Progress without Direction

We may have lost the space we were using for the larger English class in Cité Soleil. We had been holding the class in a school whose owner had been willing to let us meet in one of his classrooms. It is a very serviceable space: large and open, and therefore flexible. It’s on the second floor of a school building right on the main road between Belekou and Boston, two of Cité Soleil’s major neighborhoods. The road is partially paved in places, so it’s often possible to get there without trudging through the ankle-deep mud that’s almost everywhere in Cité Soleil.

When I was down there the other day, the guys explained that there is a problem. The owner isn’t sure that he wants to continue to leave the keys with one of his students, the kid who then lets us in. He himself lives more than an hour away, in Kwadeboukèt, so unless he leaves the keys, we won’t be able to use his school.

I can’t much blame him. On one hand, it’s probably hard for him to believe that there’s no money changing hands around our class, and he might reasonably figure that, if there’s business being done, the owner of the site should get a share. He might also be worried about having thirty or so assorted young men using his building when he’s not there. Though he doesn’t seem to store anything of value at the school, the building itself must represent a large investment.

As we were talking about the problem, one of the less regular members of the class approached us. He seems nice enough, but I rarely have spoken to him. I tend to shy away because he’s often heavily armed. This time was no exception. His handgun was not the least bit concealed.

We explained the situation to him, and he said that it wasn’t a problem at all. “For example,” he said, “the lock on the door could be lost. It might just disappear. Of course, we’d have to buy another one to replace it, but then we’d have a key.” It was the kind of conversation you might expect to hear on a TV show.

The usual procedure when I am to enter Cité Soleil is for me to call when I get to the Gonaïves bus station to confirm whether it’s safe to come in. If Héguel says it’s alright, I take a motorcycle from the station to his house, less than a five-minute ride. I could walk, but an experienced motorcycle driver is more likely to notice and be able to avoid any problems. It seems like a prudent way to go about things.

Saturday when I got there, I found a bunch of guys I didn’t know working on the street. They were being supervised by a couple of very big men dressed in camouflage fatigues. I greeted them, and walked straight up to Héguel’s apartment. I would usually spend a few minutes on the street corner first, chatting with the guys who hang out there, but the work being done seemed to have driven the usual guys away.

I told Héguel how glad I was to see them working on his street, and he just smiled. I asked who was supervising the work, and he confirmed my guess. Still smiling, he mentioned the name of the man who leads the local armed force. I asked Héguel why he was smiling, and he said that I had misunderstood what was happening. There was no street repair going on. The guys were, instead, ripping up the pavement to dig a ditch across the street that would, they hoped, block UN tanks. Just a few days earlier, armed irregulars in another part of Cité Soleil had somehow overrun a UN tank, chasing off the soldiers inside it and stripping of it of weapons and other supplies. The UN was said to be displeased. There had been heavy fighting, with lots of casualties, in Bwa Néf, an area on the other side of Cité Soleil – a long way from where I was – and local leaders were nervous.

My work in Cité Soleil continues. In a sense, I meet with two distinct groups there. One is made up of about thirty guys, many of whom attend only irregularly. They come with varying frequency to free English classes that Héguel, a long-time Haitian friend, runs three times a week. I try to attend at least once. Then there is a smaller inner circle, about fifteen consistently-unarmed guys whom I meet with before Héguel’s English class. We sit in a circle in a small room across from Héguel’s apartment. We sit on the floor because there’s only one chair. We do various things together: additional English work, unstructured group discussions, Wonn Refleksyon, and more.

The whole thing started because Héguel had spent years talking casually with the young guys who hang around in his neighborhood. He likes them, and they seem to look up to him as an older, distinctly upright man. He asked me to talk with them because they were expressing to him their sense that they lack direction. He felt sorry for them, because he came to see them as nice kids who are managing to stay out of gangs but who aren’t figuring how else to move themselves forward. They seem stuck. And he doesn’t like the way that locals look down on them.

He thought that meeting with them might help me better understand an important side of Haiti that I’ve had little contact with and that, if the guys and I hit it off, our conversations might help them find some of the direction they need.

From the very start, I’ve been reluctant to approach them with much of an agenda. Their lives are very different from anything that I have ever experienced, and it would be crazy for me to believe that I know what they should do. But I was a little surprised and a little disappointed when they told me that their first interest was in learning English. On one hand, it’s a little hard for me to see just what it will do for them. They are unlikely to have tourists around them any time soon, and jobs that require English are likely to require other things they don’t have: like advanced education, good connections, and decent clothes. On the other, English teaching is not a kind of teaching that I’ve enjoyed. But the guys were clear enough about their interest in English, so Héguel and I – mainly Héguel – put something together for them.

