Epi, Kolera?

Today is day three of lockdown on our base, and for most NGOs in Lèogâne.  And while it is my belief that the protests, tire burnings, and violence that ensued after election results were released late Tuesday evening are justified, the past days’ events reveal an ever-present human weakness that impairs good work done in Haiti and worldwide: we are easily distracted.

Yesterday, amidst news of blockades near our local bus stop, rocks thrown at passersby, and motos commandeered to secure more propane for tire burnings as gas stations have been closed, the rapid spread of cholera was nearly overlooked.

Yet, in only three days, eight cases of cholera have been documented in our small vicinity, over forty in Lèogâne itself.  Traditionally, we host a radio program for the local community to inform them about the epidemic, but it was recommended we refrain last night, as the community is consumed by election results.

Cholera, itself, was a  distraction for most organizations participating in infrastructural developments  after the earthquake.  Why think of long-term solutions when cholera is at our doorstep?

And so, I’m continually struck by the question: why is it impossible to implement multi-pronged approaches to development?

I understand that our efforts at present are at a standstill because of security concerns.  Yet, my hope is that when both the local and expatriate communities emerge from lockdown, we create a multi-faceted strategy to recovery and rehabilitation in Haiti.

By the way…did I mention, Sarah Palin’s coming to Haiti this weekend?

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Loraj Pral Gwondi

In the days leading up to Hurricane Tomas, the NGO at which Christa and I live and work began intense preparations for the impending storm.  We began securing all loose materials, disassembling tents, packing emergency bags, and storing hurricane supplies for a possible hibernation.  Every meeting was a storm update.  First it was a tropical storm, then a tropical depression, then a category one hurricane.  First it was heading directly toward Leogane, then it moved farther and farther west toward Les Cayes, then into the sea and over Guatanamo Bay.  The reality is, much like the daily weather forecasts we watch on local syndicates in the States, there was very little accuracy in these predictions and significant room for error.

Local volunteers and employees were informed that, should the hurricane require some form of lock-down, they would be welcome to join.  However, discussion of the possible effects of Tomas inevitably led to panic among locals privy to our conversation.

Regardless of the storm’s magnitude, Leogane was slated to flood…it always has.  Leogane’s residents understand their position on a flood plane, as well as the potential danger and damage that accompany their geography.  Yet, with the international community preparing for the worst, the seeming likelihood of its possibility increased for the local population.  Not only was there potential infrastructural damage, but what about the spread of disease?  What about cholera?  And while the international community was equipped with the resources for preparation, most Leoganese were not.

Christa and I prepared a list of supplies and a memory matching game to play with children so that they understand the materials necessary to confront the aftermath of a hurricane.  Non-perishable foods, potable water, batteries, flashlight, whistle, first aid kit and medicine.  I decided to impart this information to one of my brothers (you all remember Benji?).  I said to him, “Benji, ou bezwen prepare pou loraj ke pral gwondi [Benji, you have to prepare for the storm that’s coming]. I recounted the list of supplies that could easily prepare someone for an impending storm.  He listened intently.  When I finished, he said frankly, “Jessi, pa gen kob pou tout sa yo [Jessi, we don’t have the money for all of that].

I was ashamed by my own questioning.  Benji’s mother and father struggle to acquire sufficient funds to feed their children on a daily basis, and I was asking them to gather hurricane supplies.  I quickly told him that I would happily help him and his family acquire food items after the storm and told him to move all valuables to a high place.  We changed the subject soon after.

My next conversation was with Belande.  Belande’s resources are slightly less finite than those of other community members, and I felt it realistic to have a conversation with her about preparedness.

Yet, in attempting to share knowledge with Belande, I confronted an entirely different problem.  Belande owns a one-story house in Leogane, a house that withstood the January 12th earthquake and its aftershocks and was deemed structurally sound in an assessment conducted by an engineer, but in which she refuses to sleep with her family because it is made with cement.  She will never sleep under cement again.  Instead, she sleeps cramped among her three children in a tin-roofed shack in her backyard just in case another earthquake hits.

I spoke with her regarding moving into her cement structure during the storm.  Her temporary structure is not elevated, and both homes sit behind an irrigation ditch that would definitely flood.  She, of course, refused.  “Mwen pa ka rete anba beton [I can’t sleep under cement],” she reminded me.  She assured me she would find a friend or relative with whom to stay for the safety of her children, but whoever it was would not be living in a cement structure.

Luckily, the storm that began Thursday evening was no hurricane, but the flooding came regardless.  Belande’s house and those of her neighbors became an island.  The streets, rivers.  Buildings—including Hospital St. Croix, which only recently reopened after the earthquake—filled with mud.  Yet, during the whole ordeal, Leogane’s residents walked the streets in boots and galoshes, drinking their coffee, chatting amongst family and friends; marchands continued selling egg sandwiches and sodas, and life went on.

After the storm on Saturday morning, we continued with Plaza Playtime, a weekly timeslot in which volunteers organize activities with children from local neighborhoods and camps.  We were unsure whether children would attend given the rains, but let’s be honest, children love to play regardless of the condition.

Because the ground was so wet, we dissuaded most of the boys from playing their usual game of soccer and instead brought out a brand new map that we purchased all the way in Port-au-Prince (finding a map in Leogane is a near impossibility).

Our mini-lesson began with two boys looking and pointing at different places on the map, but by lesson’s end there were ten.  We sat together, looking for Haiti, the United States, countries in Europe, Africa and Asia.  Together, we attempted to identify what languages people spoke in each place and why they spoke them.  When I pointed to Haiti, I asked each boy if they knew what sea surrounded their small island.  They said no.  I informed them that there were many islands in the Caribbean Sea that shared a similar history and geography as that of Haiti.  They were shocked.  I told them hurricanes and storms like the one they had just experienced hit other places nearby like St. Lucia and St. Vincent, and hit them harder than they had Haiti.  They had had no idea.

While they bombarded me with questions about these new facts, I thought to myself: children must understand that they are not alone in the world, that they are not exclusive victims to tragedy and hardship.  These boys must learn—perhaps, from me, perhaps from someone who follows, perhaps, from life itself—that hurricanes and earthquakes and disasters of all kinds hit Haiti, but they don’t exclusively hit Haiti; that the world over deals with disaster, and that some of us are better prepared than others because some of us are more privileged than others, whether that privilege manifests itself in monetary wealth, access to information, or location.  Some of us have adequate time and means for preparedness, whereas some of us do not.  And while in an ideal world, we would all be well equipped to handle natural and man-made disasters, some of us must work harder than others.

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!”

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.

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.

Byenvenu!

Welcome to Se Lavi Ayiti. “Se Lavi” is a Haitian Creole phrase meaning “That’s Life,” and it is a mantra that encapsulates our experience here in Haiti. Despite any hardship, our friends and family here have continually offered us that phrase and encouraged us to keep working in our efforts to improve conditions here in Léogâne, and throughout the island.