Spaghetti for Breakfast: Sarah Muffly in Haiti

By Sarah Muffly, M.A. International Educational Development (Expected February 2013) contact: smuffly@gmail.com

This summer, I spent five weeks in southwest Haiti, as part of an internship for the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Projects. I worked in the Millennium Village site of Port-à-Piment with the Education team led by our partner organizations, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

In the news, stories about Haiti often discuss the devastation of the 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed it, and they often include the phrase “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” While Port-à-Piment and the area surrounding it certainly experience poverty, the region was not as badly affected by the earthquake or by cholera as other parts of the country.

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Upon landing in the capital, Port-au-Prince, what struck me first was the intense heat and humidity; after all, I was in the Caribbean in the summer! Port-à-Piment is about a day’s drive from Port-au-Prince, so right away I was treated to Haiti’s beautiful coastal landscape during the drive. There is an old Haitian proverb, “behind these mountains are more mountains” and one look at the landscape explains its origins.

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In Port-à-Piment, I worked in a bustling office with employees of UNOPS and CRS, as well as other interns from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I was lucky enough to live with one of my colleagues during the majority of my stay. My room and board included two meals a day; lunch was usually goat with rice, and breakfast was often bread and fruit. About once a week, however, we had the typical Haitian breakfast dish of sautéed spaghetti with Spam, onions, and ketchup for extra flavor. Yum.

Exploring Haitian cuisine was also a part of one of my professional projects in Port-à-Piment: analyzing the school meals program organized by CRS. In this program, which had only begun a few weeks before I arrived, schools are given a certain amount of money per student. With these funds, school directors and parents’ committees purchase local foodstuffs (often potatoes, yams, carrots, and other root vegetables) to use in the meal served to children. I conducted interviews with the school directors, parents, teachers, and children, to gauge the early performance of the program. While some of those interviewed described problems relating to paperwork and the practical challenges of running the program, all interviewees said that they were happy that the program had started and that they wanted it to continue. At the time of the interviews, school directors had noticed a marked increase in attendance, and teachers said that their students were able to focus much better after having eaten. For many children, the school meal is their first of the day, so the program has nutritional advantages as well as educational ones. It remains to be seen how the program will continue benefit students and communities, but I am confident that there are positive results in the future.

 

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The other major project I worked on involved piloting a literacy assessment method. The unique aspect of the process was the way in which test results were collected and organized using Android mobile technology. My colleagues and I went to several schools in the area and assessed a total of 50 children in the 3rd year of primary school. The tests, which involved reading aloud text in Haitian Creole, were administered to children individually in the presence of a parent or family member and the school director. Students were marked at one of 5 levels: no reading, letter level, word level, paragraph level, and story level. Students’ scores, along with basic information such as name, age, and sex, were recorded on survey software developed by the Earth Institute for Android phones. Once I was in a Wi-Fi zone, I was able to send the scores to a colleague in New York, who created a spreadsheet of all the data. What was especially useful about this process was that the software allowed the test results to be organized and analyzed virtually instantly. For me, it was also exciting because my concentration within International Educational Development is Language, Literacy, and Technology, so this project was an ideal example of the intersection of these three elements.

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