Education in Matènwa

Telling people that I’m not really a doctor normally feels like a joke. Of course I’m not a real doctor, and I couldn’t be one. I’m too squeamish.

But when I got to the school that Tuesday afternoon, I knew I had to act. A small boy was sitting on a stone wall, bleeding badly from the back of his head. The teachers had known how to clean and dress his wound, and they had done what was, as far as I could tell, a good job of it. But blood was still pouring down his face. I guess they didn’t know about applying direct pressure.

So I sat down with the boy, and took his head firmly in my hands. Meanwhile, one of the teachers borrowed a donkey on which to take the boy the half-hour or so to Masikren. That’s where they would find the nearest health clinic. When the donkey arrived, they grabbed an older boy to take over for me – either to protect me from having to mount the donkey or to protect the donkey from having to carry my weight, I don’t know which. From that point on, the matter was out of my hands.

I mention the incident because it reminded me how difficult the Matènwa Community Learning Center’s situation is. I rarely think of the problems the school faces, because it generally functions so beautifully, but the school’s staff struggles hard to make it what it is.

I don’t want to say that the school is remote, because that word would imply that those of us who live miles or hours from Matènwa are where one ought to be, that the residents of Matènwa are removed from the center and that the center is us. Pòtoprens and Chicago are just as remote from Matènwa as Matènwa is from them.

But there are things that Matènwa lacks. There are two primary schools – the Community Learning Center and another – but a couple of additional ones might be needed before it will be possible for all children to go to school. And the additional schools will need to be cheap. They would have be organized so that they do not make demands that exceed the financial resources of the families they are to serve.

Matènwa has a store, but many purchases require a trip, in the best case, to one of the markets in Masikren or Nankafe. These are only 30-45 minutes by foot. In cases enough, however, one needs to go to Ansagale, the island’s major city, which is an expensive and uncomfortable hour-and-a-half’s ride on the back of a pick-up truck, or even to Pòtoprens, across the bay.

Health care is a major problem. Even for basic first aid, the closest places are Masikren and Nankafe, and the clinics there aren’t open all the time. More serious issues, anything requiring a doctor, means a trip to Ansagale. That’s where the one or two doctors that serve the island’s 100,000 or so residents are to be found.

And yet the Learning Center is a wonderful place. I’m particularly excited about it this year. I have visited regularly over the years and have been there frequently since I moved to Haiti in January.

I entered the country with twenty copies of a short book by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. The Learning Center is already unique among the schools I visit in Haiti in the way it creates a non-violent, student-centered learning environment for the children who attend it. Reading Piaget, however, gave the teachers a deeper sense of some of the reasoning behind a child-centered approach. They began to understand why Piaget thinks that only a child-centered approach could make sense for schools.

When we finished the book in April, the teachers wanted to start a more general study of psychology. We found a Haitian psychology textbook, and we used the teachers’ summer vacation to organize two one-week sessions that enabled us to get most of the way through it. We’ll need two more meetings to get us the rest of the way. The same Haitian publisher is right now coming out with an educational psychology textbook that will be a fitting sequel. Meeting together every two or three weeks through the school year should be more than enough to study that book as well.

When we met during their first week of school they decided that they will take leadership of the group from me. I’ll meet with one of the teachers a couple of days before each of our meetings, and plan with that teacher how he or she will lead the group. I’ll then attend the meetings as one of their participants.

But the most remarkable thing about the school has nothing to do with me or my work. It is, instead, a direct consequence of the wonderful, welcoming learning environment that the Learning Center’s staff has created. Over the last four-five years many of us who visit the Center regularly have noticed a change in the student population. The kids are getting younger and younger. Back when the school opened, Matènwa was full of young people who wanted to be in school but hadn’t had the chance. It was not unusual to have kids eleven or twelve or older starting in the first grade. By the time classes made there way to the sixth grade, they were peopled with young adults. Over time, that stopped. Kids were starting school earlier – first grade at five or six – and so finishing as children of eleven or twelve. We were all very pleased.

This fall, however, the average age has shifted again, in a surprising way. The are ten adult women, most of them mothers of students attending the school, who have decided to return to school themselves. They sit in the classes with their own children, or with kids who could easily be theirs, and learn to read and to write and to do simple math.

Of course none of us knows how this new development will turn out. It could easily become hard for the women to find themselves, day after day, sitting and learning with little kids. For the teachers and the school, the presence of students who are adults could create dynamics that are hard to predict.

At the same time, right now one can not help but be very pleased. The women’s decision demonstrates both an inspiring enthusiasm for education and an encouraging confidence in the school and the teachers they’ve chosen to make their own.