Wednesday, May 12, 2010


These past couple of weeks have been really busy for me. My students, Raynold and Nathan have been right by my side almost every day wondering what they get to learn next. I'm so thankful to have students like them but it's been an exhausting schedule to try and keep. I guess that's the life of a teacher.

Today was my last day at the office in Pignon, I fly back to the States on Friday. We spent the morning learning about pumps and the afternoon in the laboratory. I've had a terrible head cold these past couple of days too which means I'm off to bed and will have to cut this post short. Here's a few photos of Raynold and I in the laboratory and my little buddy Lawrence.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A journey for water

This weekend I was in Port au Prince to do a bit of shopping. But Saturday turned out to be Labor Day in Haiti and all the stores were closed. So I took the opportunity to go exploring in the mountains above Port au Prince. I stopped at the Baptist Mission for my usual banana split, mmm, sooo goood. The veranda of the cafe looks across this spectacular deep gorge in the mountains. I've always wondered how people get over there, so I asked the security guard. He said to head up the mountain a bit more to Kenscoff and then hang a right. Within a few minutes I was hanging a right at Kenscoff and off on another rocky trail in Haiti. Every time I start off on one of these I say a little prayer that my motorbike won't fall apart on the way.
After about 30 minutes down this trail I stopped to enjoy the view.

I noticed a girl with an empty bucket about to descend the valley in search of water. I asked how far it was to the water source and she replied, "not far". So I left my motorbike and started hiking with her, down, down and down further. We finally arrived at the spring. It was only a trickle of water out of the mountain. The girl used a plate to scoop a bit of water, pour it into a bowl and then into her bucket. It took about 5 minutes to fill a 5-gallon bucket.

The ladies at the spring were having all kinds of fun with me. They kept trying to talk me out of my watch, my backpack and my money. I managed to keep them at bay for the most part. But here's Beatrice with my helmet on.

Then, after 30 minutes of filling buckets, our group was ready to start the journey home.

The trail goes up.

And up
What a journey...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

He likes me!

This past Saturday Ronald and I headed out to the mountains to take a look at an irrigation project the local farmers would like to get going. We drove motorbikes about 4 miles up a rocky trail before walking another mile down to a small river. I wasn’t sure quite what we were getting into when I set out the day. But anytime the initiative for a project comes from a Haitian I feel like we’re half way to hitting a home run. It turns out this particular home run would have to clear the big green monster at Fenway Park to be successful.

The river has plenty of water, the fields down the way are dry and parched and the local economy could really use the project. But building an irrigation canal the 6 miles through the Haitian countryside I was now looking at would be a serious engineering victory if it ever happened. We started by measuring the flow of the river. Then I sent the boys surveying down the valley to get a feel for the lay of the land.

I fell back and started snapping photos. I went climbing up a bluff to get a better view when I saw these 3 naked little boys leave the river and follow me. The bluff was at least 200 feet above the river, accessed by a steep, slippery trail. The smallest boy could barely make it up the trail, lets call him Johnny. He looked to be about 3 years old but was probably 5 or 6 with malnutrition figured in. He finally made it up to the top of the bluff where I’d snapped a photo of his friends.

When I started back down the trail to the river, little Johnny followed too.

I was going a bit quicker than Johnny and he soon started to cry, and loud. I asked, why is he going back down, doesn’t he live up here? They said he only climbed the bluff to meet you. And he was now crying because I was going to fast for him. I was shocked. Usually the 3 year olds start crying and run away when they see a white guy. So I ran back up the trail and picked up little Johnny, who by the way is wearing nothing but a little necklace with a cross on it. The other kids erupted in laughter.

I took my little buddy to the bottom of the hill and put him on solid ground with not a peep from the little guy. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to solve the big engineering problems facing the irrigation project. But I feel like I won today in the eyes of little Johnny.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Today was so crazy I’ve just got to get it off my chest, so here goes. It actually started last night, I had worked until midnight to put together a proposal for a new project. A priest near Hinche contacted us and said he has funding to drill some wells. But he wants them to have our community management model to go along with the new wells. I have been writing proposals for larger donors these past few weeks and trying to teach our local staff how to do it as well. Well this was a good opportunity to do it with a small project. I got the proposal about 80 percent done last night.

This morning I walked into the kitchen and the cook reminded me that I promised to show her how I make French toast. So I spent the next 45 minutes making French toast, which was a hit. I made 15 slices, the 5 guests at the house ate 7 of them. But when I asked for 2 more for my friend Henry they said they were all gone. Apparently when you pay someone to cook for you in Haiti you also feed them, their family and the neighbors.

Then I walked to the office and started putting the finishing touches on the proposal. A guy came to me and asked for the results of some water testing that I had done for him. I went to the lab and was explaining to him the results when another guy showed up, lets call him Ronald. I’ve been advertising for a student engineer to work with me the last 2 months without any luck. So here was Ronald willing and able to do the job. I told him to come back at 1 PM for a test and interview. Then back to the proposal.

Results of bacteria testing of a water sample. Yellow means negative, black means positive.

About 10 minutes later another guy, Abdias came to me and said some white guy is working on our water project in Pignon. I called the guy, his name is Jim and asked what is up. He said he doesn’t want to follow the plan we had worked out with the community and has just decided to do it his way. Our staff was in a panic, Jim was undermining all the hard work they had done for the past year. So they drafted a letter and hand delivered it to the mayor. Then back to the proposal.

A few minutes later Arronce beckons. The office is so full of people he’s taken a desk and set himself up in the garage area. Arronce is the guy I went to Leogane with a week ago to teach how to disinfect wells. He had the lab results with him for tests taken after the wells were disinfected. We used a lab that a German NGO had been operating as part of disaster relief. And it was great news! All 5 wells we disinfected had bacteria too numerous to count before our work and were completely clean a week after we disinfected them. I was so happy that it actually worked, I was on cloud nine for about 10 minutes.

The guy I was writing the proposal for, Roger then plants himself and his laptop down right next to me. Roger is the head of our community development team. He’s a great guy and really smart. But he takes awhile to understand new concepts. I spent the next 2 hours explaining for the 5th time how to estimate the cost of his employees time for a proposal. I think he’s finally getting it.

