Learning on Lagonav

By Corinne Militello Kalina '98

When Christine Low ’83 first visited the island of Lagonav, about 30 miles offshore from Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, there were only a few functioning private trucks on the island, several motorcycles, two public telephones, and no plumbing or paved roads. The island was (and remains) largely deforested, with severe water shortages hindering regrowth and agricultural production. Many of the island’s 110,000 residents either struggled to get by as subsistence farmers or were forced to relocate to the slums of Port-au-Prince to work in factories.

During the 10 years since that visit, Low has worked with community members to improve the opportunities and quality of life for the residents of Matènwa, one of Lagonav’s mountain communities, by expanding the educational resources for their children and providing a network of support for their families.

“People always talk about economic status as the determiner for success and privilege. A lot of times people don’t consider that even though they may not have a high-paying job, they still have a huge advantage in society because they have an education,” says Low, who has worked as a teacher and holds a master’s degree in creative arts and elementary education. “It’s not just economic advantages that people need, but educational advantages. It’s not just about money. You have to feed your mind as well.”

Low is now co-director of the Mat�nwa Community Learning Center (MCLC), which she founded in 1996 along with Haitian co-director Abner Sauveur. Low says, “What makes this program successful...is that it began as a collaboration between Abner and me. Abner was a humble man of simple means, highly respected in his community. He had a vision that I believed in. I had access to people and resources that could begin to make his dream come true. We both believed that it was a human right for all children, even the poor in Matènwa, to have an education that promoted self-determination.”

Low met Sauveur during her first visit to Lagonav. At the time, Sauveur was running an adult literacy program on the island, funded by Beyond Borders. Low signed on as a volunteer, and soon after, Sauveur handed her a proposal for an elementary school where children could learn in their native Creole in an atmosphere of open dialogue and respect.

In most Haitian schools, Low says, children are taught in French, which many see as a vestige of Haiti’s colonial past, and not reflective of the fact that 95 percent of Haiti’s people speak only Haitian Creole. The typical teaching methodology focuses on passive repetition, rather than active dialogue between students and teachers, and among students. Many schools also employ corporal punishment, which the MCLC rejects.

“Haiti has the most outdated schooling of all countries in the Western Hemisphere,” Low asserts. “In many schools here, the kids are mindlessly chanting in French and copying French texts off the blackboard. They are put on their knees or hit for giving wrong answers and being tardy. During our first two years in operation even our own teachers were being humiliated in this way when they showed up tardy for afternoon classes at a local high school after having taught at MCLC in the morning. They would be put in the sun on their knees for being late for school.”

Abner Sauveur, a native of Lagonav, was educated in French but spoke Creole at home. He did not learn to read or write in Creole until he was nearly 30 years old, while training to teach adult literacy classes. By teaching children in Haitian Creole, Sauveur says, “We wanted to show that children who spoke and learned in Creole were just as intelligent as children who spoke and learned in French.”

Sauveur with a class of second graders harvesting their own cucumbers.
Sauveur with a class of second graders harvesting their own cucumbers.

Sauveur with a class of second graders harvesting their own cucumbers. Most Haitians in the countryside are not used to eating raw vegetables. Sauveur demonstrates how to wash and then eat the cucumbers.

Low quickly realized Sauveur’s proposal was innovative and progressive, and that it could not only benefit the children of Matènwa, but also serve as a model for other Haitian schools. She also knew that getting such a program started wouldn’t be easy. Faced with formidable logistical and budgetary challenges, Low says, “I saw that this was not going to just take a year, it was going to take a lifetime.”

Low’s first step was to learn to speak better Creole and take a year’s leave of absence from her work in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, where she worked as an elementary school teacher. She soon resigned from her position in Cambridge and started working full-time toward making the vision she and Sauveur shared into a reality.

After years of slow construction—all work was done by hand, without electricity or power tools—the main building that houses MCLC will finally be completed this year. It is a large open structure that sits atop a hill in the rural community of Matènwa. The center’s primary mission is to provide schooling for children in preschool, elementary, and junior-high levels, but its offerings include a breakfast program for children, teacher training workshops, adult literacy classes, and agriculture and nutrition workshops in its community garden. The center has also made strides toward reforesting the island by growing and distributing seedlings.

In addition to construction challenges along the way, Low says funding the center has proved to be an arduous process. The MCLC does all its own fundraising, with the nonprofit organization Beyond Borders serving as its fiscal agent. Low estimates that the center’s operating budget is $60,000 a year, which enables it to offer a Creole education to 183 children at the elementary-school level, and 51 children at the junior-high level. Donations (mostly small amounts) come from friends, teachers, and others who have visited Lagonav. Some supporters also work as part-time volunteers for the center.

One of Low’s Vassar classmates, Greg Wakabayashi ’83, has been a supporter of MCLC since its inception. He edits the center’s newsletter and offers fundraising advice. “Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that it does not take much effort to make a meaningful contribution,” Wakabayashi says. “Another thing I have been struck by is what I learned about the people [on Lagonav]. Many of them live in conditions that I and everyone I know would be hard-pressed to put up with for a few days, let alone a lifetime.”

Jan Kees Elsbach ’82 visited Low on Lagonav in 1998 “to see what her life there was like.” He recalls the long journey: after a ferry ride from Port-au-Prince that was “so crowded you could hardly fit on the boat,” Elsbach said it took an entire afternoon to reach Matènwa by motorcycle, driving along roads so cratered and in disrepair that even traveling by foot along them seemed treacherous. “It was hard for me to understand how people survived at all, because there’s no industry, no real agriculture,” he says. “But everyone we met was incredibly positive despite this...and every person we walked by would give [Chris] a huge welcome. She’s really embedded in the community there.... Being there, I could see why Chris is drawn to the people there, but at the same time it’s really a dismal situation.”

