by Jackie Coren
The students on the trip are Nadia Arenas-Purvinis, Andrew Arth, Michelle Bronsard, Rebecca Campbell, Brandon Christian, Eamon McEwen and Khy Zungu. The leaders are Jackie Coren, Barb Kibler and Rosey Rosetty-Wagner. One thing we learned at the outset is the Taíno, word for Haiti, which is Ayiti (“High Places”). The Taíno were the indigenous people of the whole island and the preferred name here. For our first week in Ayiti, we’ve been in the mountain village of Gwo Jan at the N a Sonje community. N a Sonje means “We will remember,” and the foundation’s mission is to introduce visitors to the people, language, culture and history of Haiti in order for Haitians and visitors (particularly from the north) to come to know each other as real people despite more prevalent stereotypes. All work activities and learning sessions are designed around this idea of building relationships and a wider community. The founder and director of N a Sonje, Carla Bluntschli, is a committed and imaginative teacher and a veritable Energizer Bunny!
Language and Culture:
In addition to the initial greeting from the Carla’s “team” of local Haitians in the first evening the students met their “twins.” Each GS student is paired with a young person in the village with whom they do language and cultural activities together as “siblings” and as a large group. They have all become good friends and it’s wonderful to see that. Our first evening all together was spent listening to personal stories from Carla’s team and the “twins” of what it is like to live in Ayiti and of our sharing why we have been drawn to come here. Everyone spoke freely and movingly and the evening set the tone for the rest of the stay here.
In their own words—Michelle and Rebecca:
A striking part about our trip has been learning about the culture and Kreyol language of Ayiti. Ever since we arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport, we have been greeted in an extraordinary manner. In Ayiti, we learned that it is customary to greet everyone you meet with a smile and a “Bonjou!” This tradition in itself is representative of the Haitian culture of community, integrity and respect. When we first arrived, in order to participate in this culture, and “feel the ground and be on the same level as the local villagers,” Carla had us get out of the van in the mountain village of Gwo Jan where we are based, and walk the remaining ¼+ mile. Upon arrival, we met with local members of her team and our “twins” (“marasa”). The twins are local village youths who take part in the N a Sonje Foundation community. They have become good friends. The existing language barrier was partially broken through mutual Kreyol and English exchanges and lessons. To practice and develop our knowledge, we played charades and a form of “Hangman” in the opposing languages. Overall, the experience with our twins and the Gwo Jan village has allowed us to gain and deepen our insight into the rich Haitian culture.
Food and Village Encounters—Khy and Nadia:
To accomplish the tasks mentioned below, we both worked in the kitchen at N a Sonje and also walked to various homes in the village–about 1/4 mile up and down some steep footpaths. All of the food we helped prepare appeared at one time or another in a meal we ate.
In their words:
On Sunday, we split into 2 groups of 4 to do 4 different activities. We rotated after about an hour at each station. One stop was coffee-making at the home of a villager. We learned how to roast the beans from berries, then coated them in sugar. We waited for them to cool, then ground them with a wooden mortar (hollowed out tree trunk) and pestle. It tasted delicious. This was the same coffee that we drink at N a Sonje.
Another stop at a villager’s home was cassava breading-making which was amazing. We watched how it was made and each of us had a turn at grating coconut with a grater made by punching holes into the side of a used metal can. Cassava is a root that is grated, pressed, and dried. The bread, a sandwich-like bread is our group’s favorite so far. It’s usually eaten with sugar and coconut, and sometimes with herring, onions, and tomato. In our group, cassava bread is also used for our breakfast and night. Nadia, the “pickiest eater” of the group, said that the herring cassava was her favorite. Another stop was roasting and grinding peanuts for peanut butter; and at another, we sorted beans and grains of rice.
Other food we eat included rice, beans, sweet fried plantains, pork, beef, chicken, salad, freshly-roasted and ground peanut butter (another station), breadfruit and freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice.
On Education– Eamon and Brandon:
Tuesday, March 13, was our “Education Day.” Eamon and Brandon write about House of Hope, a school at the Foundation Ecumenic for Peace and Justice. This program is for children and youth living as indentured servants or “restaveks.” As most restavek children have minimal to no schooling, the Foundation works to provide a primary education to children living as restaveks. We had a long session with older children and youth and adults in a vocational sewing program in which we exchanged questions and views on a range of topics, from the personal to the political. It was a wonderful exchange. It’s important to know that the restavek situation is not an officially sanctioned program, but rather an unfortunate consequence of the economic realities of the country. There are a number of social programs working to reduce the number of restavek children and hopefully some day eliminate the practice altogether. After this we went to Quisqueya University and met with Sara Wolf (’99).
In their words:
We went to one of the best private schools in Port-au-Prince. At the school, we visited with some of the students. They were well-versed in the politics of Haiti. The students we met with were in grades 5 and 6 and also included profession classes. In the profession classes, we found that ages ranged from teenagers to adults who have children. The school seeks to ready the students for society. In grades 5 and 6, the school teaches many common courses, such as math, cooking, language, etc. While we talked to them, they brought up the topic of second-hand clothing. Many people in Haiti buy second hand clothing [donated from other countries] because it is much cheaper than buying new Haitian-made clothing. As well as taking away from the local economy, the clothes take away from the culture of the Haitian people. They take these classes so that they can be able to make and sell their own clothes which have traditional designs. We also went to another school and learned [from Sara Wolf] about an innovative education experience she and her team have created for Haitian schools. She told us about a morning routine which excites the kids about learning instead of through fear. They gained support from companies like Kellog and partnered with the university they are stationed in. They do data collecting on the education system in Haiti and are starting a data center, which is the first of its kind in Haiti. They are teaching educators around the country about the new process of teaching, which through the data, they proved has been working. The Ministry of Education in Haiti has not done enough in recent years in the way of improving education, so InnovEd has taken initiative to better the education opportunity in Haiti.
History—Kairo and Andrew:
In addition to Kairo and Andrew’s account, the students re-enacted a guided mimed historical play that Carla and her team created called “Three Innocents and a Spirit.” Over and over in our conversations with people, the history of Haiti is emphasized, and the importance of recounting and remembering. N a Sonje means “We will remember.”
In their words:
On Monday, March 12 we focused on the history of European colonialism in relation to Haiti. Carla read excerpts of Christopher Columbus’ personal journals, Howard Zinn’s interpretation and other historical texts. The overlying theme of the lesson that we were taught was telling history from non-traditional perspectives. After completing these readings, Carla led us in a discussion in regard to these alternative perspectives, lending additional facts when necessary. For example, we discussed the United States occupation of Haiti, specifically the negative impacts this even has on present-day Haiti. As this topic is rarely emphasized in the American education system, our knowledge of this was quite minimal. This led to not only an intriguing discussion, but an overwhelming informative one as well. In addition to learning and gaining knowledge, our lessons were also emotionally enriching. For instance, Carla passed around a real chain and shackle, found and dug up from the land nearby. It was from the days of brutal slavery in Haiti. This deeply impacted our group as we all saw and held it and reflected on the severity of slavery in Haiti and its effects on the people today. All in all, our new-found knowledge and appreciation of Haitian history will be something that not only impacts the remainder of our time here, but on our lives when we return back home.