Then about noon this other guy, Samuel who just got married on Saturday comes to me and says he would like to take my motorcycle into town to get some medicine. PS he used to come to work in jeans and a t-shirt but today he’s wearing all black polyester and a gold chain necklace, he looks like a pimp. Apparently he’s still on his honeymoon. Back to the events of the day, I don’t just lend my motorbike out to anyone so I said I would give him a ride. It turns out his new wife wants him to come home for lunch every day instead of eating at the restaurant right in front of our office. (The restaurant is cheaper than the taxi would cost to go home for lunch). But I sympathized for this newlywed and agreed to take him home anyway. I dropped Samuel off and went over to talk to Jim working on the water system.

Jim was friendly enough. I’ve been trying to win him over with kindness. I’m always an optimist and I hope we can work this out and just work together. We all want water in town, we just have to communicate or we’ll be defeating each others work. After I saw Jim, this guy Ati saw me on the street and asked if he could borrow my shovel. I said I’d bring it into town after work. Then I went and got Samuel and we went back to the office. Ten minutes on the proposal and it was 1 PM, Ronald was here for his interview. I took him over to the guest house and found him a quiet spot to take his test. I talked to him about the job and gave him a bit of direction what I was looking for on the test. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then back to the proposal.

Oh yeah, the proposal needs to be done by the end of the day so Roger can meet with the client tomorrow. (Roger just told me about the project and requested the proposal last Friday afternoon.) So I sat down with our financial secretary and hashed out a new form that Roger can use to give clients to estimate the cost of his community development staff. The form required a phone call to the priest in Hinche, which I had to get Henry to do because I didn’t have the patience at the time to bother with my Kreyol over the phone with someone I’d never met.
Every half hour or so I headed over to check on Ronald. He seemed to be doing great. I gave him 90 minutes and he finished the test. I’ve given the test to 4 other people and nobody has finished it yet, so things are looking up. I organized three of our top Haitian staff to conduct the interview for me. We all sat down and 20 minutes later poor Ronald was about shaking in his boots. Our guys are pretty into the water business and were talking over his head quite a bit. I had to keep saying, don’t worry man, we’ll teach you what you need to know. But this guy was sharp.

Ronald got the best score on the test of anybody who has taken it and he has the least education. He’s fresh out of high school and the other guys all had engineering degrees from universities in Port au Prince. Ronald also speaks the best English of any Haitian I’ve met.

Back to the mad scramble to finish the proposal. We got enough put together for Roger to talk intelligently about. But we’ll have to do more work before we submit a final copy. Finally it was 5 pm and most everybody headed off for home. I cleaned up after some tests in the water lab and called it a day. But not before strapping my shovel to my motorbike and running it into town for Ati to use. He’s digging a hole for a latrine. I told him he can use it for a week and then I’ll be back for it. If you don’t give a Haitian a timeline like this you might not ever see your shovel again.

I’ve been working like this most of the past 2 months. The demands on my time have been increasing as the staff get to know me better. Some days the victories outweigh the defeats and others it’s the other way around.

Henry said he’s going to Cap Haitien tomorrow to pick up the mail. I’ve been promised the gaskets I need to fix the pumps on the Pignon Water system are on that shipment. I ordered them on March 2 and I’m still waiting. Every time I go to work on the water system it seems everybody thinks I’m the guy to get the water going. I sure hope those gaskets finally arrive and that they’re the answer. I’ll be waiting on the tarmac tomorrow for that plane.

I’ve got a million things I could work on tomorrow instead of going on a trip with Henry. But I need a break and there’s a rumor they have ice cream in Cap. I’ll let you know…

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Future for Haiti

Look at this picture.

What comes to your mind. Do you think, 1) what a cute smile, and go on about your day, 2) This boy looks sick, let’s put together a care package and send it to Haiti, or 3) how can I bring about change to prevent this from happening to the next generation?

All 3 reactions are ok in my book. I think the first reaction happens in people who can’t relate well enough to a picture. But if they met this boy in person I think they would join one of the next two groups. The second group has the needs of this boy in mind. He’s sick and they want to make him well. And that’s ok too because this boy deserves to live a long and healthy life.

The third reaction I can tell you is a long and difficult road. Many people can’t imagine where to start so they take to the second group. Others start out on this path and eventually encounter enough obstacles that they return to the second path. But a few, despite the obstacles, persevere on the third path. They are the dreamers, the optimists. They see a day when Haiti will stand on its own, even when the Haitian people don’t see it.

Haiti is flooded with aid in all forms. There are churches, hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages, youth homes and feeding and reforestation programs. There’s the World Bank building roads all over Haiti right now. And it’s almost all a donation. Every one of these programs seems to have their own ideas on how to “fix” Haiti. Most are in it to meet immediate needs. But a few are trying to give the Haitian people a chance to change their future.

To date I’ve had a pretty skeptical opinion of orphanages in Haiti. To me they seem pointless other than as a ploy to get money from the States. It’s an integral part of Haitian culture to send children from families that don’t have enough to provide to those who do. And it’s worked for generations. Until white guys showed up and decided they could do it better. But the other day I decided to go and see for myself exactly what they do.

I went to the most reputalbe orphanage around, the Cambels, on the other side of Pignon. They started 7 years ago with only a handful of kids and are now housing 47 children. Most of the children they take on would have died from malnutrition were it not for their intervention. They run a feeding program for area families and are going to start a temporary housing program to teach mothers to care for their malnourished children.

One of my friends here in Haiti is very pro-orphanage and was excited to hear what I had to say after my visit. I said I was very impressed. If I were to run an orphanage, that’s how I’d do it. But where does it end? How did those children get so malnourished and what can we do to prevent it? For every child that showed up at the orphanage and was saved perhaps there is another who didn’t make it. What about those that didn’t make it, who’s working for them?

Here’s what we know. The leading cause of death in Haiti is intestinal disease caused by drinking dirty water or poor sanitation. Worms or germs from feces make into people by eating with dirty hands, flies landing on feces and then on uncovered food, or drinking contaminated water. The solution is to educate people to wash their hands, use a toilet, cook food well, cover food and protect or treat drinking water.

