Painted into a Corner

We were standing in front of the Fonkoze office in Twou di Nò at about 7:30 Sunday evening when a shout went through the town. Twou di Nò is a small city in a valley, about halfway between Okap, Haiti’s largest northern port, and Wanament, a city near the Dominican border. I was there with a group of Fonkoze literacy supervisors. A week-long introductory workshop for beginning literacy teachers was to start the next day.

I wasn’t at first sure what the shouting was about. The excitement of a street fight? A political demonstration? A Brazilian soccer victory? Political news? Another coup d’état? Then I saw a flickering streetlight, and someone explained that it was the first time municipal electricity had gone on since February. The excitement for what promised to be an evening of electrical power was both general and intense. It seemed auspicious.

And a good sign was more than welcome. Planning for the workshop had been complicated in a number of ways. Until the last moment, for example, I had not known for certain whether I would be working with 20 teachers or 60. Also, the materials we had planned on using had not been produced in time to make the long drive from Pòtoprens with us. And it wasn’t clear how many of the 28 teachers who we were planning for would in fact be able to sacrifice five full days to a literacy training. These prospective teachers were market women who had agreed to take on the challenge of helping other market women learn to read. They would be giving up five days of work, which was especially hard for them because it was coming at a moment when payments on their Fonkoze loans were due.

But Frémy and I had committed ourselves to working with Fonkoze, and since he had to be away in the south of Haiti, I was with the Fonkoze literacy team by myself.

I’ve written about Fonkoze before. It’s a remarkable organization, providing micro credit to the small merchants who are the backbone of the popular Haitian economy – such as that economy is. It is the largest provider of financial services to rural Haiti using a non-for-profit/for-profit hybrid structure that allows it to establish banking services where commercial banks would not bother to go.

One of its most important services is micro credit. Fonkoze borrowers, almost exclusively women, use small but ever increasing loans as they develop their businesses. And Fonkoze doesn’t limit itself to simply lending them money. It provides educational programs that support the women in their work and in their lives. There are basic literacy classes for non-readers and classes in business and reproductive health for those who already read.

Planning for the workshop had been difficult in part because it had been rushed and in part because we had tried to work around a schedule that had the four members of the team in different parts of Haiti almost all the time.

It had, on the other hand, been made easier because we were adapting the program Fonkoze already had in place rather than inventing something whole cloth. The core of the program would still be Jwèt Korelit, the literacy game invented by Fonkoze’s founder. We would add regular Wonn Refleksyon discussions to help the participants open up to the habit of thinking critically together. In addition, we would create simple lesson plans that would help inexperienced literacy teachers run the classes. Fonkoze would provide an experienced literacy trainer, Renand, to develop the Jwèt Korelit part of the plan. Frémy and I would help with the Wonn Refleksyon part and with the process of writing lesson plans that combined both. Elysée, Fonkoze literacy supervisor in Twou di Nò, would coordinate, format, and type the work.

The lesson plans were particularly important. Fonkoze had made a decision about the kind of literacy teachers it would recruit. In the past, it had recruited those most willing and able to do the teaching. This meant that the teachers were mostly men working with groups made up exclusively of women. Sexism is intense in Haiti, as it is in many places, so that literacy classes that should be liberating would end up simply reproducing the oppressive conditions that many of the women experience all the time. They would end up sitting quietly while their teachers explain the world to them, even repeating the philosophies of equality and liberation that they would be fed. But they would be unlikely to develop much of their own initiative and they would be slow to talk frankly about the issues that they face ever day.

Fonkoze had decided to try something new: to recruit all women teachers from among the same groups of borrowers that the literacy students would come from. But this meant that the teachers would be unlikely to have any teaching experience at all, so lesson plans that would help them decide what they needed to do in the classroom each day, written simply enough as to be easy to follow, seemed like more of a necessity than an option.
The group creating the plans met rarely through the early spring, just often enough to have some sense of the progress we were making. By late March, we had decided we needed to begin implementing by mid-May. We knew we would need to start with a workshop, so we chose a week based on what we thought was the schedule Fonkoze would be working with – it turned out that our information was inaccurate by a month – and on the other commitments we each had, and scheduled one.

This is where the complications started. I had initially believed from conversations with Fonkoze staff that this initial workshop would be for Twou di Nò literacy teachers. My understanding was that there would certainly be fewer than 30, probably by a lot, and so it I figured that it would be easy enough to do the Wonn Refleksyon part of the workshop myself. Leading a Wonn Refleksyon workshop has a lot in common with teaching a Wonn Refleksyon class, and large numbers make it hard. About a week before the workshop, I learned that teachers would be added from two nearby cities, Fò Libète and Wanament. They would bring the numbers up above 60.

I panicked, but I needn’t have. Within another three days, I got word that Fonkoze hadn’t been able to arrange for the other teachers to participate.

Even so, when I got to Twou di Nò and figured out that we didn’t have the materials I had planned on using, I had to try to improvise. I had a USB drive with a couple of images that I thought we could use, but only one of the images turned out to usable, because the places in Twou di Nò that could print an image didn’t have the software that the others were stored with. So we printed the one image and made copies. When we tried to get photocopies of a second image I had with me, the copy store declined. It was too dark, they said, so it would use up too much toner. Between the image, a pair of Haitian proverbs, and the theme of literacy, I had enough material to lead a day’s worth of introductory activities.

As the day’s activities opened, another problem emerged. In addition to the 28 women who came as prospective literacy teachers, there were six Fonkoze literacy supervisors, all men. The two parts of the group had wildly different characteristics, and through most of the morning it was all I could do to prevent the supervisors from dominating. They had all participated in Wonn Refleksyon before. What’s more, part of what made them literacy supervisors is their outgoing, talkative natures. They had a lot to say, and it was interfering with the 28 teachers’ getting involved. By midday, that problem too seemed somehow to solve itself. The literacy supervisors withdrew as they themselves saw that they were imposing.

That first day spent participating in discussions gave the women an initial sense of what Wonn Refleksyon discussions are like. Tuesday afternoon, I led another session, adding a lot of explanation as to what the role of the discussion leader is at each of the discussions stages. Thursday morning, the group split in two and four of the women volunteered to try their hand at leadership. My sense was that one was quite good, two were managing, and the fourth has a long way to go.

We don’t know exactly what we can expect of the program here, but a lot is at stake. Fonkoze’s funding for the program involves a lot of pressure to meet very specific goals at very specific times. By changing its approach to literacy at such a critical moment, it has chosen in a sense to shoot itself in the foot. Things could go wrong, and a lot would be at stake.

But perhaps shooting oneself in the foot is the wrong image. It’s too violent, too destructive. Maybe it would be better to say that Fonkoze has painted itself into a corner. The institution has decided to meet or miss its goals with literacy teachers of a sort that it has not generally engaged before.

Painting oneself into a corner could be a problem. But if you’ve chosen the corner carefully, and the corner is just where you want to be, painting yourself in might be the right thing to do.