools.  Though the Haitian Constitution mandates public education free and universal, state-sponsored schools are nowhere near equipped to educate the number of school-age children in Haiti (without beginning to consider the sizeable overage student population). However, few private schools have solved the financial dilemma, their operations digressing until they lose sight of their original mission.

Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the plight of the private school seems even graver.  In COFEREB’s case, Lionel must plan ways to expand his school in an effort to survive the disaster, rebuild a physical structure, and pay his teachers.  But if parents were hard-pressed to make the school payments that fund these expenditures prior to the earthquake, imagine their struggle in its aftermath.

Current trends in Léogâne after January 12th make prospects for rehabilitation and expansion seem bleak. Although Lionel has had visits from UNICEF, Samaritans Purse, Save the Children and the German Red Cross, as of late September, the only structure COFEREB claimed was the wooden frame made by Lionel and local volunteers [see picture].  Additionally, Lionel fears the dwindling of his teacher pool, as international non-governmental organizations have the means to provide Haiti’s most skilled professionals with higher wages and benefits that small private schools do not have.

COFEREB’s struggle for survival is evidence that the government, in partnership with local and international organizations, must provide all schools with significant financial support so that they stay afloat in the 2010-2011 school year.  Foregoing immediate financial supports in an effort to find “sustainable” solutions will result in the loss of yet another academic year, leaving more students behind, and crippling an already weak education sector.

College Mixte L’Avenir

This is College Mixte L’Avenir. I met the director, Mr. Cherubin, at MINUSTAH’s weekly education cluster meetings (chaired by a representative from Save the Children). Mr. Cherubin gladly invited me to his school, as I indicated that I was a teacher myself and wanted greater insight into Haitian secondary schools. I have to say, I was very excited to see his school, as he seemed to be one of the most dedicated directors at our meetings, having attended workshops on education in situations of urgency and having commented on the necessity of frequent workshops for directors and teachers.

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College Mixte L’Avenir is located in the heart of Léogâne on Rue St. Catherine, just off of the main commercial strip, Grand Rue. The school has been operational for seventeen years, beginning instruction in first grade and ending at Rheto (Bac 1), as no students have reached the last year of high school, Philo (Bac 2).

Cherubin has high hopes for his future graduates; he wants all of them to attend university, either in Haiti or abroad in countries like the U.S., Canada, Cuba or Venezuela. Yet, he knows that the odds are against him.  According to Cherubin’s estimates, only 10% of students attend university after leaving secondary school and 15% attend professional school. When I asked about the remaining 75%, Cherubin sighed, waving his hands toward Grand Rue, and indicated that the rest find something to do on the street.

But despite the odds, approximately 75% of his students pass state-mandated exams, he has good relationships with parents, and had academic enrichment services at his school prior to the earthquake including a computer lab and library. His teachers, for the most part, are paid on time (an anomaly for private schools, considering they depend on sporadic student tuition payments to fund their teachers), and they attend mandatory seminars in pedagogy. Yet, like in most schools, not all teachers are university educated and certified by the Haitian Ministry; some simply have experience in the classroom.

It seems, from a glance, that College Mixte L’Avenir provides its students with the best possible resources for academic achievement. Yet, the road to success for this small school of about 400 students has steepened since January 12th. The school itself has completely collapsed. My interview with Mr. Cherubin was conducted in a hot UNICEF tent filled with school benches in preparation for the commencement of school on October 04. For the 30 to 40 students that sit side by side from 8am-1pm in tropical heat, one wonders how it is possible to learn at all. Luckily, Cherubin owns land in town that he hopes to use for a permanent school structure in the coming months; unluckily, he does not have the means to build such a structure at present.

The loss of their building is only the first of many concerns. All school furniture was destroyed; any school benches now in the school’s possession have recently been donated by the Ministry of Education, but they are inadequate in number.  The school has no pedagogical materials, few books, and no school supplies. And while College Mixte L’Avenir has received some NGO assistance–Aide et Action helped pay his teachers during the last four months of school, and UNICEF donated the tents–it has not found an NGO partner to assist in rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Students, already traumatized by an earthquake that took the lives of their peers, teachers, and family members, are starting school this week in tents like the one above without adequate space and equipment. Cherubin understands the implications of such an environment on learning; he has appealed to NGOs at cluster meetings countless times begging for a temporary or permanent structure in which to conduct classes and materials to help students learn. But responses are slow and needs are high.

The national cluster only 2 weeks ago began assessing needs for the 2010-2011 school year in the Léogâne region; at this point, one would imagine the government should begin preparing for next year. And in addition to your run-of-the-mill lack of communication among NGOs, local organizations and schools, the government itself has yet to finalize permanent building codes so that organizations can begin building facilities that last; anything built in the last 8 months has been only temporary or semi-permanent. Codes were supposed to be released in June, then August, and now October. And with elections around the corner, who knows what will happen.

So, how do prospects look for the rehabilitation of College Mixte L’Avenir in the coming months? Outlook unknown, really. Hopefully, Mr. Cherubin catches the ear of an NGO willing to partner with him to help him rebuild. If not, I’m sure he’ll figure something out…he always has.