Sadly, here's what intestinal disease looks like.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” But how many really believe this and have the foresight to follow through. I’m not saying to ignore the immediate needs of the child who is malnourished. We need people to meet those needs. But we need an army of people to look beyond the immediate needs and work toward a Haiti that can stand on its own.

To do this involves not only education but changing behaviors. This is not an easy task and not something that happens overnight. I use the analogy of smoking in the United States. Look at the PR campaign and the amount of time that it has taken to change this one behavior in a country that has an educated government with the needs of the people in mind (usually). The government in Haiti has very few resources and is full of corruption. The road here is only that much longer and steeper.

The logo for Haiti Outreach states, “Working Together, Building Communities”. That’s what we do here every day. And it makes my head ache. I’m exhausted and despite a heart overflowing with pride at the few small victories I’ve had I’ll be happy to be back on American soil in one more month.
Those of us who have a special place in our hearts for Haiti are hoping that the earthquake will be an opportunity for a new beginning. I hope it changes the course for Haiti. I hope that the government decides to put the needs of the people before their own selfish needs. I hope those of us working in Haiti, before embarking on a project ask ourselves the question, “How does this end, how do we as aid workers work ourselves out of a job”. And most of all I hope the Haitian people never forget the earthquake. I hope they start thinking about their future, shoot for the stars and perhaps get the moon.

Monday, April 12, 2010


On Thursday noon Naton and I set off on our motorbikes for a journey I’ll not soon forget. It’s a 4 hour tumble down the busted dirty roads from Pignon to Port au Prince. Naton was on one motorbike and I on another. We stopped for repairs in Hench and photos at the lake in Peligree.

We spent Thursday night at the Nazarene compound in Port au Prince before heading out to Leogane Friday morning. Our mission: meet up with Arronce and disinfect 5 wells that have been confirmed contaminated with bacteria. It’s another 2 hours of bumpy driving through mud puddles from PAP to Leogane. We finally arrived, met up with Arronce and were off to our first well.

In addition to disinfecting wells, my mission was to teach the guys to look out for contamination sources and educate the community to eliminate them. Also, to increase everyone’s understanding I had Naton collect a water sample before disinfection and run a bacteria test on it. Here’s Naton in one of his makeshift field laboratories.
And here's Naton explaining bacteria to the ladies... he's got definite engineer potential.
The first well had such a strong undercurrent that any chlorine we put in it was whisked away before we could pump it to the surface. We had to leave telling the community that they will need to treat their water for drinking in their homes with chlorine tablets, available locally here.

The second well was damaged by the earthquake. The well casing had cracked and the well was pumping sand. There was also a latrine just upstream of the well that was the likely source of contamination.

Two more wells on this day and two on Saturday were full of teachable opportunities for me and the guys. But it was the night between that was a learning experience for me. Leogane was the epicenter of the earthquake. I’d estimate that nearly 90 percent of buildings either collapsed or had serious structural damage.

The people are all living in makeshift shacks like these:
And this was my shack for the night, the one in the middle:

We dined on goat head stew, took a bucket shower in the crumbling ruins of a nearby house and laid our heads on the dirtiest, stinkiest mattresses I’ve ever slept on. I wasn’t planning on spending the night so I didn’t bring my own sheet. I had to wrap up with the fitted sheet on the bed, more for fear of mosquitoes than anything else. Leogane has some of the nastiest mosquito borne diseases on earth. Flariasis and all the worst forms of malaria claim many lives in this area each year.

Everyone has been wondering what the people will do when the rainy season starts. Their shacks are not at all built to keep out the elements. Well, on Friday night I learned just how porous one of these shacks can be. The rain started as a light sprinkle on the tin roof. Then soon it was a downpour both outside and inside our shack. Not only did the rain pour through the cracks in the walls but it also rained down through nail holes in the recycled tin roof.

All told I probably managed 3 or 4 hours of sleep. The rain finally quit after midnight, but not before playing a Chinese torture on my body. The roof dripped from so many places I gave up trying to avoid them. I just fell asleep with the drips going pitter-patter on my red hat. I woke up at 3 AM and wanted it to be over, then again at 4 but no luck. Then finally little rays of sunshine shone through all those little holes in the roof and cracks in the walls. I went for a walk.

Saturday afternoon I zipped back to PAP for a quick cheeseburger and fries before heading up the mountain to visit my host family from my time in the Peace Corps. Near the top of the mountain I stopped at the Baptist Haiti Mission to chat with the missionaries there and indulge in one of their glorious banana splits at the café.

Then I was off for another 45 minutes of rambling down another really busted rocky road to Greffin. It was funny how different the road seemed from the perspective of a motorbike. During my time in the Peace Corps I’d walked this road so many times I had all the potholes memorized. I also knew many of the people who lived along the way. I stopped to chat with a few of them and was surprised that they all remembered me!

As I neared Greffin I parked my motorbike to walk the last half-mile or so along footpaths to my host family’s house. I picked up a small army of children, the real escort of kings. Surprisingly I remembered which way to go at every fork in the trail. Then, as I neared the house, all the kids just sort of melted away into the forest. It was just me walking. I passed the neighbor’s house where a group of people was sitting around a circle. I glanced over at them and thought I recognized a familiar face getting her hair done. Yes, it was my host mom! I looked at her and called her name. She was shocked that I knew her name. Then it occurred to her who I was. She cried out oooohhh my!

We did the traditional two kisses on the cheeks and then I saw her. To my left, and a little taller now… Youl! I called out. All the old ladies gasped that I remembered this little girl’s name. Tears came to my eyes when I saw her precious smile again. Youl was about 3 years old when I lived here. And every time she saw me she would come running and hug my legs or jump into my arms.

I never had a picture of Youl all these years but never forgot her smile. I always wondered if she was still alive. Children don’t always make it here in Haiti. And now there she was right in front of me. She’s a shy 9 year old girl now and didn’t come running as she used to but I saw the kindness in her eyes as greeting enough for me.

