David Doherty is a refugee from all things functional or organized. In other words, he is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Haiti.

Monday, 8 Dec 2003

CAMP PERRIN, Haiti

Haitian proverb: Se pa bon pou yon moun konnen twop.
“It’s not good for a person to know too much.”

Today is the latest critical point in our school construction project. It’s time to compose the final document that may or may not get us the necessary funds to build. Canada, one of Haiti’s best benefactors in that they actually pay for projects instead of funding long-established agencies that provide relief without development, has put our proposal on the fast track. (I think everyone can agree that Canadians are just darn nice people except, possibly, for a few strident Quebecois.) A committee will meet in seven days to decide our immediate fate.

A typical Haitian classroom for 60-80 kids.

Lekol Reforme is a primary school in search of a home. Founded in 1986, it has been a migrant since losing its building in 2000. Despite working under conditions reminiscent of the old inner-city housing commercial from the 1960s (“nothing a 15-cent washer can’t fix”), they have managed to provide an education to 258 students from preschool through grade six. This is testament to the dedication and passion of the founder, Madame Joseph Esther Dumesle. Her inspiration gave me the idea to view the process of building a school from a holistic viewpoint.

Now one might argue that a school has nothing to do with the environment. That could be a debatable point in a developed country, but having lived in rural Haiti since early 2002, I regard educational reform as the key to addressing the near-moribund state of environmental awareness and protection in the underdeveloped world.

Haitians use the old French educational system. By old, I am referring to Napoleonic. The notion that children can learn by rote memorization enforced by liberal use of a baton or martinet (small whip) has remained little changed since independence in 1804. Unfortunately, this fear-based method encourages repetition without comprehension, actively punishes creative thought processes, and suppresses critical thinking.

Let’s give this girl a good education.

In a country that has fallen below subsistence level, primal forces limit how far one dares to think into the future. The only focus is on getting enough to eat or pay for the doctor or go to church or put on a funeral. Everything is immediate because hope has diminished to a dim flicker. Ergo, the most sensible thing is to forget the past, never consider the future, and simply try to make it through today.

The result: Cut down all the trees because they can be sold for charcoal today. We can deal with the resulting floods and soil loss caused by deforestation when it’s an immediate problem.

Take away people’s ability to learn from the past or plan for the future and you have Haiti. It’s a land populated with people I love dearly, but one that frustrates beyond all reason. I live in a country where the beneficiaries are incapable of solving their own problems and are relatively content to wait until some outside force intervenes.

I recruited three Americans (architect Eric Davenport, permaculturist Liddy Arens, and arts facilitator Anna Peterson) and an Australian (permaculturist Charlie Knoles) to help design a school that accommodates the needs of education in a facility that draws tangible links between people and their natural environment. After six months of intensive study and design, we think we may have found the equilibrium between the natural elements (light, wind, rain, vegetation) and physical space that will balance the needs of human activity with the need to protect our natural resources.

Maybe we’re being too pie-in-the-sky with our hopes for this project. Maybe not. But if the Canadians pony up the dough next week, I invite any and all readers of this submission to visit Haiti in 20 years and see if we were right or wrong.