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You know a place is isolated when it doesn’t even rank a mention in Lonely Planet. And our journey to the tiny, rural outpost of Les Abricots is about to show us why.
A municipality in the Jérémie Arrondissement, in Haiti’s Grand’Anse Department, Les Abricots is home to one of the world’s great educational initiatives – and one of its most extraordinary women, Michaelle (Mica) Moravia de Verteuil.
From our guesthouse in Jérémie, we estimate it’s roughly 25km to Les Abricots, a shortish drive so we’re not too worried that we are running very late from our extended morning meeting. Little do we know…
We’ve hired a couple of four-wheel pick-up wagons and it’s just as well, for this road would defeat most vehicles as well as re-arranging the bone structures of the drivers and passengers. The vehicle in front is a Toyota and all the beleaguered Japanese car maker would need to do to overcome its image crisis would be to show a video of its resilient performance on this trip.
It’s a breathtaking ride in every way. I’m in the back of one vehicle with Ed Brennan and his wife Debbie, who, thanks to the bumps along the way, manages to have both of us sitting on her lap at various stages of the journey – and sometimes very nearly both of us simultaneously.
A rust-iron dust road gives way periodically to little more than a boulder-strewn track. Universal Studios eat your heart out – this is what I call a real ride. The leader of our group Olivier Bottrie was a paratrooper in his younger days, and the way things are going he might to need to revert to his former profession to reach Les Abricots.
One advantage of our painfully slow journey though is that we have plenty of time to view the spectacular scenery. It’s all lush greenness, palm trees and the most magnificent coastline to our right. We pass the cove of Anse du Clerc, which may just rank as the most spectacular beauty spot in Haiti, if not in all of the Caribbean. And there’s no-one there.
Dipping back into my Lonely Planet (quite an art form when you’re bouncing around like a bungee jump in the back seat of a four-wheel drive) I read: “Contrary to many maps, the road does not continue west from here…”
Either it’s an out of date issue or it’s a matter of semantics – for maybe this doesn’t count as a road. But we’re making good enough progress and in a happy group like this no-one’s complaining.
Tiny villages and individual homesteads dot our journey and we pass numerous children and teenagers carrying water containers of all shapes and sizes to the nearest filling zone, often miles away from where they live.
We come to a river crossing where a group of women are washing their clothes and dishes. Their greeting to us is friendly and raucous as we stop to take a few photographs.
As we head uphill after the ford, we encounter a splendidly technicoloured truck, laden with household goods, including a mattress strapped to its side. It’s got stuck on a particularly steep incline where heavy rains have exposed a patch of boulders on the dusty stretch of road.
Somehow it eventually makes it up the slope, only for one of our four-wheel drives to experience similar problems in the hands of a rather diffident local driver.
But to the rescue comes local businessman Michel Apollon, a key member of our group all week. He takes over the wheel, steps on the revs and roars up the hill to loud applause, not just from our team but also a band of curious local youngsters (below) who have gathered to watch us.
After a mesmerizingly beautiful and rugged drive we arrive in the picturesque town of Les Abricots. The ‘high street’ is a dirt road, centered around a small town square and a faded but beautiful old church.
In the square a basketball hoop and backboard has been fixed at the top of a tall, stripped tree branch.
As I look around I see Ed Brennan has joined in an impromptu shoot-out with the local kids. If he ever quits his job running DFS he should take up coaching (or playing) as he slots shot after shot and shows the kids how to hold the ball above their heads before they shoot.
Most keep doing it the wrong way but there’s some good talent out there and plenty of the shots make their target.
We whistle full-time and head to our meeting, a very late lunch with Jean-Claude Fignolé, the Mayor of Les Abricots (pictured below, second from right) and Michaelle (Mica) Moravia de Verteuil (right). We’ve come all this way for a reason. If you want to know about education in Haiti then you simply have to talk to Mica.
In 1975 Mica (who lived in Canada for many years before returning to Haiti) set up the famed Paradis des Indiens project as a one-room school in this small fishing village. Its mission was to target underprivileged children whose families could not afford uniforms and shoes and were therefore unable to attend school.
