Dear fifth graders at Sunnyside Environmental Middle School,
I remember when many of you were in kindergarten and remember also the many new students who joined you along the way. It makes me happy to think of you as fifth graders; so strong and smart and thoughtful as you enjoy your last year of elementary school.
I have come to Haiti to fulfill a dream I have had since I was your age to work in far away places with children who might need my help. I almost did not go because I did not want to leave all of you and Sunnyside but then I knew that there were so many people to teach and care for you there and not very many people who wanted to run a birth center and clinic in Haiti.
Each day I take care of pregnant women and the sweetest little babies. I sleep outdoors where it is cool and watch the night sky. Often we do not have electricity or water but most people here have far less. Most people live in small villages in clearings of very small houses. The houses are often painted bright colors and are about as big as the work room next to the office. They might have a pump and a bucket shower. They cook outside on charcoal and love the fruit that grows on the trees.
Today is a very happy day in Haiti as the congress just passed a law that said all children can go to school for free. Until today, most children never went to school and almost every mother I meet can not even write her name.
I came to Haiti because more babies die each year in Haiti than almost any country in the world and I wanted to see why and what might be done. I see many sad things but also a happy, fun, strong people who love their country.
When I am sad and can not understand why things are as they are, I study history. I try to understand how things came to be and what I can learn about my own behavior and the world around me. And so I am writing to you because I miss you but also because I know you are studying or will be studying the very place that I am living.! I think hard on how those times changed a beautiful island forever.
When I was you age, I was told Christopher Columbus founded America but later I felt that the grown ups lied to me or maybe didn’t know either . Maybe I love history and reading because I am like a little kid still a little mad because so much of what I was told about history wasn’t the truth. What I know now, is that Columbus came, to an island we now know as Haiti. Haiti is a part of a beautiful mountain range that sits beneath the Caribean Sea. There are some 700 islands in these chains, including Cuba and Jamaica.
I came to know that the Taino people lived on these islands for thousands of years. I heard that they had all died but what I did not know was that their memory and some of their culture is alive here in Haiti. I did not know that some fled to the mountains when the Spanish and continued to live there for many years. I did not know that when the slaves, brought to Haiti by the French, escaped they found the Taino people living still in the mountains. The Taino helped them to survive and to become free.
I did not know that there exist beautiful cave paintings and artifacts and that the word hurricane and hammock are the words of the Tainio. On my table is a bread made from the cassava root that is made just as the Tainios did so many years ago. It is a flat bread with a layer of sugar and cocanut that I eat with peanut butter and is still cooked over a fire beside the road near the place where I live.
When Haiti became the first slave colony ever in the world to gain their independence, the founder of the revolution, said that he did it for all the people of the Americas; not just Haiti. I thought about this a great deal; how the slaves here with the help of the Indians fought for their freedom; not just for themselves but for enslaved people everywhere.
After that though, Haiti had many obstacles to overcome and many people believe it was because the world was so mad at a group of people for being so smart and strong. Many people say, “why can’t Haiti be a good country” but those same people most likely still celebrate Columbus Day and to do not understand the many ways the Tainos and the Africans were punished for being people of color who dared to be free. The slaves in Haiti declared their independence not long after the United States, but the newly formed US government did not believe that Africans, who had been salves, could be free and independent.
I found out that Columbus was put in prison for the crimes he committed against the people of Haiti but those crimes never really stopped as I have learned from reading about history.
I once heard the children of Sunnyside sing “We Are the World for the Children of Haiti” and last week I heard the people of Haiti sing their own version for themselves. It was a great day and I thought of all of you.
I know Cori and Monica will teach you a lot of history this year and I hope you will open your hearts to these stories because they are never about long ago but about us and the choices we make each and every day about how we treat each other.
Haiti is not better because I have studied her history and know about Columbus but it helps me to understand as I live and work in this country whose history is so closely tied to that of my own country.
The children near here, play soccer just as you do. They gather in an empty lot along with the cows and goats and make goals from anything they can find. They wear old soccer shirts from the United States and love it very much. I think of you when I see them.
It takes a long time to undo the cruel things of history but its good to know that each of us is making history all the time, in our own small ways and that children everywhere find joy and adventure and laughter in their everyday surroundings.
The sun is setting over the mountains here and I need to go. I had wanted to share the many ways that history helps us, as it shows us a world of stories and heroes better than any in our imagination.
It is good to know the children of Haiti will have schools for free and that children everywhere can sing “We are the World” and somehow all the versions are connected and all true.
I miss you and hope you have a great fifth grade year.