Two Prese

There’s a Haitian proverb that goes, “Two prese pa fè jou louvri.” A literal translation might be something like, “Rushing too fast won’t make the sun rise.” The meaning is clear enough. Things take time. There are processes that no amount of hurrying can accelerate. One wants to get right to work, but some things just take time.

One of the central activities I had planned for my first semester here is having a hard time getting started. My partner, Frémy César, and I had been planning to teach a course on a book by Paulo Freire at a rural university outside of Léogane. The University of Fondwa is a fascinating institution. It was established as a private university by a very strong peasant association that saw the need to create higher-level professional training for rural young people that would keep them from migrating to Port-au-Prince. It’s faculty is mainly Cuban, and it focuses on training in three professions that can be especially useful in rural Haiti: agronomy, administration, and veterinary medicine.

In discussions between Frémy and the Dean of the university, it seemed interesting to invite the students to think about how best to employ the expertise they are gaining. Expertise is a funny thing. It can very easily turn into a kind of leadership that silences the voices and the thinking of those it should be serve. Rather than unlocking and developing the capacities of those around it, it can shut them down. Freire’s work, with its emphasis on the liberating power of learning, might give such young people a lot to consider, especially if they confront it in a classroom where conversation among equals is the rule. Frémy and I were excited to get started, so we made an appointment to talk with the Dean soon after my arrival.

We made our way up the road from Léogane. Fondwa is right on the main highway that crosses the mountains towards Jacmel in the south. It’s one of Haiti’s really good roads, and it’s a good thing. As it is, it winds narrowly, steeply and frighteningly through a tight pass. The large busses and trucks that go between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel barrel along threateningly in both directions. The battered girders along the hairpin turns speak eloquently.

Our meeting with the Dean was short and helpful. I was a little surprised because I thought that the planning was fairly advanced. In fact, whatever discussions Frémy had had with her already – and I know for a fact that there had been several – hadn’t accomplished much. She had been excited about the prospect of her students reading Freire, but she hadn’t considered very much how it could fit into their rather full program of studies and she hadn’t yet spoken with either her students or her colleagues.

A few days later, she sent word that she and her colleagues had decided in favor of the course, but also that she wasn’t yet sure when it could take place. And so we wait, which is fine.
Another activity we have planned is a reading group for members of the faculty at the Matenwa Community Learning Center and the network of primary schools they’re a part of . The Learning Center is a community institution in a very rural mountain village on the island of La Gonave. We have been working together with the school for some years. The school was one of the first places in Haiti that implemented Wonn Refleksyon, the Haitian version of Touchstones. Wonn Refleksyon is the discussion activity we began developing when I first came to Haiti in 1997. Since then, I have occasionally spent a few days at a time in Matenwa working with the teachers. We spent a couple of days once translating a few short pieces from the French they learned in school to the Kreyol in which they are at home. Another time we studied the first few pages of Euclid’s Elements, the classic text in geometry. They wanted to see how math could be discussible.

I had spoken with the faculty last summer about my plans to return to Haiti this year for a longer stay, and we decided to try to do something more extended together. I proposed that we try reading some longer things, things that might be of mutual interest, and they agreed. I thought that some books about children and teaching would be interesting. They’d have a chance to reflect on how they do what they do, and I could learn from their reflections. So I ordered some copies of a book by Jean Piaget, the French psychologist. I gave one to the school’s director, Abner Sauveur, and he liked it, so we’ll start as soon as we can.

But Matenwa is a long way from my home in Ka Glo, and it’s still a little hard to imagine how it will all work. Getting there involves a two hour bus ride from downtown Port au Prince, which is already at least and hour and a half from where I live. After that, there’s an hour on a boat, and then a ride that seems endless on the back of a pick-up truck. The return trip is worse, because you pretty much have to leave by 2:00 AM. My first opportunity to visit Matenwa will be the end of this month, and we’ll have some hard thinking to do. The ideal thing would be if I could spend a solid month in Matenwa, but my current activities won’t really permit that any time soon, and the teachers and I are anxious to get started. I could try to go once-a-week. I even know someone who does that. But I question my stamina for that much travel. It will probably have to be something like every two or three weeks, for a couple of days at a time, but developing the kind of continuity a group needs will be hard, especially since the practice of reading together in a group will be new to some of them at least.
The third plan I made before I arrived in January was really two plans with one partner. I’ve wanted to work more closely together with Johny St. Louis for a long time. He’s an important teacher, school principal, and community leader in Darbonne. We’ve been involved together in discussion groups over the years, and he has played a leading role in hosting groups of my students and colleagues who’ve come to visit from the States. In addition, through him I came to know Erold St. Louis, his younger brother, who is now a student at Shimer College.

