I have been home from Haiti for just over a week now. In some ways it feels like a long time ago, but that is probably because it is such a different world from my normal day-to-day here in Portland. Last Friday I reflected that it was only a week ago that I was busily working in Haiti to complete the stories that the kids were working on.
But first, I wanted to extend my heart-felt thanks to you for supporting me on this trip financially, and with your prayers, good wishes and encouragement. It was a wonderful trip, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to be there working with the children. Our team of BuildaBridge artists put together an Art Camp for kids ages 10 – 14 in the city of Pont Sonde, a few hours north of Port au Prince. Another team of artists worked in an orphanage outside of Port au Prince creating a mural with the children there.
Even though the earthquake did not directly affect most of the children in our art camp, it is fair to say that the “after-shocks” of this disaster have permeated all of Haiti. Some children in our Art Camp had been sent away from Port au Prince by their families to live with their rural relatives. And in truth, life in Haiti has been hard for a really long time, so a project like this was a welcome diversion for the children we worked with.
I was fortunate to have a translator for the week, which helped to ensure the success of my class. I worked with a few young Haitians as well in my class, and this gave us an opportunity to work in collaboration with local Haitian teachers and artists, which was mutually beneficial. We were able to elevate the use of the arts – dance, music, poetry, storytelling and visual arts – to engage the children and to provide opportunities to reinforce lessons of Hope and creative, therapeutic play.
Haiti is a storytelling culture, so using stories and engaging the students into the art and form of stories was a natural fit. I was fortunate to find a book at Powell’s that had both English and Creole translations. It told the story of a little Haitian boy who experienced slavery, but demonstrated a strong, resilient spirit, and used a song to encourage and strengthen his spirit when he felt sad. This was a great way to reinforce aspects of Haitian culture and history and to highlight the parallels for the children between the ways that the boy in the story stayed strong through trials, and how they could do the same.
Each day we focused on different aspects of Hope. I tried to tell them a story that correlated with that each day, and I found Aesop’s fables to be particularly useful. These stories commonly use animals as the key characters, and I find those to be universally understood. One day I told them the story of the Mouse & the Lion – proverb being that “even small creatures can be important.” We then used a metaphor of trees to talk about life and how to be strong in the face of adversity. I encouraged the students to talk about the things in life that helped them to be strong and to not “fall over” when hard times came. Using these metaphors from the natural world made it easy to emphasize the teaching moments for Hope, the theme of our work there.
The following day, we discussed the importance of persistence in fulfilling goals, supported by the fable of the persistent and thirsty Crow that patiently dropped little pebbles into a pitcher of water until the water-level rose sufficiently for the crow to drink. Having a “future-orientation” is a vital aspect of Hope and trauma therapy. We talked about ourselves and our future goals, some of the children’s goals were to be an engineer, hairstylist, and motorcycle driver (from a 10 year old girl!). And then we talked about what things the kids needed to do now in order to achieve their future dreams. All in all, this was a fun experience, and one that I found the children to really engage in.
When I put the children into groups to create their own stories this ended up being more of a challenge. I realized that they are not accustomed to a lot of free-play and creative time in their education system. And most of the stories that were supposed to be “hopeful” tended to end with all of the characters dying. This is where I came to learn a lot about the role and function of storytelling in Haiti, and many Afro-centric cultures.
Put simply, life is hard. That is a given. People understand this, and don’t try to protect their children from that fact. After discussing my observation with my friend Joe, he pointed out that it really wasn’t until the Victorian Era that people felt the need to create these “happily ever after” schemes to protect their children from reality. Telling stories that are sort of tragicomedies teaches a helpful truth that bad things do happen, yet in front of that backdrop each story would have a teaching element – a lesson to be learned, or a situation to laugh at. Tales of foolish actions serve to teach kids what not to do without sounding punitive or harsh. Actually this is a prime example of the functional place of stories and their use in teaching cultural norms and mores.
When I asked one group if someone who was struggling or having a hard time would feel better after hearing one of these stories where “everybody dies”, they replied “YES! Because its funny!!” – in a way that implied “obviously!” After hearing their story again, I had to agree. It was funny, and there were important lessons to be learned.