Back to the Mountain

Latònal is a two-hour uphill hike from Fayèt, a small rural community already well outside of Leyogann and Gresyè, the closest little cities. Fayèt and Latònal have been important in our activities for some time, since Frémy and I spent more than a year meeting each week with EPA, a team of literacy teachers based there, coaching them in how to use Wonn Refleksyon and then helping them develop the guidebook they use for the book of images and proverbs that we created for non-readers.

In their years teaching literacy, EPA’s members had grown increasingly frustrated at the age of their students. Though most were still adults, they were getting more and more young people, kids in their early teens or even younger. These kids and their families had apparently resigned themselves to the fact that they were never going to attend a school, so they decided to join a literacy program to learn at least the rudiments of reading and writing. The EPA team began to feel as though the task
of teaching adult literacy would be endless as long as significant numbers of kids were unable to go to school. According to the 2003 Haitian census, less than half of all school age children in Haiti attend school.

The group undertook their own little census. They learned how many kids in their areas were not in school, and exactly where those kids live. They decided to open a school for these children especially.

This was not a small matter: they had no building, no materials, and no money to speak of. They found a small, four-room building they could rent for about $110 for the year. They pitched in their own money to build benches and buy chairs, blackboards, notebooks, pencils, chalk, and other materials. They set up a desk in the schoolhouse to begin registration. They decided to charge 100 gourdes for the year. That’s about $2.75. Kids whose parents couldn’t come up with the money would be accepted anyway.

Since September, I’ve heard reports of the school any number of times. I occasionally cross paths with the teachers at Wonn Refleksyon meetings in Pòtoprens and elsewhere. But I hadn’t been able to visit. When it became clear that the guys from Cité Soleil were interested in starting a school, visiting the school near Fayèt came to seem like it was too important to miss. I decided to invite a couple of representatives of the Soleil group to go with me, to see the work of a group that is somewhat farther along than they themselves are, but close enough to have clear memories of the challenges the Soleil guys were about to face.

So Junior, Anel, and I took a bus and some pick-up trucks to Dabòn and a motorcycle to Nan Mapou. From there, we waded across the river to Fayèt. The river was high because there have been good rains so far this year, but not so high as to be un-fordable. We spent a long afternoon and a morning in Fayèt. Between those two half-days, we spent a day in Latònal, meeting with the Fayèt group’s partner there.

The first afternoon in Fayèt was a chance for Junior and Anel to meet some members of the EPA team, Job and Ormilien, and to see their adult literacy centers at work. Junior and Anel are both a little over twenty, and they’ve both been through primary school, though not much farther. They were shocked to see kids younger than them, much younger than them, already in literacy programs. Neither of them had ever attended a literacy class meeting, and they were excited to see how enthusiastic, how engaged, men and women their parents’ age were.

After visiting the centers, we bathed in a beautifully transparent freshwater spring, had a bite to eat, and then chatted for a while before heading to bed.

The next morning we left Fayèt before 5:00 because I knew that the road up the mountain would be a challenge, and would be all the worse once the sun came out. It was almost 7:00 before the sun burned through some cloud cover, and by then we were within 15 minutes of our goal.

We had two objectives for our day in Latònal. In the morning, we would visit a community school just a few years old. It’s run by an experienced educator, but staffed mostly by recent graduates – recent primary school graduates, that is. I thought it would help the guys imagine themselves as teachers. I also wanted to watch our host, Thomas, lead a Wonn Refleksyon discussion for a community group he’s part of. Few of the group’s members can read, so Thomas is using the book of images and proverbs that a group of us created several years ago. I hadn’t seen the book used in some time – there never were many copies – and I wanted to be reminded how it works.

I was glad I went. The Wonn Refleksyon discussion reminded me of something important. I had stopped thinking much about the use of images. Our in-many-ways-successful experience using proverbs exclusively on Lagonav made it seem unimportant. One could use proverbs with those who can’t read, they work well as tools to get conversations going, and they don’t involve having to print or distribute books. It seemed like a much easier way to address the same need that images address.

The problem is that it’s just not true. Proverbs and images do not work in the same way, and those using proverbs only were probably missing something.

Proverbs give participants something to talk about. They are familiar, and participants have an easy time connecting them with their lives. They encourage them to share their experiences.

But images do something quite different. I can explain this by talking about the discussion that Thomas led. It was on a Haitian proverb, “//Se lè poul la mare, ravèt ka bay eksplikasyon l,//” or “It’s when the chicken is tied up that the roach can explain itself.” Apparently, chickens just love cockroaches. The proverb was accompanied by a drawing that was done by a student at the Matènwa Community Learning Center.

What was striking to me about the conversation is that participants spent a considerable amount of time talking about whether the leash that was holding the chicken in place was really short enough to prevent her from eating the roaches. At first, I was frustrated by what seemed like an example of a group’s veering into bickering. I thought they would be sharing experiences related to the proverb. But then I realized that something important was happening: Participants were working together to iron out the details of an interpretation of the drawing in front of them.

And what was pushing them to work together was a feature of a visual image that proverbs simply don’t share: a range of details that one can argue about. I might not care very much about how long the leash in the picture is. I might be perfectly happy to have the group conclude whatever it wants to. But developing the habit of working together, through whatever agreements and disagreements they have, is enormously valuable. Proverbs encourage participants to share experiences, but they don’t tend to lead to disagreements. Or if they do, they are the kind of disagreements that cannot be resolved: You see the proverb in one way, and I see it in another.

We got up just before 5:00 the next morning to go back down the hill. We wanted to get back to Fayèt as early as possible so that we could spend as much of the morning as possible as the school. We got to the small, four-room building at about 8:30.

The school has four teachers. Three of them are volunteers, part of the team that decided to establish the school. The fourth is a trained kindergarten teacher that the volunteers pitched in to hire with their own money. That having be said: It turns out that they don’t really pay her, because they don’t really have any money.

I spend most of our visit sitting in the room that held the kindergarten and first grade. The kids wanted to show me what they had learned, so they asked me to put some addition and subtraction problems up on their blackboard. I kept the problems simple, not knowing how far along they were. There was one boy who wanted to do al the problems. He must have been twelve or thirteen, but his teachers told me that he had never been to school before. He seemed to be learning so fast that his teachers could easily have had a hard time keeping up with him.

Eventually, I hit upon a plan. I asked whether any of the kids wanted to put problems on the board for other kids. The boy volunteered right away. But instead of the simply, one-digit problems I had been giving them, he went straight to four-five digit problems that involved all sorts of borrowing and carrying. Job and I watched in stunned silence as the kids handled the problems easily. Job wasn’t sure how. He hadn’t, he said, taught them how to borrow or carry. But somehow that knowledge existed in the group. Perhaps siblings or neighbors have shared such techniques with these kids. Maybe the few of them that have spent some time in schools before brought the knowledge with them. In any case, the kids were farther along than even their teacher suspected.

The trip back to Port au Prince seemed to pass too quickly. Anel and Junior had been excited by what they had seen, and they wanted to talk about it. What most impressed them was how well they had been fed, both at Thomas’s house and at the house in Fayèt. But they also had a lot to say about the young people who were teaching at the school in Latònal, the excitement of the kids in the school in Fayèt, and the considerable amount of work that is before them.