Haiti My Country: Poems by Haitian Schoolchildren

For several months, Quebec illustrator Roge prepared a series of portraits of Haitian children. Students of Camp Perrin wrote that accompanying poems, which create, with flowing consistency, Haiti My Country. These teenaged poets use the Haitian landscape as their easel. The nature that envelops them is quite clearly their main subject. While misery often storms through Haiti in the form of earthquakes, cyclones, or floods, these young men and women see their surrounding nature as assurance for a joyful, confident future.

Related: All Ages, Caribbean, Haiti, Picture Book, Poetry, Primary (ages 6-9)

One thought on “Haiti My Country: Poems by Haitian Schoolchildren

  1. Gail Pritchard says:

    This collection of sixteen poems written by teenagers from Camp Perrin, a town of 40,000 in southwestern Haiti, will be released in the U.S., March 2014. The students, who wrote their poems prior to the earthquake of 2010, were participants in a poetry contest that is part of a project for training teachers. The accompanying portraits were re-created from photographs taken by Canadian writer/illustrator Rogé. Originally published in French in 2010, Haïti Mon Pays, has won numerous awards, including the White Ravens Selection 2012 and Lauréat Prix Saint Exupéry 2011 (French category).
    Gail’s Take
    That these poems are part of a project introducing science education at Camp Perrin, Haiti is evident in their topics. Teacher Perpétue Sulney’s poem, the last in the collection, eloquently states that living in southwest Haiti provides, “The unexpected chance to see that the day finally breaks, and turns into night for the better, and for the joy of reconciliation heaven and earth, water of life, and luxuriant nature….” Haiti My Country is an astounding collection of poems revealing “the natural landscapes that surround these teenagers… ” (preface, Dany Laferrière). As I read each poem, I saw a new Haiti through the perspectives of these young poets. Some of their poems reflect the iconic images of small homes with tin roofs, others reflect the resplendent colors of flowers, fruit and trees native to Haiti, and others proudly proclaim the uniqueness of southwestern Haiti. All of them simply speak to the heart.
    Lordanie Théodore’s poem reminds me the oft maligned Haiti is not always as the world sees it, “I want to make it radiate everywhere; to make it known that Haiti is a gift from the heavens.” Ricardo Jocelyn, with his wide-open eyes and smile tells us that rural Haiti is not like the city, “Everyone is fine in this rustic setting…away from politics…There, where no evil exists we live peacefully…” And Angelo Borgela describes his home as a place where people go “… to rebuild their thoughts Between the sea, the beach, the mountains, and the sky….”
    The flamboyant bounty found in Aldaïne Louis’s peasant garden and Marie-Andrèle Charlot’s, “Ripe mango, Fresh mango, Yellow mango…” create vivid images of the colorful countryside of Camp Perrin. Derline Dorcy paints the landscape in the colors of the hibiscus, “red, pink, and fancy yellow;” while Judes-Roldes Raymond compares Haiti to “pink butterflies That smile at the sun.” The colors these poems evoke are in sharp contrast to the media’s images of squalid, overcrowded, crumbling shacks.
    Juxtaposed against those images, Marie-France Étienne’s describes the tin-roofed homes as places that welcome and protect. Dismy Borgela’s portrays these homes as places, “telling tales of our history past and present….” Madième Thercidor styles the tin-roofed homes as,

      Humble little huts
      That decorate the countryside
      Where our companions live
      Made only of clay and straw
      Invite us to take shelter under their shade
      To enjoy the natural cool
      And relieve us from extreme heat.

