Here in Haiti, I think of myself as being part of a long-term exchange. The people I live and work with have a lot of experience that I don’t have, and so I learn with and from them constantly. At the same time, I bring them experience of my own that’s quite different from theirs: most importantly, perhaps, the different types of classrooms I’ve been in, whether as teacher, student, or observer. As a student or an observer, I’ve seen a lot of very good teachers working in a number of different ways, and I have colleagues here who show a lot of interest in learning from what I’ve seen.
When I think of the exchange possibilities that my presense here opens up, however, it would be a mistake for me to focus to exclusively on what I myself can and cannot share. My work here brings me to different parts of the country. I travel within Haiti much more than my Haitian colleagues can, and so I have the chance to see and learn from a wider range of them than they themselves normally could. I can thus serve as a resource for my Haitian colleagues not only by sharing what I have, but by making it easier for them to share with one another. One way for me to do this is by helping to organize vizit echanj, or exchange visits – visits my colleagues make to see one another at work.
“Toma” is a nickname, but it’s the only name I’ve ever heard Abraham use. He is a veterinary worker from the mountains outside of Darbonne. It’s not that he’s a full-blown veterinarian, but he has had considerable training over a number of years. He gives vaccinations and first aid to livestock in the area he lives in and gives advice and information to the farmers whose livestock he treats.
And that’s not all he does. The farmers he works for can’t really pay very much for his services, so, like many Haitians, he stitches together a living for himself and his family with a range of activities. He does a little farming. He teaches science in a local primary school, and literacy in an afternoon school for adults.
It is because of this last piece of his work that I am getting to know him. He participates every Saturday in a workshop that my colleague Frémy and I are leading for literacy teachers in the countryside outside of Darbonne. For Toma, it’s a two-hour hike each way to participate, but there are no roads that lead to where he lives, so he’s used to walking, and the hike doesn’t seem like very much to him. He can be counted on to arrive early for the 8:00 AM literacy team meeting before our weekly, two-hour workshop begins at 9:00.
From the very first, Toma inpressed me with the frankness and the seriousness of his contributions – both the questions he would ask and the comments he would make. So when I mentioned one day that I visit the Matenwa Community Learning Center almost every week, and he said that he had heard of the Center and was interested in how it works, I was happy to ask him whether he would like to join me on one of my trips. He would get the chance to see how the school works – visit classes, a faculty meeting, a discussion group – and to talk to the teachers about what he sees.
He jumped at the chance, and there are good reasons why he would. On one hand, the Center is rightly developing a reputation in and even beyond the circles that I travel in for doing something quite remarkable. It is a school that works without the belts, paddles, humiliating words and other painful punishments that characterize most Haitian schools. Even Haitian educators who are attracted by the idea of teaching without hitting or humiliating their students can have a hard time imagining how it really works. It’s something that they have probably never seen. Toma specifically mentioned his questions as to how the Matenwa teachers maintain discipline as one aspect of their work that interested him most. On the other hand, the trip from Port au Prince to Matenwa and back is a little bit complicated and, in Haitian terms, rather expensive. It would have been hard for him to arrange the trip himself, and hard for him to finance it.
And there was another barrier as well. Though we in the States may think of Haiti as an island, and though it’s full of lovely beaches, most Haitians live away from the water. Separated from it enough that they cannot swim. Toma can’t. He smiled to me as he described a trip to the beach in Jacmel and showed my the spot low on his calf that marked the depth of the water he was willing to wade in. He was therefore nervous about the trip across the bay to Lagonav and pleased at the chance to make it with me.
So we met in Pétion-Ville one Sunday afternoon, in the one place there he was familiar enough with that he could easily find, and we hiked up to Ka Glo to spend the night. We left for Lagonav Monday morning.
The trip to Lagonav has become more complicated lately. We used to simply go to the Okap bus station in Port au Prince, where we would board a bus to St. Marc that would take us all the way to Carries, where the old Duvalier seaside mansion that now serves as the passenger wharf to Lagonav is. But the Okap station is right next to Cité Soleil, and I’ve beed strongly advised to avoid the area as much as possible for safety reasons. So I’ve been take a series of rides from Pétion-Ville, through Croix de Missions, to Cabaret, to St. Médard, to Carries. It’s six different rides to get to the wharf.
Toma and I got there without much trouble, and we walked onto the bow of the sailboat, where I generally sit, as the boat was just beginning to fill. The sea was extremely calm, but as we stepped onto the bow, it dipped and rose, and I looked to Toma to see how he was. He seemed calm nough to me, but when I suggested that we get back off the boat to grab a bite to eat – we hadn’t eaten before leaving in the morning – he was very quick to agree. We ate, returned to the boat, and were off in a few minutes to Lagonav. From Anse à Galets, it’s one ride, but a hard one, up the hill to Matenwa. We arrive just in time for the regular Monday evening faculty meeting. We sat with the teachers for over two hours as they discussed various pieces of school and community business. The next day, Toma spent the morning observing classes as I worked in Todd’s house, the house in Matenwa that has come to be my home. Wednesday, Tma watched more classes, then he participated in the discussion group for teachers that I lead there almost every week.
Todd’s house is small, with one large bed that Toma and I had to share, so we had lots of time to talk over the course of the couple of nights we were there. It was instructive to watch how a curious and thoughtful Haitian reacted to seeing the school in Matenwa that has grown so dear to me.
He was especially impressed by a couple of things. First, that at the faculty meeting it would have been had to guess which of the teachers is the principal. The whole faculty speaks so comfortably, so informally, with one another, they speak as such equals, that often the only sign that Abner is in charge is that he’s a lot older than the others. Toma was struck that this was a group of people that really works together. He also paid close attention to all the little disciplinary techniques he saw the teachers use: counting to five, sitting a disruptive student in a time-out chair, making students stand. He saw, however, no corporal punishment and no humiliation, and a school full of students who were nevertheless busily at work. And he was impressed by their work: they way even little ones already read Creole well, the way the read for understanding rather than just to pronounce the words.
Wednesday afternoon we strolled over to Bòs Wolan’s wonderful vegetable garden, where Toma was inspired by all the very many little things Wolan is doing to make he garden grow. He decided on te spot that he would try to start a similar garden of his own, a decision that Wolan generously supported with a gift of carrot, cucumber, zucchini, leek, and other seeds. That evening, Abner came by to talk to Toma about the visit. Toma got a sense of the history of the school, and Abner got a sense of the impression it made on a thoughtful Haitian observer, seeing it for the first time.
We had an easy voyage back to Carries the next morning, delayed by the long, wonderful rain that finally came to Lagonav Wednedsay night. Toma and I parted in Port au Prince. He headed straigt to Darbonne. I would head there after spending a short night back in Ka Glo first.
It’s hardly worth saying that Haiti is full of wisdom and experience. As a foreigner here, however, I can have the tendency to distract the people I’m around from sharing and developing what they know. For all sorts of reasons, they can tend to focus too much on what they think I might know instead. And I can easily slip into the same mistake, even though I, of all people, should surely know better. Cultivation exchange among my Haitian colleagues can thus be an important part of my work. Both for them and for me.