Hi, how are you? I hope everything is going well with you and your family. I apologize for the “form letter”, but every time I sit down to write I feel overwhelmed by the distance and time that has passed since we last communicated. I can’t write to everyone, so I end up writing to no one. But now I am in the States for a month–back in the land of computers, copy machines, and a reliable mail service–so here’s my chance to catch up.
For the past two years I’ve been living in La Gonave, a beautiful, mountainous island off the coast of Haiti. It’s about 27 km wide by 67 km long with a population of 110,000 people. Back in 1986, I went to Haiti’s capital to do volunteer work and have been going back, each year, ever since. I lived there for one year in 1989. In 1995, I went to La Gonave and visited several literacy centers where women’s lives were being transformed by their new found ability to read and write. I was impressed by their desire to learn but disturbed by the lack of resources and training. AAPLAG, The Association of Community Organizers and Peasants of La Gonave, welcomed my offer to become a staff developer in their adult literacy program for the coming school year. Working in the Cambridge school system, I had integrated my class with a Haitian bilingual class in my school. I thought living in the Haitian countryside would be a perfect way to improve my Haitian Creole and learn about the culture in depth. This experience would enhance my ability to work with Haitian-American students.
I didn’t foresee all that I would witness: the cries of pain; the physical struggle required just to get a little firewood and water or hoe a field under the beating sun (Fields that yield less each year as deforestation drives away the rains); or the hunger I would experience giving away my own food to the children who would arrive just as dinner was being served. They don’t ask you for food, but when you see the hunger in their eyes you have no choice but to give it. Unfortunately, you can’t just pop in another tv dinner or go to the corner store and you don’t feel like starting another two-to-three hour cooking endeavor–lighting the firewood (if you don’t have to go find some first), washing and pounding the salt, picking out rocks from the cornmeal, cleaning and soaking the beans… It’s easier just to call it a night.
During my second year I have gotten better at this “food thing.” As the Haitian proverb goes, “An empty sack can’t stand up.” Lying down you’re no help to anyone. After living at a friend’s house for the first four months I decided to build my own house on the property and have continued to eat meals with this family, but I also keep some snacks at my house. As I have become more familiar with my neighbors I have come to know which ones eat every day and which ones eat every other day. All these things have made it easier for me to balance my diet. I have cut down on giving away food and have begun to concentrate on giving away educational opportunities: providing workshops for teachers and paying their salaries; designing and implementing phonics games in Haitian Creole; and inviting children to my front porch to play strategy games to improve their problem solving skills. Haitian parents want nothing more than to see their children succeed in school. Unfortunately, with an 85% illiteracy rate, most parents can’t help their children with school and feel powerless when it comes to holding schools accountable. Parents give their last penny to send children to school, yet they have no recourse when their child still doesn’t know the alphabet after three years!
To make a long story short, I have resigned from the Cambridge School System to start The Matènwa Community Learning Center of La Gonave, a multi-purpose building for an elementary school, adult literacy and education classes, a Haitian Creole and French library, a first aid clinic, community meetings, children’s theatre, agricultural workshops, etc. I have already put in $6000 of my own money towards construction of this building. Why? Because despite all the misery, there is great potential here. My Haitian neighbors are warm, hospitable, and extremely giving. They practice the art of conversation, singing and joking with complete strangers. They live in impoverished conditions and yet are more civil and helpful on the street than any stranger I have ever met in the States. They are remarkably hard-working. I watch children enter school without books or paper, carrying only a pencil that they have to share with their siblings! I watch their parents toil away to pay for these ineffective schools–schools run by uncertified teachers that use the same out-dated books that they memorized when they were kids and who still use “the belt” for discipline. Teachers who want reform but don’t have the proper resources or training and have never seen a model on how to bring it about. I look at myself and think of all the educational opportunities that I have had and all the resources to which I will always have access because of that education. And I come up with this conviction. Having potential access to resources I should try to make these resources available to those who have been born into dire unjust situations, giving them the tools for them to help themselves. Haitians say, “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t feel.” Fortunately or unfortunately, I have seen their reality so this effort has become close to my heart.
I am about to begin a third year on the island and I’m seeking to start a simple non-profit organization to bring in funds for this center. Everyone tells me that it is going to take time to get a non-profit number. Meanwhile, The Friends of Graham and Parks which is affiliated with my old school, has agreed to be my fiscal agent.
I ‘d like to gather donations each year while I’m home in the summer and then use what I receive towards the year’s budget of $10,000 which will pay teachers’ salaries, buy books, provide small grants for community projects such as providing clean drinking water sources or credit loans to women who sell in the open market. In the winter, I will put out a wish list for specific materials such as vitamins or solar panels, which are the only potential source for electrical power. In addition, I plan to send an update in the Spring. I may be able to e-mail those letters if you prefer.
I hope this plan will keep me in better contact with “the outside world,” which I do so desperately miss on occasion. (Mostly when I’m craving sushi!!!) Also, it will force me to put some of my experiences down on paper. (Several of you have been urging me to write, but I continue to have writer’s block.) They say if you visit Haiti for a week you can write a book, if you live there for a year you can’t write a line. I KNOW THE FEELING. I never know where to begin a letter, and I always feel like I’m in the middle, never knowing how to end. Ultimately, I hope that some of you will come and experience Haiti for yourselves.
The sky alone is a constantly changing canvas–any painter’s dream. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful it is and each time I look at the big sky I am in awe of the colors I see. And after it rains, the landscape is as beautiful as springtime in Virginia. Haiti’s indigenous Flamboyant trees bloom a fiery orange-red against a clear blue sky inspiring big smiles and hope for a season when corn will grow. It’s like nothing I’ve ever known back home.
An old Vassar buddy keeps telling me: “Tell why you went to Haiti, but more important, why you stayed.” I hope that I have begun to tell a little bit of that story and what I hope to accomplish. And I hope that you can help by supporting the center, brainstorming on how I can make this project work or just writing to me for moral support. The only two phones on the island are hours from my house. (Perhaps I shouldn’t complain, it’s probably saving me a lot of money.)
So, for how much am I asking? What’s the most you’ve ever blown on one big night out on the town? For one night–$50 would buy notebooks for a whole class; $100 would buy 50 new phonics books in Haitian Creole; $300 would pay for 50 sacks of cement to smooth over a classroom’s dirt floor; $500 would pay a first year teacher’s salary for a whole year! I think that together we have enough expertise and resources to make a huge difference in the lives of these people and the future of their children. I hope that you will join me in this effort.
Thanks for listening.