Excerpt from a letter from Chris Low


July 1997

For the past two years I've been living on LaGonave, 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. In 1995, AAPLAG (The Association of Community Organizers and Peasants of LaGonave) welcomed my offer to become a staff developer in their adult literacy program for the coming school year.

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 a 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," or, lying down, you're no help to anyone… 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. I have cut down on giving away food and have begun to concentrate on giving away educational opportunities: 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 Matenwa Community Learning Center of LaGonave, 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 workshop, etc. I have already put in $6000 of my own money toward construction of the building. Why? Because despite all the misery, there is great potential there.

My Haitian neighbors are warm, hospitable, and extremely giving. They practice the art of conversation, singing and joking with compete strangers… 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 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….

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