I asked Byton the following question: If we were talking to someone, and I mentioned that you had had a younger brother named Oli who got sick and died when he was about five, would you correct me?
He and I were talking about some of the differences in the ways that we look at things, and I wanted to ask him about lougawou, the mystical beasts that are said to feed on Haitian children. He had long ago told me that Oli had been eaten by a lougawou, and I had never been very clear about what he meant by that. It was a problem of communication that none of my efforts seemed able to solve. Byton would say that he doesn’t believe in lougawou, but that they are a reality, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. We were sitting with Ronald, a friend who’s a fourth-year med student, and he only made things harder. He would not, he said, base his treatment of a sick child on the thought that the child’s spirit had been eaten because he doesn’t believe in such things. At the same time, he added, he could not, as a doctor, ignore such a possibility, because it is something real.
Communication is often a problem for me here. Some of it has to do with my Creole. Though I am always improving, and though my colleagues and I manage pretty well, there’s still stuff that I miss or that I have trouble saying.
But there are other issues, too. Issues that emerge especially in my work, when I am trying to say something too strange to fit comfortably with the habits or expectations of those I’m speaking with.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was saying how little I have to do these days with Wonn Refleksyon, the Haitian adaptation of the Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org) that brought me to Haiti in 1997. That has changed, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Two pieces of work have developed since then. One is a large collaboration with Fonkoze (www.fonkoze.org), the bank that serves thousands of Haiti’s poor. The other is a long-term workshop organized by GTAPF, a grassroots organization based in a rural area outside of Darbonne.
There’s a lot to be said about the Fonkoze project, partly because the organization itself is so compelling and partly because what Frémy and I have been asked to help them create is such an exciting new direction for us. They want us to guide them as they develop a basic literacy curriculum based on combining an adaptation of Wonn Refleksyon with the literacy game they have used for years, and – what’s most exciting to me – they want us to figure out a way to effectively present the curriculum to literacy teachers who are not teachers but are, instead, market women willing to teach other market women to read.
Nevertheless, I want right now to write about GTAPF. The work that Frémy and I are doing with them is exposing a very basic problem in our practice, and it’s doing it in a helpful way and at a helpful time. The problem expresses itself when we regularly discover that there are things we would have thought to be obvious that the folks we’re working with do not understand. Here the communication problem is not my Creole. Frémy is struggling as much as I am.
GTAPF is based in Fayette. It’s a farming area near the spring that supplies much of the region, including the city of Léogane. It sits at the base of the hills that rise just outside the Léogane plain and that lead to mountains that bar the way to Jacmel in the south. It’s lush with trees and gardens. There’s no town to speak of. The small houses seem pretty evenly scattered in small clusters of two or three or four.
GTAPF is the local peasant organization, and it’s working on a couple of different projects. One is latrines, a collaboration with outside funding sources to build latrines for its members. Having good latrines is an important public health issue. A second is adult literacy. For a couple of years, different attempts were made to offer literacy classes in the region but they didn’t really take. They didn’t hold the interest of participants. Last year, with support from Shimer College, GTAPF was able to introduce a new literacy program emphasizing an approach which encourages students to tell, and then write down, their own stories. They turn the stories into small books, which they also illustrate. The approach has been a big success. A large number of students were able to graduate from the first year of the program in early January.
A second grant from Shimer College has made a second year of literacy possible. The centers that were active last year are offering an advanced literacy class to their students, and several new centers that are opening. GTAPF wants to integrate Wonn Refleksyon into the work of all the centers. Once each week, the teachers will lead discussions. The second-year centers can use the book of basic texts in Creole, which was the first one we developed for use here. The first-year centers will need to use our newest book, which uses images and Haitian proverbs instead of texts.
GTAPF needed to prepare its literacy teachers to use Wonn Refleksyon, and Frémy and I were happy to sign up for that work ourselves. It offered us a couple of advantages. First, though Frémy and I consult one another very closely regarding all our work, we do not right now have a regular group that we work with together. The work with Fonkoze is irregular, and the other groups we’re participating in right now involve only one or the other of us. Taking on a project we would carry out jointly seemed like a good idea. Second, I have not participated in serious Wonn Refleksyon training in a long time, and it would be useful to me in particular to relearn how such training can work.