More than 30 years later the acclaimed Paradis de Indiens (runner-up in the BBC World Challenge in 2007) has expanded into an impressively diverse education-to-employment programme. The BBC noted: “Poverty reduction activities include beekeeping, embroidery, woodworking and fruit-drying schemes. Environmental efforts are focused on reforestation – a key priority for tree-stripped Haiti.
“The project also runs a microfinance scheme to foster local businesses and lift individual families out of poverty. However, Paradis des Indiens has not neglected its ‘core business’ – ten small schools now run under its name, each with around 150 students.“
We’re directed to a glorious sandy beach front in a picture postcard bay, palm trees waving in the wind, a lone fishing boat bobbing out in the sea. A few metres along the seafront a table has been laid out for lunch under a canopy in front of a humble wooden house. The Mayor and Mica (pictured below) are there to greet us warmly.
We sit down, just a few strides away from the water’s edge. This morning we were in the slums of Port-au-Prince. While poverty is also very much a factor here, the setting couldn’t be more different.
Mayor Fignolé is a thoughtful man, passionate about his community, which he has returned from overseas to serve. And Mica, now 75, is a kindly yet insistent and deeply driven woman, who, having pioneered her own school three and a half decades ago, is instantly supportive of our efforts.
“My husband used to say that before they got universities, Oxford and Cambridge were nothing,” she says with a smile. “If you can adapt your idea to the Haitian needs then you can do wonders.”
She regales us with fascinating, often poignant tales from the early days of Paradis des Indiens. “Parents used to sleep on the school steps to ensure they got their kids accepted,” she says. “We would have over 350 kids queuing for 80 places – it was heartbreaking.”
Today Mica runs around a dozen schools, including some in the mountains where she tries to source (and train) teachers from the local communities in order to retain staff. “We need to make this region an example for the rest of the country,” she says, commenting on the breakdown of education in much of Haiti.
Since the 12 January earthquake the population in the region has increased by around +25%, many of them children. More schools are needed, Mica says.
Is this the right place for Hand in Hand for Haiti? It’s a difficult question. Wherever we have travelled there has been a need for more and better facilities, but we have to pick the right place with the right level of local support.
We reserve judgement, although it’s made clear to us that land would be made available for our use (in fact we visit the plot on the way back to Jérémie). But whatever our decision, we all vow to help this inspirational woman and her remarkable project in whatever way we can.
A hearty lunch of black rice, goat, chicken and plantain (similar to banana) puts us in good spirits for what we know will be a long and bumpy ride back. We’re anxious to avoid nightfall on that terrible road but Mica is not letting us leave easily.
“Come,” she says, “you must see my school.” Off she goes, at about 100 miles an hour along the beachfront, suddenly turning right towards a steep, rocky path. This time we haven’t got a four-wheel drive to help us, so we all begin the long clamber upwards.
If your kids ever complain about walking to school, tell them what happens at the rural communities served by Paradis des Indiens, where children often walk miles for the privilege – I emphasise, the privilege – of education.
As the pictures below show, this is more of a hike than a walk to school. But it’s worth every ounce of the effort. The Ecole Paradis des Indiens Digot is basic in its construction but far-sighted in its vision and commendably thorough in the services it provides. There’s a library, a science unit, even a computer room. Plus there are whole new facilities under construction.
The sky is darkening but Mica insists on showing us some of her non-educational projects, including fruit drying and embroidery. She highlights examples of the exquisite local handiwork in her amazing open plan house which looks out onto a magnficent tropical garden and a panoramic view of the bay below. Gaugin would have gloried in the view here.
One could talk to this amazing woman all night but we really must get back to Jérémie for a meeting with local civic officials, especially as we’re anxious to hear feedback from this morning’s testing meeting.
We say farewell to Mica but we’re sure that one way or another our paths will cross again. This astonishing woman, living in an isolated paradise that is both poverty-stricken yet rich in nature’s bounty, has inspired and encouraged us to follow her lead.
As dusk draws in, it’s time to hit the road.
[The Hand in Hand for Haiti team scouts a possible site for a new school in the company of the Mayor]