Biblio Cheval

The library horses sounded like a fairytale. But really, they're part of one man's quest to bring libraries, and widespread literacy, to Haiti.

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I was disappointed not to go to the town of Limbe with Clement. In Haiti, Clement Benoit II is to books what Paul Farmer is to medicine. He waited for me in the open air lobby of La Plaza Hotel in Port-au-Prince while I tried to make up my mind. This was the second year in a row that I had met with him at La Plaza and he offered to take me to Limbe, his birthplace, and I had to decline. Both times, a State Department alert warned against traveling to Limbe because of riots. I’d seen similar warnings concerning Port-au-Prince and ignored them, but Limbe was three hours away.

An author who has published several poetry books, including Tach Soley, a book of poems written in Creole, Clement works tirelessly to give people access to books. His work involves establishing small libraries and delivering books on horseback to people who live in isolated rural communities. His biblio cheval, library horses, are part of his vision for raising Haiti’s literacy level, which, according to the CIA World Factbook is 52.9 percent, way lower than the rest of the Caribbean.

Although one of the best hospitals in Haiti is located in Limbe, to travel there meant to encounter broken asphalt and potholes and the presumed riots. This in the absence of emergency assistance: ambulances, medics, roadside repair services. Clement assured me that a new road had been built and that we could avoid the riots, but I was familiar with how people drive in Port-au-Prince, where there are few cross lights or stop signs and cars speed through intersections, beeping their horns for pedestrians to jump out of the way. Driving is a free-for-all, and as much as my imagination ran wild picturing library horses, I heeded the State Department’s warning. Instead, we talked about his life’s work over dinner at the hotel.

Mealtime is a long, drawn out event at La Plaza, as it seems to be everywhere else in the country, where the pace of life is slow, and Clement had ample time to sit with me under the ceiling fan in the open air restaurant decorated with carvings of Haitian heroes, as he expressed his desire for all Haitians to have access to books.

On July 8th, 2001, he built one of his home town’s first libraries in his grandmother’s one-room shack. His family had given him this house and he was pleased to be giving it back to his community. He named his library after a beloved Haitian poet, George Castera who had returned to Haiti in 1986, after thirty years of exile under the Duvalier dictatorship when censorship was high. Many writers were purged; some managed to escape. Some, such as Marie Vieux-Chauvet, the author of the masterpiece, Love, Anger, Madness, lived in permanent exile in New York where she worked as a housekeeper. Having lived under the Duvalier dictatorship himself, but now part of a blossoming literary scene, which includes a yearly book festival, writing workshops and a PEN Center, Haiti’s low literacy rate continues to haunt Clement. Some years after establishing his library in Limbe, he conceived the idea of delivering books by horseback to people who live across inaccessible fjords and up steep mountain trails.

He is not affiliated with the government. He has the experience and skills to get a job on the national level but he wants to be sure that his libraries will function in future generations as small community libraries, independent of government affiliation.

The library at AMURT
The library at AMURT

I knew what he meant. On a previous trip, I had visited a progressive tuition-free school, a rarity in Haiti, (this one was run by the NGO, AMURT), where besides academic subjects, children were instructed in art, music, yoga and gardening. AMURT built the school to service a tent city which sprung up in response to the housing crisis following the 2010 Earthquake. In 2014, when the government started offering people incentives to leave the tent cities, the owner of the land reclaimed it. On a sad day in September 2014, just before the school year was about to begin, bulldozers demolished the school. This is but one example of the complicated situation of NGO’s in Haiti.

When, back in June 2014, I had visited the AMURT school, a group of smiling children took me by the hand. Dressed in clean, starched school uniforms, they did not look like children who lived in a tent city. They led me past neat rows of raised bed vegetables in the gardens they helped tend to a small wooden shed.

“Please come in,” their music teacher said. Walking along with us, he described how the AMURT philosophy of nonviolence had convinced him to soften his approach to disciplining children and spare slapping them with a ruler, a given in Haitian classrooms. “But first you must remove your shoes,” he told me.