We sat on the porch and talked of the events of the past years. Many of the nearby houses collapsed in the earthquake and some people were killed. There was also a landslide at the water source down the mountain that killed 20 people and buried the water source. Now the people have to walk another kilometer down the mountain to another spring. They showed me the cracks in their own house. They are living in a makeshift shack in the front yard.

Then just before dark we snapped a few photos and I was off, my mind a tangle of thoughts from the encounter. What would happen to Youl, how would my family rebuild, when would I ever return? Only the Lord knows. Although I’ll do my best to help, they are ultimately in his hands. What a wonderful, wonderful day this has been.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Daily Life in Haiti

I often write about big projects or events that happen here in Haiti. But this post will focus on the little things that make up a day in my life in Haiti.

I’ll begin with where I lay my head most nights, the Haiti Outreach guest house. It’s got 24/7 power and hot water, compliments of the sun. AnnMarie serves up 3 meals a day and there’s rarely a complaint. She’s quite a cook. But I did have to give her a little lesson on baking chocolate chip cookies the other day.

AnnMarie usually makes the traditional Haitian spaghetti for breakfast. This is the one meal I usually pass on, I have a bowl of cereal with powdered milk. But at $5 a box I only splurge every other day.

I’m usually in the office by 6:30 most mornings to prepare for the day ahead. The guys arrive around 8 AM and then we’re off. Some days we head in to the Pignon water system to pour concrete, adjust the pumps or try to clear a blocked line. Other days I’m off to teach the guys how to disinfect a well or how to survey. Here’s a shot of some of my students learning to survey with an abney level.
And a few pictures taken along the survey trail…

Imagine for a moment that this was your house and children...

I’ve finally recruited a student that I’m working with nearly every day, Naton. Here he is learning to enter survey data into Microsoft Excel.
Naton didn’t complete high school but he’s the smartest guy around and learns quickly. Still I have to explain basic math to him. We covered the sine, cosine and tangent functions in about an hour today. I’ve taught him to keep a notebook to record all that we discuss. It’s far from a perfect system but we’re making progress and I'm happy with that.

My water lab is coming together nicely. I built a table and shelves shortly after arriving in Haiti. Since then I’ve received testing equipment to check for about 25 different contaminants. Our most common test is for bacteria contamination. Naton is my guy for running the lab and has mastered the bacteria test. I’ve also taught our well repair technician, Arronce to disinfect wells and check for chlorine residual.

My leatherman broke a few weeks ago and I asked my dad to send me a new one. And today it came in the mail, wohoo! We get all our stuff via airmail down here :) (my house, office and the airstrip are all within a stone’s throw of each other).
I haven’t been running at all here and there aren’t any golf courses in sight so my days are mostly work from dawn to after dark. But I did make time for a haircut the other day. The barber ran a clipper down the middle of my scalp before I had a chance to tell him how I wanted it cut. Let's just say I won't need a haircut for awhile.

The sun shines from 6 to 6 just about every day here. Most nights I’m in my room by 8 pm for an hour or so of reading and then it’s lights out. So far I’ve read “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck which I highly recommend and “Cold” By John Smolens, not so good. My book selection is limited to what others have left on the shelf in the office. I dug through the stack today and found a few Mark Twain books. Should be good reading the next few weeks. Goodnight all.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Filthy, soaked and exhausted I arrived back at the shop to find my license plate missing from my motorbike. Immediately I suspected theft but I hoped it only fell off bouncing over these busted roads. It took a week to get the plate in Port au Prince so I retraced my path back through town in case it only fell off. But it was nowhere to be found.

On the way I was stopped by Johnny, a new mechanic at Haiti Outreach and asked to give him a ride home. So we bounced our way to the far side of town to his house, four mud walls and a tin roof. He insisted I stay for dinner. At the offer flashes of nights spent sitting on the toilet or vomiting passed through my mind. I decided to accept the offer despite the risks.

Under candlelight we shared a meal, me choking down as much as I could of the charred rice tasting much like it was burnt then scraped off the bottom of the pot. His family was amazing and superbly polite. Then as we neared the end of our meal perhaps the purpose for his hospitality surfaced. Johnny said his father-in-law was a pastor. I said there are a lot of churches in Pignon, he agreed, many, many. He said churches are a business and pastors the businessmen who run them. Then he asked if I would connect his father-in-law’s church with one in the States that would support them.

I explained that I believed in Christ and that the first priority of churches should be rooted in faith. I said money given to the church should largely be used to support the poor and not to build new houses and buy vehicles for pastors. I further said that my father taught me that money is the fruit of labor and should be worked for and not begged for. I tried to be respectful in my rejection of his request all the while aware of the crushing damage charity has done to Haitian mentality.

Pignon is a “ruined” community. It is on the receiving end of buckets of cash charity pouring in from the Sates every week. Whatever the intent of the money was I believe a bulk of it goes to support the lifestyles of an upper class wholly supported by charity.

Most of the residents of Pignon are hard-working lower class citizens. They don’t see hardly any of this charity. But their children watch it pour into the castles of the pastors and hospital staff. They learn that wealth is achieved through begging from white people.

The children in rural villages of Haiti are usually very polite, hard-working and fun to play with. But the children of Pignon, the ruined ones at least, are of the nastiest, most disrespectable variety I’ve ever encountered.

Today they tried to scam me, I called their bluff and they made me pay for it like a swarm of killer bees. Today we poured concrete in the base of a water tank, to replace a floor that had eroded away. Yesterday I had Haitian staff of Haiti Outreach with me to negotiate with people to help us buy and haul sand and gravel. But today was Saturday and it was just me and my three local plumbers.

As I drove up with a small pile of gravel and 4 sacks of cement in my truck I was met by 4 teenagers who offered to haul it down the hill for me. I said how much? They said 700 gourdes ($US 22). I said no way man, you hauled twice that much gravel for us yesterday for only 300 gourdes.

Then I proceeded to haul it down myself. It was a wet, rocky and muddy slope down to our worksite. I recruited Edris and another Haitian to help me. The guy I recruited hauls 5-gallon buckets of water up the hill all day for less than 2 gourdes a bucket. I offered him 100 gourdes to haul 8 buckets, more money that he would make in a whole day of work and still a fraction of what the other guys wanted. But when he arrived at the water tank with his first bucket of sand and told the other guys of his deal there was an uproar. The group of teenagers are of the “ruined” variety. They don’t see money as a reward for work but rather as something to be swindled from dumb white guys.

