Meeting a New Group

Heard from a safe distance, gunfire sounds a little like popcorn. I should add, before I continue, that I never hear it from any less than a safe distance. In fact, I hadn’t heard any at all for awhile. But I spent Thursday morning in Site Solèy, and it was a tough morning in a part of that large neighborhood within distant earshot of our meeting place.

It must be a hard place to live even in the best of times. The better housing available is merely dilapidated. Small, concrete rooms separated by narrow, crooked alleys. Most of the housing is worse. I think of the place where Geto lives with his grandmother. It’s not much more than a twisted wooden frame covered with metal roofing material. It’s a little hard to tell whether the frame is supporting the roofing material or the roofing material is holding the frame together. The house’s best feature is its raised concrete floor. Plenty of homes in the area have dirt floors, which turn to mud wherever it rains.

And these are not the best of times, even if they’re not the worse, even if things are, in some ways, looking up. Thursday’s gunfire is one testimony to that. The UN tank I saw near Suzette’s house last Saturday is another, even if Suzette explained that it was thanks to that tank and the soldiers in it that she felt confident that it was safe for me to come. The fact that Peruvians in blue UN helmets frisked me as I left Héguel’s neighborhood on Thursday is a third.

But a more meaningful testimony to the difficulties in Site Solèy was Thursday’s meeting itself. I was meeting with a group for the first time, more than 35 young men. They had invited me, through a friend named Héguel, to talk with them about their situation. He had told them something about the kinds of work that I do, and they wondered whether there was anything we might want to do together. They were not members of any organization, just young, unemployed men, looking for ways to improve their situation.

What was initially surprising was that there were so many of them. Héguel lives in the neighborhood, but had not really been home much over the past four weeks because of work he had found. He’s a strong English speaker, and he got two weeks of work as a translator. After that, he spent almost two more weeks attending a workshop for interviewers who are going to do the research necessary to develop a new educational program.

In any case, he hadn’t been home to encourage anyone to come to the meeting. He just let the word spread that a foreigner who works in education would be visiting him on a certain day. When I got to his place, there were already fifteen or so waiting for me, and twenty more were there within a half-hour.

That is to say that none of these young men, all of them in the prime of their lives, has anything better to do with their time in the middle of a Thursday morning than come to meet with a foreigner they know little about. They are not in school. They do not have jobs. They don’t run small businesses that require their presence. They are idle.

And if their presence during a three-hour meeting hadn’t made this clear enough, then what they said at the beginning of the meeting left no room for doubt. They have no work. Some said they wanted to, but could not afford to, go to school. Some said they had children, but that they couldn’t send them to school. They talked about the lack of decent water, the lack of decent housing, the lack of health services. Some said they were hungry. And that was all in the first twenty minutes, when we were introducing ourselves to one another.

We met on an enclosed porch next to Héguel’s one-room, second-story apartment. There was only one chair, so we sat in a circle on the floor, leaning against the wall. For my own part, I introduced myself at greater length than I normally would. I felt that it was important for me to be clear from the start: I am not in Haiti with a big budget I’m looking to invest in Site Solèy or anywhere else. I will not be giving them jobs. I won’t be building schools or homes or health clinics or libraries. The resources I can make available are my time and my interest in talking with them. Better that the meeting evaporate early than that it proceed fueled by false hopes or expectations.

But the meeting didn’t evaporate. There were about a half-dozen of the guys who took on strong roles. They wanted me to hear a lot about the way they live and the problems that they face. Two main threads of the conversation emerged quickly. On one hand, there was the continually increasing list of their unmet needs – for jobs, homes, education for them and their children. On the other hand, there was their feeling that they would like to be organized but that they don’t know how.

I tried to turn those two threads into one. I said that there are different ways to look at what it means to be organized. One way, not the most interesting one, is to establish what is called an “organization.” You can give your organization a name, schedule meetings, choose leaders, and make rules. The other way is to simply choose an activity you want to undertake together and let that activity, and the various tasks it involves, serve as an organizing principle.

They bought my reasoning, and so we turned to considering whether there was an activity we could take on together. The number of speakers narrowed as two or three insisted that what they want is education. At this point, I was a little concern about the number of voices that were not being heard, so I suggested an experiment. Rather than simply heeding what the more active speakers were saying, we would make a list on the blackboard of the range of activities that might be of interest. We would then invite everyone to come to the blackboard and mark the one that seemed most important to them.

It was a miserable failure. After the first few people, all of whom had been among the active speakers, had marked training as their highest priority, others simply followed suit. It was unanimous. And while it is possible that they were all genuinely in agreement on the point, it seems likelier that the pressure to conform played a strong role.

So we began to talk about the different kinds of education or training they might be interested in. One or two of the have professional skills – there was a stonemason and an electrician among them – and we considered whether they wanted to ask those professionals to share what they know. But though a couple of them entertained the idea briefly, it never gathered much momentum.

For whatever reason, what really excited them was the prospect of learning English. Several of them said they wanted to speak English the way I speak Creole. I explained that this would be hard, that my being in Haiti, among Haitians, is what is helping me learn their language. For them to learn English in a classroom would be a very different matter. I also said that language learning needs to be regular, and that I could not even guarantee them that I would be able to join them once-a-week. I said that if they wanted to organize an English class, I would come whenever I can, perhaps almost weekly, but that they wouldn’t achieve much unless they could find someone else to work with them more often.

At this point negotiations centered around Héguel. He already teaches English to several private students, and it turned out he was willing to give the group some of is time as well. So we agreed to get started.

I’m a little unclear where this will all lead. I’m skeptical as to whether English will really be useful to them, and I imagine that they may feel, soon enough, that they want something different or more. But I’m hoping that the class can address the larger problem. I’m hoping we can find ways to use it to help them organize themselves for useful tasks. Perhaps we can create simple conversations around practical questions like how they can get their children to school or, more generally, what they can do to change their lives.

If we can, it will be a very different English class from anything I am used to. And participating in it will be of very great interest indeed.