Although Josette did not have the skills to even write out her own name or have any idea what classroom life would be like, she stepped into the unknown and used some of her precious income-earning time to sign up for an “alpha” (beginner) adult literacy class.
Today, Josette is an eager student, excited by what she is learning and looking forward to building up her reading and writing skills that will help improve her future.
“Learning to read and write will help me find good work,” she said. “People have tried to help me find me work, but even the job of selling items on the street is hard for me. If I can read and write I can buy new resources and find new ways to sell products.”
But there is one activity that Josette is especially looking forward to doing with her new skills.
“I am most excited to help my 13-year-old daughter study and do her homework,” she said.
Mirlaine, one of Josette’s classmate in the “Alpha” (beginner level) literacy class, echoed this same dream when talking about putting her new skills to use at home.
“It hurts me when my child is stuck on homework and I can't help,” she said. “I also have a dream of being able to read the Bible out loud in church someday. So I pray that I will study hard and have a good memory for what I am learning.”
These women are not alone in their struggle with illiteracy. In many regions of Haiti, there is limited access to books and few opportunities for schooling, especially for those living in rural areas and poverty. According to The World Factbook, formal education rates in Haiti are among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti's literacy rate of about 61% (64.3% for males and 57.3% for females) is below the 90% average literacy rate for other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
In a nation with a long legacy of political corruption, violence, and poverty, literacy projects have been a powerful tool to help Haitians build their skills and increase their opportunities for fulfilling livelihoods and fostering resilience.
World Renew has been at work in Haiti since 1975—long before the catastrophic earthquake that devastated several regions and dominated world headlines in 2010. In recent years, World Renew has joined forces with other Christian Reformed Agencies in Haiti and works under the name of Sous Eswpa, which means "Source of Hope."
In a nation with a long legacy of political corruption, violence, and poverty, literacy projects have been a powerful tool to help Haitians build their skills and increase their opportunities for fruitful and fulfilling livelihoods. Since the 2010 earthquake, over 2,000 people have graduated from World Renew-supported literacy projects.
In addition to the alpha classes that help adults learn the basic skills needed to read and write, World Renew partners in Haiti have introduced a “post-alpha” class. This class is designed for those who already have basic literacy skills, but have a desire to take their engagement and understanding to the next level.
The main literary tool used in this post-alpha class is poetry.
Lunise Cerin-Jules, who served as a World Renew country consultant in Haiti from 2011 until June 2015, has been at the forefront of developing these post-Alpha classes.
“I have had a lifelong passion for literacy, and I always knew I was highly privileged just to have had the education to read and write,” she said.
Cerin-Jules has also had a lifelong love and passion for poetry and appreciation for Haiti’s rich artistic tradition. Along with American poet Maya Angelou and French poets Jacques Prevert and Verlaine, some of her favorite poets are Haitian, such as Syto Cavé, Anthony Phelps, and Jean Elie Barjon.
“As I thought about those in the in the country who have not had a chance to go to school and build their skills, I asked myself: What can we do to attract more young people to literacy? And how can we make it more appealing to learn to read and write?’
“That’s how I thought of poetry. After all, so many Haitians already love poetry and think it is beautiful! They may use it in speech, even if they do not read or write it—or they are familiar with songs, which are all about rhythm and lyrics and very similar to poetry.”
Through poetry, these post-Alpha classes demonstrate that reading and writing can be enjoyable and playful, so that students can see the benefit of making these activities a habit. In a series of lessons, students build up their basic vocabulary, memorization skills, and learn about the literary tools that are used to make poetry (meter, rhyme, verse, etc.). They are evaluated on their ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. Each student actively sets goals for their personal growth—such as memorizing a poem—and they are monitored on their progress.
Students in these post-alpha classes study Psalm 23 and other poetry examples. They also eventually have the opportunity write their own and express their life experiences on the page.
The concept of cause and effect is a large part of their learning as they think and then write about topics close to their heart and that capture both the beauty and conflict in their country. They may be asked to write about the 2010 earthquake or the issue of overcrowding in prisons, for example, or use their five senses to describe the environment around them.
Although French is the preferred language for many Haitians seeking to grow in their education, these lessons are in the Creole language.
“You see, Creole readers know the words and meanings already. They know how to put the words together, and their thoughts are organized in Creole,” said Cerin-Jules. “So we want to use that understanding. And giving them a taste of poetry is a way to ‘meet in the middle,’ since it uses Creole language in a way that is fresh and appealing.”
This post-alpha program is still in its early stages, but it is structured so that after the first quarter on poetry, there is second quarter for students on the topic of “life-skills” or livelihoods. Through a connection with a young barber, the students have the opportunity to learn about the life skills and experience of his livelihood as an example. This second quarter also gives them the opportunity to learn about history and civil education as they grow in their practical knowledge and skills.
World Renew is grateful to God for the creative and thoughtful work that has gone into creating literacy programs that will bear the beautiful fruit of improved literacy in Haiti.
On this International Literacy Day, we celebrate with the many literacy students in Haiti who are building their skills and changing their lives for the better.