When it became clear that we were all interested in a longer, fuller workshop, GTAPF decided to add some additional participants. The organization works together with other peasant organizations in the mountains outside of Fayette, and its leadership felt that if representatives from those groups participated in a Wonn Refleksyon training the groups themselves might be able to function more effectively and more democratically.
So Frémy and I scheduled a weekly, two-hour meeting with the group of twelve. In addition, we planned a one-time, two-day workshop. We started three weeks ago, and held the two-day session last week. Initially, we wanted to introduce the group to the Wonn Refleksyon process by letting them experience what it feels like to be part of a discussion of a text, an image, or a proverb. At the same time, we also felt a little pressed to help them arrive quickly at the point from which they would feel comfortable leading discussions because they are in fact scheduled to start doing so soon.
The first two weeks, we divided the sessions into two activities. Frémy and I each led a discussion. When time came for the two-day event, we decided to spent the first morning leading more discussions, but also inviting discussions of the discussions. We wanted to group to start questioning us about what we were doing. That afternoon, a pair of the groups’ participants would take responsibility for leading a discussion. We would spend the lunch break with them helping them plan what they wanted to accomplish and how. The last part of the day could then be spent, first, in a larger discussion of the various examples of leadership the group had seen. We’d then finish with a very short introduction to the guidebook for discussion leaders that the Wonn Refleksyon team produced a couple of years ago. We would invite three different participants volunteer to lead three discussions on the second day of the workshop. They would have their copies of the guidebook, which they could use to plan their discussions at home.
This last part of our plan failed in the most interesting way. When we returned on day two, it became clear that the folks who had volunteered to lead the group had not looked at the guidebook in advance. They held it in their hands as they directed the group, in the way that inexperienced cooks will work from a recipe that they’ve never read. The first participant-leader understood even less well. He started his session with every intention of leading a discussion on the pages from the guidebook instead of on the reading they were meant to accompany. Frémy and I had assumed, without even saying as much to one another, that assigning leadership of the groups in advance would mean that the leaders would prepare, but we were working with people who had never used anything like our guidebook. It’s relationship to the class they would lead was mysterious to them. Our preference – perhaps I should say “our prejudice” – for letting people discover what they think our work is about and how it functions had lined up our volunteers for failure. Fortunately, the ambience in the group is such that they could fail without really being hurt.
In any case, yesterday I met again with the group. Frémy was away. I decided to take the bull by the horns. Instead of jumping into the discussion I intended to lead, I spoke at some length at the start about my goal for the day – presenting the way the guidebook works – and my reasons for setting that goal. I then led a discussion which closely, but not exactly, followed the guidebook’s instructions.
The group spent some time reading the section of the guidebook I had followed and talking about how I had used it and where I had diverged. This was not a discussion. It was a question-and-answer session, and I think it helped. They noticed how much I had prepared in advance and saw the advantages. They saw the changes that I made relative to the guidebook’s instructions, and they asked me about them, so they got to see me thinking about what would succeed with our group.
They still have some hard work to do. For one thing, when it came time to judge the day’s events, they seemed to have forgotten our specific goals and instead judged only that they had had a good discussion in which everyone participated well. That’s nice enough, but a group’s progress depends on a leader’s attention to much more specific goals then that. The guidebook had set some out for us, but they hadn’t caught the group’s attention. Keeping specific goals in mind even as you try to make each discussion feel successful in the more general sense as well is a real challenge.
For me, the session was valuable in a very different and very important way. The group’s clear need finally succeeded in pushing me towards a level of communication that I had not previously achieved. In the last stage of the conversation, I spoke much more, and in a much more teacherly way than I normally would.
The more I work here with people inexperienced at leading discussions, the more I will learn about what I can expect them to discover for themselves and what I should simply say.