The three of us hauled the sand and I hauled the 95 pound sacks of cement myself. Then the group of 4 “ruined” guys proceeded to make the rest of my day a living nightmare. They assembled 20 of their buddies and stood right on top of our work all day pretending to help but all the while heckling me and making a big mess.

I’m generally a tough person to make mad but today they drove me to my breaking point. After 7 hours of exhausting labor, no lunch and incessant heckling I had a meltdown. Luckily it was only in front of Temelon and one leach of a kid when we were driving in the pickup to get a trowel. I told Temelon that I’ve had it with the disrespectful attitudes of his fellow residents. I told him I’m done working with Pignon. I’ll go to other communities that are willing to work for their water instead of belittling me with constant cries of “I’ll help you if you pay me, give me a gift, give me your gloves, give me your backpack, give me, give me!” I took Temelon back to the work site, made sure they knew what to do to finish the job that was nearly complete and retreated to my house. I spent the next hour eating and holding my head between my hands. I felt terrible that I’d lost my cool, exactly what the jerks wanted.

There have been so many good, hard-working citizens who have given me so much encouragement in the past weeks that it’s hard to turn my back just because of a few jerks. I wonder what Temelon is thinking tonight, my good friend. It’s hard to know exactly how I’ll resolve my feelings for the community of Pignon, a community ruined, not initially by Haitians, but by Americans who think they’re helping.

I think I know how I’ll resolve to continue, I’ll see one more incident of an old woman carrying water with all her might or a child malnurished and full of worms that he got from a contaminated glass of water. I’ll walk by the polluted, nasty, trash filled river where everyone goes to bathe every day and it will remind me why I came here. I’ll have to drive the memory of the hecklers to the back of my mind and put the needs of those hard-working Haitians front and center.

Thanks everyone for your prayers. Please pray that next time I’ll keep my cool and smile in the face of the hecklers knowing that I’m not working just for them but for a much more deserving kind of people.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ale Ale Un Ale!

(Go Go Get up and Go!)
The Pignon water system has been a constant battle for me since my arrival. At first it was a pair of hydraulic ram pumps that needed fixing and adjusting. A few weeks ago we got the pumps purring right along pumping record flows, until they plum ran out of water to pump. Apparently the increased flow stirred up all manner of objects setting in the pipe and brought them all down until they completely plugged the pipe.

Now I thought for awhile how I might clear a jam in an 8 inch pipe 2000 feet long. My first solution was to pig the line. That is send an object just smaller than the inside of the pipe along with water flowing behind it as the driving force. We had a wood plug made by a local craftsman, tied a rope to it and tried to launch it with a stick. It didn’t work because there wasn’t enough flow in the pipe.

Plan B: Hook an air compressor up to the pipe and “blow” the log jam up. So at the appointed hour we parked our new well drilling rig with its built-in air compressor within 600 feet of the pipe, ran a hose down the hill and prepared for a show. I crawled on top of the water tank on the downstream end of the pipe and dropped a ladder in to make the connection. But as we drained the tank and I crawled into the 3 ft wide by 4 ft long opening I could see a layer of trash and muck at the bottom of the tank.

The tank stands about 16 ft tall so by the time I crawled to the bottom I was in a pretty tight space with a tiny skylight above. I hesitated before I dropped my sandaled feet into the knee-deep muck. There could have been any number of fish, crabs or leaches but I figured it had to be done.

I began scooping up crud into a 5-gallon bucket and hoisting it up by rope to a boy standing on top to empty it over the outside edge. I dug and dug and dug, eight to 10 buckets in all of empty cans, bottles, gallon jugs, tree branches, rocks and sand. But I left the obvious obstruction in the pipe that filled the tank until the very end – for what I was afraid could turn into a mad dash for my life.

With empty bucket in hand I began pulling old tarp straps, plastic bottles and finally a large chunk of rubber out of the hole. And as the last of the trash came out so came the water. I threw the trash in the bucket and hollered for my helper to hoist it up. Ale Ale Un Ale! The water rose to my knees then to my waist in only a second. I jumped for the ladder and scrambled up right past the bucket. Within seconds the tank was full and overflowing. Everyone gave out a cheer when they saw all the water. And within only a few minutes there was a crowd gathered and bathing in the overflow.
The scene of the water tank. Notice the pile of trash in the foreground, all from the bottom of the tank.

I’ve got two local plumbers, Temelon and Edris whom I work with each time I go down to the water system. They’ve been pretty reluctant to follow my lead to date. There hasn’t been any water in the system for months and so there hasn’t been revenue to pay them. But since I crawled out of that tank all full of mud and smelling like a sewer rat, Temelon shook my hand and Edris gave me knuckles. These two guys have been working with a renewed spirit.

They repaired a door on one of the tanks where the trash had been getting into the system. Actually people have been bathing right in the water tank. Then a few thousand feet down the line people are filling water jugs to drink!

Now we’ve got a new door and a lock on that tank and Temelon started scrubbing and disinfecting the tanks as he gets them secured. A system full of water and functioning is still a long way off. But progress is being made and its progress I think we can all be proud of.Temelon and Edris..

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ninety bucks and a motorboat ... unforgettable

The day began at the Nazarene seminary compound in Port au Prince. Roger and I would be tour guides for April and Mustafa of the organization We've got a proposal in to them to fund some work we've been doing to repair wells damaged in the earthquake. We drove out to Leogane where Roger and I had scouted the previous Friday. Back to Philip’s house where a fight broke out at the well. A young guy took a girl’s bucket away from the well before it was full. She pushed him and he punched her square on the chin. It was a rude beginning to our tour with the folks.

Phillip is our local contact for the area. He introduces us to the people of influence and shows us where the wells are. Our HO technician has trained him to repair wells, a worthy skill for this 3rd year college student studying civil engineering.

The fight well had been damaged in the earthquake and repaired by a Haiti Outreach (HO) technician. We visited another well repaired by HO before heading up into the foothills, away from the chaos of the city. I’d requested a well that had not yet been repaired where we might see a situation with work potential in it.