We also just started a Business Development class. I had told them about Fonkoze, and about the various educational programs it offers, and they were particularly interested in Business Development. Several of them have little businesses they depend upon to keep money in their pockets. One is, for example, a candy maker. Another raises pigeons. A third makes gas lamps. Two of them work as a team, fixing motorcycle tires. Others who have no work would be very happy to start something.

Fonkoze’s Business Development program emphasizes control of one’s business: how to keep track of investment, inventory, income, and expenses. Such control is unusual in Haiti, where it’s much more common to run a small business straight out of one’s own pocket, without a clear sense of where money comes and goes. The guys were surprised to see how much money the candy maker has invested in his business, and they were interested to see just why it’s important for him to keep track of such a thing.

Their initial reaction was that, since it is his business, there’s no reason to set his personal money apart. I found myself in the for-me-surprising position of explaining how businesses work. I spoke of how easy it would be to be wrong about whether a business is actually helping its owner unless the owner knows how much money they have invested and how much they have removed. When he realized what I was saying, Harold, who used to have a small business making mattresses, chimed in his support. His business had, to all appearances, been going swimmingly. His mattresses sold well; money was coming in. Then he discovered that rent on the space he was using was eating up everything he had. Before he knew it, the business died because he couldn’t pay the rent.

When members of the inner group said that they wanted to know more about my work in Haiti, Héguel and I took that as an invitation to introduce them to Wonn Refleksyon, too. We’ve been holding regular Wonn Refleksyon discussions with them ever since. These discussions are designed to help them learn to work together more effectively. The guys enjoy them and are, I believe, benefiting. Though they still like to argue more than is to my taste, they’ve already gotten better about encouraging one another to speak.

And getting better at working together is important if we are to make progress in what still seems to me to be our most important activity: unstructured conversation. I try to make sure that we spend a certain amount of time whenever I am with them just chatting about whatever is on their minds.

They usually want to talk about stuff that’s going on in their families and about the always-shifting security situation. They have all grown up right in Cité Soleil, so they’ve lived all their lives around rape and shootings and other violence.

Let no one imagine, however, that they are, as we might say, “used to it.” Nothing could be clearer than how hard they find the periods – sometimes more frequent, sometimes less – of heavy gunfire to bear.

Saturday, we spent a lot of time talking about two t-shirts. My main collaborator in Haiti, Frémy, and I had created a t-shirt that says “Let’s destroys the guns.” He had printed several of them, and I wore one once to Cité Soleil. The guys liked it, and I agreed to give them the two other I had. So I brought them with me on Saturday.

When it came time to distribute them, Salomé made an important point: The armed guys who are all around them might be upset to see the t-shirt. They might think that we were judging them. This partially echoed Héguel’s concern: Our activity had been accepted by the local leader as an educational activity. If he thought we were creating a political movement, he might think differently.

As the dialogue continued, the general feeling was that the higher-level members of the local force were unlikely to be too worried about t-shirts. On the other hand, lower-level members were something different. These lower-level soldiers are young men, not very different from the guys in our group. Except that they had chosen to take up arms, to join the local militia, in order to get ahead. Farid and Lele both reported their sense that guys like that resent them because they manage to stay away from such things, and they thought that wearing anti-gun t-shirts would only aggravate that resentment. And they are understandably reluctant to aggravate young men who carry guns. After much discussion, we decided to put the shirts away.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for in these conversations. I’d like to say that I’m hoping that they’ll eventually use them as a path towards organizing themselves to change their neighborhood and their lives. But I need to be careful. More than anything, I’d like for them to feel better about themselves, for them to develop some confidence, a sense of where they want to go and how they might get there, and anything I do to share my own vision could very easily undermine their initiative.

And so I wait. We keep chatting, and I keep hoping.

I think we’re moving forward. Our conversations get more serious, more quickly. More of them speak more freely. They listen to one another and encourage one another more than they did at the start.

But it’s hard to tell. Progress depends on having a goal. Without a clear sense of where you’re going, it’s hard to know which direction is forward and which direction is back. The guys and I are very far from knowing what our objective really is, and the environment in which the work is progressing – that is, at least, what I want to say it’s doing – the violence, the poverty, makes it difficult to hope for very much.

On the other hand, on a day when a tank barrier was being constructed in front of our classroom, 25 young men spent fours hours with me learning more about how to run a business, working on their English, and talking sensibly about the possible effects of t-shirts. The preparations that were being made for a possible military invasion – I don’t know what else to call it – might seem as though they ought to have been a distraction, but they turned out to be nothing of the kind. The guys’ untiring interest in learning and their openness to discovering something new are considerable lessons to me. If nothing else, I am making progress in their hands.