This library was considered so holy a place, no one entered wearing shoes. The children kicked off their cotton slip-ons and piled them neatly at the door. I untied my Converse sneakers and did the same.

Inside was a eight-by-ten space with a dirt floor and a stand of wood shelves painted green and attached to the walls. 30 or so books lay scattered around on the shelves. The children reached for them and began to read.

Fortunately, I had taken pictures. One showed the circle of small children sitting on the floor, dressed in their bright green school uniforms, with books opened on their laps.

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Another picture I had taken at the AMURT school showed the man who was in charge of growing Moringa Oleifera, a plant with supergreen nutrients in it, on the grounds of the school. He harvested Moringa trees and dried the leaves into a powder like the drink powders you can buy at Whole Foods and scoop into a shake. The malnourished children who attended this school and lived in the nearby tent city, were now being fed Moringa greens twice a week.

It’s hard to grow vegetables in Port-au-Prince. The soil is impoverished from decades of deforestation. A recent National Geographic article surveyed Haitian farmers who relayed how the soil had been reduced to bedrock. “Tè a fatige,” the farmers said. “The earth is tired.” Yet through meticulous composting of human waste in a special process where urine and feces are separated, then covered with straw and mixed with sugar cane fiber, the earth on the school grounds became arable.

In my photo, the man in charge of the Moringa trees pulls open a mesh tray from the stack upon which the leaves are drying. He stands next to the woman who managed the compost piles. The two of them remain standing straight and tall, smiling up at the camera, lacking the prescience to foretell the future.

Sustainable living conditions such as composting and gardening do not take thousands of dollars to support. These are inexpensive processes that could improve the quality of people’s lives. Clement, too, carries out his vision on a shoestring budget. His life work resembles something out of a 19th century novel — hands on the reins, tamping down grass to deliver books.

“When I do something, I do it big,” he told me. On the days he brings out the biblio horses, he summons journalists, photographers, rolls out red carpets on the street and gathers a crowd numbering a thousand. He gets the Catholic priests involved. They ring village church bells and people come out dressed in their best clothes. “When a kid comes to my library, you would think they are coming to church,” he said.

His family had been so poor, his parents couldn’t afford to care for him, so they sent him to live with Dr. Midi, a more prosperous man who lived in Limbe. Dr. Midi was also a poet. “Poetry was all we did in that house. It was continuous. When I turned seventeen, I had three books in me.,” Clement said. Living with Dr. Midi, Clement fashioned his optimist’s view of life. “When you speak about misery, misery will come to you. You need to speak positively. Poetry was always coming to me. I didn’t choose poetry. Poetry was a surprise. Poetry came singing like a weed will flower in the sun.”

Haiti has few publishing houses, so most books get published in France. Written in French, a writer’s audience is again limited because Creole, not French, is the language of the masses, though people who have been to school (50 percent of the general population) and others are bi-lingual. Haiti had few libraries per capita before the earthquake and many in the Earthquake zone got destroyed or damaged. To highlight the difference between the glut of material conditions in the U.S. and the dearth in Haiti, a former president of the university where I teach suggested in 2005 that he preferred an all digital library with no books (where he suggested they be put, I have no idea — one cannot help but reference Fahrenheit 451).

Conversely, the American poet Susan Howe writes about the absolute significance of libraries as places where culture is assembled and where a reader might see herself as part of a national or universal consciousness: “Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by my raw material afterlife, my spirits were shaken…while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath.” Howe argues that the presence of books in libraries are a necessary link from generation to generation. Without this link, it might be difficult for a person to see his or her significance within human history. Coming across Howe’s words, my breath stopped. I understood Clement’s purpose with more clarity. In the absence of libraries, a nation would have difficulty recovering itself.

Bibliotheque George Clement in Limbe. From the BGCL Facebook page.
Bibliotheque Georges Castera, Clement’s first library, in Limbe. From the BGCL Facebook page.

