Words and images by Simone Ruschmeier, architect and Haiti team volunteer. Video by Stacey McMahan
On Thursday 24th Feb 2011 Stacey and myself, Simone, went to visit the children of the Institut Foyer du Savoir (this actually translates into something of an "Antechamber to Knowledge") at their temporary school premises in the heart of Delmas 75. Pastor Dorcinville, the school's president, had invited us to come visit and told us that if we were to come in the afternoon, we would probably be lucky to find a maximum amount of 20 students there to speak and work with, which we thought would be a good number to handle.
Armed with three packs of coloured pens and stacks of paper, we headed out to the site and, admittedly, we looked like we were on a mission. True, and in fact it was a mission to collect what makes the children of the Institut Foyer du Savoir tick, i.e. what makes them feel happy or safe. This seemed of importance to us, since the main problem with the previous and existing buildings was that they were not safe.
Also, we brought along a lady interested in joining Architecture for Humantiy by helping develop the economic standing of the Haitian outpost of the organisation, and preparing it for the target handover to local, Haitian hands whenever it would be ready. This lady was an expat Haitian, fluent in creole, which I was sure would be handy to have present.
Our agenda for the day read very fluently and suggested that we might make it be back to the office by 5pm-ish, in time to catch the last car back to the "maison":
2- explain objective
3- walk to new site
4- present images of new school, show outlines of buildings on site
5- walk back to existing school
6- have children draw things that makes them happy
7- collect drawings
8- quick review and
9- give feedback to kids on what the overbearing happy-thought amongst them is.
10- thank all and depart.
When we arrived, there were an estimated 50 children waiting for us at the school, twenty of which must have been under five. Within the confines of the tight and dark rooms of the temporary accommodation, it was impossible to talk to all children at once, so we had to split them in four groups and Pastor Dorcinville explained to them what our visit would be about. Sort of.
We then proceeded to get the children ready for our walk, and arranged them in three lines, one with the colour-coded reds, i.e. the under fives, then the slightly older blues, one row of girls and one row of boys. There were 6 adults with us, performing the essential task of controlling the excited mob.
Leaving the existing premise to walk to the new school grounds was quite something to watch, and as planned, the orderly line of reds was followed by the blue girls and then the blue boys. Once outside, the lines, however, predictably became unstable, split and were shuffled back into order various times until we had reached our goal, only ~7 (long) minutes down the road.
Delmas 75 is a very hilly area and the roads are dusty runways for anything or anyone on the move. We met with large and small vehicles, trucks carrying water and rebar, goats and chicken, friendly sales people all against the backdrop of amazing views of the area and into the patchworked houses on the slopes across and in the valleys below.
Also on the very tip of a hill lay the new site, and although it was covered in debris of all kinds, rotting and rusting in the afternoon sun, the children focused on the essential qualities of the site, its exposure to breeze and its stunning views. After a while, I managed to attract their attention and ran past them a series of 3Dimages of the first Phase building to be built, in French. Our lady guest then translated into creole, but I could tell from the glowing eyes of the older ones who spoke french well, that they were chuffed to bits about the prospect of moving into the new school before a year would be over, which is a fair enough estimate, all things considered.
Marching back to the old school in high spirits, I was thinking of how to package the task I was about to ask of the children, which would boil down to them providing a new emblem/symbol or logo for their new school. A logo that would carry their hopes for their future and give an identity to the new building that would thus give it a name and make it a separate thing from the present and past ones.
Upon arrival, Pastor Dorcinville kindlyfiltered the reds from the blues, since they were too tired to participate, and we began handing out pens and papers along with an explanation of what we were asking them to draw: something that makes them happy.
The children sat down in groups and started drawing, and it went veryquiet. For a minute.
By now we had, unfortunately, lost our kind translator, who had to return to the office, and communication was a little less facile.
And so the children understood what they wanted, and went ahead and drew what was on their mind... the new school itself. Although most images were based around the same scheme, some came with flowers and palm trees in the garden, some with big arched entrances, some even with stairs leading up to them, but most had toilets, a kitchen and computers. And an office for Pastor Dorcinville.
The playgrounds, where indicated, featured a basketball ring on a
stick, and swings. The flowers, where detailed, were accompanied by
pigeons, cats and/or butterflies.
Thankfully we had asked the children to label their drawings which helped to interpret some of the smaller ones that had most probably been squeezed in while we came round to collect their efforts.
By the time we had all of the drawings in our hands it was definitely time to leave, for us, but more so for the children who had stayed on in excess of five hours to take part in our little event.
Again, and even more so now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would like to thank Pastor Dorcinville to have facilitated the afternoon, and I am now going to set about evaluating the result from our experiment.
To get the Logo realised on site, I have already contacted Jerry, the Haitian graffiti-equivalent of the US Banksy. He will hopefully, once the first Phase of the school is built, add a graffiti of the logo yet to be derived from the childrens efforts to the wall above the main entrance.
This wall will face out into the valley across the playground at its feet, and hopefully carry with it the hopes and determination of the spirits from which it was sourced.
Although I won't be here to see it done, since my volunteering stint will be over beginning of April, I am sure that this effort will have been worth it. The children have inhabited the new building with their hearts already, and know it is theirs before the works have even begun.