My Barrier Becomes a Bridge

This is the second of a series of blog posts from my recent work in Haiti. The real date of this posting is April 27, but I am backdating it to April 5 when it was written and experienced. –Jeffrey Harlan


The Language Barrier had become a Language Bridge. Because I couldn’t explain the program myself, Pepe explained it as he understood it and as he appreciated it, so it meant more to everyone–him, Ketchma, her family, and Sam. My only contribution was to push a button on my phone that brought the heartfelt words of students in the USA across the water and over the language barrier to touch the hearts of those hearing them in THEIR first language, not mine. What an amazing bridge that was.

Most Americans speak one language, English. Me included. As Michael Smolens, my close ally and founder of the Dotsub translation platform likes to remind people, only 6% of the world’s population speaks English as a first language. 94% do NOT speak English as a first language. True fact.

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This fact hit me pretty quickly when I woke this morning and didn’t know where or how to get breakfast or how to ask. My hostess, Mme. Maryse, arranged for me to stay in the guest room at the house of a friend of hers, so that’s where I am. The person who owns the house is away, so it’s just me and people who work for her. They speak French and Haitian Creole. I don’t.

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It is very comfortable.

Back in the USA I know, as a city dweller, that it’s not smart to just wander in a city if you don’t know where you are or where you are going. So I wasn’t going to just wander around on my first morning and was contemplating eating peanuts for breakfast when someone kindly appeared with coffee and breakfast for me on a tray. Just like that.

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I had that sudden realization that being unable to communicate really heightens my capacity to receive the kindness of strangers with gratitude. More than I could imagine it turned out.

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Before I came to Haiti, I had the good fortune to be connected to an organization called PAZAPA. It means “step-by-step” in Creole. They are an NGO that has worked in Haiti for the past 30 years to support students living with disabilities and their families in and around the coastal city of Jacmel. Jacmel is about a two and a half hour drive south of Port-au-Prince. As it says on their website, it has been a widespread practice to call persons with disabilities “cocobai” which means “worthless” in Creole. PAZAPA, whose staff is 80% Haitian, has been working to reverse that culture in specific communities for 30 years. From what I saw today, they are doing it powerfully.

When I was invited to go with Pierre Paul Exilus, known as Pepe, on a PAZAPA village visit on my first day in Haiti, I jumped at the chance. We hope our future Dreamline work will take us into the villages where not only students, but entire communities, will participate in our growing Dreamline and Value Flags program. (More on that in another post.) This was a great chance to form a connection.

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When I got a WhatsApp text from Pepe this morning, asking where I was in Jacmel, I had to tell him I was in Port-au-Prince. Since Pepe spoke to someone last night who knew where I was, I thought he knew where I was. Nope. Barrier.

But after WhatsApp calls to the US, then back to Port-Au-Prince, and with support from one of our sponsoring organizations, the PRODEV Foundation, I found myself in a van driven by Tiga, going through the seemingly endless sprawl of Port-au-Prince and then zig zagging back and forth and back and forth up the seemingly endless ascent of the mountains, flanked by farms, mangos for sale (there are something like 120 varieties of mangoes grown in Haiti I learned) and much more. At last we crested the range and could see the ocean in the distance. There was Jacmel. Tiga’s driving was amazing.

Back down at sea level, we entered the bustling streets of Jacmel and found the street we got as a destination. But where was the school? My dauntless driver Tiga called the school and then got a motorbike taxi to lead us there. That’s what they said to do. It worked.

School had been closed that day because of the recent heavy rains (they make some roads impassable). I got to see the setting, though, and learn about the programs they do year round which serve more than 200 families with children living with disabilities in the morning programming and village outreach, and an entirely different group who are all hearing impaired in the afternoon. Annie Lessage, who could speak my first (and only) language, was my guide. I got to speak with her and Jean Joseph Forgeas, the Site Administrator, about my program, share its written description in French, and then play some flags.

What do I mean by “play” some flags? Well, back in Philadelphia, the very kind parent of one of my former students created audio translations of ten Dreamline Flags before I left. I had five of those flags on a line with me, their five audio files on my phone, and a bluetooth speaker. So I could hang the flags, play them one at a time, and they cut through the language barrier like a hot knife through butter.

Haitian Creole


English

While all of this was happening, Pepe arrived after his day’s visits to the surrounding villages, so he took it in as well. And then he said we should get in the van and go. He wanted me to meet the PAZAPA village supervisor in Cayes-Jacmel and one specific family–the family of Ketchma, a girl with disabilities who, he said, was close to his heart.

Tiga was game and off we went, talking flags in my backpack, and headed out of Jacmel. The van slowed considerably when we drove off the main road onto a rugged dirt one, and then even more when we turned off onto another road. I’d say we were going maybe three miles an hour to manage the ruts.

But go we did, and we picked up Sam, in his fluorescent yellow PAZAPA shirt. Sam Jules is a person living with disabilities who is also the PAZAPA village supervisor. He lives in Cayes-Jacmel and is training as a runner with the dream of representing Haiti in the Paralympics one day. When we arrived at the home of Ketchma, there was some food cooking on a small outdoor fire, or so it seemed to me, and an older woman and some younger ones greeted us. Also a young man. Someone went to get Ketchma since she was’t there at the moment.

Ketchma arrived, smiled at Pepe, and learned from him why we were there. I saw a child just the age of the students I had been teaching in the USA only a few weeks before. I was teaching in an all girls school, and I had the teacher’s sense that she was a girl with an active, inquiring mind. And I think I was right.

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Pepe, Sam, and Ketchma

Ketchma was offered a chair, along with me, and after I had tied my flag line to two posts, Pepe asked me to play the first one. He explained to Ketchma and her family what our program was, and I could see that when I played the words, many of which were about inclusivity, about respecting and accepting people universally, they hit home. And Pepe became the teacher. He asked Ketchma questions about what the poems meant. When she didn’t know or didn’t quite know, he didn’t tell her the answer. He asked me to play the recording again and then repeated the question. Lessons learned.

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One of the Talking Flags


Haitian Creole


English

When we left, it was with a great feeling. On the way back to the office, Pepe told me he’d like to share our program with families in other villages and to share it with adult students to whom he teaches Sign Language. Our program had become his program. And now I know why.

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The Language Barrier had become a Language Bridge. Because I couldn’t explain the program myself, Pepe explained it as he understood it and as he appreciated it, so it meant more to everyone–him, Ketchma, her family, and Sam. My only contribution was to push a button on my phone that brought the heartfelt words of students in the USA across the water and over the language barrier to touch the hearts of those hearing them in THEIR first language, not mine. What an amazing bridge that was.

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As we drove back across the mountains at sunset, I could see the physical beauty of this extraordinary place, and it only highlighted the inward beauty I had been privileged to witness.

It was 9:00 when we got back. I was starved.

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