Haiti earthquake: arts help children heal

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

By Emily Sollie

She’s small, but her smile easily lights up a room. Eight-year-old Rosedaline Revolis grins as she plays the pandeiro (tambourine) for capoeira, a martial-arts inspired dance native to Brazil that is now helping Haitian children cope with the changes in their lives since the January 12 earthquake.

The capoeira training is part of a comprehensive psychosocial program by Viva Rio, a partner organisation of ACT Alliance member Norwegian Church Aid. Kay Nou, the space formerly used as Viva Rio’s community center in Port-au-Prince’s downtrodden Bel Air neighborhood, is now a tent encampment housing about 1600 people. Children living in Kay Nou are benefiting from daily opportunities to learn creative endeavors like art, music and dancing, helping them deal with the stress of being displaced.

The program existed prior to the earthquake, says Viva Rio staffer Aila Machado, who has worked with the Haiti program since last year. Since 2006, Viva Rio has focused on urban development in the beleaguered Bel Air neighbourhood, providing community services and working to diminish street violence. After January 12, 2010, their focus shifted to providing for the immediate needs of affected people in the neighborhood, including providing safe and constructive activities for children.

Such activities serve several purposes, explains Anna Oliver, an experienced relief officer with NCA. They engage the children immediately and give them a rare but much-needed break from the trauma, shock and loss all around.

Stealing children
“At the same time, it is a way of offering the children a degree of protection,” she adds. After the earthquake, many experts predicted a dramatic increase in illegal trafficking of children. “Engaging and registering the children in our activities – even providing them with small wrist bands – is one important way we can help protect the children from such threats,” Oliver explains.

“This helps the children to not occupy their minds on this situation,” says Musset Payant, a Haitian painter who teaches art to children as part of Viva Rio’s program. “For the time they are here, they forget everything. In this room, they are completely relaxed and they just fly.”

Help to help ourselves
The children eagerly watch as Payant begins to draw a fish on the chalkboard in front of the room.  Using donated materials, they too begin to sketch, intently focused on their work.

“What happened to us in this country caused people all over the world to come and help us,” Payant adds, “But this helps us to help ourselves.”

On the other side of the camp, capoeira lessons are starting. Viva Rio has been teaching capoeira to children here for more than a year, but since the earthquake, the number of children in the program has grown by more than 100. In the shell of a building that locals say gang members used to use for hiding kidnap victims, about 30 children remove their shoes and sit on a rug in front of a line of musicians for the morning class. The music is key to capoeira, and the morning session focuses just on the songs, while the afternoon session teaches the components of the martial-arts based dance.

Children are fragile
“Children and adults are not the same,” says Rodney Jean Marc, one of eight assistants who help lead the classes. He has studied capoeira with Viva Rio since 2008. “Adults are used to hardship and difficulty but children are fragile . . . Capoeira helps them get the stress out.”

The songs are taught in Portuguese, and the teachers then explain them in Creole. The songs’ themes are about living in peace and respecting others – things that can be challenging for children in the best of situations, but especially difficult in the trying circumstances in which these kids now find themselves.

The art of capoeira
After about a half hour of practicing the songs, the children stand up and make a circle around the rug – it’s time for the teachers to demonstrate the art of capoiera. The pulsating beat of the music creates a frenetic energy as the masters take to the rug and engage in capoeira play – a physical and acrobatic dance performed either solo or in pairs. When danced with a partner, capoeira resembles a sparring match, but without actual physical contact.

Their acrobatics delight the children; their claps and cheers and the sheer joy on their faces belie the difficulty of their situation. For a little while, at least, they are able to just be children.

“I like it because doing capoeira gives me courage and strength,” little Rosedaline says. “It helps me a lot.”

Haiti: after the earthquake