by Michaëlle de Verteuil
Forty-five years ago my husband and I were living a happy and contented life in Montreal. We had immigrated nine years earlier, he from Britain and I from Haiti, and fortune had smiled on us. We loved our jobs and pursued our daily lives with zest and pleasure. Our house had a large garden in which I happily spent much of my free time, and our young son gave us all the love and satisfaction we could hope for. It never occurred to us that a day would when we would leave Canada–forever.
One day, out of the blue, the world changed. I was on a plane flying back to Canada having visited my family in Haiti, most especially my grandmother whom I adored. Next to me sat a young nurse from British Columbia, and we began to talk. She had been working for two years as a volunteer at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, was going home for a short holiday, and was planning to return for at least another year. I was taken aback. Here was a strong, handsome young woman, exuding joy and pride, devoting her best years to my people as if this was the most ordinary thing in the world. And here I was centered mainly on my little circle of family and friends. I remained silent for a long time–not that I had any remorse; it was just that my thoughts of helping Haiti had been limited to charitable giving. With a Canadian Teaching Certificate and a master in French Literature from McGill University, I had never imagined investing myself personally in what I did best, teaching, in order to make a difference in the country of my birth. I determined then and there to infuse my life with a new vision–a new direction. It would take time, of course, to convince my husband, to plan for our son’s higher education. There were thousands of things to consider, but my mind was made up.
It would be too long a story to detail how we ended up in the beautiful, edge-of-the-world, village of Les Abricots; but we did make a difference. Our contribution would not have been essential to Canada’s development, but here in this little corner of Haiti everything we did mattered. My first school was built of straw and bamboo, and in it I started teaching children from the poorest backgrounds who had never even hoped for a formal education of any kind. My husband helped as much as he could, building a house and ultimately a proper school building, all from a manual. His gift was in devices of all kinds, whether mechanical, electronic or eventually digital. The faces of those around him would light up at the sudden prospects of their old, damaged or rundown watches and radios being repaired for them for free and on the spot. It took some time, but eventually it dawned on them that people really could and would make it the purpose of their lives to help them out of their misery, and to help them solve their problems.
The years went happily by all too fast. We added a canteen and handicraft training for the school; workshops for embroidered and appliqué cushions and tablecloths, lovely ceramic nativity scenes sold and packed in a coconut shells, and many other articles. Patrick introduced electrification to the village. We progressively added eleven other primary schools sprinkled throughout the hills of the commune des Abricots, trying hard to apply the new pedagogy that combines learning with real pleasure and the growth of personal autonomy. Then co-operatives for dried fruits and vegetables, bee-keeping, small animal husbandry and the granting of small productive loans. Boosting local employment no matter how modestly became an obsession. Others helped and we built a centre for experimental science, a free internet café, an infirmary for our nearly 3500 school children; an embryonic sports field, drilled wells for potable water, planted vegetable gardens for crop diversification and, most recently, have launched a project for micro-finance. Do I need to add that little would have been possible without the help, support and contributions of a great number of family members, friends, aid agencies, and humanitarian NGOs? Now my hair is bleaching white with age beneath my broad-rimmed hat, and yet I still dream of more things that I will probably not be around long enough to achieve; but then, what is life without dreams.