This week, I attended the Haitian Ladies Network “Summer Meetup” at the Doña Habana restaurant in Boston. HLN is a community organization founded by Nadine Duplessy Kearns and is headquartered in Washington D.C. The purpose of the event was to connect women of Haitian descent who live around the Boston area to build community, share inspiration and celebrate culture.
As soon as I walked in, someone handed me a name tag and pen. Nadine was very kind and introduced me to the rest of the team at HLN. After welcoming me, I sat at a table where two Haitian women were already seated; they introduced themselves to me. The three of us bonded over how seriously Haitian parents take their children's education. When it came to the subject of Creole, I shared that, for the longest time, I thought Creole was a ghetto language, or, as often described, the language of the poor. I recounted how my misconception changed after being accepted into Friends of Matènwa as their Development Specialist.
I had lived in Haiti for 10 years, and from what I had observed, Creole was the language used in private—to talk with your family (especially when you were angry because it was more expressive) or to communicate with local Haitians, whether in the mountains or anywhere outside my home town of Pétion-Ville. The fact I spoke Creole was not valued.
At Friends of Matènwa, I became proud of my Creole language. I realized that Creole or Kreyól (as it is spelled in Haiti) is the mother tongue (lang manman) of the slaves who fought hard for Haiti’s independence. It is the language spoken by all Haitians, no matter their status; it is a language that deserves respect.
According to GraphicMaps “more than 95% of the population in the country uses Haitian Creole.” But Leon Neyfakh's remarks, in his article The Power of Creole, “students were supposed to use French, and French only. It was like this all over the country, and still is.” Speaking French disenfranchises the majority of the population, especially the poor who have little means of becoming proficient in the language. And, because academic instruction is predominantly in French, students must know French to pass exams and be able to gain entry to upper-level schooling. Students who survive, have a network of French-speaking opportunities to master the language. These students can also speak and read in Creole but have difficulty writing. I was encouraged at a young age to learn French first, and from there, I transferred to English, because as any Haitian who gave up learning French at a young age would tell you, it is “hard” to regain your fluency.
The Matènwa Community Learning Center, on the island of La Gonave in the small community of Matènwa, is turning this notion of “French first” on its head. Creole is the language used in the classrooms. Children learn because they are taught in their mother tongue, the language they understand. They succeed because they can respond, ask questions, and have discussions about what they learn. French is still used but in French class. This “Creole first” methodology grants access to education and a chance for achievement to everyone.
There are limited books written in Creole, so children are encouraged to write about their experiences in their mother tongue. These stories, are published and translated into French, English and sometimes Spanish. You can purchase these Mother Tongue Books at the Friends of Matènwa headquarters located in Cambridge! We are always welcoming new visitors year round!