UP CLOSE + PERSONAL
An Interview with Christine W. Low, Executive Director, Friends of Matènwa
by Barbara Bundy, PhD, Coordinator, Books + Education, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water
Christine W. Low is currently Executive Director of Friends of Matènwa, a US–based nonprofit organization, and continues to be deeply involved in training teachers on Haiti’s Lagonav island. She and Jean Abner Sauveur, a community organizer, born and raised in Matènwa, Lagonav and trained in Freirian pedagogy, co-founded the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) in 1996. They co-directed the elementary school together for fifteen years before deciding to change their roles so that they could spread their methodologies well beyond the walls of MCLC. This center is more than just a school. It houses an Institute of Learning and Outreach, producing transformational change in education and human rights on the island of Lagonav. The transformation goes beyond Lagonav as teachers from several major cities on the mainland are sent there for training. Chris received a BA in Psychology from Vassar College and a MEd in Creative Arts and Elementary Education from Lesley College. Prior to co-founding MCLC, she was an elementary teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Barbara Bundy, Coordinator for Books + Education for WaterBridge Outreach, interviews Chris here.
Chris, tell us how you became involved in helping Haiti and the vision you and Abner had that led you to co-found a school in a rural community high in the mountains of Lagonav island 19 years ago.
My first visit to Haiti was in 1986. I was teaching primary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went back in 1989 and lived in a girls’ orphanage in Port-au-Prince for a year, and it left me wondering if I should spend my life teaching children in Cambridge, who are potentially the future leaders of the world, or underprivileged children in a desperately economically poor country still struggling with the aftermath of colonialism. I returned to Cambridge, but five years later Beyond Borders, a NGO, asked me to go to Lagonav to evaluate the adult literacy program they were funding, and that experience moved me to volunteer to teach literacy monitors how to teach. They hadn't had more than a couple weeks of teacher training.
Jean Abner Sauveur (image on left), then coordinator of the literacy program, and I worked together for many months, and eventually he invited me to observe in a K-2 grade school he had begun that year. It was a life-changing moment for me when I saw two children in different rooms having to share one pencil -- I asked the community if they would like to build a school together. They said Yes. We bought some land, and I designed a round building so that the architecture would facilitate and reflect the change we wanted to bring about. Circular benches throughout the yard promote small and large group dialogues. Students facilitate Reflection Circles, where everyone’s voice matters and people are all equal— it is our way of breaking down the hierarchy in the schools, a result of colonization that is still prevalent in the society, where people in power feel very superior and entitled to boss anyone else around. Twice a year we use a process called Open Space technology to give everyone an equal voice in sharing their ideas and to reflect on the community's development. Through Open Space came the decisions to put in a town water pump, to build an arts center and develop a music program, to name a few. The process is empowering,
Tell us about your vision for transformational change on Lagonav as community -driven and the changes you see in the school and in the Lagonav communities 19 years after you started MCLC?
Above all, the community has been involved in developing everything from the gardens to the furniture to the curriculum. So they will find ways to sustain what works for them, which is how things will be passed forward to more families and to future generations. It is a movement for human rights and equality—the right to an education in one’s mother tongue, including the right to write their own history; so the language of instruction at Matènwa is Creole (instruction in almost all Haitian schools is conducted in French and not in Creole even though only 5% of Haitians speak French and 100% speak Creole); the right to be nourished and not to go hungry-- so we provide a breakfast of local foods; and the right not to be subjected to violence-- so we have every class determine their own rules and consequences democratically (physical punishment is still used in most Haitian schools); and in general the right of all girls and boys, women and men to self-determination.
I’m very grateful to WaterBridge Outreach, Barbara, because Peter Coughlan and your team have repeatedly funded what we've said we needed, not what you think we need, one example being a series of science books in Creole from EducaVision. They have been a great learning tool. The books enabled both teachers and children to see and learn about animals they had never seen. We really liked the book you had donated to Matènwa in English called One Hen: How One Small Hen Made a Big Difference, by Kate Milway, and when we found it translated into Creole as Yon Poul, WBO kindly provided funding for us to buy copies of the Creole version for use in several schools.