Last summer, Johny and I met for two weeks with a group of primary school teachers from a couple of different schools. Together we read Freire’s book, Education as the Practice of Freedom. The group decided that it wanted to continue working together once I returned. Meeting in December before I returned to Haiti, the group chose Rousseau’s book on education, Emile, as the text to study. We had our first meeting, an organizational one, on Tuesday and we’ll start next Friday.

Johny himself is, among other things, a high school teacher, and we decided that we would like to try an experiment with high school kids, too. They are required here to have a certain familiarity with classical French literature. It is an important part of their national high school graduation exam. But often their direct experience with the works is limited. They have text books that tell them about the plays of Racine, Corneille, and Molière, for example, but they might not read the plays. They might not get hold of them.

We decided to see what it would be like to read one of the plays with real care. We would try to translate it from French into Kreyol. The discipline of translation would force close reading, improve the students’ understanding of French, and make them better writers of Kreyol as well. For Johny and me, it represents the chance to extend some of the practices of discussion we’ve been working with here to the more standard educational environment. Our first meeting with school administrators was Tuesday, and we meet with the students – a class of 10th graders and a class of 11th graders – today.
So the work my colleagues and I have been planning is starting, if only slowly. At the same time, we’ve been presented with an opportunity we hadn’t counted on. It’s work that’s shown me another side of the proverb.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to meet with Anne Hastings, the Director of Fonkoze. Fonkoze is a popular bank. It makes banking services, especially small loans, available to many poor Haitians who would otherwise have no such access. I was excited about the meeting, because I admire the institution enormously. Fonkoze’s credit program includes ongoing education for its borrowers, who are almost exclusively market women. They are offered basic literacy courses and classes in such areas as small business administration, reproductive health, and human rights. Almost 30,000 borrowers are involved in all corners of Haiti.

But there are problems with the educational programs. Fonkoze has set itself a remarkable ideal. They want to avoid the standard practice here, which would be to hire teachers, very predominantly men, to teach the various classes. Instead, they want to find women who are already participants in the credit programs, women willing and able to step forward to teach the classes. The long-term goal is to have solidarity groups continually educating themselves, groups whose members take turns accepting the leading role.

It’s an ideal very hard to achieve. Anne explained that as soon as many of the market women feels themselves labeled “teacher”, they turn into the same authoritarian creatures that they’ve seen in the educational institutions around them. They stand in front of their classes and do all the talking. Since conversation and the shared reflection on experiences that it nurtures is fundamental to the curricula Fonkoze would like to implement, the authoritarian model won’t work. The problem for Fonkoze is to figure out how to cultivate a different kind of teaching in an environment where only minimal preparation of teachers is possible.

And it’s harder than that. As liberatory as its educational goals are, Fonkoze is a very authoritarian, hierarchical organization. It may be that, in order to develop as a bank, with all the detailed accountability that a financial institution requires, it’s had to be. But that puts the institution is a difficult position. Its institutional character may tend to reinforce the tendencies it’s trying to eliminate.

This problem is evident in the way we have been asked to attack the problem. Frémy and I were asked to work together with two of Fonkoze’s field supervisors for literacy and two members of the Port-au-Prince administration to begin to create a guidebook, a series of lesson plans that literacy teachers could be taught to use. The lesson plans would, presumably, encourage them in various ways to work more collaboratively with their students, to make conversation the fundamental mode in the classroom. But it is somewhat ironic that the means we are asked to use to nurture egalitarian practices is a top-down directive.

I doubt it will work very well. The habits that lead market-women-teachers to behave in a certain way with their market-women-students run deep here in Haiti as in many other places as well. It’s hard for me to imagine meaningful change without more intense collaboration, collaboration of the sort that models the practices we would like to build.

And we’re just not sure how to do this. There are difficulties at many levels. So we should probably start slowly, study the problem, begin with some experimentation. But instead we’re plowing ahead. We are, I think, two prese, in too much of a hurry.

There is, however, another Haitian proverb that also applies. It is “pye kout pran devann.” Short legs take the lead. The idea is that because someone with short legs walks more slowly they better get started right away.

It’s probably fair to say that, with respect to the educational goals my Haitian colleagues and I are trying to attain, we all have pretty short legs. So we might as well just get started.