Eighteen students from Lower Merion High School, including myself, recently returned from our “trek” to a village in Haiti to build a school, and the experience changed me forever. After spending a year raising $66,000 for the project and brooding over my fears, I could not have been more fulfilled by the “trek.”
The People of Haiti
Nothing could have prepared me for my first experience of Haiti, a land of contrasts. After landing in Port-au-Prince, we first drove past “tent villages,” crowded slums where millions rendered homeless by the 2010 earthquake live. But our first night in Haiti was in a fancy hotel in Les Cayes. The next morning we drove through the beautiful countryside to a village called Taverne in southern Haiti.
We met our host families at the village church. My friend Julia and I roomed together and were welcomed with open arms by our host mom Solange, sister Dafka (age 11), and brother Gavince (age 7). Carrying heavy suitcases, Julia and I hobbled down a rocky road from the church to Mama Solange’s house. When Mama noticed my struggles, she took over my suitcase. A group of at least 20 kids was following us. When I tripped and stepped into a muddy puddle, a couple of kids whisked the flip-flop off my foot and rinsed it in a small pool.
I can list hundreds of little anecdotes depicting the affection and unconditional love everyone felt for us. The people of Taverne are poor but showered us with hospitality. One day, Mama found our bag of dirty clothes and washed them, refusing to let us help her! Throughout our stay, all the kids adored us, always ready to play with us, braid our hair, or simply watch us write in our journals. The day before we left, I found my host sister Dafka sobbing in our room. I had known that I would be welcomed, but I could not fathom how deeply they cared.
Building a School in Haiti
The mission of this trip was to build the school. Everyday, we spent four hours of intense labor at the worksite. Here is my journal entry for Day 1 at the worksite.
After breakfast of spaghetti and eggs, we all went to the worksite and split into teams. Team A (my team) would work in the morning and Team B after lunch. First, I carried rather large rocks from place to place. This task was not very labor intensive, but it was blazing hot, and I took many water breaks. The next hour, I carried sand in buckets from one side of the site to the other. The buckets were heavy and blistered my hands. After a long hour of sand buckets, I had an easy job of getting smaller rocks from an off-site location. The relaxing, three-minute walk carrying light rocks provided much-needed rest. I built up energy for the most difficult task: shoveling and pickaxing. We dug large, deep holes to be filled with rocks for the foundation. The work was draining; after a few swings of the pickaxe, my shoulders ached. I admiringly watched the community members, who shoveled and pickaxed for hours without taking a break.
The Challenges We Faced in Haiti
Before my trip, I spent much time worrying. After all, our village would have no electricity or running water! How could I possibly survive in 95-degree weather without air conditioning? It turned out that none of this was a problem. Mama Solange’s two-room, tin-roofed house was clean and comfortable. Songs, funny conversation, and soccer replaced computers, phone and television. The only real challenges I faced were drinking bleached water (something I never got used to) and the lack of a toilet. Instead, we used a latrine, basically a deep hole in the ground with a pedestal and stall for privacy.
The language barrier was more challenging than the lack of modern conveniences. I wish I could have had more in-depth conversations with my host family and friends. In the evenings, my roommate Julia and I would hang out with other teenage kids. While our broken Creole was comical and incited much laughter, I wished I could have talked to the kids more about their lives. I especially wanted to talk to Mama Solange. I was able to ask her if she had gone to school and if she had enjoyed it. During my two short weeks in her home, I came to love and respect Mama, but I could not delve any deeper into her thoughts and feelings.
They Love School?
Everyday, we went to the water pump to fetch water for drinking. As two of us pumped and purified, the rest relaxed in the shade of the palm trees and wrote in journals. As soon as we took out our journals, all the little kids would stop running around and peer over our shoulders, intently watching us write even though they could not read it. I remember one little boy for whom we wrote out some letters in my notebook. He had never been to school, but he carefully copied every letter, creasing his brow with concentration.
One evening, we were playing with our sister Dafka. We had noticed that all the kids loved to draw, so we brought out our journals and colored pencils and handed them to her. She looked up expectantly, so we asked her to draw a “fleur” (flower). Instead of drawing, she wrote the word “fleur” in beautiful cursive. We thought she had not understood, so we tried again with the word “etwal” (star). She wrote “etwal” but did not draw it. Soon several pages were filled with her perfect script. I asked her if she enjoyed school, and she nodded shyly.
Another day, we went to school in a neighboring village to teach English. My team was assigned to 6th grade, the highest grade in this primary school. We started by teaching English words for animals, clothing and body parts, but this incited little enthusiasm. Desperate to see a spark of interest, I wrote a math problem on the board. To our amazement, the kids were excited, shouting out answers. The kids even loved decimals and fractions!
My lasting impression of Haiti is a land poor in amenities but rich in warmth and love. I am heartened by the kids’ love of learning and education. We have laid the foundation of a school in Taverne. I am convinced that we could have given no better gift to the children of Haiti.