Emergency education deployment in the Caribbean

By Thomas Wildgruber, May 2021

The people on the island of Providencia were warned. They were told to stay indoors. Two weeks earlier, hurricane Eta had already swept across the Caribbean. But what happened on the night of 15 to 16 November went beyond anything the islanders had experienced.

Hurricane Iota destroyed everything on the Caribbean island of Providencia, the houses as well as nature.

Shape drawing, circle and pentagram: I find my centre and my uprightness.

Each meeting, led by two or three people, began and ended in a circle ritual, with a saying, with rhythms and singing (behind mouth and nose protection, at a temperature of about 30 °C).

Hurricane Iota exploded to category 5 strength! Wind gusts of 250 kilometres per hour first tore off the tin roofs, which whirled through the air like leaves or metal projectiles; then the houses made of wood collapsed, the large trees crashed to the ground, even the palm trees could not hold out. The waves broke over the banks and the rain poured down in torrents from the mountains.

“The only thing we could do was to take refuge in the toilet and bathroom behind the only cement walls in our houses. For six hours, nine of us stood crowded in the water on that black night, holding the children on our shoulders to save them from drowning. We saw nothing and heard only the roar of the storm and the crash of collapsing walls and trees. The day was even worse, our mango tree in the garden, the bananas and papayas, everything was on the ground and no tree on the hills had any leaves left, the naked rocks were bare and brown. Where was our green island?” reports Luz Howard, an elderly teacher who has been leaning on a walking stick ever since.

The next few days revealed the damage in numbers: practically all 5,600 inhabitants of the island are homeless, of the almost 2,000 houses only 130 are still habitable, the tropical dry forest has been defoliated, 90 percent of the infrastructure damaged, no electricity, no drinking water, nothing left to eat, but “only” three dead.

It will take months until people have a roof over their heads again. Nature recovers quickly here, after two weeks the first green leaves are sprouting again. But how long will it take to get over the shock? One week after this catastrophe, an email from the environmental organisation “Help2Oceans” reaches the Friends of Waldorf Education in Karlsruhe. Ten days later, three experts in emergency education from Germany and eleven volunteers from Colombia land on the neighbouring island of San Andrés. The archipelago is a geostrategic bastion of Colombia. It also has its colonial history.

From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, it was first a refuge for persecuted English Puritans, then a bone of contention between the English and Spanish conquerors, farmed by African slaves, a dorado for privateers, smugglers and pirates, and finally, in 1912, annexed by the Catholic state of Colombia, 500 kilometres from the Colombian mainland, 180 kilometres from Nicaragua.

In 1953, San Andrés was declared a free port and thus began a boom that turned the coconut palm island with its 5,000 inhabitants into a tourist city with 78,000 inhabitants. Hotels sprang up, drug money was easy to invest here. The overpopulated island is on the verge of collapse with mountains of rubbish, marine pollution, water and energy problems. The neighbouring island of Providencia, on the other hand, was able to retain some of its Caribbean flair – until the Iota disaster.

The black Afro-Antillian “Raizales” see themselves as the losers of this development and do not see themselves as Colombians at all. They have their Creole language, their reggae music, their Anglo-American religion, and they are the section of the population most affected by the hurricane disaster. They care about the preservation of their culture and the recovery of nature. About half of the children and young people from Providencia were evacuated to San Andrés, where they stayed with relatives, Protestant churches or in camps with their mothers and aunts.

For a fortnight, our Pedagogía de Emergencia (emergency education) teams were able to be with them for about three hours in different locations. After three days we changed the groups, sometimes there were five to ten, sometimes over 60 children who carried the experience of that black night in their souls. We also worked in seminars with teachers, psychologists and social workers. Each day began and ended with planning and reviewing in a circle ritual.

With a lot of activities from Waldorf and experiential education, we tried to give people short experiences of play, physical stabilisation, artistic and manual creativity: small moments of forgetfulness and joy. We would have liked to continue longer with the children and also the mothers. But the concept of emergency education is geared at the first releasing intervention in the trauma. A deeper personal relationship would tend to burden the children.

The effectiveness of the activities starts above all in the area of the physical senses, one could also say at the unconscious will pole. Stabilising experiences of movement, balance and touch can provide a basis for mental and emotional recovery so that the trauma does not entrench itself even deeper. Conversations, the two teams that were able to travel to the hardest hit in Providencia reported, helped the adults there: “Someone is listening to me!” the latter said with a Creole “Thank you” and a smile as they said goodbye.

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