The situation was odd, but strangely not awkward. I was in the surprising position to be talking with a sixty-something-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of many about her sex life. She had lots of things to say, of various sorts, but it all started with this one fact: She told me she no longer “had relations with anyone.”
We were talking about her sex life because she had participated in Fonkoze’s educational program in Sexual and Reproductive Health. It’s a fourth-month class for members of Fonkoze credit centers. (See www.fonkoze.org.) Participants use open dialogue to work through three comic books – I suppose that nowadays they’d be called “graphic novels” – that deal with various issues related to reproductive health.
The obvious issues are there, such as family planning, HIV/AIDS, and other STDs. But there are also stories that bring out the difficult situations Haitians, especially Haitian women, face in their sexual lives. One of the most popular is about a rural couple, Sentana and Toma. The man, Toma, decides to head to a city, where he can find work to support the family he leaves behind. But both he and she end up, each for a different reason, taking up with other partners. And the story describes the difficulties that creates for them both. In an area like Lagonav, filled with women who are raising their children alone because their husbands or partners are away in Pòtoprens or farther, the story really hits home.
Haitians who read the stories love them. Not just Fonkoze clients, but others as well. I have a copy of each of the three books, and the young people in Ka Glo, where I live, are constantly borrowing them.
If the familiarity of the stories is one key to their success, then the process that produced the stories is, in turn, what assured that they would feel familiar. They were created by Kathleen Cash, who worked closely with a team of Haitian interviewers whom she trained to talk extensively, seriously, and intimately with Haitians about their sex lives. She thus learned their stories, and was able to use them to develop composites that would highlight the issues in them that seemed most important to raise.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the program’s success was the fact that Madanm Lumière and others were so open with me about their situations. One of the goals of the program was to help the women who participate learn to be comfortable talking about what are, traditionally, private matters, and for Madanm Lumière and others it had clearly worked.
As she herself reported, when the program first started she had hidden her books, embarrassed to show them to anyone around her, especially to young people. She had soon learned, however, how important sharing the books would be. After all, she said, as a woman no longer sexually active, sharing information with her friends and family was the reason she had chosen to participate in the class in the first place. Now she found herself making an effort to talk to young people, to encourage them to talk with one another, about their choices and to encourage condom use.
This latter point she found hard, because the class time that was spent talking about condom use was especially challenging for her. For her, those discussions became too graphic. They were, she said, “vulgar.” But she understood their importance, and now was talking about condoms with young people she knew who would listen.
Another one of the program’s participants I spoke with was taking things even farther. Her name is Brigitte. She’s also in her sixties. She’s a single mother of seven children who supports and has supported herself and her kids – the two youngest still live with her – by selling coffee and hot chocolate on a street corner in Ansagale every morning.
The program could have no greater fan than Brigitte. As I spoke with her, I couldn’t help but think of the biblical instructions to speak of God’s commandments when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Brigitte has made communicating what she learned in the class a major part of her life. She can read, and so she reads the books out loud at home. Friends, neighbors, and family members come to listen. And she brings the books to her little coffee shop, too. There, her customers can read them as they sip and chat. She pushes those she reads for or with to ask her questions and to tell her what they think, and directs herself especially to the young, boys and girls alike. They are, she says, the ones who have the greatest need to learn to avoid the diseases that come from making bad decisions about sex and to avoid having children whom they are not ready to raise well.
She found the story of Sentana and Toma particularly important. Readers, she says, “will learn to be careful.” Sentana and Toma, she says, “seek out disease” for themselves and, so, end up “living in a terrible situation.”
All the Fonkoze classes were run by women who are members of Fonkoze credit centers. All the participants were their fellow-members. This is in strict accordance with Fonkoze’s goal of helping the centers develop into long-term solidarity groups in which learning has a natural and permanent place. The women who ran the classes received two weeks of preparation in a workshop at the beginning of the session and on-going support from a field supervisor who had participated in the same workshop with them.
Over and over, as I talked with participants, I learned how little the program’s spread was limited by the fact that direct participation in the classes was restricted to Fonkoze clients. In fact, space in class was so limited that only a third to a half of the members of any of the credit centers could join in. Nevertheless, in every center that I visited I heard how women were committed to sharing the books with family and friends and to talking about issues like condom use, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control.
For Fonkoze, the program’s importance is thus two-fold. In a most straightforward way, it can contribute to the well-being of Fonkoze clients and their families. And that is, after all, what all Fonkoze programs are actually for. At the same time, it is providing its members with an opportunity to look beyond their families’ and their centers’ needs and to become agents of change in the communities they live and work in.
As they share these books and talk about the issues that they raise, they are transforming themselves into community educators of the most valuable sort: Educators who live and work within their home community to improve the choices that their communities’ members make for themselves. A traveling educator, a permanent outsider like I am, can only look on in admiration and delight as these true teachers reach more deeply into their communities and teach more effectively than I could ever hope to do.