January 4, 2015
I have for a long time been fascinated with technology. Computer and information technology has brought with it tremendous potential. A child with a smart phone in Africa has greater access to information than the president did 30 years ago. My fascination with technology and my desire to become a teacher lead me to contact One Laptop per Child. The organizations mission was just that. To give a piece of technological hardware to each kid in the developing world. They distributed close to 3 million units worldwide. OLPC failed to provide much follow up though. Their distribution was a roaring success, but they failed to provide the necessary tech and educational support to make the project sustainable. OLPC put me in contact with an organization called Unleash Kids. Unleash Kids was set up by former OLPC people to be the support team. The non-profit works in countries all around the world updating software and providing education using the laptops as tools. I started my Haitian voyage in February of 2014 when I began learning Haitian Creole, and studying the XO laptops’ hardware and software. I continued to educate myself on Haitian history, culture and current events throughout the spring and summer. Fall came and I flew down to Haiti to start my three month journey.
I began my voyage in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Landing in the airport you are thrown right into the chaos that is the city. Taxi drivers line the exit reaching for your bags and telling you that they are there to pick you up. I had arranged a ride beforehand and informed them that I did not need their services. I got in contact with my driver and he drove me to my first location, Haiti Communitere. It became my home base whenever I was in the city. The next 10 days were spent bouncing around the city teaching at various schools. My first day was spent visiting with a cellphone company to get myself a SIM card. I was met by Haitian translator named Jeanide and we ventured into the city. My first impression of the city was overwhelming. I first noted the condition of the road leading up to the intersection, it was run down and riddled with holes. We got to the main road and crossed the path that ran over the drainage ditch. I was taken aback by the amount of trash that lined the sidewalk, road, and ditch. Plastic bags, Styrofoam take out containers, plastic and glass bottles, everywhere I looked I saw trash. I watched my step as we walked toward the intersection. As we grew closer it got more and more crowded, and the street vendors started to pop up. Not many white people live in or visit Haiti, and out of the ones that do, very few roam the city. I drew a lot of attention from the street vendors anxious to make a sale. These vendors sell anything from computer parts, to shoes, to shampoo. Haiti has super markets, but the traditional style market place environment still thrives.
We crossed the street and climbed into the back of a brightly colored truck with benches on either sides. I received intrigued looks from all the passengers and greeted them in Creole. We drove a while up the road and I was able to see more and more of the city outside truck. The country is still struggling five years after the quake, and still many live in temporary shelters. Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camps are set up right off of the main roads. The shelters are nothing more than tarps draped over crude frames, and still today they house thousands of people. We continued up road and drew closer and closer to Petionville, an upper class community just outside of Port-au-Prince. The city of Petionville houses delegates, government officials, and majority of the wealthy elite. The shacks slowly turned into building and the building slowly grew nicer and nicer. The disparity was quite obvious, and I did not need to be told when we made it to our destination. The buildings became more and more industrial, and the streets became cleaner. The cars became more luxurious, as did the style of the average person. There were far less street vendors, and far more shops. We had only traveled a few miles, but it seemed a world away.
Upper level education in Haiti is done in French. There is very little creole resources for learning so the emphasis is understandable. In Port-au-Prince the signs are in Creole. “Pa bwe li w’ap kondi” “Don’t drink and drive” is a sign in creole that you see in the capital. When you get to Petionville the signs switch to French. “J’ (heart) PV” Is a clear play on the “I (heart) NYC” concept. The creole way to do so would be Mwen (heart) PV. But the advertiser chose to use French instead of creole. It seems strange, but it is an accurate reflection on the correlation between language, education, and social status. Whites and Mullatos (half white half black), are more often than not members of the wealthy elite, which is a product of the country’s imperial history. As a result of this, more often than not I was greeted in French rather than Creole. “Como sa va?” is how the French ask “how are you?” In Creole the way to ask is “Koman ou ye?” I came to learn both and how to respond to either, but it was an interesting assumption being made.
