A Report on new NHE educational initiatives in the NW (northwest) of Haiti Give us Your Children and We’ll Give You the World By Demeter Russafov
The room is crammed with little kids, neatly dressed in iron-pressed uniforms, sitting in an orderly fashion upon rickety old desks, deep beautiful eyes looking around as if lost. The space sizzles not just with heat but also with a heavy feeling of rigid confinement and alienation, and I involuntarily quiver for a second. The preschoolers seem uncomfortable, as if frozen by an all-too-familiar to me set of conformist expectations and behavioral rules, in this case enforced by the occasional teachers poking their heads in the sizzling hot space seemingly with the intention of maintaining a commonly agreed-upon invisible code of commands and instructions. Don’t do this, Do that, Stand this way, Don’t talk too loud. A tiny girl in the corner begins to cry, and the kids sitting next to her seem embarrassed and scared, perhaps by the possibility of drawing attention towards themselves.
The preschool is part of a larger government school in Grand Savanne, an hour north of Gonaives , Haiti . Yet this scene can be replayed anywhere in rural Haiti, where lack of resources and teacher training has resulted in an educational void so severe that it has become one of the primarily stumbling blocks in front of the advancement of its people and culture. As schools are struggling to pay teachers’ salaries and fund school improvements they choose to make cuts to their preschool programs before all others, often under the assumption that these programs are “least important of all”. And where there are kindergartens still existing the preschoolers participating in them are confronted by a teaching philosophy which is inflexible and linear, focusing on the reinforcement of a disciplined and orderly regiment of call-and-response type of learning. This archaic rigidity impacts all educational levels following preschool, and a mechanistic factory-like approach to education is decimating most creative and self-initiated pursuits and self-discoveries.Since 2004 AMURT has been enriching its ongoing community development initiatives in the NW of Haiti, focusing on the integration of problem-solving aspects of development in a tightly interlinked web of community supported programs. Initially concentrating on basics such as water supply, bio-sand filtration, food production and local capacity building among others, the programs have grown and matured in scope and longevity. The NGO recently launched an innovative operation assembling and distributing solar PV units utilizing scrap PV materials, thus starting its most popular and widely supported program up-to-date. Its 6 bio-sand water filter production facilities have become self-sufficient in terms of local management and resources, and a newly signed contract between the NGO and the World Food Program (WFP) has given its team the green light to begin laying the foundations of an alternative-method cooperatively managed salt-production facility. A half a million dollar health initiative sponsored by CIDA is targeting the creation of an innovative community management model of health care focusing on prevention, education, and increased community involvement. All these continually expanding programs follow a development model defined distinctly by a strong feeling of ownership on behalf of the local communities towards the ongoing projects. At a recent meeting with the central committee managing the solar panel distribution one member expressed that, “we have come to identify with AMURT, and to believe that it is in our best interest to have its programs run well and for a long-time”.
This feeling of local ownership of and identity with the projects, linked to the participatory model of development which AMURT has initiated in the area, is reflected in the philosophy of an innovative educational initiative which the organization is preparing to start in May 2007 with the support of a half-million dollar grant by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). This grant will fund an initial 2-year phase of a long-term integrated education project focusing on the establishment of a teacher training center, and the creation of series of workshops, certification courses, teaching manuals, and sets of educational tools and methodologies. The program will also build/reconstruct 3 schools, and offer various levels of support to 9 schools.
