Living Literacy

Community Commitment in Haiti

"If I'm capable at the end of the project of signing my name or understanding what's happening when they fetch me for the elections, I know I'll have lived for something," says an 86-year-old learner in the Alfabonit project. The literacy learners in Haiti's rural, disadvantaged area of Saint Marc are adults of all ages, mostly women. The project's aim is to improve the living conditions of the population through literacy. The task ahead is tremendous. Haiti is one of the world's poorest countries, roughly half the adult population is illiterate. Two-thirds of the children who start primary school never finish and end up swelling the ranks of the illiterate.

To ensure learners' full involvement, the Canada-based Paul Gerin-Lajoie Foundation that launched the project with the Haitian government in 1998 has a unique partnership with the communities. The foundation supplies the learning materials and manages the project; the communities provide the buildings and furniture.

Another unique feature is that the learners can chose their educator -a local person who is specially trained to teach them. This ensures the full commitment of both teachers and learners. The literacy centres provide no comfort. Learners sit on benches they make themselves or on a pile of straw on the ground.

This Haitian initiative has just been awarded one of UNESCO's two annual King Sejong Literacy Prizes. The project combines reading, writing and arithmetic with micro-projects and awareness-raising in environmental issues, civil rights and health.

Environmental degradation has reached a disastrous pace. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), more than 98 per cent of Haiti is deforested and each year 15,000 acres of fertile top soil is washed away. The project discourages people from cutting down the remaining trees and participants learn to make what they call "miracle charcoal" -a briquette of sawdust and paper recuperated from banks or other companies and mixed with water. A small-scale tree-planting scheme has also been carried out. "Awareness of one's rights and duties as citizens is fundamental," says Marie-Michelle Fournier of the Paul Gerin-Lajoie Foundation. She explains that, as 85 per cent of Haitians have neither an identity card nor a birth certificate, they cannot participate in democratic life. Thanks to the project,1,500 have now obtained these documents. In fact, some of them lost no time in exercising their democratic rights: six were elected at the last local elections.

Learners are encouraged to set up small shops to sell articles of use to the community such as locally produced oil, rice or briquettes. Each one contributes a small sum (less than a dollar) and the Foundation adds to it to get the concern up and running. Some forty micro projects have received financial assistance in this way. Health is especially oriented around themes such as first-aid, breast-feeding, family planning and sexually transmissible diseases, principally AIDS.

"We must constantly motivate the learners to attend the classes," says Fournier, who sees Women's Day was an opportunity to raise awareness of the import-ance of educating girls. Under the slogan: "Today's Girls, Tomorrow's Women" 2,000 people participated in the first march organized on Women's Day. The second march drew 15,000 people.

Lack of reading materials for new literates is a problem. "We can't even find a newspaper here in French or Creole", says Fournier. "To keep their new-found skills alive we invite the learners to write about local events. These texts are then distributed in all literacy centres."

Since the project was launched, some 5,000 people have become literate and around 6,000 are currently following classes; 800 educators have been trained and 120 literacy centres and 10 community dispensaries have been opened.

The Paul Gerin-Lajoie Foundation and the Quebec Ministry for International Relations provide Can$630,000 to finance the project.