Report from the Neohumanist
School in Haiti
By Demeter Russafov
There is a shooting in the slums of City Soleil on this day. It is something normal, really, that’s what the ten-year old boy standing next to me says with a shrug of his bony shoulders. He has long learnt not to pay too much attention to the almost melodic sounds of daily gunfire.
His attention instead is transfixed on the action taking place in the large hall in front of us. Small whirling figures dance in concentric circles; the tempo slows only to pick up speed seconds later in a frantic urgencyof intensemotion. The beating of the drum, mesmerizing and joyful, overpowers for a brief moment the distant sounds of guns, and one can almost forget that this tiny shrine of music and movement is situated in the midst of the social and political chaos of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.Welcome to Creole Dance 101, one of the 10 experimental programs recently introduced at the Delmas Center of Neohumanist Education, or so called CENEO. The school and its sister campus situated in the valley of Boudon base their teaching methods on the philosophy of Neohumanism – promoting creativity, introspection, compassion and respect for all creation. At CENEO an agronomist with a strong interest in urban organic agriculture teaches bio-intensive gardening, composting, and medicinal plants using the schools’ rooftop tiregardens as an example. A geography teacher with a passion for music incorporates songs, drumming, and play in his daily classes. A practical skills instructor pushes the limits of academic learning by inspiring students to use their newly acquired skills to build a simple dwelling for a poor family. Three times a week more than eighty middle-aged women finish their literacy class in Boudon with a short yoga session and meditation, and ten-year-old students start their day with a “mindfulness walk” and a “morning circle of love”. A karate instructor teaches young girls the importance of coordination, balance and self-control, while next door a dance class pulses with the rhythm of Latin music.Students cross the ocean waters in opendeck canoes, learning the importance of team play and self-reliance. They spend the day exploring an island’s flora and fauna, playing cooperative games, swimming and running down the sandy beaches, and nothing can take their smiles off their faces (or the sand speckles off their cheeks) on the way back home.
Neohumanist Education is based on the understanding that the most important task in front of an educator is to inspire the students’ imagination and unleash their creativity in a systematic way, building-up their self-confidence and expanding their minds. The goal is to develop an increasing sense of compassion for all beings, and a growing interest in universal spirituality.This progressive educational system gets a new meaning in the context of the ongoing social and political crisis in Haiti. The impoverished Caribbean country can be a tough place for a kid to grow up in, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the slums of its capital. For decades the nation’s poor have been streaming from its provinces to Port-au-Prince, looking for better employment and education opportunities. What they have found instead has only been a dense concentration of the nation’s failed hopes and unmet expectations. While arguably offering better paid jobs and infrastructure, the city has also squeezed millions into poverty-stricken urban ghettos lacking electricity and running water. And with the nation slipping into a worsening abyss of economic collapse and social upheaval, the rising crime rate and the daily attacks and threats upon schools and students have led to the closing of many central district schools and to an unprecedented drop in student attendance.One surprisingly quiet early evening I sit on the rooftop of the school with the Director of CENEO’s Delmas Campus, Dada Karmavratananda, and with Jeanine Baez, a vivacious middle-aged Haitian American visiting us for the day. An unassuming yogi monk of African origin, Dada easily wins people’s affection with his personal warmth, humble disposition, and selfless dedication to social service. Sitting amidst raised-beds of organic swiss chard and other green leafy vegetables, we talk of the school’s history and philosophy.
“Construction Workshop at the Delmas Campus”
“Computer education with a creative twist”
“Art is Fun!”
The first of the two schools in Haiti opened doors, so to speak, in 1984 under a mango tree with less than 80 students. Over the years numerous volunteers of Ananda Marga, the global social and spiritual organization responsible for the schools, struggled against all odds to create a progressive and dynamic educational model. Is the curriculum restrictive in any way, Jeanine asks, does it impose a certain doctrine? Dada answers with a laugh, and then calls over one of the students tending the closest vegetable bed. Olem, what do you want to do when you grow up, he asks the boy. After a long moment the boy answers, I want to help Haiti become a big garden. I can see that he means it too, with his big smile and sincere eyes. That is why the gardening, exclaims Jeanine. Yes, gardening is definitely a way to connect with the live divine energy around us, Dada adds. Similarly the students learn to incorporate spiritual principles and practices in their daily lives –developing compassion, social engagement, determination, the importance of right diet, of discipline, of taking time off, and of universal spiritual morality.
“A canoe expedition to the Isle des Cabris”.
Our conversation is interrupted politely by Olem who informs us that the karate class is about to begin. Jeanine has been wanting to see the young self-defense students for a while, and so we head down to the hall. In the hallway we pass through several large classrooms, each hosting various activities. Girls are quietly intent on their sewing assignments, next door several middleaged women stand in front of a blackboard slowly writing words and sentences, and in another classroom an English teacher sings short phrases and greetings together with her students.
“Daily Yoga Stretches”
We pass a group of jolly yet calm thirteen year-old girls and boys clutching yoga mats – they salute us with their palms joined together in front of their hearts. Jeanine doesn’t hide her surprise, you have them trained well, haven’t you, she laughs, I can almost forget that I am in Port-au-Prince. The school strives to build respect for all cultures and spiritual beliefs, Dada explains, with the goal of integrating rather than isolating the student from her or his cultural and social surroundings. The objective is to create awareness in the students that all beings, all knowledge, and all experiences are interconnected and important, that learning never ends, and that it doesn’t recognize boundaries or restrictions. As a result the values taught are universal and deeply personal.
“Marching on – Karate Class for Girls”
The karate class has begun. At the front row there are a dozen ten-year-old girls – they stand in position, tall and straight as if to show the boys in the back that they belong there. As we enter the hall their little tightly clutched fists go up in the air in a synchronized motion, their eyes showing firm determination are focused straight ahead. Jeanine can’t contain her satisfaction and claps loudly right next to my left ear. I grimace and cover it, causing the kids to reel in laughter.
Karate is one of the several disciplines emphasized at CENEO with the goal of developing in the students the ability to keep their focus on the present. Another one is the practice of meditation – the students learn to take a quiet break, to keep their attention on one task at a time, to visualize and to concentrate better. And yet another such discipline is yoga – this centuries old practice is practiced daily at the centre, and has been scientifically proven to help balance the body’s glandular system, resulting in an increased mental peace and physical health.
The schools have developed a strong practical training focus – supporting initiatives such as solar ovens and construction workshops, sewing cooperatives and adult education classes, computer and Internet education, crafts and art. One of the main problems with education nowadays is that it has become too abstract and linear, suggests Dada. Education has lost its connection with the practical application of knowledge. Even worse, adds in Jeanine, it has lost its connection with the student’s soul and imagination. By creating a safe and nurturing environment to grow and explore the human potential the two CENEO campuses aim to break the vicious cycle creating hopelessness and perpetuating violence in the capital. The philosophy of Neohumanist education nurtures the desire for individual self-expression, yet it encourages the inherent human tendency to give and to help, to withdraw for a moment, and to find peace and inspiration within. In a city like Port-au-Prince, where bullets fly more often than birds, such lessons might just make all the difference.
Demeter Russafov is an Ananda Marga full-time volunteer in Haiti
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