Driving on a little rutted dirt road Phillip mentioned to a few people working on the road that we were going to visit the well. Within a few minutes of our arrival at a dry and inoperable well there was a crowd of 40-50 people. We learned that the owner of the well had become fed up with the local people not taking care of it, took the pump and threw rocks in the well so nobody could get water. It now sat as a 3 inch PVC pipe open to the sky with a busted concrete pad around it.

Nearby the well was a pile of rubble where a house once stood, destroyed by the earthquake. A hundred yards or so further was a tent city where a few hundred people now lived.

Roger, the HO lead community organizer, sang his song of how they could organize the community to prevent the social problems that caused the collapse of this well. He used little stories to get his point across. One went like this: here we started with a bag of rice. Every day you came to get a cup of rice. Then one day the bag was empty. The empty bag of rice looks much like that dry well over there. We’re going to show you how to replenish the rice as it’s used before we fix your well.

Roger would ask them: can you form a water committee to manage the well? They answered yes. He said, can you elect the committee so everyone trusts them with a bit of money given by each house every month? They said yes.

Roger said, everybody always says yes when he asks those questions. But now he stands on a soccer field ready to play ball. Will you, the community step up and play with him?

I looked into the faces of the crowd assembled before us and tears welled up in my eyes. These were hard, hard working people. They don’t need another obstacle in their lives. But yet here I stand backing a system that asks them to work just that much harder to eke out an existence on this busted island. It was hard to stand my ground and smile at them but I knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes to show love, you have to do what hurts. This was one of these moments.

After the 3 well visits we headed back into Leogane to meet with the Mayor. The meeting started in French so Mustafa could understand but apparently it became too much of a struggle for the Haitians to explain themselves because all eventually began speaking Kreyol. I gathered most of what was being said and translated for April and Mustafa.

I was impressed with the no-nonsense attitude of the mayor’s staff. They seemed, at least in words, ready and capable of serving a people who desperately need their leadership.

After the meeting we met up with a few German guys who had been told to contact Roger by the Haitian government about the work they were doing. We called them, met at a gas station and followed them back to their compound, a collection of tents set up in a school yard.

Turns out they had a very sophisticated water testing laboratory set up and were testing all the wells in the area. They were using the GPS coordinates HO had collected to find each well. Their results were showing that about half of the wells were contaminated. I thanked them profusely for their work. It will be a great learning opportunity for me to teach the HO staff about water quality and contamination sources. Leaving the meeting, Roger was so excited he was on the phone with his technician to begin making plans to treat the wells.

By now it’s almost 3 PM and time for me to get a move on. Jean Wodle was supposed to get my motorbike insured, licensed and drive it out to me so I could take it to La Gonave for the rest of the week. But his two days already standing in lines was only enough to get the insurance paperwork done. So Neil arranged for a motorboat to take me to the island. Only I had to leave now and fast to make it before dark. Roger started driving, but at 30 mph and trying to eat his dinner while driving was enough for me to insist I should drive. I got the needle up to 50 mph and it felt as if we could go careening off the road at any moment. 90 minutes later we arrived at the port in Miraguane.
My little motorboat on the left...

Here’s where I paid the 3,600 gourdes, $US 90, to Fritzner, the boat taxi driver. At 5 PM we left the port for a supposed 30 minute journey. For some reason I had a great calmness about me. I wasn’t worried in the least, although perhaps I should have been when Fritzner asked if I was afraid of dying. I said no problem, but that was before the boat launched off one of the first great waves of the open ocean and came crashing down with such force that it made my ears ring.

Soon it was dark, we were both soaked and Fritz would occasionally stand up to see over the bow to take a bearing on who knows what. All we could ever see was a dim profile of land way off in the distance. At one point we came upon a big ship crossing our path. I though Fritz might ask for directions but he steered clear of them.

We eventually caught sight of a single light flickering amongst the island profile and Fritz looked at me with the first smile I’d seen on his face. He said “Afum” which means “we’re all good man.”

I was greeted at a small dock by one Haitian who took me up some stairs, through a house and out onto a dirt road. We walked in the pitch black darkness until we met another guy who the first guy handed me off to. One more handoff and my guides brought me to one of the only houses in town with lights, powered by a generator. And that’s when I found all my big white guy buddies. I’d brought mangos for them and they offered crackers and canned salmon in trade. Neil, Stuart, and Jim were all there with two Clemson University Engineers.

Neil, Jim and Stuart would sit in on a community meeting the next morning before heading back to the mainland. The Clemson engineering students and I would conduct a survey for a water system to serve the community of Pwent a Roquette over the next 2 days.

Today was a day for the record books. It was full of adventure, purpose and emotion. I felt like I was cradled in the palm of God’s hand all day. Love comes in many forms and today I experienced a good many.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Midnight madness

On a 200cc motocross dirtbike I stopped to give my camera and phone to the pickup following me. The river was coming up and I wanted to hit it on the fly. It was well after dark without a soul on the road. The dirt road full of ruts and potholes had been trying to rattle my jaw loose for the past 4 hours. My headlight scarcely lit the road more than 50 feet when the river was suddenly right there in front of me. I gave that motorbike all the gas it had for those last few feet but it wasn't enough. The deep water killed the engine and I jumped off into waist deep water to push it to dry land.

I was returning from Port au Prince to Pignon with a new motorbike I'll be using to get around during the next 3 months. The pickup that took me to PAP was following me, keeping me safe during the dangerous nighttime hours. The only vehicle I passed that night had the pedal to the floor and wasn't stopping for anything. The final river crossing that drenched me head to toe was luckily only a few miles from home. I was still on a high from the ride when I arrived at home to record the journey. On a high from the day's adventure but with a constant reminder that I'm still in Haiti. My stomach rumbles every time I smell food. After my second night waking up and vomiting, and living with a terible headache I've stopped eating anything but crackers and Sprite. I call this Haiti Happy.

