NEW YORK – Walking into the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue, I saw a flier announcing: “Aprann Kreyòl – Haitian Creole Conversation Hour.”
I was interested, though I speak Kreyol fluently, since it’s not every day that you find a class teaching the language – a free one at that. At the information desk, I was told it’s run by a Ms. Rhuma who sadly had already terminated the course.
The description said both the basics of speaking and reading Kreyol were taught, the latter of which is an important aspect many Haitians haven’t been taught formally.
When I finally caught up with Rhuma a couple visits later to the library, she turned out to have been one of the many Haitians who couldn’t write her native tongue. It was as she pieced together the few and far between resources to learn that she was asked by her new job at the library to teach a Kreyol class, adding to their array of free courses. It was a daunting task.
The majority of Kreyol speakers can’t write the language. While some will wholeheartedly tell you that there’s no proper written form, that is false. Kreyol writers such as Frankétienne, with the first Kreyol novel Dezafi ever published, and Felix Morisseau-Leroy, with his collection of poems Djakout, are proof.
Learning how to read and write in Kreyol requires an array of books. In my childhood, this consisted of Kreyol school books such as Ti Malice and M’ap li ak kè kontan. Later on, it evolved to Kreyol poetry and a translation of “Le Petit Prince” – all hunted down by my father through Haiti, Canada, France and stores of Haitian New York.
Rhuma, an Okay native, started her weekly class in spring 2021, shifting between in-person and Zoom, she explained. During the hour-long sessions, she progressed through the basics starting with the alphabet and pronunciation, and built up to basic words and common expressions as well as reading practice.
Barely any of the students were Haitian. Rhuma found herself with language enthusiasts eager to learn Kreyol. The online sessions saw people join from all over the U.S. and abroad – one from Taiwan, another from Italy. Some had been to or worked in Haiti. Others were just curious.
There seems to be a growing, though not uncommon, trend of non-Haitians interested in the language and the culture. Ironically, several of the nation’s largest collegiate Haitian studies programs are in places with much fewer Haitians than in the U.S. enclaves. Places like Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Kansas to name a couple.
Not being a linguist or trained teacher, Rhuma at times found herself intimidated by questions she had no answer to, but kept going, learning together with the students.
Rhuma said the feedback was good and most participants attended regularly, happy with their progress and the course setup.
She restarted in early 2022 and by June was having students read a Kreyol rendition of the famous Haitian novel Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain. However, the average turnout dropped from an initial 15 to 8 people, and Rhuma decided to discontinue the class.
The class ended in December 2021, a decision she said she regretted. Looking back, Rhuma realized she had enjoyed teaching her language, and felt heartened to know there’s an audience for Kreyol.
This year, her advertising efforts paid off. On April 14, Rhuma restarted the Kreyol class, which is expected to continue into late June. It is open to walk-ins.
This article is part of our occasional “This Diaspora Life” series, which shares stories – both reported and personal essays – that illuminate day-to-day assimilation for Haitians across generations and geographies. To share yours, email it firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.