Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Community Libraries Help Changing Educational Landscape in Haiti:
Fokal providing books and much more to the less fortunate in Haiti
By Tequila Minsky, Heritagekonpa Magazine
When Michelle Pierre-Louis started FOKAL, Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libete, creating spaces for learning was one of her top priorities. Changing the Haitian school system was too daunting a task so she took a parallel route and began supporting small libraries in poor neighborhoods like Martissant and Christ Roi in Port-au-Prince. In the first two years, there were fifteen of these community libraries offering not just books, but a clean and well-lit place-a haven from the crowded streets, a quiet place to do homework.
Twelve years hence, there is a web of 35 community libraries around the country: in remote settings and in distant small towns like Limbe, in secondary cities like Les Cayes and in poor areas of Port-au-Prince. There are three other library systems in Haiti including the national libraries. FOKAL libraries differ in that they are initiated and sustained by associations within the community.
The libraries in the FOKAL web have five thousand books and for the southern town like Chardonnieres, with a population of 21,300 and five primary schools and two high schools, the community library is a valuable resource for the youth and the town as a whole.
Chardonnieres is seven hours by dusty broken roads from Port-au-Prince. On the last two hours of travel north along the coast from Port Salut, the drive passes through eleven rivers. Alongside the long breathtaking stretches that separate the few towns that hug the coastline, arid cliffs steeply rise above the road.
The town's only library opened only six years ago and is housed in a rehabilitated building that had been previously abandoned by the nearby Catholic Church. Diaspora living in Boston originally financed the library. Two years after it opened, interest and support drifted away; FOKAL then began to sustain it.
"When the Chardonnieres library opened in 2001, the people in the town weren't used to the idea of a library", remembers Ernest Pierre-Louis, founder and director of the Chardonnieres library. With no library in the area, introducing residents of the town to the library was part of the challenge.
click herePierre-Louis, organized activities: theater, dance, and debates, to draw people in and then would introduce the collection of books. He elaborated, "At the beginning, some visited out of curiosity but it took programming events to really attract and help them understand how they can use the library."
Sometimes a teacher in Haiti is the only one with a class textbook or there are so few books available that teachers refer to their own high school notes for reference. Classes copy what they need from the black board. Chardonnieres' schools like many in Haiti suffer from a shortage of resources. Pierre-Louis said, "Students sometimes come by and ask if I will order a textbook."
As part of FOKAL's library program, personnel are trained. Staff learns how to manage the collection, categorize books in a simplified Dewey Decimal system, and run the lending system.
They learn how to talk to those who use the library and how to recognize books the visitors want. Developing related program activities is also part of their training. Since 2005, 88 library staff have been trained.
Elizabeth Pierre-Louis, director of the FOKAL's library program (no relation to the director of the Chardonnieres library) knows the importance of outreach and long-range programming. "That's when you see people getting interested in the books and even expanding their interests," she explains. FOKAL supports themes of study and provides materials. This year's theme was Jacques Roumain, author of Masters of the Dew.
The libraries are also the center for related activities. Theater groups and debate programs meet in some of the libraries. One library in the north organizes a book fair, where authors read and sign books. A library in the south has walks to nature sites and nearby historical monuments.
In the summer at downtown Port-au-Prince's Monique Calixte Library and the library in Les Cayes, staff realized parents were dropping off their children in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. A summer day program was developed.
FOKAL provides a small budget for staff salaries, supplies and books. Standard equipment includes a CD player, a TV monitor and multi-media materials such as history, poetry and music CDs, DVDs, and videos. One copy of newly published books in Haiti goes to each library; it�s FOKAL's way to support Haitian writers.
On occasion, FOKAL is called upon for money for special events or to help out in an emergency, assistance with the rent or replacement batteries for inverters for electricity.
FOKAL's libraries are open to the public; it's free to visit although to borrow books, there is a nominal fee depending on the area and income of the residents: for children the annual fee is 25-50 gourdes (.75-$1.25), for adults the cost is $1.25- $2.50. With a laminated library card, the reader can take out up to three books for eight days.
The web of FOKAL libraries stretches from Cape Haitien to Les Cayes and Jeremie. About a quarter of these libraries are in poor zones of Port-au-Prince. Located in the main building along with the FOKAL offices is the largest library, Monique Calixte, started by family and friends of Monique Calixte who also formed a Paris-based association that holds a yearly fundraiser for the continuing support of the library.
FOKAL's libraries function as multi-facted cultural centers. Not only do they provide access to books and offer expanded intellectual enrichment but they are current to changing technologies.
By providing training for staff and resources for programming in addition to financial support, they greatly contribute to the communities they serve.
In addition to the 35 libraries in the FOKAL web, there are a number of other libraries that get books from FOKAL and receive their training. http://www.fokal-usa.org/aboutfokal.htm
For more info : (212) 548-0332.
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