Saturday night is when my stomach started rumbling. Sunday I hopped in the truck to head into Port au Prince. We were there most of the day, I was up and down to Petionville to get the motorbike and a few other supplies. The sight of all the collapsed houses was shocking beyond what I've read and seen on TV. There's just something about seeing building after building colapsed in front of you and thinking about the lives that were either lost or dramatically altered.

My guide was a 25 year old guy who runs errands for Haiti Outreach in PAP. He said his house colapsed and asked if I had a tent. I said no but had he tried getting one from an aid agency? He said they only give them to women with children. Many of the men steel and resell the aid supplies so the whole segment of the male population has been excluded from recieving any aid beyond a meal here and there.

I asked what his future plan for a house was. Could he demolish and start rebuilding his house? He said he only rents his house and his landlord is busy rebuilding their own home. He just wanted a tent he could set up in a small space in front of the damaged house. I told him I'd do what I could for him. But it's sad to know that there are many more like him. Good guys still working hard but not given aid because of a few bad apples.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An African slide show and one big pipe dream

Most of the past week I've been plugging away on my computer writing a proposal to fund some work we have already started around the earthquake epicenter. I finally got the latest version off to our office in Minnesota last night around midnight. So this afternoon I had a Skype call with Dale in Minnesota to discuss some questions he had. The office is a little noisy to make the call so I ran the chord to my computer out the window and set myself up on a chair on the front veranda of the office. It wasn't long before I had a few curious kids watching me tinker on my computer while I waited for Dale to call.

As the Haitian people are largely descendants of Africa I thought it would be fun to show the kids photos from my trip to Africa this last Christmas break. I had pictures of giraffes, elephants, hyenas, lions, hippos, zebras, water buffalo, wildebeests, warthogs, leopards and about every other big game animal on the African continent from a week long safari. The kids were completely enthralled with the photos. One little boy would try to act out the noises and motions he thought each animal would make, he was hilarious.

Haiti has very few wild animals. Mostly all the people know are farm animals. Cattle, goats, donkeys, pigs and chickens are about all they can relate to. Just about every picture I put up they would call it a cow, a horse or a dog. Then when I finally started my Skype call they were fascinated by the conversation. They could see a photo on my screen of Dale and it was like they were part of the conversation. They could also pick me out of every photo I showed up in. Then the cutest little girl, about 3 years old saw the photo of me on the Skype screen and started giving it a kiss. I know it wasn't good for my computer screen but I couldn't stop her.

A pipe dream. Last week I was in a rush to finish a design of a large water system so my boss, Neil could go to the Dominican Republic to buy the pipe. He left on Thursday and thought he'd be back by Saturday. He's done this before many times but this time it was a much larger order then usual. He spent all day Friday going from store to store trying to find one that had enough materials to fill the order. Saturday was to be the day to buy everything but it turns out it was Independence Day and all stores were closed. Monday when he went to pay for the pipes all of his credit cards were denied. Neil had his wallet stolen the day before the earthquake and his new cards had not yet been approved for international purchases.

By Tuesday, one of his cards had been approved but it first would only allow a $2,000 purchase, then a $1,000 purchase. He kept being denied and charging smaller amounts until finally all $15,000 was cleared. Then the race was on to get the materials to Haiti. The store in the DR would only haul the materials to the Haitian border. So Neil arranged for a truck to drive to the border from Haiti and get the materials.

Wednesday morning they were off to the border. But the transfer of materials from one truck to the other, customs and rain delayed the process until after the border closed at 4PM. "None of this really bothered me," said Neil, "except all the bribes that my Haitian friend had to pay to get the stuff across the border." The Haitian customs officials had nobody else to attend to except Neil and his stuff. It still took them all day to determine a customs fee, $7,500.

Chew on this for a moment. He wasn't importing televisions or refrigerators. He was importing water pipe, wood and well parts that will save lives. And not just any lives, fellow countrymen of these very Haitian customs officials. On top of that, the Haitian truck driver tried to double his price for hauling after they got the materials half loaded. Neil had a few choice words for him and he came down a little but still took advantage of the situation. And the water pipe is for a water system that will serve the truck driver's house, virtually at no cost to him!

You hang around Haiti long enough and you learn not to let this stuff get to you. You just swallow it, try to limit the damages and live to fight another day.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

When cultures collide

The first time I came to Haiti was with the Peace Corps. For 6 months I lived with Haitian families. My days were mostly spent interacting with Haitian people. But this time I’m staying in a nice guest house with all Americans. Most of my days are spent interacting with other Americans. It’s quite a different perspective.

The first time I was here it seemed that every day was a competition among my body parts as to which one was in more pain. My head ached from trying to understand Creole. My guts were always in a tangle trying to digest the food and I never stopped sweating. In contrast here at the guest house, the cooks have been trained to cook food for Americans and my Creole has barely been tested for any length of time. I came to Haiti this time prepared to battle many expected illnesses and have had little more than a skirmish.

You could say the perspective I got during my first trip to Haiti was from the inside looking out. But now the perspective is more like from the outside looking in.

The guest house has a few other volunteers working with Haiti Outreach staying here. But it also has others working in Haiti. The “others” so far have been a group of 4 from Minnesota funding the construction of a large youth home. Our latest visitor is another Minnesotan looking to start a pre-school. They usually don’t stay for more than a week or two. In contrast, the Haiti Outreach volunteers are one a Haitian-American, another who has lived among the Haitian community in Florida and married a Haitian woman and another who has been coming here for 15 years for months at a time.

Haitian culture is extremely complex. To me it seems to completely defy logic on a regular basis. Early on I figured the best way to get something done was to find a friend I could trust. I went through quite a few before I found one I was pretty sure was legit. His name was Lizer and he was an engineering student. I tried to take him with me whenever I could. We would survey a situation together, discuss solutions and he would interact with the community. Some Haitians can be masters of deception and Lizer could see through them when I didn’t have a clue.

Granted I’ve only been here a week but my first perception is that the 2 week visitors are like lambs being led off a cliff. Most Haitians are good hard-working people. But those who hang around the airports, dressed in nice clothes and often driving new Toyota pickups I would say are not of the hard-working variety. But these are the ones who often befriend the short-termers and lead them to their own ulterior motives.

