There is a Haitian saying that goes, “Piti piti, ti pay pay, zwazo fe nich,” which in Creole means, “Little by little, straw by straw, a bird makes her nest.” For St. Jacobs-resident Steve Sider that saying ideally sums up the way he believes rebuilding efforts in the impoverished nation of Haiti must proceed in order to successfully pull the Caribbean nation out of the depths of poverty.
For seven years the faculty of education professor at Wilfrid Laurier University has been travelling to Haiti to build personal relationships with educators and to help train new principals so that they, in turn, can help transform the youth of Haiti into well-educated members of society in order to help themselves.
“The first time I heard that (saying) I thought it captured so well what we’re trying to do, we and thousands of Haitians and Canadians, Americans and Europeans are trying to do,” he said with a smile. “Often the huge governmental programs just get bogged down, where what works best in Haiti is the organic, on-the-ground, one-on-one relationships.”
Sider is heading back on May 1 with his 16-year-old daughter Emily to continue his work with a group of principals and help train them to become more effective educators and leaders in their schools.
Only this time, he will be trying something that has never been done before. Thanks to a $6,500 grant from WLU, Sider is bringing several iPad 2s, BlackBerrys and other cellular devices to revolutionize the way teachers and educators in the country communicate.
His goal is to establish a program very similar to distance education here in Canada, but instead of students logging on to their virtual classrooms to answer questions and post answers to assigned readings, Sider hopes that the group of five educators involved in this pilot program – three principals in Haiti, principal Bruce Alexander at Keatsway Public School in Waterloo, and himself – can use this digital technology to bridge the gap between educators in Canada and principals in Haiti.
“One of the dilemmas when you go down only once or twice a year is how much of accountability and follow-up there is when (we’re) not there. Everyone gets excited about something at first, but when we go back to our jobs, it’s back to reality,” Sider explained.
He hopes to use the technology in a five-month pilot project to see if he can use the video, chat and text capabilities of the iPads and cell phones to remain in contact with the principals in Haiti, even when he’s not there, to help them work through any problems they might have.
Sider says that the school system in Haiti is very different than it is in Canada and the United States. About 90 per cent of Haitian schools are private, and many of those schools are run like businesses. As a result there is no even distribution of professional training, development, certification or qualifications for principals like there are in Ontario.
But Sider’s program goes beyond merely training new principals in Haiti. If the project can gain more traction and attract more funding here in Canada after their pilot project is complete, then principals and teachers would be able to use the technology to connect their classes and schools with others not only in Haiti but around the world – similar to virtual pen-pals.
“I have schools all the time say to me ‘can we have a video-Skype call with a class in Haiti?’ Grade-6s in St. Jacobs want to connect with a Grade-6 class in Port-Au-Prince,” said Sider.
“The problems that a principal might deal with in the most remote part of Haiti aren’t all that different than what a principal might face in St. Jacobs or Elmira. The scale might be different, but the underlying problems are not.”
Sider also said that the Haitian people are no strangers to this type of digital technology; much like the rest of the world, cell phones are prolific in Haiti – there are nearly four million cell phones on the island which has a population of close to 10 million, he said. There are also extensive 2G and 3G wireless networks throughout the country, which are being steadily improved on since the earthquake last January.
Born and raised in India, Sider has spent his life travelling the globe and trying to experience as much of it as he can. He has also taught about the developing world at Redeemer University College and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the experiences of Mennonites in Mexico.
“It’s part of my DNA,” he said of his drive to help developing regions around the world. “I’ve always had that mentality in my head that life is bigger than what is just around our immediate vicinity.”
That genetic desire to help has also been passed on to his daughter, Emily, who will accompany Sider on the trip. She will be recording the seminars as well as the rebuilding of several schools destroyed in the earthquake. She will then edit that footage into a series of movies to be shown to students back here in Canada. She also travelled to We Day in Kitchener in February with her EDSS classmates.
“I’m really looking forward to serving down there and doing what I can. It will be an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I’ve been to Thailand, but there is still a lot I want to see and do, and Haiti is just another step.”
This will be Sider’s first trip back to Haiti since the earthquake, but he is comfortable with the area of Port-Au-Prince that they will be staying in and knows that it is safe for him and Emily.
He had hoped to return this past December, but couldn’t due to the cholera outbreak.
He also emphasized the fact that this project is merely the first stepping-stone in the long-term goal of helping the Haitian people rebuild. He knows that people in the developed world are concerned about how the millions of dollars donated following the disaster may have been spent, and says that this project is just another example of how grassroots, on-the-
ground help is really what can get Haiti back on its feet.
“We’re not just looking to take some fancy technology to an impoverished country, but we’re saying ‘how can we use that technology over the long-term to really fundamentally build the country,’” he said.
“I’m a dreamer that way, I’m thinking big, but I keep coming back to that expression, Piti piti, ti pay pay, zwazo fe nich. It’s just little by little, and then taking it from there.”