Reflections on Haiti
When I travel, sometimes I feel nervous about being an American. I hate to feel misrepresented and am often hyper-aware of the assumptions that are made in connection with my country. I want to be received with an open heart and an open mind, open eyes and open ears but I know this is not always the case. The Matènwa community not only opened their homes and their school to our group, they did so without judgment, with respect and with welcoming eyes, arms and smiles. In a place where my white skin made me stand out, where my Americanism was blatant and the history of oppression is so linked between my country and the one I was visiting, I did not feel judged or misrepresented. This acceptance is something I am incredibly thankful for and do not take for granted. The nature of the trip was truly an exchange between educators with like-minded visions. I see this nature of give and take and shared voices as a fundamental foundation for the building of this school-to-school relationship. When asked what message he wanted us to bring back to the states about Haiti, a young man we met named Manuel said he hoped we would take the time to really see his country, to listen to it and feel it, and to share with our country the good that we found in his. He asked us to not only open our eyes but to actively listen and to open our hearts to see that the negative messages that are often linked to Haiti are not the whole picture, not even close to the whole picture. I feel so honored to have had the chance to be introduced to this incredible country, to feel it, see it and taste it, and now to share it.
One of the things that struck me most was the culture of sharing that seemed to be a integral component in Haitian life. It is as if the word we know as “share” cannot adequately describe the profound concept that is taught and lived from infancy in Haiti. People do not share because they will get praised if they do or because it makes them a nicer person, it is more fundamental than that and much more profound. Knowing that whatever I have will be unquestionably shared with you seems almost as natural as breathing to the Haitians I met. One of our translators pointed out the fact that there is only one word in the Haitian language for the collective “you” and for “we.” They are one and the same, so when you ask a group of people, “How are you?” you’re also saying, “How are we?” This is an incredibly powerful distinction and something that could serve as a model for a lot of other cultures. For me, it brought even greater depth to the nature of community and what that word truly means. There is incredible strength and unity in thinking in terms of “we” and “us” and how we are all in this together. We learned about a Haitian expression that says, “cooked food has no owner” and saw the truth in these words as children broke apart or distributed whatever they had for their brother, sister or friend. This idea of genuine and unquestioned sharing was reiterated when another translator explained to us how she had pointed out to a number of Haitian mothers the incredible gift they gave to their children when they taught them to share in this way. She explained that when a Haitian baby has a piece of bread, the first thing they do with it is offer some to whoever is by their side. It isn’t about being generous, it’s about being human. It was with this frame of mind and this incredible ability to extend all you have for another, that we were welcomed into the Matènwa community. I have kept this idea in the forefront of my thoughts as I’ve transitioned back into my life here in Cambridge and in the kindergarten classroom. By praising kids for “sharing well” or “taking turns” are we unintentionally instilling the idea that this is an exceptional act as opposed to an expected act? This goes for distributing work as well. We saw clearly how every member of a family shares in the daily work whether it’s getting water, sweeping, cooking or caring for a sibling. If it is expected that we carry the load together, this becomes second nature and unifies the successes and burdens of the challenges life poses. This is not generally the way work is distributed in our culture. This has left me wondering how we, as a progressive and very community-oriented school, could stretch ourselves even further to find a place for deeper sharing in what is often an “every person for themselves” American society. In a world that is inequitable and deeply challenging for so many people in so many places, we have to know and believe and act on the idea that our own freedom is connected to that of every other human in this world. That it is about “us” and how we can progress together, not about “you” or “them” or “me.”
The other thing that struck me deeply that I find myself hoping and planning to incorporate into my teaching back at Fayerweather is the value in a process. I think this is a concept that is valued at our school already, we find great merit in the process rather than just the product, but this trip to Haiti has reinforced how meaningful it can be to experience something step by step. Getting to Matènwa was a process in itself and served to bring us closer as a group as we were jostled together in the back of that pickup truck. The process of getting there also impacted my understanding of the isolation and effort that is a part of Haitian life and as it was explained to me, part of the Haitian identity. Similarly, seeing the process of walking twenty-five minutes down to a water source and the effort involved in this daily routine brings a much deeper appreciation for each drop used in a given day. Coffee takes on a whole new taste when you have seen the beans roasted, sweetened and ground over a two-hour period of time. Students at the Matènwa School also share a meal together three times a week that is largely made from produce grown in the school’s garden. Each class takes responsibility for some aspect of the garden (again the idea of a shared work load) and students then not only see, but benefit from the impact of their work in the meals they share. I have dreams of our students experiencing these kinds of processes more regularly. In many ways our culture is disjointed and disconnected, especially when it comes to food. We don’t often know where are food comes from, how it was made or by whom. It is easy to eat and consume mindlessly, not giving a second thought to the effort that went into growing, producing and transporting the things we put in our bodies. Meg and I plan to expand our gardening theme this spring so that our students have a chance to experience this process as a group. I am excited to go through the steps of planting, growing and harvesting food with our kindergarteners. It takes patience, nurturance and appreciation for the process as well as a shared effort to produce something we can enjoy together. Matenwa’s first grade teacher, Robert deemed President Obama’s words “Wi Nou Kapab!” (Yes We Can!) as the motto for our trip. It will be our motto for this project as well. Wi Nou Kapab!