People on Lagonav are starving—there is an annual 6 month drought. We have organic gardens and breakfast program in the Matènwa school because children can’t learn if they are hungry. WBO provided seed, fencing, and rain catchment systems two years in a row, which enabled many Matènwa families to develop organic vegetable gardens at home. The third time WBO provided funding as part of an even bigger program that distributed seed and catchment systems to 60 families from 10 other schools. We are currently training 25 new schools in our network to develop sustainable organic vegetable gardens. The families of these 25 schools are eager to start gardens because of the examples they have seen, thanks to WBO’s willingness to believe and invest in Matènwa's development dreams.
Imagine, women used to ride their donkeys two hours down the mountain, then travel two hours across the ocean by boat and then travel two hours by bus into the city, buy their vegetables, and then turn around the same day and come all the way back to the island and trudge back up the mountains to reach home. Now these women grow vegetables on their own land. More importantly, if families can feed their children, they are less likely to give their children away into the Restavec system, where children are given away to do labor in exchange for food and education. More often than not, the restavec becomes a humiliated slave of the house, obliged to endure any emotional abuse whether it be verbal, physical, or sexual, by the adults and children of the house.
Can you tell us about some of the specific results achieved so far by MCLC?
Matènwa is making a difference, in the nourishment of both the students’ minds and bodies. Talking about how one hen can make a difference, we now have 160 chickens, and our high schoolers are eating an egg a day (and yes, we’ve recently started a high school!). Some eggs go into the Matènwa breakfast program. In terms of nourishing students’ minds, we now have a collection of 50 trilingual Mother Tongue Books with a teacher's instruction booklet. We did research on the impact of using the Mother Tongue Books methodology for early grade reading in five schools. The result after just a year and a half? First and second graders went from reading zero words a minute to reading 34 words per minute, and the MCLC third graders were reading 67 words per minute, and now they are reading 73 words per minute.
Have you at MCLC met resistance from the government with your pedagogy of teaching in Creole instead of French, and if so, how have you dealt with that?
Matènwa is not a threat to the government because Lagonav island is so far away from the capital, and in terms of national test scores, we have contributed to improving them for Lagonav.
The government wants to help its children, but France and the Haitian officials want to maintain Haiti as the francophone country of the Caribbean. So the government contradicts itself: on the one hand they mandate that the language of instruction through third grade is Creole, yet they subsidize all the early grade French textbooks, but not the early grade Creole textbooks. I think this is because there is still a strong social bias that Creole is inferior to French, and so parents of all social classes believe the earlier one begins French, the better. Unfortunately, this is not the reality of what happens. Because the majority of teachers are not fluent in French and everyone's mother tongue is Creole, most children end up having a weak literacy base in both languages. MCLC provides a strong language base by teaching in Creole and teaching French as a second language. Creole is the fourth most spoken language in the Americas, so we feel it has international economic value.
Since the 2010 earthquake there has been a shift in attitude about the use of Creole. Because the international agencies felt they should use Creole to communicate to the masses, many informational health posters were put up on the streets of Port Au Prince in Creole. An unintended result was that the elite learned to read Creole! Now that they are not illiterate in Creole, it draws more curiosity and is less of a threat. In addition, many young Haitian Americans came to Haiti to help after the earthquake, so for the first time in its history Haiti has a significant number of educated Haitians who speak Creole and English, but not French. Moreover, this last government was more willing to conduct business in Creole.
Chris, my heartfelt congratulations on all you have achieved on Lagonav and to the dedicated team that has been and is working with you and Abner --you are truly pioneers of a new pedagogy and champions of what in actuality is a democratic human rights movement actualized through teaching, learning, and sustainable community development. You are real heroes, working day in and day out, to give of your time, talent, and financial resources to help an entire island community determine and sustain its development! What do you see next for Matènwa Community Learning Center, as the co-founder, and for yourself?
I really hope that Matènwa can be funded to train the teachers at all 200 elementary schools on Lagonav so that the island will serve as an educational model for the rest of Haiti. We have demonstrated success through our Mother Tongue Books project financed by US AID, World Vision and AUS Aid and have the data published by MIT linguist Michel Degraff that shows it works. Since many organizations are trying to improve early child literacy across the world, I hope that people and organizations will continue to seek out Matènwa's Institute of Learning for training. The Matènwa way could be adopted by many to improve literacy around the world. I hope it happens. I welcome others to join us who dare to share this dream.