Why Haiti? What and how – from the beginning! – by Peter Hesse.

At the first of my by now over 40 visits in Haiti in December of 1980, I had no intention of doing anything more important than enjoying a Caribbean Christmas-holiday with sun, sand and Haitian Cadence-music. But dancing in the middle of obvious and shocking surrounding misery was too much for the inner balance of a relatively well-living European businessman. You could not just close your eyes and enjoy Haiti without at least trying to contribute in some way to alleviate the extreme poverty around you. This initial irrational “feeling” resulted in a never ending learning process on “how to help and add some sense to life”.

First, however, I had tried some ideas that came out of my “northern logic”, wrongly believing that this would work. My initial idea sounded reasonable to me and to nine equally inexperienced friends in Germany: Give poor families a non-electric sowing machine and a stock of cloths, needles etc – and they will be able to sow something for their own family. They may even sell some of their products – based on the old idea of giving a fishing-line instead of fish. Next year (December 1981) I went back to Haiti with $ 6800, partly collected from those nine friends. Apart from a stack of mattresses for the children in an orphanage sleeping on the floor, visited the year before, this was enough to buy 13 sowing machines and some sowing-material. At the same time, I was introduced to a gentle Haitian development professional, Miot Jean-Francois, who became my friend and teacher in “Haitian development matters”. He warned me that any poor family to receive one of the sowing-machines would immediately sell it again when one of their many children needed treatment. The machine would represent the only valuable item they could sell. Partly trusting him, I did give 12 of the 13 machines to self-help groups we selected together. The groups used the machines for many years. One machine I insisted, however, to give to a poor family – as planned. This machine was sold a few months later, as I found out during my third Haiti-trip in July 1982. – I had learned my first lesson. There were more to come.

This learning process continues after 25 years of involvement and more initial mistakes, followed by learning-steps. This process, however, also resulted in a now well-functioning sustainable program in Haiti – and in some anger that much good-will and even more money is wasted by lack of learning even in the most renowned private and international organisations.

During various bottle-neck-opening activities with self-help initiatives in the first years in Haiti, it became clear that the learning-process mainly involved listening to the people whom we wanted to help to solve their problems. From the beginning, the predominant worry of deprived Haitians concerned their children. Those children were not only undernourished and lacked a minimum of health-care but also lacked guided stimulation early in life to develop their mental self-help capacities – and their positive values. Following the wishes of the Ste Suzanne village-assembly, a simple country-Kindergarten was opened in this remote village in the North of Haiti in 1882. UNICEF helped by selecting the 40 least well developed children in this poor village. In 1983 Carol Guy-James Barratt, Montessori-Directress from Trinidad, came along and suggested to test how those children – and their parents – reacted to the introduction of some Montessori learning-material. After all, Maria Montessori had developed her didactical tools by observing mostly deprived children in Italy almost 100 years ago.

The Montessori-method had, in the meantime, developed to be a successful preschool-system in many parts of the world, often wrongly considered to be a sophisticated method for the children of well-paying parents. The test in Ste. Suzanne with some of “our” preschool-age children (3 – 6) in 1984 proved to be a revelation: The children reacted beautifully. Their learning-success was obvious, and I documented this process by photos and a small movie-camera (a simple film, but good enough to later convince a professional TV-team to make a “real” documentary for a German TV-station). – However, there were no Montessori-teachers in Haiti (except in one luxury-preschool for the tiny Haitian and foreign “elite”). So the logical next step was to organize a test-seminar for willing educators. With the help of my Haitian expert-friend and teacher, Miot, the local director of a large German NGO in Haiti, we managed to assemble 40 mostly female Haitians for a two week intensive Montessori-seminar. All 40 were somehow involved and experienced with young children in various organisations. The first week was for theory in the capital Port au Prince, the second week in “our” original project-village Ste Suzanne with all of “our” children. All looked and sounded very motivating. However, the end-result was a total deception for Carol and myself. Nothing enduring resulted from those 2 weeks. Two weeks proved simply to be too short. Attitudes towards work with children simply change much slower than expected by us.

The entire Haitian school-system is totally teacher-centred: The teacher “reigns” in front of rows of children (often with a stick in his or her hands) – and children repeat and chant some text in a chorus-like way – The photograph of a typical overcrowded country “school-room” shows a sad reality in Haiti. No individual attention for the children who are all beautifully different as individuals. No individual learning by doing, to train independence, self-respect and respect for the other child by peacefully working together and learning that it can be “fun” to help the other, younger child. – No “Montessori-spirit”. We were frustrated! We almost gave up.