Wakabayashi believes Low’s understanding of community is a major part of what has drawn her to Lagonav. “She sees herself as part of a larger community, not just in America but the entire world. In this way she is practically more Haitian than she is American. Haitians, to greater and lesser degrees, I think, regard their situation as a communal one, not personal.”

Photo below: Children in the preschool are settling down to draw. Several class-made story books—stories dictated to the teacher and then illustrated by the students—hang on the wall.

Children in the preschool are settling down to draw.
Children in the preschool are settling down to draw.
Certainly, Low says that when she moved to Lagonav, she became quickly aware of the challenges and struggles that many Haitians face every day. During her first year there, food was scarce, and she shared what little she had with children from the community who otherwise might not eat that day. “About half of our students eat every other day, and when I say every other day, I mean that literally,” Low says. “I’ve seen parents come into my kindergarten classroom and give a child a piece of candy, and they might say, ‘I know he’s hungry, but I didn’t have any food to give him yesterday, so I wanted to give him this candy.’ The point is, the real struggle is about true hunger. How can anyone learn while they’re hungry?”

The center’s breakfast program is critical to combating the students’ hunger, as is a garden program, which not only feeds students and has successfully lowered the malnutrition rate, but also teaches agricultural techniques to the students—who, in turn, teach them to their families.

But despite MCLC’s efforts, Low says the hunger crisis in Haiti and on Lagonav has worsened in recent years. In 2004 rebels ousted Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, leading to the further decline of the Haitian currency (the Gourde), and making it more costly for Haitians to buy food. That said, Low states that when the center has the money, getting food to Lagonav and the community of Matènwa has not been a problem.

Throughout the years Low has learned much from her Haitian neighbors—about how to cope with hardship, and about friendship. “You see a lot about violence in the news,” she says, “but they’re not advertising the fact that Haiti is socially rich, that Haitians care for one another in ways I had never experienced before. The social aspect is something that drives me to Haiti. Here you see evidence that humans are not innately independent, because these communities value, survive, and thrive on interdependence. It’s a very alive, expressive, and emotional culture. The art is amazing—the colors, music, and dance.”

Recognizing the talents of Lagonav’s artists, Low has also initiated a program that helps Haitian women, many of whom have children in MCLC’s school, earn money with their artwork, and in turn, feed their families. The center has organized the artists into a group called Atis Fanm Matènwa (Women Artists of Matènwa). With the guidance of Massachusetts artist Ellen LeBow, the women of Matènwa paint colorful images and patterns on silk scarves. The designs are inspired by local cultural traditions and mythology, and feature scenes or archetypes from religious stories or vibrant animals and plants from traditional folklore. Scarves, Low says, are a traditional element of Haitian dress.

The scarves are produced easily with basic materials, such as nontoxic dyes and old-fashioned irons fueled with charcoal. And they can be transported inexpensively for sale, making it a successful financial project. In fact, Low brought dozens of scarves to Vassar on a visit in spring 2004, when she attended the annual Vassar Haiti Project art sale. The Vassar Haiti Project’s mission is to educate the Vassar Community about the history, culture, and political situation in Haiti.

Other schools in the United States have supported MCLC, too. For example, Low is now working with the Atrium School in Watertown, Massachusetts, fundraising and coordinating curricular activities that will introduce students to Haitian culture. (The Atrium School was founded by Ginny Lewisohn Kahn ’49.) And Low says Susan Shaw Delanty ’83 has helped raise money for the breakfast program through the Horace Mann School in New York City.

Abner Sauveur says he has been surprised to see that so many people—teachers from Lagonav and other parts of Haiti, and visitors from the United States and elsewhere—have been enthusiastic about visiting the MCLC. He’s excited about its successes so far. “Students, when they first came, they wouldn’t have discussion because they were used to repetition. Now they give their own ideas and can reflect on opinions of others; they want to participate in other activities in the community. They are reflecting on their environmental situation. They think about their community more and encourage and emphasize agriculture more now. In traditional schools teachers have said, ‘Your mother and father are just farmworkers... you don’t want to be the same way’—as if those who work the land have no value and school should be a way out. But at MCLC kids are encouraged to work with their parents in their gardens and on their farms.”

Low adds that some of her adult literacy students used to say that more high-school education leads to more poverty, as residents have historically abandoned communities like Matènwa to try to make a living in Port-au-Prince. She hopes that trend will continue to change, and that, eventually, some of the children educated at the MCLC will earn university degrees and return to Lagonav as teachers.

In the immediate future, Low plans to expand the teacher-training programs, but she says the center still faces the challenge of finding consistent funding. She has started an endowment fund, which she says “needs only two million dollars to guarantee that the center’s programs will continue for generations to come.” She hopes to build a Haitian Creole and French library equipped with Mac laptop computers and a solar-powered energy system, and to develop new art programs for the students.

Low quotes a Haitian Proverb, “Woch nan dlo, pa konn mizè wòch nan Solèy,” which means, “The rock in the water does not know the misery of the rock in the sun.” She hopes that by sharing her experiences with others, “people who may never experience the misery of the rock in the sun will at least try to increase the chances that some of these children will have the opportunity to experience the refreshing water.” She says that by helping to build a community that seeks “to practice educational, economic, and social justice,” she and others can support the people of Lagonav in their efforts to educate themselves.

To find out more about the Matènwa Community Learning Center, email Chris Low at chriswlow@aol.com.

Kalina is a former VQ assistant editor now attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School.