Listening to the Watchmen

The orphanage before the generator shuts off for the night, and an eerie darkness sets in over the land.

The orphanage before the generator shuts off for the night, and an eerie darkness sets in over the land.

I feel lucky to be holding an ice cold Prestige in my hands, a locally brewed American-style lager - a welcome treat after a long, sweaty day.  Since only 25% of Haiti has electricity a chilled drink is for reserved for the bourgeois. The sun finally set over the hills of Haiti breaking the heat of the day.  The air is dead.  I pull a chair from our hot, stuffy cement dwelling onto the balcony.  Only a few more hours of electricity before the generator will shut off for the night, and an almost eery darkness will cover Haiti, only a few dots of scattered lights in the distance. Below, the orphans’ chatter joyfully as they play in the remaining yard light before heading to bed in the nearby dormer.

A few others new friends watch the night with me.  Bonds form quickly when traveling. They also grab a beer and pull out a chair, including James, a young Haitian man in his early twenties, who was assisting at the orphanage. We’d met formally earlier in the day. After learning I was Canadian and had learned French in school he was eager to speak French with me. 

Unfortunately, I've lost the language but he tried anyway, and laughed at my many mistakes. I learn James is a student at the University in Haiti in nearby Port-Au-Prince, where he studies French and Psychology. Creole, a pidgin language, is the native language, but James was also learning English. James is an anomaly; going to college is rare privilege in Haiti.

It takes a concerted effort to communicate with his broken English but we still found ourselves able to carry on a meaningful conversation about what he believes his country needs most.
“People think I’m crazy to study psychology. Where is the money in that?”  And yet his dream is to working with the orphans.  He sits with the lonely child on the playground and asks how they are.  He loves to spend time with them, and at the end of the day, takes notes on what he is learning.  They tell him they are alright but he can see in their eyes they are not. "After all our country has been through, we are deeply wounded." Although orphan children are usually better off than those in the streets, they still lack adult love and nurturing.  With his psychology degree James’ dream is to help heal the orphans from the inside.  When an estimated 85% of college-educated citizens choose to live abroad in search of a better life, people like James are a local treasure watching over their people.

In a few days, I will visit another orphanage and meet Manno.  Manno is Haitian educated with a lawyer's degree.  He, too, has devoted his life to helping orphans by using his education to protect the children from corruption. He spends several days at a time away from his wife and kids to make sure the orphanage is running smoothly.  

Suddenly, I have brothers in Haiti. And I am hopeful. In the midst of what feels like a dark, oppressive land the smallest of lights shines brightly.    

By now, the generators have ceased.  A small breeze passes through, mixed with the smell of human urine and the odor of the burning garbage.  The endless litter and piles of trash are a serious health hazard, causing contamination of groundwater and soil.  Garbage is simply burned, which is understandable, considering there is no proper sanitation system.  The night watchman sits in the distance next to his scarcely loaded gun, guarding the compound walls for potential intruders.  After a sweaty, restless night with biting no-see-ums, I wake in the dark at 4 am to the sound of angels singing outside my bunk bed window.  The older girls have readied the younger children for school, and lead them in songs for their Father, and while doing so, the sun begins to rise.  I use my iPhone to capture the sound: 

And there are other dedicated watchmen. Students are taught in Creole but teachers are ill-prepared, as no degree or even education is necessary for the job.  80% of teachers are not qualified. They may have a high school degree, but often they simply teach from life experience. Teaching pays better than many jobs. The yearly salary for a teacher is about $962, still barely enough to meet the needs of a family.  Sometimes, teachers go months without pay.  In turn, the best teachers are not drawn.

View from the balcony we talked in the dark last night.  The children are ready for school, and playing in the yard before school starts.  On the other side of the all are homes.  The orphans never leave the compound walls.

In America, we ask our children what they dream of being when they grow up. In Haiti, asking such a question is nearly unthinkable. The cost of sending one child to school for one year averages $350. The average household income for one year is $400.  If they have two incomes, $1000.  When you have several children, clearly the need to feed your child outweighs watching them attend school.

However, even if a child does go to school, it doesn’t guarantee a sustainable future.  At the end of 5th grade children must pass the sertifica examination.  However, because they are taught in Creole and the test is written in French, less than 2% will pass.  The few that enroll in high school will meet chaos again.  To enter, the test is taken is taken 5-7 times and can only be taken once a year.  These tests cost a small fortune, and many risk their lives traveling to Port Au Prince in hopes that this time, they might pass.  Only the elite make it into university.  Jobs in Haiti for the educated are few, with only 3% of Haitians being alive and well, which is why most leave the country for work. Meanwhile, peasants work the lands, and rustics sell their goods and services, day in and day out, simply to meet their most basic need for food.

Once a day, the children meet with Manno and the team to sing, talk, play games, and learn other life skills.  For instance, when I was visiting they were learning how to properly shake hands with someone.

What is the government doing to help?

The government in Haiti is less a watchful force for good but is filled with corruption. The Ministre de l’Education Nationale et de la Formation Professionannelle provides few funds for public education and is limited in its ability to improve the quality of education.  The private sector has become the substitute. There are, however, outside organizations working to aid in education. For example, we met some great people from Global Partnership for Education who provide things like uniforms and pay for educated teachers. Notebooks, pencils and a proper curriculum, however, are still lacking in the schools I visited.  Government is not the answer; social change begins at the grassroots.

There are no easy solutions for a country with problems as deep as a grave.  But I am hopeful.  

My understanding of the Haitian education system is on the surface; I have much to learn. But I strongly believe education is where change must begin in Haiti.  And that we need more people like James and Manno who realize that hope is in the children, the orphans, and choose to devote their lives and education to better their country. 

Change also begins when we put away our presuppositions, and start listening. When we watch from within their perspective separated from our American ideals.  Our hearts may ache for an entire country, but true change can only happen through personal and genuine relationships.  For me, this began over a cold beer in the silence left by the dying generator and an unexpected conversation on a cement balcony watching over an orphanage in Haiti.  In just a few hours, my understanding of the people grew exponentially, as did my love for Haiti.

"My soul waits for the Lord.
More than the watchmen for the morning;
Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning."   

- Hebrew Scripture