Haiti holds a very special place in many of our hearts. We have all been touched in different ways. One moment that I will never forget was a visit to a malnutrition clinic. It had 30 beds and 40 children, most of whom would not see their 5th birthday. I hesitated to hold a baby who had scabies but I did it.

I recounted this story because I want you to know that I really do care when I make the next statement. I don’t think Haiti is poor. I think it lacks opportunity. Poor means the lack of money. We can give them money and then what do they have? But if we give them opportunity then they have a future.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scramblin to make a deadline

Working in the States we have all become accustomed to meeting deadlines. But here on the island deadlines are a rare occurrence. So many things can go wrong and often do that people don't really even think in terms of schedules and deadlines here.

Take for instance the Pignon Water System, a project that has been limping along for years now. It first started in 1985 when the government engineers showed up with all the materials to build a complete system for this city of 7000 people. But before they could begin installing any of it there was another toppling of the government. So the people took the project in their own hands. Those with money and power had pipes installed to their homes. But without a plan or any quality controls the system was too costly to operate and soon fell into disrepair.

Over the past 3 years a group of engineering students from the Illinois Institute of Technology have been trying to get a new system installed. A number of donors have been recruited along the way and on Monday we got the call that the government would be paving half the town starting this weekend. So I had a deadline: complete a detailed design of a distribution system for about half the city of 7,000 people. I had to have a list of every material to buy in 48 hours so my boss, Neil could drive to the Dominican Republic and order it.

I only had a 4 inch square print of the city from google earth to work off of so I called for reinforcements. My boss in Minnesota let me use one of our AutoCAD drafters for a day (Thanks Bill!), about an $800 donation and within 24 hours I had plans of the City on 24 sheets of letter size paper in front of me. I drew out the design and compiled a list of all the materials necessary to build the system. I got them to the Neil via email just as he was arriving at the store in the DR, whew. Three 14 hour days in a row and I'm ready for a Friday.

This afternoon I built up a space for a water laboratory. It's under a stairway in the office, mostly because that was the closest space to the only sink there is, in the bathroom. Neil said I could use the bathroom but I opted not to ... for ... a number of reasons.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My first Monday

Ever had one of those days you thought should be over at about noon? Well that was today for me, I was so exausted at lunch I almost fell asleep. But what a productive day! I had a job description to hire some engineers written, translated and posted throughout the region by 9. We had the new gasket installed and the Pignon water system up and running by noon. (my only mode of transportation so far is walking so this required about 4 miles)

After lunch I was told that the Haitian government will be mobilizing to pave the streets of Pignon this Saturday. We need to get water pipe under the new streets before they do this. It would be a disaster to try and remove and relay the paver blocks to set water pipe after the road was constructed. I thought about this for a bit and decided we should assemble a set of plans we can work off of. I sent off a few emails and should have them done by Wednesday if all goes well.

Then at 4 pm I had a meeting with a young guy to go out and get some bamboo sticks for a surveying technique I'll teach the guys in the coming days. It was a beautiful walk with a couple of cool guys. I learned a bunch more Creole and made a few friends. Can't have enough of them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Diggin in on day one

My first day in Haiti was Friday, the day after the funeral of one of the HO well drillers. He was driving a water truck down a narrow, winding road when he lost a tire off the edge. The truck went down and he died on impact. It was a somber atmosphere around the office. The Haitian staff was given the day off.

Friday started at a meeting with Neil, the Haiti Outreach (HO) country director. He hooked a projector to his computer and discussed a list of all the active, planned and dreamed projects of HO. The magnitude of the work is crazy. I think he could easily keep 5 more Haitian staff busy. In Neil's words, "the country is full of ideas and money to fund them, but there is a shortage of people on the ground capable of doing the work.", IOM, CCH, the Haitian government and many others have identified projects but have all turned to HO to carry them out.

I have been tasked with working to get the City of Pignon water system up and running in the next few days. I will also be the local contact for a project on LaGonave being designed by a company in Illinois. By Thursday next week I'll head into Port au Prince with Neil to get started working on a pile of projects he has going with the Haitian government. They have given HO the responsibility of all water systems for the communities nearest to the earthquake epicenter. He also has 3 GPS crews logging locations of all tent cities. When they have all been located maps will be generated and HO will be responsible to monitor or carry out the delivery of water and sanitation to them. These are only a couple of the 7 active projects with 10 more near the end of planning and ready to start. There are also 11 more projects in the potential phase. I had only one comment for Neil, do you have any capacity for or plans to hire any new staff? He said, great idea! You write up a job description for an engineer, we'll advertise for 3 weeks and hire 3 guys for the last 2 months you are here. You can train them and at the end of 2 months we'll give them a test and hire one full time.

All this in my first hour on the job. By 10 AM I was on the back of a motorcycle with Abdias, a HO worker in charge of monitoring the Pignon water system. We toured the water system from the 5 spring boxes, 2 collector tanks, 2 hydraulic ram pumps and a steel reservoir on the hill overlooking the City. Neither of the pumps was working properly so Abdias and I took one apart. I saw the problem right away. They had made a home made gasket out of an old pickup tire, which is fine and done all the time here. But they used the wrong part of the tire. One side of the gasket was a full half inch thicker than the other. I explained that we'll need a more uniform gasket that will seat better.

I have since made a new gasket and should have the system up and running on Monday. The City has had piped water only sporatically for years now. I'm crossing my fingers that the gasket will work.

Life back in Haiti has been a fine transition so far. My Creole is coming back really well and the house I'm staying at has amazing food, 3 meals a day. But Neil said not to get too comfortable as next week I'll be out on the road working.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Arrival in Santiago, DR

Arrived in Santiago this evening. I was picked up by a missionary, Teresa, and taken to their guest house. The house has been busy housing pilots and doctors doing relief work in Haiti. She said airplane fuel is $4000 to fly round trip from the States. But only $400 to fly round trip from Santiago. It makes more sense for relief agencies to buy supplies in Santiago and fly them to Haiti, saving significant cost on fuel.

The guest house has a Haitian cook. I had my first plate of beans and rice. So far it tastes great! Ask me again in 3 months :)

Tomorrow I'll catch a bus to Cap Haitien. There should be a ride waiting to take me to Pignon.