As I was preparing my departure for Haiti in early March 2011, I visited my good friend Sheila who gave me a book she was still reading but thought I ought to take with me. She handed me a heavy hard cover biography of a United Nations diplomat I had never heard of, but on Sheila’s recommendation and the catchy title I took the book, Chasing the Flame; Sergio Viera de Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power.
What I discovered in those pages was the journey of a man whose life was spent negotiating with people, mediating situations and working for outcomes that best served all parties. I spent three months in Port au Prince on my first stay, and vowed after my observations, experiences and the reading of Ms. Power’s book, that I would return as soon as possible and work to make a difference in the best way that I personally was able. There is a direct quote from Mr. Viera de Mello, which inspired me when considering the manner in which I would face the work I was to undertake in Haiti.
“The world’s leaders would be wise to orient their activities less around democracy than around individual dignity. And the best way for outsiders to make a dent in enhancing that dignity would be to improve their linguistic and cultural knowledge base, to remind themselves of their own fallibility, to empower those who know their societies best, and to be resilient and adaptable in the face of inevitable setbacks.”
I have no delusions about being a world leader, though I am clearly an outsider in Haiti. I realized that this was sound advice, that first and foremost, and actually in all situations, whether at home or abroad, it is good practice to orient ones’ activities toward individual dignity. I also realized that I needed to learn to speak Kreyol (Creole) and immerse myself more into Haitian culture and that it would be best to find a community in which I could work closely with leaders of the community to “empower those who know their societies best”. So, armed with a new sense of how best to align my work in Haiti I began the search for how and where I would be able to start. I set out to work in two areas of concern, which I find integral to the enhancement of the human condition, environment and education. Both of these areas are of great importance to me.
I met a very interesting Haitian man, Max, who talked to me at great length over several conversations about the issues in Haiti, from his Haitian perspective I realized that I knew almost nothing of the true Haitian experience. When he understood what I was hoping to do and that I was looking for a community in which these projects would be welcomed, and also looking to satisfy my need to be away from Port au Prince, he suggested I visit “his” island to see if it might not be a good fit. We traveled to La Gonave in late May 2010 where I immediately knew that this was the place I could embark on a path with people who were interested in the enhancement and advancement of their community. I met the General Secretary of the mayor’s office Bellange, and a lawyer, Desir who were extremely excited about the idea of reforestation. Bellange was sure the mayors (there are three in this community) would support a reforestation project. I too was excited to know that I had found a community and support within the community to begin to implement projects.
I returned to Palo Alto and started talking to friends who encouraged me to prepare a presentation, create a website and find an established organization with 501c3 status willing to umbrella my work and donations intended for the work. I gave three presentations, passing the hat and invited people there to support the work and help start the reforestation project as a starting point. I really had no idea about anything beyond the proposed reforestation project for which Bellange, the General Secretary for the Mayor’s office in Anse A Galets on La Gonave had assured me there would be land on which to plant trees. I was certain that if I returned with enough money to sustain myself and buy the needed tools; shovels, pick axes and wheelbarrow, I would be able to make a dent albeit miniscule, in the reforestation efforts in Haiti.
Returning to Haiti, I was full of inspiration and vigor. We immediately set the wheels in motion, meeting with one of the Mayors, getting encouragement and support to set aside about 100 acres of land creating a Watershed preserve and planting trees on the preserve. We planted 1500 trees over the course of six weeks. We got permission for our organization to work in Anse a Galets and created a federation of organizations working together to serve the greater good of the community. I felt as though I had taken Mr. Viera de Mello’s idea “to empower those who know their societies best” and run with it.
In September when school was starting, I realized that a boy I had befriended, T-Ten is his name, was not attending. After some inquiry, I learned that he had never been to school, not ever. T-Ten is 12. Well after a few meetings with his mother and a principal Max knew, we put T-Ten in school. Here is an example of what it is “to remind themselves of their own fallibility” as Viera de Mello says. T-Ten was put into a kindergarten class, as there is no such thing as remediation in the schools here. This was an error. My idea or goal had been to enroll 10 kids who had never gone to school, get them started on the road to being educated. Through T-Ten’s experience, I realized that actually it would be better to start a remediation class. So we did, I say we because without the support of the community members of Anse a Galets, Max, and the people in Palo Alto who donated to these efforts, it just would not have happened. We opened a class for twelve students between the ages of 8 and 12 with the plan to teach them first how to read and write in Kreyol, along with some mathematics and geography. The school is a success; the kids are all reading and writing and empowered to continue. Along with their daily lessons, they receive a hot meal, and this is crucial to the program.
Three months ago we acquired land and are working on the creation of a Community Center where information is shared through classes, seminars, workshops and community activities. The plan is to house the remediation classes at the community center, adding two more classes of twelve in September 2012 as well as offering classes for adults in reading and writing.
We hope that people with expertise to share will come and give workshops and seminars. I intend to offer teacher-training courses as I did in the fall at one of the neighborhood schools. A community center is just what we need to empower the people of Anise a Galets.
As for the setbacks, which Sergio Viera de Mello spoke of, there have been many, from election violence to problems in funding, from drought and theft to illness. Setbacks are a natural part of the process in any endeavor. We have been running on shoestrings, we may trip, but we will not fall. And if we do fall, well, as Max so wisely says, “The best thing about falling is getting back up.”
To date we have created a nature preserve, planted 1500 trees, twelve Haitian children can now read and write, teachers have been empowered, and a community center was born, all in one short year! I had no idea that all this would transpire when I visited my friend Sheila and received such an inspirational book. Kudos and thanks to all who made these small wonders a reality.