In the South of the Ardèche two projects, ‘La Ferme des enfants’ and ‘le Hameau de Buis’ were brought together to construct a future in respect of life. Le Hameau de Buis, founded in 2004, comprises of a primary and middle school (until the age of 16) with a total of 65 children and 20 houses with 43 inhabitants on 7 hectares of farm land. Unique in this human adventure is the mixture of its population: men and women between 2 and 80 years of age, with two-third of pensioners, as well as different nationalities. As several of the inhabitants are also involved in the education at the school La Ferme des enfants, the children learn English, German, and Spanish and are in their daily lives in close contact with other languages and cultures – an enriching experience which is not very common in most French contexts. The school has children from both families that live next door at the Hameau de Buis and that live outside in the surrounding villages.
Respect of individual rhythms
It all started in 1999 with La ferme des enfants founded by Sophie Bouquet-Rabhi, daughter of Pierre Rabhi. This private ‘school-in-nature’ is inspired by the work of Maria Montessori, the Italian physician. She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a ‘blank slate’ waiting to be written upon. Contrary to other countries in Europe, this alternative form of education is still rare in France where the state-organised educational system is dominant and, as I have learned from many French I met during this journey, still very traditional. Rather than on the needs of the child based on the child reproducing (for grades) what is taught.
Sophie explains that the educational principles of this school are respecting and nourishing the child. This school is about questioning and challenging the way we accompany and educate our children. 13 years of hard work and belief in their project has now led to the official recognition of the school by the French Ministry of Education and will become a so called ‘école de contrat’.
Apart from putting the needs of the child first, the school emphasis nonviolent communication and children learn how to deal with emotions. The premises has for instance a small room where kids can let out their anger on a boxing ball and can then come back to the group. Furthermore, it uses ‘ le cercle de paroles’, both at the school and in the meetings of the
Hameau, where they learn to better listen to each other, to put into words its own ideas and feelings, and which enables a better and deeper mutual understanding. I witnessed at the end-of-year spectacle that was organised at the Hameau that these children are very confident in front of an audience as well. Furthermore, the children learn how to garden at the school and do their projects related to subjects of nature that is all around them. The project has its own canteen and food is cooked by people from the Hameau, where also the many volunteers that contribute to the building of the houses can eat. Parents also contribute to the education, according to skills and abilities, by giving a variety of workshops to the children.
Top quality ecological houses
The beautiful houses of the Hameau belong to the very best in current ecological housing. With the help of an architect and lots of research on materials, on insulation and cooling and heating techniques, these houses were constructed with high quality and local materials, using all the benefits from the local surroundings, such as sun, wood, straw and clay. The project started in 2005 and the currently 20 houses were built with the help of many volunteers, even people who never had done construction before, with the guiding help of several experts. The first inhabitants moved in in 2010.
To mention some features of these beautiful wooden houses: heat capturing walls (inside and outside), green roofs, dry toilets (among others: ‘lombricompostage’ or vermicomposting) Photo, phytopurification, and solar heating of water. The energy use for heating in winter (with wood) is only one-tenth of the normal average and the use of straw is not only beneficial for the management of the temperature, straw also can be used in supporting walls of a building and … it is very safe in case of fires!
I stayed in one of these housing and it is amazing how it insulates, but even more importantly, I felt a different type of energy in the building, the one that is very calming. I slept like a princess!
New forms of shared living
Apart from the support to this school by the inhabitants and the excellent quality of the new houses, Hameau de Buis is more. They made a clear distinction between that fact that the Hameau is not a ‘communauté’ – a commune, but a ‘collectivité’, a place where people share. I was privileged to assist at one of their monthly meetings with all inhabitants. The matters discussed do touch on both everyday life issues, but also on deeper questions on how to create this idea of sharing. The Hameau also has an ethical charter which forms the basis for living there. Some of the issues at the heart of this project are:
- How can we create our food autonomy? What kind of gardens do we then need, what kind of food production, what is possible on this terrain, who will take care of that, do we want to produce and make and sell bread, how do we share the benefits among the Hameau inhabitants, etc. etc.
- What is the role of a common kitchen for the Hameau? Is it just for the children and volunteers, or can it function as a restaurant (to outsiders), can we transform and sell food, etc. etc.
- What does a professional life at the Hameau mean? How can we balance the needs of the Hameau, and respect personal needs (freedom of choice of professional activity), can people that live outside the Hameau create activities or make products here, how can we balance personal and collective revenues from work how can we validate collective activities, how can we manage money in a responsible and equitable way, or how can we create synergies with others outside the project?
Hameau de Buis, like many other projects where people try to find new forms of living together in a more respectful, sustainable and sharing way are confronted with these challenges. The American Diana Leafe Christian, who has over 14 years of experience with intentional communities, gives some keys for success:
- Define and understand vision and mission of the project. Where are we going, how and why?
- Use participatory and fair discussion practices
- Be sure new-comers know what to expect and integrate them.
- Always write down the decisions taken and be sure that everybody agrees on that.
- Use the right and left brain hemisphere qualities in the project. So emotions and ratio!
- Use appropriate conflict resolution communication tools.
As many inhabitants from the Hameau expressed to me, this project is like a laboratory. It is as an organic system in nature; a lively process of finding ways to share and live together and in touch with nature. Nothing stays the same, changes and flexibility are part of life and so of this project!
Further reading and watching
These new forms of living together also demand other ways of communication, a sense of justice and understanding of our interdependencies. I can recommend reading: “The sharing economy“, an article by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute in the USA.
To learn much more about Hameau de buis, for those of you who read French, I can recommend their website. There is a lot more info on the housing, the school and the legal and financial structures, and you can find several videos.
Different films on Le Hameau de Buis!
An interesting book written by Sophie Bouquet-Rabhi on the school is: “La Ferme des enfants”