Clement, a tall, broad man with a commanding presence is relentless in his need to create libraries. He recently opened a second library — this one named after the novelist Dany Leferriere who just this year became one of very few non-French citizens to be inducted into the Academie Francaise. Clement has been invited to countries in Africa and the Caribbean to share his vision. He sees his small community libraries as opportunities that will lead to better living conditions and emotional and spiritual health.

“Books are the source of life and hope for the world,” he told me over our meal of fresh caught fish and black rice infused with truffle oil. The hotel was named for the Plaza de Mars, which is located across from the collapsed Presidential Palace. Unlike the Palace, the hotel stood intact after the 2010 Earthquake, but the dead lay everywhere. The wait staff I’ve come to know have told me they’d lost loved ones — parents, fiancées, children.

Even before the earthquake, people had warned Clement against devoting his life to increasing the literacy rate in Haiti. They told him he was wasting his time and that he will never bring change.

“Here suffering is the same as breathing,” another Haitian poet, Bonel Auguste said, a few nights later, when Clement returned with him to the hotel. According to the website Haiti Partners, Haitian life expectancy is age 61 and 78 percent of the population live in poverty — the equivalence of less than two U.S. dollars a day. Even Bonel, the author of several books of poetry and the recipient of national prizes, learned to read late in his life. “I did not know how to read before I started to write my first poem. I wrote it in my head,” he said,” because it was the only way I knew how. If someone had written it down for me on paper, I would not have been able to read it.”

On that warm humid evening in the outdoor restaurant at La Plaza Hotel, we spoke at length about the inequalities that exist throughout the country: “There is a small group of people who have all the goods,” Bonel said, as I recalled seeing workers repaving earthquake damaged sidewalks in Petionville, the section of the city where Haiti’s elite live, while the rubble in downtown Port-au-Prince pocked the pavements like lunar rocks. “They afford the best schools. There are people who would be poets but they do not know how to read and write,” he said.

Our talk offset the night, which was noisy with piped-in American pop music. We avoided the quiet, more expensive, air-conditioned restaurant in favor of the open air bar, despite the humidity and the heat, (sweat seeping out through all the pores of my skin, sweat pouring onto my dinner plate) knowing we were enjoying a material perspective few Haitians have access to and did not wish to make the differences between us any more glaring by opting for the air-conditioned restaurant. Most of the people staying at the hotel—missionaries, NGO workers, journalists, a French woman waiting to adopt a child (one of only three in all of France allowed to do so) — share the same way of thinking: the air-conditioned restaurant was empty.

While several American library associations on the internet are raising money to rebuild libraries in Haiti, Clement’s libraries are grassroots. His work concerns reading, but will inspire people beyond books, in ways that books make possible.

Although I did not get the chance to ride Clement’s biblio cheval, I have an agenda now: to bring attention to Haiti’s activists. People outside of Haiti regard it as a destitute place where change will not occur. News stories like the recent NPR report on the misuse of Red Cross funds verify these beliefs (http://www.npr.org/2015/06/03/411524156/in-search-of-the-red-cross-500-million-in-haiti-relief?). But activists like Clement deserve recognition. Just look at the worldwide attention that Paul Farmer has amassed and how it has contributed to his ability to change health conditions in Haiti. Tracy Kidder’s book on Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, documents how Paul Farmer goes door to door to treat people too poor or sick or living in places too remote to travel — similar to Clement Benoit’s library horses for delivering books to people without the means to travel.

“Come with me to Limbe, next time,” Clement said.

“Yes,” I said. “Next year.” By then the UN Peacekeepers will have pulled out, I thought, and perhaps there won’t be any more riots. UN Peacekeeping troops have been stationed in Haiti since 2004.

Clement brought a cup of sweet strong Haitian coffee to his lips.

I sensed the restraint in which he sipped from it.

He finished drinking. The gentle clatter of his cup against his saucer filled the fleet caesura in the music coming from the bar, a rest, however brief, and with Bonel, he stood up to leave the hotel and return to his ongoing task. •

Illustration by Diane Pizzuto. Photos by the author unless otherwise specified.

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch, forthcoming October 28th 2016, has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
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