Monday, June 23, 2014

BuildaBridge & Mercersburg 2014 Report

"Bèl Bonjou se paspò w"
"A beautiful greeting is your passport"

From June 1-10, BuildaBridge International collaborated with Mercersburg Academy for an educational service and cultural exchange project in Haiti.  Under the guidance of INAM (Inyon N a Sonje, AFSAKA, and MJRAV), a group of 9 students and teachers underwent an immersive experience of Haitian culture and language in the rural community of Gwo Jan (Gros Jean).

Gwo Jan is a quiet rural community in the mountains about an hour and a half's drive east of Port-au-Prince. In the morning, residents rise early to sweep the dust and leaves from their front steps. The calling of roosters and barking of dogs generally serve as an alarm clock. Corn grows in between mango, breadfruit, plantain and almond trees. The trees provide shade and shelter from the intensely hot sun. There are waterfalls and fresh springs where local residents gather to collect drinking water, wash clothes, bathe, or just cool off from the heat. A single dusty, rocky road winds through the town. In the evening, farmers walk their cows (on rope leashes) to communal fields for grazing.

Exchanging English and Kreyol lessons
The Mercersburg Academy group conducted three days of English language tutoring via interactive songs and games at local schools. The first day of the program took place at the Gwo Jan primary school with young children aged 5-13. BuildaBridge Global Relief and Development Coordinator Andrew Baggaley started off the activities with the BuildaBridge "Welcome Song" translated into Creole. At first slightly embarrassed and unsure of themselves, the children slowly grew in excitement and laughter. Mercersburg teachers Laurie Mufson and Matt Maurer facilitated interactive Creole and English counting games with the translating help of the INAM staff. By the end of the morning, the schoolchildren could count from  1-10 in English and were proud of their learning and achievement!

Dancing and singing the BuildaBridge Welcome Song!
Day two of educational service occurred at the Metivye primary and secondary school with children aged 13 and up. Mercersburg and Metivye students engaged in a game of "Human Knots". Holding hands in a large circle, participants winded and twisted themselves into a huge jumble of arms, legs, and elbows. Learning to use more than verbal language to communicate, they were able to work together and untangle themselves, emphasizing teamwork and cooperation. The students also enjoyed an interesting game of "Colombian Hypnosis".

The final day of tutoring consisted of sound games and charades at the Metivye school. Mercersburg teacher Laurie Mufson utilized a series of experiential, full body exercises to teach English consonant and vowel sounds. The activities provided an active, corporal learning experience alternative to the rote system that is prevalent in the Haitian education system. The Mercersburg students also took turns acting out various words in a game of charades. The Metivye students would call out the answer in English as Mercersburg students mimed words such as "apple", "umbrella", and "house".

Mercersburg and Metivye students and staff

Of particular value to Mercersburg students was the "twinning" experience with local Haitian children of a similar age. Together, the twins exchanged language and cultural lessons. Additionally, Mercersburg students visited their twin's homes, met their families, and learned firsthand about the daily joys and struggles of life in Haiti. Students also learned to roast and grind locally grown coffee, wash clothes by hand, and prepare food.

A glimpse of Haiti's natural beauty

A trip to Wahoo Bay Beach Resort was a particularly memorable experience for both sets of students. The water was crystal blue, salty, and the perfect temperature. For some of the Haitian students, it was their first ever visit to the beach! The group splashed in the water, played soccer on the beach, and marveled at the natural beauty of the sea and surrounding mountains.

Before the trip, the only thing that most of our students knew about Haiti was that it was a "third world" country and was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. However, the trip provided Mercersburg students and teachers a glimpse into the daily life of the Haitian people and a deeper understanding of their culture. Mercersburg students expressed gratitude and respect for the cordial, welcoming nature of their hosts. Students enjoyed having their greetings of "Bonjou!" returned with a smile and a wave from Gwo Jan residents. A few mentioned how different it was from the United States, where in many places people fail to make eye contact or even acknowledge each other's presence.

Many of the things we take for granted in American society are a daily struggle for the Haitian people; paved roads, effective schooling, indoor plumbing, potable water, reliable electricity, and quality healthcare. Despite the challenges and difficulties, most Haitians choose to live with joy and energy that is seldom seen in American society. In pre-trip interviews, Haiti was most commonly described as "poor" or "impoverished". In post-trip interviews, students used "happy" most often when describing Haiti. Our group was astounded by the joy and happiness that the Haitian people exhibit in the face of daily challenges. It made us think about all the things that we have, how materialist our culture is, yet how little contentment and satisfaction is present in our lives. The Haitian people showed us how to treasure and cherish the "little" things that are truly important: family, friends, and the wonder of life itself.

Everyone excited for the beach!

The group was able to serve in the form of English tutoring, and created rare opportunities for Haitian students. Students in Gwo Jan had not had much firsthand experience with foreign students or native English speakers. Further, the educational system in Haiti is taught primarily through the rote system of copying and memorization. A teacher will write on the board and students must copy the information and memorize it but are not enticed to think critically, abstractly, or apply this knowledge to the real world. Through this experience, Haitian students were exposed to one-on-one learning in a variety of interactive forms, from games to songs to conversation. Knowledge of the English language can greatly help one's career chances in Haiti. This was an opportunity for students to be inspired by their achievements from the week and motivate them towards a hopeful future.

Mercersburg theater teacher Laurie Mufson
leading the group in interactive English language games

When you learn about other cultures, you tend to learn more about your own as well.  Through exchanging languages and cultures, students not only broadened their worldviews but gained a deeper understanding of their own culture. The United States and Haiti share an intertwined history which has not always been pleasant or beneficial to the Haitian people. Thus, it was a privilege for the Haitian students to interact with American students and get a glimpse of American culture that was not transmitted through mass media, US government involvement or American aid agencies. The experiences with their twins were immersive and forged memories that will last a lifetime.

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