First, a quick addendum to yesterday’s post: The World's Best Offertory Ever was made all the better today with the discovery that the goat at the foot of the altar was “our” goat. It came down the mountain from St. Augustin’s in Maniche, our partner church and school where we spent today. Given the nature of the drive, on mountain “roads” that are more like riverbeds, I know why the goat was tired by the time it got to church.
Today was our first of two days at St. Augustin’s School. Sadly, we got there too late to see the flag ceremony, which begins every school day. All the classes – three levels of kindergarten and six elementary grades – line up outside their classrooms to raise the Haitian flag and to sing the national anthem. It’s a nearly sacred act in a country where simply existing as a sovereign state has never been a given. Colonization and slavery; a war for independence; forced reparations payments to the nation it defeated in gaining its freedom; decades of ostracism by the family of nations; absent commercial development; interventions by regional powers, including the U.S.; several strings of failed governments; strong leadership turned to bloody dictatorship; more failed (and self-interested) governments; a devastating earthquake; NGO work that often shunts indigenous leadership aside; and, now, political messiness that makes simply electing a president a seemingly impossible task. Despite failures imposed upon it and failures of its own making, Haiti defiantly continues to exist. And at countless schools across the land, young Haitians celebrate the dignity of nationhood every morning.
At St. Augustin’s School, we found good news to report. First of all, we were struck by the fact that the kids look generally healthy and adequately fed. That has not always been the case. I remember visits when we could pick out the malnourished kids because of the dullness of their eyes and the orange tint to their hair, secondary to kwashiorkor (severe protein deficiency). A few years ago, St. Andrew’s started a hot-lunch program serving beans and rice, a high-protein meal, to the kids every day. I can’t say the lunch program has made all the difference, but it’s certainly made some of the difference.
|Half the first-grade class at St. Augustin's School in Maniche|
Second, the enrollment has increased by about 50 percent in the past couple of years. More than 300 students are packed into tiny classrooms that seemed too full the last time I was here, when there were about 100 fewer kids. The first-grade class has about 50 children, all in one room we might put 25 into.
That’s a function of other good news – that St. Augustin’s test scores have been rising consistently. Our school is now among the top three in the Maniche area, ranking ahead of the Roman Catholic school. And when we made home visits with some of the students this afternoon, we heard it from the parents’ mouths: They have a choice of schools (something we didn’t really understand until a few years ago), and they choose St. Augustin’s both because of its reputation in the community and because they see the progress their kids are making. As one mother said, “I want my children to be able to know things I don’t know and do better than I could do.” It’s the same story for any parents in Kansas City concerned with their kids’ educational opportunity.
Of course, success and growth bring their own challenges. Fifty kids in a small classroom isn’t an example of sustainable growth; and every new student is also another mouth to feed, as well as another mind to fill. We’ve known intellectually that St. Augustin’s needs more classroom space, as well as support for more teachers, books, and lunches. This year, we’ve seen that reality up close. The Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner, coming up April 24, will be great opportunity to keep making a huge difference here.
We also encountered the kinds of endemic challenges mission work in Haiti faces. This time, it wasn’t the natural elements; the river is down, and the truck could cross it “no pwoblem,” as the Haitians say. Last year, we provided several laptops for class use. Apparently battery life is compromised by tropical conditions, and we found today that the laptops’ current batteries can’t be recharged. So, we asked about getting more batteries in Les Cayes, the city where we’re staying. But of course, in a culture where few people own personal computers, batteries are scarce. So we’ll see what we can find in Port-au-Prince. As we discovered in a previous trip, running electricity (legally) to the school would involve multiple thousands of dollars. But solar power generation? Another school near Les Cayes is using it. Perhaps that’s the next thing to consider, though I know Maison de Naissance, the Episcopal birthing center, didn’t have a good experience with solar power a few years ago.
Anyway, for every experience in Haiti – positive as well as negative – there is always the next challenge awaiting you. As the saying (and book title) goes, in Haiti there are always mountains beyond mountains….