IVC Prep with Bon Berger, Pele

Karl Johnson's picture
Posted by Karl Johnson on
Thu, 02/03/2011

We have an office restriction from working in Cité Soleil, or any other place where our team might be endangered. Cité Soleil is one of the most notorious slums in the world, and we've received some school grant applications from there that we simply can't pursue. But then we also got an application from Pele-a neighborhood right next to Cite Soleil that serves part of the slum. We started a relationship with that school last fall that soon became one of our most ambitious projects.

In that part of town, just beyond the airport and off one of the city's five traffic lights, the roads are narrow, bright and packed with people. I'm rolling with the Global Nomads Group on a visit to Pele-whose students are returning to participate in the February video conferneces. The Nomads' RAV4 has turned through the intersection and is now inching through a throng of walking commuters, clothing and fried banana merchants, and oncoming motos and cyclists.

We pull up to a solid metal gate, and some merchants scoot coolers aside as the gate opens to let us in. Within, a narrow drive runs between a block wall and a one-story suite of classrooms. We park, disembark, look around. What first drew our attention was the ghostly quiet side of the campus dominated by a long, condemned two-story building structurally incapacitated by the earthquake. It now shades a courtyard and several mingling mint-shirted students.

École Baptiste Bon Berger is the academic home for 1100 primary and secondary students. I'd been watching the design of this school develop for months, but didn't quite have a sense of the actual site–which felt smaller, much more compressed in person. The louder side of campus is packed with wood-frame temporary pavilions, leaving the somber end with the kitchen and, beyond that, the latrine.

Bon Berger has a fascinating history that the Global Nomads have come in part to capture. Brandon unloads a bunch of digital film equipment from the SUV while Salvador introduces Chedric, the headmaster, to the amount of on-camera attention he's about to receive. Grace, myself and Baselais are off to meet the students who will be participating in the following day's Interactive Video Conferences with four North American schools (a session that had to be rescheduled on account of the pending election result announcement).

The students were already assembled in a lofty temporary assembly hall–the metal-clad roof was high enough to clear the adjacent admin building, and rows of pew-like school benches faced a row of folding chairs and a dropped-down USAID tarp blocking the sun and billowing in the breeze. Passing students, younger ones in blue button-downs, wandered through pews and posts between classrooms. It must've been a sight this crew of foreigners briefing the eldest on reconstruction. Grace starts directing the conversation with thoughtful questions, Bas, a native of Hinche and founder of a local empowerment group there, works with the students in Creole, relaying the conversation. I'm on board as a representative of the new design, and am talking about what to expect in the construction process-one that, for the size of Pele, will last several years.

We got into a good conversation. I explained that Pele would be broken into phases to be completely redone. A standard six-classroom school takes the better part of a year, and Pele is a 20-classroom school. I explained about how new buildings would be introduced around the narrow campus. It was hard to admit though that the temporary pavilions like the one we were speaking under would need to stick around for a while yet. Things will get easier once the first phases are complete and the latrines and condemned building are replaced.

Then questions started-and they only seemed to get harder. "Will there be a chemistry labs?" "A science lab is in the design." "Will the school be done before we need to transfer away to finish [high school]?" "No...but the younger kids will be able to complete their studies on the new campus." (To Grace: "Are you married? Do you have kids??" Grace (laughing): "No and NO!") It's hard not to overpromise, and it's hard explaining project cost fluctuations and things like that. And it's hard knowing the unbelieveable international support for a school that these kids are going to. And the video conferences help bring that part down to Earth. The school is larger than what was being filmed that day.

Grace moves the conversation, throwing a question back at the students: "How do you see the new school serving the community?"

A boy in the back, Wilson, stands up. He speaks leaning forward a bit and moving his hands in ranks and circles. Baselais relays in English. "The youth are the key to Haiti's future. It's all about the youth. If kids in Cite Soleil have a good school like Pele, they have promise for a future." Certainly, with computer and science labs, these kids would have an edge into vocational skills and university courses.

Grace: "How do you support one another and see that you make it through?"

Cherly: "On a bad day, if a bench is wet, we'll all scoot together so no one's sitting there." Benches are a standard in Haitian schools, but wide acceptance doesn't mean they're the best solution. Even the lacquered and carpentered benches at Pele are simply fancier versions of a no-elbow-room obstacle.

Then someone shoots back: "Will we get new desks?"

"Desks are part of your learning environment and are part of the school's renovation. Yes."

Pele school students

Photos by Marsaille Fitzgerald