We arrived at our destination in Petionville and Jeanide and I walked into the air conditioned 15 story building. We waited around for a while, but eventually my questions were answered and I was able to get what I needed. I was set up with 10 GBs of data a month to keep me connected. We journeyed back to Communitere and began to lesson plan for the week ahead. I set up a series of science related lessons that would use the laptops to teach the kids the scientific method, while exploring different concepts. I plan to eventually become a high school physics teacher, so it was good to get a sneak preview of what I will be doing. The younger kids especially are always excited to have a guest teacher. The Haitian education system is 90% private. The emphasis at these private schools are almost always on test scores, and fact based retention. I fundamentally disagree that this is an effective model for education, and was happy to bring some hands on learning. With the kids in Port-au-Prince, we did sound experiments, played music, and built rockets using the XOs as tools. The classes and the kids in them helped me form amazing memories that I will cherish forever.
After my stay in Port-au-Prince I headed west to Grand Goave. There I stayed with Pastor Lexidan Edime, and his wife Renee. The couple helps run a school of around 300 kids from the surrounding town. Grand Goave is a beach community, and it is an even more laid back atmosphere than Port-au-Prince. My first day there was Sunday and I joined the pastor and his wife on their trip to church. I am not religious by any means, but I can appreciate what it means for a lot of people. I was raised catholic and have been to church plenty of times, but Haitian church is unlike any other. The people pulled out their nicest clothes, and piled in one by one. The service began and the music got the congregation on their feet moving to the rhythm. The people were more engaged than any church goers I have ever seen. So many Haitians really seem to rely on their faith. I assume because of the hope that it brings. Life in Haiti is unfortunately difficult. A kid born in Haiti does not have nearly the same chance at social mobility that a kid in the states does. I was fortunate enough to have the chance pursue my dream on teaching, but for a lot of the kids in Haiti, they do not have the resources to follow their dreams. Religion gives people hope, and purpose. The hard life is forgotten and instead it is replaced by faith. I remain agnostic, but I definitely have a new found appreciation for what religion can mean to people.
During my three weeks in Grand Goave I taught two classes a day every day. This gave me the chance to develop relationships with my students, and teach them to be self-reliant with technology. It was amazing to see the transformation with each kid start to finish. The shy older kids slowly came out of their shells and began to explore the laptops more and more. The preloaded Wikipedia software sparked their imagination and I was happy to explain any questions that arose. My time in the beach community was well spent. I will hold onto the relationships I formed there for a long time. There were some truly inspiring kids and I think of them often.
From Grand Goave I headed northeast to Hinche. There I did a lot of technical work repairing the school server. The bureaucracy that exists at the school was extremely difficult to work through, but eventually I was able to get things squared away. The weekend before I left I went to a tourist attraction in Hinche called Bassin Zim. The park is home to a brilliant waterfall and a few caves. The local kids serve as tour guides on the weekend. A group of 5th graders took me up the path and helped me along showing me the sights. Between my Creole and their English we were able to talk and we had a fun time climbing, running, and swimming. The kids were happy to have me and I was happy to see them. After we finished our adventure I said my goodbyes, I went back and got some rest. The next day it was back to the city for a few days.
Back in Port-au-Prince I had to do some more technical work repairing school servers. We unloaded from our van and hoped into a truck. I remember this moment distinctly because as we loaded in a woman with a three year old child and a sack of potatoes climbed in. She was worried about her small child sitting at the back of the truck, so she simply passed him forward to a complete stranger. The Haitian community really is looking out for each other. The woman got off at her stop and we passed the kid along to her. She thanked us and was on her way.
My final stop on my trip was Bois D’Avril. It is an extremely small village in the mountains, and it is unlike any place in Haiti, or the world that I have ever been. There I stayed with a Baha’I couple John and Deb. The two moved there 35 years ago and raised their three kids there. Their house sits on the top of a hill at 6000 feet elevation. The house is less than 10 miles from Port-au-Prince, but the elevation and seclusion makes it seem like you are in a place more like the Upper Peninsula. Pine trees and open fields are everywhere. The village sits just below John and Deb’s house, and is home to about 25 people. I took my brother here and he agreed that it truly is paradise. The people do not see much outsiders but were extremely welcoming. Whenever I decide to visit Haiti again, I will for sure be paying the village a visit.
My Haitian voyage was a long journey full of plenty of adventure. I was nervous going in, but I was fortunate to meet some great people who put my mind at ease. The support I received from people on the ground and back home was extremely valuable, and I am grateful for it. The people I got to know and the experiences I have had will last me for a life time. I went in wishing to fulfill a dream and I could not be happier with the result. I hope that I have impacted the lives of those kids as much as they have impacted me. For most, it is a tough road ahead. I just hope that I sparked their imaginations and gave them some hope.