January 30, 2014. The first thing I realized when I landed in Haiti was that for some reason Haitian kids always wanted to fight me. At first I thought a Japanese man like me was probably not welcome in Haiti, but then soon I realized that they thought I was Jackie Chan and always thus expected a display of martial arts skill. For that reason, I was kind of popular in Haiti and it was easy to be friendly with Haitian people.
And like that, my life in Haiti started. After the amazing first week we had with GOALS Haiti in Léogâne, we moved to Port-au-Prince, where we worked with Tony Sanneh of The Sanneh Foundation and their Haitian Initiative for a full week. Tony is a former professional soccer player who played for the US in the 2002 World Cup and had an assist against Portugal. He founded The Sanneh Foundation when he was still playing as a pro in order to help the urban kids learn life skills through playing soccer, and decided to extend the program to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.
The week with the Haitian Initiative was very overwhelming but also fun. In the mornings from 9:00 to 12:00, we taught our drills to about sixty of the local coaches, and in the afternoon from 2:00 to 5:30 we observed the coaches using our drills to train the kids. The sessions were really long and because I was under the sun for a long time every day, I got the coolest T-shirt tan lines ever, which people actually have been telling me are the worst. However, it was totally worth working with the local coaches for that long period of time because I was able to learn three big lessons about life.
One lesson is the importance of conflict resolution. From the first day of the week, we let them play games that were designed to simulate conflict. At first, I always wanted to get in the middle of the argument and re-explain the rules and offer a solution. However, Nora always pulled me aside and told me “let them solve their own problems” and just yelled out, “rezoud konfli!” which means to solve conflicts in Créole. By the end of the week I started to observe more leadership within the group and efforts to solve problems independently. It was a huge step forward for them, especially because the ability to think critically and solve problems is crucial for developing countries like Haiti, and until that point I never knew there was such an educating method as stepping back and observing without interfering, which had a pretty impressive effect.
The second lesson I learned was that, yes, soccer is a language of the world and you can easily make tons of friends by just playing soccer, but knowing some of their language and culture gets you much closer to them. For example, I literally knew only four sentences in Créole, which were “bon travay” (good job), “san balon” (without the ball), “bay non” (give me your name) and “ou pare? on ale” (you ready? Let’s go). However, with only these four sentences, I was able to make them laugh, smile, and happy. In addition, we learned one of the Haitian traditional dance moves in the first week, and we showed it to the coaches in Port-au-Prince, and they absolutely loved that we did it. Looking back at my own life, I was always happy when random people talked to me saying “konnichiwa,” or even when they were big fans of Pokémon. I thought that when I got a chance to go abroad next, I should learn some fun sentences and dances from the country before visiting, and now I know that will definitely help me make friends.
Finally, working with the Haitian Initiative made me realize that I could influence so many other lives. After working with the coaches for a week, it was obvious to my eyes that they not only had become better coaches, but also had become better educators. In the afternoon sessions where we got to observe the coaches training the kids, I could tell the way they interacted with the kids had started to change. They were encouraging kids to be more vocal, have respect for others, treat everyone equally regardless of gender, and have more fun. The funny thing is when they would shout out “rezoud konfli!” to kids when they were arguing. It was amazing to see that what we teach is directly reflected in what they teach. Because each coach had about twenty kids, that’s more than a thousand kids we had impacted. To think that we had influenced more than a thousand kids in just a week, and that we had potentially helped create a positive outlet for Haiti’s next generation of leaders is simply mind-blowing.
Going to Haiti and working with CAC and Haitian Initiative has definitely become a life changing experience to me. This trip gave me a chance to reassess my values in life along with my future goals. These past two weeks I was always asking myself questions, but did not know answers to most of them. This trip made me really want to go back to school, and study to become a better critical thinker so that I can be better at rezoud konfli. So now I am happy that I am back at Harvard to start a new semester, but man, it is freaking cold here. I already miss Haiti and mangos.