I left my heart in Haiti. I have only made three trips there, but I have many friends there now and many dreams for them, especially the little ones.
I am a retired school teacher, having taught French, English as a second language and literacy in various places around the world. While in Haiti, I enjoyed bringing a few French and English books and teaching materials to the various schools, orphanages and missions that I visited. At one school I attempted to start a small library for teachers and students to use in conjunction with a laptop project. I went to the market and brought back several Haitian Creole books as well.
Recently, I have been trying to locate books to send to a particular school that has no electricity … in fact it only has tarps for walls. What it does have is an honest and hard working principal and a handful of hard working teachers, and a few parents who are willing to help with physical labor.
I would love to concentrate on finding Creole books to spark curiosity in the minds of the youngest children. The children begin school at a very young age there, about age 3. This is more of a Day Care level, with learning about sharing, taking turns, listening, sitting in chairs, following a teacher’s directions… Learning to salute the flag, repeat a prayer, clap to songs, even ask to go to the toilet… these are ideas new to many of them. This is a time when their vocabularies are increasing, when curiosity about the world around them is expanding. And this is the time when listening to stories and seeing books and the printed word is so important for them.
Imagine never having seen a book before, not knowing which is the top, which the bottom, which is the front, which the back of a book! Imagine adults around you never having read at all… And now imagine that many schools forbid the use of Haitian Creole. You are only 3-4 years old and are told to speak French, English, or perhaps Spanish instead of your mother tongue. I’d love to offer books and related materials so that the children and their parents, along with the teachers, could work together in reading and story circles each day, using small books in their own language!
But my goodness! Initiating such a program is indeed a far off dream. Haitian Creole has only been a written language for a short period of time! During my travels there, I have only seen one newspaper…and that one was in the French language. So finding appropriate stories for beginners is nearly impossible. There is very little at all written in Creole except the presidential billboards announcing education for all.
The teachers are not all well trained, and so they have no experience teaching the love of books. In fact I have never seen a teacher reading to the children for fun. Teachers need to practice reading with their students, and learn to read expressively, with humor! But first, they need colorful inexpensive material to work with. This simply is not available. I have seen only a handful of libraries in all of Haiti. I have seen articles about a couple of Tap-Tap mobile libraries- a fabulous idea! But never have I seen a school incorporate a love of books into the early lives of their charges. And so later, when exposed to laptops and Wikipedia, the kids are described as “unenthusiastic”, “bored”, even “lazy”. But if offered material to research on soccer…well, what do you know, they are eagerly spending extra time after school!
Finding what excites them and offering that material early, in their own language, is one key to starting a life long reading habit. But it is my feeling that there is little material in Creole after this “baby” phase, material with increased vocabulary and more challenging ideas for the pre teen and the teen students. I’d love to see material that would excite everyone, adults as well as youth. Where are the newspapers and the magazines? Where are the publishers and printers. Why can’t we make books of stories written by the students themselves? Why are there no Creole e-books available to the schools with laptops?
Why must mission schools depend on tired used books donated from discards from USA libraries and homes. Why only Disney books and texts that have nothing to do with their lives? These used books do not come for free either. The expense of getting them into the country is huge.
I have searched for Haitian Creole books on line. They are extremely expensive for simple paper backs. They cost enormous amounts to ship. As an experiment, I was about to order 14 paper books in Creole, on various topics for various ages. The average cost per book was $10. The average shipping cost (after checking out various possibilities) was also $10 per book. That makes $20 per baby book! Do you remember Little Golden Books from your youth? I do. Even my miserly parents would occasionally buy me one while at the grocery store. There was “The Little Engine that Could”, “The Poky Little Puppy” , “The Little Red Hen” and many other classics. That is impossible in Haiti. There are no books to remember.
This is not just frustrating. This is wrong! It will take decades to build literacy to a stage where reading will become a joy and not a chore. Where is the help to get this off the ground? There are stories to be handed down, but they are not yet written. There are books that would be gobbled up if only available, on electricity, bicycle repair, and so forth. There are maps to be improved and made available to all…
I remember a time when there were special shipping rates for books in North America. Even in the 1960s, my parents were able to send good books to me in West Africa for my library there. In Nigeria there were mission stores with decent offerings for students too. Books of a lesser quality were available in the markets. There was a beautiful brand new library built in the closest town as well…. These are all desperately needed in Haiti. There are stockpiles that I know of waiting to be sent to Missions, but no one can afford to ship them. The principals want them, the teachers need them, the kids would love them! Oh my, it is so sad and frustrating!
And so, one box at a time, I deliver perhaps 20 books. How many more can I send? I am over 70 now and this will not likely be possible for much longer. As I said, I left my heart in Haiti, but I’d love to leave loads and loads of books as well! I’d love to see a whole industry emerge. I’d love to see each school sharing their best stories, having them illustrated by the kids, printed and loved by children throughout the country. I’d love to see the children writing and illustrating their stories on their laptops, sharing them around… worldwide… There must be a way.
“Lespwa fè viv.“
Hope makes one live.