Home From Haiti, Introduction (July, 23, 10)
"Maybe when I'm seventy I can rest and have some quiet"- Rea Dol explaining that it is her calling to help people.
Stepping out of terminal three in Fort Lauderdale waiting for a shuttle to take us to our connecting flight back to Canada, I couldn't help noticing the calm and order of busses, limos and cabs whisking well to do designer travelers out across a shiny new blacktop. A mere hour and a half earlier, the last vivid image I had of Port-au-Prince before stepping inside the airport was a naked man face down on the sidewalk, no one sure if he was still alive and a stoic UN officer just a stones throw away keeping post as if all was well. The streets were congested and full of potholes that were more like craters. The dirt, exhaust and humidity filled my sinuses and clung to my skin. People everywhere, seemed to move as a solid mass weaving in and out of heavy traffic that from my eyes was born from chaos theory. I knew that once I stepped on the plane that these visions of a desperately poor country would all be a memory.
The contrast blows me away every time and somehow it is harder to accept what I see traveling home. The mundaneness of North America feels like a slap in the face, knowing that the people who just saw me off are going back to fight their endless battle to ensure their humanity is not forgotten in a sea of rotten politics and international markets that see chronic poverty as a good investment.
It was a great trip back to Haiti, albiet a hard one! The reality of the situation was driven home while standing on top of a pile of rubble up in Morne Lazarre (the neighborhood where the school resides). Rea pointed to where I was standing and said "three of my students are still under there" and pointing beside me, "two more are still under that pile".
Receptive to the experience, Haiti is a fast-track education about the world in which we live. Haiti is a living history book! The colonialism and revolution of two hundred years ago is still present around every corner. To me this is reality and what I go home to is something likened to a Hollywood set.
It was good to see Rea! For two years Rea kept saying "come out and see me, I have so much to show you and tell you". I always said "just tell me in email", but what I saw there could never have been sent across the Internet with any effectiveness to convey both the desperation of her peoples situation and the means she is using to try and combat it.
Darren Ell and myself stayed at Rea and her husband Battai's house, who not including her three children, have around sixteen house guests that have been staying with them since the quake. Their roommates include teachers, students and their parents and Rea's extended family. Rea often sleeps in a tent or under a tarp to be able too accommodate more people in her home.
Daytimes were jam packed with people to meet and sites to see, but the evenings we just sat on her patio and talked endlessly about the country, the people and SOPUDEP's roll in the city (which has expanded since the earthquake). The larger picture Rea painted for us was SOPUDEP to eventually include an affordable college with scholarships to be made available to SOPUDEP students, an accessible medical clinic, stores in the city to carry homemade products that would be made by the women employed in Rea's budding micro-credit program, other school's that employ the model for accessible education for the poor to be brought under SOPUDEP's umbrella and so on... SOPUDEP already has quite a roster of adult and youth education programs.
Rea has a mind for details. She methodically documents everything in her life and the communities she works in. Stacks of notebooks full of financials broken down to the last penny, complex and ingenious formulas to not only to help pay her staff monthly, but ensuring that each one gets a yearly bonus to help them pay larger bills, micro-loan ideas to get her women's groups working and photo records of everything from the rations she handed out in those twenty six communities to the bodies she pulled from the earthquake debris.
The list that struck me was the Excel document that detailed the condition and whereabouts of each of her students. Columns with details like "living", "injured", "family members dead or injured", and "house destroyed" with a "yes" or "no" under each (the majority of what I saw was "yes" under home destroyed). Now, because of this displacement that happened after the quake, with many of her students were forced to go live at camps around the city, enrollment has gone from around 580 to 300, but Rea has made sure to keep in contact with those students who can no longer attend and she is vigilant to find out about those students she hasn't heard from yet.
We documented as much as we could in the time we were there, but it became obvious that it would take more time to accomplish all the goals we set out for ourselves and to really scratch the surface of what is all going on six months after the quake. I think a trip back in winter is in the works.
We did however manage to get photos, video and interviews ranging in a number of different subjects and will be put to use on the site in the coming weeks. The predominant theme that runs through all we did is how much harder it is to live now. Teachers, students, parents all have new or escalated problems to deal with. Financial, psychological, physical and basic survival issues now touches the majority of the residents of Port-au-Prince. It just isn't the destroyed homes and loss of jobs that have thrown people for a loop, it is the seemingly arbitrary hike in import prices since the quake. A pair of shoes that used to cost $6 (US) now costs $60.
We met with SOPUDEP's staff on a number of occasions while we were there. The majority are still with the school because they believe that what they are doing is very important to their community. It certainly isn't because they earn enough to live. Much of what they do is beyond the call of duty for the average teacher. Lesson plans and teaching their students is horribly laborious, especially under the burning hot blue tarps that now jut out from the school building. Because there are very few textbooks and workbooks, all the material must be written on a chalkboard. The students themselves need special attention from staff because of the psychological issues they now face due to the trauma they have suffered. All staff received free training on how to treat these students. The list of deficiencies and challenges these teachers now have while only making $1.10 (US) an hour is incredible and down right depressing. They also missed three months of pay when the quake happened because resources were shifted to aid relief.
As a general overview, we visited the new site of SOPUDEP School, gave some instruction on building the bamboo shelters, interviewed some students and staff and followed one of the schools star students back to the makeshift camp her and her family now have to live in. There really is so much to talk about and each subject we encountered here from students, staff, Rea's women's groups, the camps, the devastation and all the rest really deserve their own time to be discussed and dissected in the coming weeks.
A big thank-you to Rea, her family, the staff and students for their generous hospitality.
One last thing I'll mention here. The day before we flew out of Montreal to Haiti, I had a chance to stop and see Greg and Tina Brooks from Brooks Pepperfire Foods. A long time ago I had mentioned a salsa project which would go to help the food program at SOPUDEP. Not a few days before I showed up they launched it along with a number of other of their Pepperfire products with the Haitian Fire label. $2 from every bottle goes to the school, but portions of the proceeds also go to support local agriculture. The salsa uses Haitian Goat-peppers (fair-trade certification is in the works) grown in the central plain by a farmer by the name of Roland. He has also personally delivered produce to the school at a discount price. He heads up a farming co-op and has encouraged the other farmers to go and develop relationships with other social programs that provide food for the poor. A big thank-you is in order for both Greg and Tina for going ahead with the project. This stuff is really good too!
Too much to say here, so stay tuned,