    The coming together of these poems and portraits was a fortuitous accident. Within days of reading one and seeing the other, editor of Les Éditions de la Bagnole, Jennifer Trembley was struck by the alignment of portraits and poems. One extraordinary example of this is with Judson Éliona. His eyes are closed and he appears to be basking in the sun’s light; his poem begins, “Haiti a beautiful land that the warm sun illuminates, appears extraordinary in the eyes of children ….” Jeanne Dadley Zamor’s portrait captures her in midspeech , compelling us to take care of “Haitian trees, “Always dancing For the wind that carasses them….” The cover art is the portrait of Janaïe Orgella, hand slightly covering an impish smile as she tells us all the things she loves, “I love… A flower… a green window… A better life… A country.”
    Rogé urges us to, “Always contemplate the world around us: the poetry is everywhere.” Haiti My Country invites a new perspective as we contemplate Haiti through these young poets’ words.
    Deborah’s Take
    It is refreshing to read the words of Haitian schoolchildren whose vision of Haiti is far more optimistic than the images normally presented to us. Each poem is filled with descriptions of nature and the livelihood it provides to those who depend upon it. As Gail noted above, so often we read only of Haiti’s degradation and poverty and these references are not lost in this poetry collection. The final lines of Janaïe Orgella’s poem calls for an affirmation of these images or for a wish to come true,

      I love . . .
      An adorned, verdant countryside
      A living root
      A better life
      A country.

    Thematically, this book of poems focuses on the natural beauty of Haiti; however, I found it difficult to respond to the poems because the context in which they were written was not evident, albeit the published edition may provide this explanation. The galley proof, though, lacks counterpoint and context so the poems read like a story with no conflict. While I know these poets were part of a project related to the introduction of science education, what I do not know is whether or not these young poets would write in this way or would choose these topics if given the option. There seems to be a controlling hand on the poems, which raises questions of authenticity. Are we as readers actually hearing the voices of the schoolchildren in the Camp Perrin village? Or, are the children’s voices co-opted for other purposes?
    Having visited Haiti a number of times over the past 10 years, I wanted to find out more about where the children live and were getting their inspiration. What I found in my brief Internet search is that Camp Perrin is an absolutely beautiful site with rich foliage, fruit trees, and waterfalls. And . . . it is being marketed as a tourist destination, which should not be difficult as my first response was to put it on my travel agenda for my upcoming trip. After seeing the pictures of Camp Perrin and further reflecting on the schoolchildren’s poems, I wondered if this collection of poetry was published to raise money for the school. The fact the by-line refers to the young poets as Haitian schoolchildren leads me to believe this is one possibility. Curiously, I know nothing about the schoolchildren. I do not know their age, level in school, or anything about them; I have only their poem and portrait. I do not know about their school or where they live in the area. The type of school they go to would give me information about the children’s socio-economic background; for example, do they attend a state school? Private school? Parochial school? Do their parents have to pay very much for them to attend this school? Having this information would help me place the poems in context. From my experiences in Haiti, children who live in the deforested areas whose parents cannot afford to send them to school would likely not be the authors of these poems.
    The foreword, written by Dany Laferrière, one of Haiti’s most renowned authors, points out these poems were written prior to the 2010 earthquake. This information is not particularly important to understanding the context since the schoolchildren reside far from the epicenter of the earthquake. In fact, their arrondissement, Les Cayes, was not affected at all. However, Laferrière, does speak of the reality of children whose future is not embraced by privilege,

      … Misery gallops toward these young men and women, who are presently filled with laughter. Here they stand so confident of their future…. How much time will it take before these young faces are carried away by time? Who will be left to evoke such joy on this bereft island? Other young people, of course. Because in Haiti, poets grow as fast as the trees.

    The final line is ironic since over 90% of Haiti has been deforested and new ones barely have the opportunity to thrive before being cut down and used as charcoal for cooking. Is Laferrière suggesting these young Haitian poets will meet a similar fate when misery comes galloping toward them?
    The original version of Haïti My Country was published in French; however, I do wonder about the co-opting of the young poets’ voices. Will they never see their poems published in the language they speak—Haitian Creole? While French is one of two official languages in Haiti, it is the language of political and educational affairs. It is rarely, if ever, spoken among Haitians in everyday usage. Given there are so few books printed in Creole, I truly hope these young Haitian poets will be able to see their work in their own language and feel a sense of pride in their contribution to Haitian literature printed in Creole.

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