Seeds of hope sown through education

Posted on: 7th April, 2015

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

A devastating earthquake in 2010 left more than 1.5 million people homeless in Haiti and resulted in an immense humanitarian crisis. Heather Christie from Clonakilty continues her diary from last month, sharing her experiences as part of a team of 13 volunteers working in Haiti for the first two weeks of January with Methodist Missionary Society Ireland.


Haiti has the highest illiteracy rate of any country in the western hemisphere and is far behind others in the Caribbean with only 64 per cent of men and 61 per cent of women able to read. These adults spend an average of just five years in education. The Methodist Church has been involved in education in Haiti for at least sixty years and at present runs 105 Primary, 12 Secondary and two Vocational schools all over the country. Approximately 20 per cent of children attend this type of school, which to exist must charge a small fee.

We visit the Methodist school at Frères, which has primary and secondary sections to educate children from six years old until they are ready to go to college. One primary school is held in the morning and another in the afternoon so that children who work in houses as live-in maids for example, can get an education and be cherished.

At 3.30pm students get a free hot meal with the teachers and some of the older boys. Currently the school gets aid from Switzerland, which pays for 300 children’s scholarships. This is a great because it allows the school to be a social ‘melting pot’, with no division between the kids – no one knows who is wealthy and who is poor.

There are now 1,553 morning pupils (563 primary, 990 secondary) plus 200 more in the afternoon. The school is achieving good results and aims to instil discipline in the children; last year they were top of the national league for exam results! The kids love school because along with core subjects there are a wide variety of other classes including sport, music and pottery. A separate programme is run on Saturdays for dance and drama. There is also a vocational school on site covering electrics, car mechanics, plumbing etc.

Cabbages and other crops grown on terracesHaiti is slightly larger than Munster with a population of 10.32 million. Eighty per cent of the land is mountainous, making growing conditions challenging and 50 per cent of the population is malnourished. It lies in a hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms from June to October, with occasional flooding and earthquakes and periodic droughts. The riverbeds are completely dry whilst we are there, following a drier than normal rainy season, and we see no sign of rain. The country has suffered extensive deforestation where land has been cleared for agriculture and for fuel (cooking is done on charcoal burners). Some crops are grown on terraces on the steep slopes, to retain soil and reduce erosion. We see water being carried in buckets on heads and sprinkled by hand; the Haitians are extremely hard workers.

Many of the women selling on the streets have bought their produce down from the mountains and stay late into the night, for days, until it is all sold before returning home. Crops grown include cabbages, yams, avocados, rice, sorghum, banana’s plantain, sugar cane, mangoes, papaya, coffee and maize. The majority of the labour is manual, a few wealthier farmers use cattle for heavy work such as ploughing and reportedly there are a few tractors, but I haven’t seen a single one in the two weeks we are here. Nor have we seen herds of cattle. Those that can afford cows have only one, or possibly two, which are tethered by their horns – no electric fences! But still there is a cattle identification ear tag system in place.

I have a great interest in the agriculture of Haiti, having been brought up on and worked on farms (I used to keep goats and still keep a few sheep and poultry) and I studied agriculture at third level. The Methodist Church runs two agriculture schools, EMAB at Baudain in the north offers a higher level course for two to three years, whilst the second, Vialet near Petit Goave, is two hours from Port au Prince and is currently being refurbished. When Vialet restarts it will offer a one-year programme of practical agricultural training, so those who qualify can become local community development agricultural technicians. Students are selected by their own community and are required to go back to that community to share what they have learned.

They hope to restart pig breeding at Vialet, crossing the durability of the black Creole pig with the vigour of the white pig that we are familiar with, and have future plans to introduce turkey rearing and honey production. The church is currently operating a goat-breeding programme, which gave out 580 goats in 2014. In these projects one farmer helps the other because when a farmer is given a breeding goat he must give the first kid to another family. This method creates solidarity in the groups and allows for sustainability and further development of the project. Participants are in groups of twenty farmers and each is given crossbreed Billy goat. Local church and community leaders, based on defined criteria, carefully select beneficiaries and each receives proper goat husbandry training from the agricultural technicians.

The Methodist Church has also set up ‘Agri Boutiques’ (small co-op shops) to enable farmers to buy farm inputs locally, instead of having to pay for transport to and from towns. They also offer advice to farmers. The church’s Micro Credit Programme offers small start-up loans for individuals who wish to start a small business, enabling them to support themselves and their families. A number of these beneficiaries are then grouped together to form a small community bank.

The Agroforestry Programme includes tree nurseries and planting schemes, with a variety of trees used such as Moringa, Oak, Cedar, Papaya, Cocoa and Mango. This means there is a mixture of short- and long-term trees. Ignorantly I had never heard of the Moringa tree, which is often known as the ‘miracle tree’ because of its high nutritional properties, extensive uses and fast pace of growth; it is being introduced into many countries to combat malnutrition.

From Wikipedia: ‘Ounce for ounce the Moringa leaves have seven times more Vitamin C than oranges, three times more iron than spinach, three times more potassium than bananas, four times more vitamin A than carrots and four times more calcium than milk. Leaves can be eaten raw, cooked or dried and ground into powder. Seeds are 42 per cent oil, used for cooking, skin conditions and even as a machinery lubricant. Seeds can be used to make antiseptic ointment such as Neosporin. Seed kernels purify water by settling out suspended particles and organic matter – killing 90 per cent of bacteria. Seed cake is used as a fertiliser and as a flocculating agent. Flowers eaten raw or to make tea. Roots can be ground into a horseradish type replacement. Immature seed is eaten like garden peas. Young tender pods are eaten like asparagus or green beans. The wood used as paper pulp and produces a natural blue dye. The bark has fibre to make rope and exudes sap or gum that is also used in medicines.’

The Moringa tree is a miracle indeed, much like the resilience of the people of Haiti.

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