Marie-Ange, the Children’s Academy, and the path toward development in Bawosya
In Haitian Creole the term “rak bwa” literally translates as “woods.” But when it’s used to describe where a person lives, it carries a negative connotation probably best translating to “nowhere.” In contrast to developed areas, people who live in “rak bwa” are understood to live in the undeveloped areas: areas without services or any signs of modern civilization. This is how the area in and around Bawosya, Haiti, was described in the recent past: rak bwa.
Marie Ange is a 35-year old mother of two who lives up the hill from the center of Bawosya. “Rak bwa” is how she describes the area previous to 2010, before the devastating earthquake of January 2010 and the introduction of Haiti Partners’ involvement in the area in 2011. It was not a place to visit or take any interest in. People simply walked by, hardly noticing there was anything there at all.
Another term she uses to describe the area is “manke sekirite.” It was “unsafe.” In the recent past people were afraid to walk the road at night or to let their children roam the area unescorted. Bawosya had a reputation as a lawless place where people kept to themselves in order to avoid trouble. To make matters worse, it was rumored that criminals from the nearby capital, Port-au-Prince, would hide out in Bawosya. Though it’s unclear whether there is any truth to these rumors, it worked to secure Bawosya’s reputation as a place one would do well to avoid.
Like so many Haitians, Marie-Ange and her family were struck hard by the earthquake. Though none of her immediate family was hurt, her cinderblock home was taken down to the ground in under a minute as she watched with her family from across the yard, wiping the dust from her then 3-year old son, Marvens’, eyes.
As one can discern within just minutes of meeting her, however, Marie-Ange is a smart, industrious, forward-looking person. Before long the materials from her family’s cinderblock home had been refashioned into a makeshift but sturdy shelter. Sheets of corrugated metal roofing became walls; wood ceiling beams became a door frame. Though her family’s lot had declined terribly, they gave thanks that they had what they did, compared to so many other Haitians at the time who had lost so much more.
Like everyone in and around Bawosya at the time, Marie-Ange and her family did what they could to survive after the earthquake. Times were tight, but this was not something they were unaccustomed to. Managing their assets as best they could, and taking advantage of what little economic activity existed after the earthquake, they got by, one day at a time.
In 2011, as Marie-Ange was contemplating what to do about Marvens’ schooling, she heard about a new development in the area. An NGO had purchased a piece of property in the center of Bawosya and was beginning to hold open meetings about the future of the community. Curious, she began attending these meetings to see for herself what was going on.
The meetings were organized by Haiti Partners. They brought together many people from the community and invited them to participate in discerning the community’s priorities. The biggest priority that came out of these meetings was the need for a school. This piqued Marie-Ange’s interest since Marvens was rapidly approaching preschool age and she hadn’t yet figured out where she could send him – the nearest schools being long walks away and prohibitively expensive.
Meetings continued regularly and, later, construction began. The first school building was underway. The school – the Children’s Academy and Learning Center (ADECA is the local acronym) – was slated to open with its first preschool class in the fall of 2012. With great enthusiasm, Marie-Ange enrolled Marvens.
Before the school even officially opened, however, one noticed changes in the community. In Bawosya, where for so long people had kept to themselves, regular open meetings began to bring people together and foster a new sense of trust, shared purpose and community. Additionally, jobs were being created, many of which were going to local people, which stimulated small-scale economic activity that rippled out into the area.
After its opening, the school quickly evolved into a center of community activity. Each year another class of 25-30 students was added. A four hours per week service requirement brought parents together on a weekly basis to provide service to the school and community through various locally useful activities. Construction of a second building took place, using a firm that provided vocational training to more local people who would help build the space where their own children could go to school one day. A health clinic was opened out of the first building, addressing another of the priorities identified in the original meetings. Continuing education took place for parents and other community members, taking up challenging issues like domestic violence, women’s and children’s rights, and child servitude (restavèk). Agricultural programming offered new ways to sustainably grow crops and raise productive gardens, and a composting toilet model offered a sustainable alternative the standard pit toilets the area had always known. A youth choir engaged local youth in productive activity and developed leadership skills. After school English classes were made available with the help of international interns. Social business and entrepreneurship activities introduced and educated parents and youth about new economic activities. Village savings and loans groups were organized, responsibly offering community members access to the capital they need to advance their own economic activities.
Having gotten in on the ground floor by enrolling Marvens in the Children’s Academy’s first preschool class, Marie-Ange remained apprised of these developments as they arose and took full advantage the opportunities they provided. In the very first year of the school’s existence, she led the way in service hours, providing many more than the four that were required of her each week. She became the head of the parent committee. She participated faithfully in the continuing education classes for parents as well as the after school English activities. She led a USAID-sponsored alternative stove pilot program. She received training and became a community health agent for the clinic. She has become an active member of the village savings and loan groups. Most recently, she was hired to a paid position by the Beyond Borders-led SASA! program as a community organizer and local resource to prevent violence against women and girls.
In a recent interview, we asked Marie-Ange how she felt about the changes in her community over the last several years. She expressed that whereas in the past Bawosya had a bad reputation and was seen as rak bwa, today, when people think of Bawosya, they first think of the school, the Children’s Academy, and then think of the development that is happening there. “There is good education and people no longer feel unsafe … people keep it clean because they care about it … there are opportunities … the community is evolving in positive ways.” Thinking of the future, and of Marvens, she would like to see the community continue to develop and to have the school grow to eventually offer teacher, professional, and even medical education.
Marie-Ange is an extraordinary person. One likes to think that she would land on her feet no matter what situation she faced. But prior to Haiti Partners’ engagement in her community, she lacked both opportunities to succeed and a sense of place in which to do so. Today, she has not only found and seized the new opportunities that have presented themselves through her affiliation with the Children’s Academy, but she has done it in Bawosya, her own community.
Marvens (middle) and friends at the Children’s Academy displaying the poster they made which reads,
“School is the future of every child.”