It has become more and more recognized – globally and scientifically – that children learn best and most at a very early age – right after (or even before) birth – but latest at preschool-age – provided there is a suitable learning environment. Such environment does not have to be a formal preschool-centre. But in a situation of utmost poverty and illiteracy, like in rural Haiti, where loving parents have no means and knowledge to provide such stimulating learning environment, a simple Montessori-preschool can become a centre of communal involvement through the participation of the parents. We strongly believe this now, but after our Montessori-test-seminar in 1985, we had almost lost hope.

For some irrational reason, however, we decided not to give up, but to continue in a more promising – professional – way. We organized the first full year (9-months) seminar for Haitian ladies (and a few men) in 1986. Trying to avoid the capital, Port au Prince, this first seminar-year took place in Cap Haitien in the north of Haiti. The local private university simply declared us to be their educational department. All four local radio-stations allowed me to advertise for our free course on the day before its beginning. We were flooded with applications, and Carol selected the most promising “students” by using her female Caribbean intuition. Because of the miserable Haitian school-system (especially in the countryside), precondition for acceptance could never be academic or scholastic criteria. Proof of serious motivation and a vivid mind became key selection criteria.. – And Carol made the right decision to use the local Creole language in our training – instead of the official French.

To make the long story short: By the year 2006, after over 20 years of yearly Montessori-teacher-training by Carol and (later) by trainers formed by her, well over 600 students have participated, over 500 Montessori preschool-diplomas were given by us. 84 of them successfully passed a second exam to become “Montessori-Directresses”, the international level, comparable worldwide. Until recently, this second exam was given yearly by Sheila John, the Vice-President of the Caribbean Montessori Society, a gentle, but strict lady, flying in each year for this purpose. Lately, in 2005, a German Montessori professional, Ervin Resch (s. Photo – with Trainer Heliana testing one candidate in Cap Haitien) helped in the exams.

For sustainability of the outcome we found it to be vital to insist on quality of the teacher-training and on success in the final exams. The final objective of our program, the establishment of self-sustaining high quality Montessori preschools for deprived children in Haiti, could only be reached with well-trained teachers, who are proud of what they have learned, who are respected in their communities and mainly by the parents. Those parents – even the poorest ones – have to make a sacrifice by paying at least a very small amount of money (or to help in various other ways) to secure the teacher’s life. Once they have made such sacrifice, they value the project and continue to send their children to the preschool which – they feel – they own. This is wanted – and vital for sustainability.

This “secret of success” of our work in Haiti is very simple, but must be strictly maintained: Quality of teachers + ownership of the preschools by the teachers, parents and by the community. Until the fall of 2006, a total of over 50 Montessori-preschools were established all over Haiti by our successful students and various local groups. A few schools did not survive the political and natural storms in Haiti. One of them was our first preschool in Ste. Suzanne, where we were still in the beginning of our own learning experience. This preschool slipped back to the traditional teacher-centred “method” – as did two others. One school closed because the teacher moved to the USA. In two cases two preschools merged into one. During the years since around 2002, it became increasingly difficult to obtain a clear picture on the development of all the project-schools, mainly due to increasing insecurity in Haiti. However, the system is clearly established and slowly continues growing.

For a list of project-preschools in 2002 and two worldbank evaluation reports – see  “list of preschools” in the German section of this homepage and the pdf-files:

Carol Guy-James Barratt, who is still responsible for project- and student-selection, has now – after 20 years of yearly Montessori-teacher training – developed a set of procedural rules: Our local community partners, who will co-own their preschools with our teachers, always have to take the initiative themselves. They send student-applicants and also contribute as much as possible to the initial cost of new schools. We only help where absolutely needed in flexible individual ways, often by providing simple classroom-furniture – or only the wood for such furniture. We sometimes give some building material – but never a complete building. We “only” provide quality-training – and give one set of essential imported Montessori didactical material. More material, especially for “daily-life”- and language-teaching, is made by our students in regular free summer courses. In this way, the pride and ownership of our partners is secured.

There is always some internal movement in the system. Some teachers change around. The most stable schools are those directly owned by the teachers themselves. Most of the pre-schools maintained a high Montessori-standard during the years. Some of the best teacher-students became assistant-trainers after practice and further studies. With more money the Montessori- quality-preschools in Haiti could, of course, grow faster. But too much money and more importance on “scale” than on quality would endanger the successful project.

All can only develop “from inside out” – not enforced in any way. – And: No one can BE developed – but solidarity is needed to help those who try to help themselves – in and for ONE world !

The „harmonizing vision“… Extract from the book VISION WORKS by Peter Hesse – pages 118 to 121 – an attempt to unite mayor child-centered didactical methods in harmony.

2 pages PDF