The CENEOH (Center for Neo-Humanistic Education) will establish several training modules taught in interconnected ateliers. A Visual Art and crafts studio will host visiting professional artists, offering courses ranging from paper machete, drawing and ceramics to jewelry, sewing, and crafts. A Movement and Music studio will focus on the fundamentals of theater, dance, and music, helping teachers become effective facilitators actively using storytelling and encouraging learning through play and experimentation. An important part of the curriculum is the creation of a yoga trainer certification course adapted to the context of Haiti through weaving stories and songs from the local folklore with yoga philosophy. A karate certification program starting at elementary school level will compliment the yoga (YES) training, both focusing on the creation of volunteer-managed after-school programs. An outdoor education core of courses will offer participants the opportunity to try their hands in ropes courses, canoeing, hiking, swimming, and bird watching. These courses compliment two other sub-programs – an environmental education and a GLOBE-related (www.globe.gov) experiential science curriculum. The objectives of these programs is to introduce basic scientific tools needed to observe and measure the natural phenomenon, form ecology (ELF) clubs and initiatives, and introduce universal Neohumanistic values of respect and stewardship of an environment highly stressed and exploited.The focus of the programs is to offer sets of hands-on exercises and experiences placing an emphasis on the process rather than content of learning. Concepts such as group dynamics, flow, dialogue, participation, introspection, service, creativity and play become key in creating an alternative to the current deeply-engrained system of beliefs and fixed linear approaches to factory-style transfer of knowledge. All programs are highly sensitive to the context of the local area, seeking to utilize the local human and natural resources fully and in an integrated fashion. Yet they also seek to promote learning through technology as well – an Internet-based learning center and mediatheque will offer long-awaited in this isolated area “treats” such as online education, computer certification courses, digital storytelling, distance education over the radio, and outdoor film festivals. An alternative technologies lab will give opportunity to students and teachers to gain valuable technical skills assembling and installing solar panels, and micro-economic courses will teach the basics of economic cooperatives through a hands-on participation in the distribution and maintenance of AMURT’s expanding line of “products” such as the bio-sand water filters, the “Rocket” eco-stoves, and tree seedlings coming out of its 5 tree nurseries.
The center will facilitate the teacher training sessions more as circles of dialogue and exchange of ideas and experiences rather than linear lectures. Some of the sessions will encourage observation and introspection; others will explore the links between images and language, and the interaction between humans and nature. A cosmological understanding of science will compliment the Neohumanist values, and challenge the prevailing religious and Newtonian understanding of the world as a fixed place of unchanging mechanistic relationships. Another innovative approach is the so called Gestion d’Proximité, a school management model involving parents and students in the running of all school related programs. One of the program’s goals is to enable the community to manage Neohumanist type preschools despite the lack of support of outside funds, merely using local human and natural resources and gaining skills and know-how at the regular CENEOH community workshops.The second phase of the project will qualify for an additional funding and time-frame, and will focus on the creation of a model K-12 Neo-Humanist school attached to the teacher training center, and on expanding significantly the center’s activities and programs. The departmental director of the Ministry of Education recently announced during his latest visit to the projects that once it takes shape CENEOH will be able to qualify for a government’s authorization to become the only officially recognized teacher training institute in the NW of Haiti, in his words “raising a new breed of teachers dedicated to an education free from the shackles and mental prejudices of the past”. His pledge to work very closely with AMURT and support it in its work is symptomatic of the high degree of acceptance of the NGO among the communities it serves, the agencies that fund it, and the government it seeks to reinforce. It thus joins other innovative NHE education projects in creating a model of integrating the programs within the social and cultural frameworks of their communities.
On the evening of that meeting the mood among the community members ran high, and the crowd did not disperse for a long time. The gathering exuded a feeling of closeness and identity to a process bonding the interests of all together. People expressed happiness that finally their kids would not have to go to the rough cities in the south to find good schools, and the dialogues often turned to visions and dreams and reminiscences which made me feel very close to this poor but pure mountain folks. One old woman drew me towards her, and almost shouted in my ear, “AMURT has done good work since it first came here, but now it is beginning to do a real good work.” A man next to her nodded vigorously, adding “Education is the base for everything. And so far here we have seen only very bad examples of education.” Another mentioned something about the importance of the young, making me think of an old proverb saying, “Give us your children and we’ll give you the world”. Suddenly a kiirtan tune joined the drumming sounds coming out of the nearby voodoo priest’s house, curious I leaned over the balcony, to see a few small kids sitting on the fence outside singing and thumping on tin cans. As the last community members lingered in the deepening darkness I felt optimistic not just for this isolated and forgotten by most corner of our little planet, but also hopeful for all of us.
Demeter Russafov, a.k.a. Dharma, is the director of the CENEOH project in the NW of Haiti . He has been volunteering with AMURT in Haiti since August 2004. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the project and its volunteer opportunities.
Appeal for VolunteersCENEOH-Haiti (Center of Neo-Humanistic Education) seeks self-motivated and experienced volunteers for its teacher-training workshops in the following areas: NHE pedagogy, art and crafts, yoga, karate, outdoor/environmental education, computers, science education, kindergarten, school management, architecture and construction. Stipends might be available depending on the timeframe of the volunteers’ commitments and their qualifications. Please contact Dharma at email@example.com.